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November 11, 2009

This is an essay I wrote about my favorite poem, Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar.   I feel as though I need to enter it into the record.

I am in love with literature and wish I could give my whole time to reading and writing, but alas! One must eat, and so I plod along, making the things that is really first in my heart, secondary in my life.  ~Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals–
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats its wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting–
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,–
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings–
I know why the caged bird sings!

In Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “Sympathy,” the poet expresses the narrator’s sympathy for the pain and frustration of a bird who suffers because it is confined to a small cage.  In doing so he also expresses the heartache of the human spirit when it is held back and not allowed to reach its potential.  Dunbar creates one of the finest first lines ever written, and he maintains a strong voice throughout which delivers an inescapable emotional impact.  Some have concluded the poem references slavery, and others have attributed the meaning to Dunbar’s frustration with the limitations his race placed on his art.  Regardless of his original intent, Dunbar’s timeless poem can be appreciated by any reader who has felt caged by their life.

In the first stanza of “Sympathy”, Dunbar achingly describes in vivid detail the desirable world outside of the cage.  This is a world full of openness and movement.  The sun is on the “upland slopes” which gives the sense of soaring, limitlessness, freedom.  The wind “stirs soft” not brisk or violent, through the “springing grass” or youthful, dancing, grass. The “river flows like a stream of glass”, not choppy or fast, but calm and serene.  Poignantly, the reader is shown the life of another bird outside of the cage.  This is a free bird, which sings as spring flowers come alive, pleasuring all of the senses.  Yet at the end of this stanza, after being lulled into the serenity and openness and beauty of this natural world, we are reminded of the unnaturally caged bird, who is not allowed to sing his songs of own joy and freedom.

In the next stanza, the narrator speaks about the results of this bird’s feelings of imprisonment and repression.  The tone changes abruptly, as we are taken from the world of spring and soft winds, to a bird who “beats its wing/Till its blood is red on the cruel bars.”  With the words “blood” and “cruel,” we enter the world of a soul caged and prevented from flying.  The narrator then talks of the bird’s lack of choices, by saying he “must fly back to his perch and cling.”  Heart-wrenchingly, the narrator makes it clear that this bird has been going through this same horrific exercise for a long, long time.  His “pain still throbs in the old, old, scars”. Still, the narrator understands “why he beats his wing!”  It is much more difficult to break the soul than it is to break the body.  As human beings, this is a notion we fundamentally understand.  Throughout our history, humans have shown courage under even the most repressive and brutal circumstances.

In the third and final stanza, Dunbar brings the first two stanzas into context with his conclusion.  This bird is not free, but he still he sings, even though “his wing is bruised and his bosom sore”.  He does not sing the song of the bird in the first stanza, who sings as the “first buds open in spring”.  It is not a “carol of joy or glee,” but still he sings.  He sings “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core” and “a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings”.   And in the last sentence, the reader is left once more with affirmation and understanding by the narrator who laments, “I know why the caged bird sings!”  Dunbar has effectively shown the narrator’s “Sympathy” for the imprisoned bird and in the process he invokes the empathy of the reader.

This is a poem which forces the agony to seep deeper into the reader as the rhythm of the words pick up and travel from the description of what the bird sees into his futile struggle to reach it.   The poem is written in present tense which gives it a sense of urgency as it builds and builds into an almost primal scream.  In order to help accomplish this, Dunbar partly relies on assonance as well as end rhyme and internal rhyme in the first stanza.  He uses hard and soft ‘O’ and ‘U’ sounds such as, “know”, “slopes”, “flows”, and “opes,” and “sun,” “upland,”  “bud,” and “perfume.”  This adds certain strength the words as opposed to having the narrator simply speaking or telling a story.

Although there are multiple hard ‘E’ and ‘A’ sounds, the second stanza provides a slight pause, a flatter line of internal sounds from which to crescendo into the final stanza, where Dunbar gives the sense of the narrator crying out by using the assonance and rhyme of the hard ‘Ing’ and ‘E’ sound;

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,–
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings
I know why the caged bird sings!

Dunbar also uses alliteration in this stanza with the consonance of “bird,” “bruised,” “bosom,” “beats,” “bars,” and “but,” “but” which mimic the sound of wings ‘beating, beating’ on the ‘bars’ of the cage.  Dunbar makes these techniques seem effortless.  They do not cause the reader to trip over any of the sounds and Dunbar’s craft is never obvious.

“Sympathy” is composed of three accentual-syllabic stanzas.  All three stanzas are written with an ABAABCC pattern.  Iambic Pentameter is the prevailing meter in “Sympathy,” although Dunbar does vary at times, including making anapestic substitutions.  Both the rhythm and meter of the poem aid the sense of ‘beating wings’ as the words are delivered with their beats of sound.  Dunbar writes the last line of each stanza in altered trimeter with seven syllables, cutting them shorter than all of the other lines in the poem.  This separates these lines from the rest of the poem, calling attention to their importance.  Dunbar also reserves the exclamation mark for the first line of the poem and for these last shorter lines of each stanza.  The narrator begins the poem and ends the poem with nearly the exact same ‘yell’ about the sympathy he has for the bird which cannot fly.

Human beings understand – on a very deep level – what it is like to feel the loss of freedom or the horror of not being able to escape from a difficult life.  Whether it is a person who lives in a society where they are discriminated against or enslaved, or an abused child, or simply someone who feels trapped and unable to break free and live the life they desire, they know what it is like to see a world they yearn for without being able to reach it.  The human spirit is so perfectly represented by this little bird in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, and it will forever be singing its song and beating its wings in our minds, because we “know why the caged bird sings.


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