- What was Paul Laurence Dunbar's background? For what kind of poetry was he best known in his day? Where did he grow up and what was his occupation? At what age did he die and from what causes?
- Why may the poem be called "Sympathy"?
- Why do you think the poet chose to write about a caged bird rather than to describe a person who feels frustration more directly? What are some common associations with the figure of a bird? (image of poet in Romantic literature)
- What do we learn in the first line about the poet's relationship to the bird?
- What are the poem's rhyme scheme and metrics? Do they help reinforce the poet's emotion?
- What different topics does the poem present in stanzas 1, 2, and 3? Is there a clear difference in the bird's situation in each stanza? [in stanza 1, the "chalice" is the cup of a flower]
- What is the nature of the bird's song as described in stanza 3? What prevents the song from being "a carol of joy or glee"?
- Is the poem autobiographical (i. e., to what extent is the bird like Dunbar?)
- Is the poem regular? (that is, to the stanzas have the same number of lines, and the lines the same number of stressed beats?) Which words rhyme? What happens at the end of each stanza?
- What is the effect of repeating the refrain, "I know why the caged bird feels/ beats his wings/ sings"? Does the poem progress to a conclusion?
- What would have been some of the meanings of this poem for a black poet writing in 1899?
- This is a famous poem. However, if we didn't know anything about the poet or the time and place in which it was written, how might the poem be interpreted?
- What is the result of the poet's presenting his subject indirectly? In your view, is this more or less effective than a direct statement?
"The Haunted Oak"
- What is the subject of this poem? Why the emphasis on the haunting of the oak tree?
- What is the poem's stanza form? How is this appropriate to its subject?
- What is the effect of the use of initial questions? What is the effect of choosing the tree as the poem's narrator?
- What are some dramatic features of the setting? What event is central to the poem? Who is responsible for the murder?
- What finally happens to the tale's participants, including the tree? What seems the continuing aftermath of this event?
- Do you think this poem presents its topic well?
"An Ante-Bellum Sermon"
- Read the poem aloud and decide on its stanza form, meter, and rhyme scheme. Are these appropriate for its subject?
- What is the significance of the fact that the sermon is "ante-bellum"? What are features of the sepaker's language and rhetoric? What are the major points of his evocation of the story of Moses?
- Are there elements of mild humor? Does the speaker state all his intentions directly? What do you think is the poem's intended effect?
- How does the reader's knowledge of more recent history affect the interpretation of the speaker's veiled prophecies?
"Not They Who Soar"
- What are the poem's metrics and stanza form? How do these reinforce its meaning?
- How are the stanzas different? How does the poem use metaphors to make its point?
- Is the poem's message especially relevant to the lives of African-Americans during this period?
"We Wear the Mask"
- Are there any words or expressions in the poem which need explaining?
- What does it mean to "wear the mask"? What are the consequences and effects of a masked life?
- Who are the poem's "we"? Why might Dunbar have felt a mask was necessary in 1895? Do you think he would have written a similar poem if he were alive today?
- How does the three-part structure build up the poet's meaning? What meaning is added in stanza three which wasn't present in 1 and 2? How does the punctuation change?
- How are the stanzas different in line length? Why may this be the case? What is the pattern of the rhymes? What is the point of so much repetition?
- Is there a bit of defiance in the ending? (if communication is hopeless we can at least preserve our private selves)
- If one didn't know the race of the author or the setting in which this poem was written, how might one interpret this poem?