I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Summary

The poem describes the comparison of lives of a free bird and a caged bird. The first stanza spectacles a free bird who is fearlessly soaring with the winds through the sky. It is sunset and the orange rays of the sun colour the sky in beautiful shades. The stanza unfolds a bird flying carefree along the wind currents in the sky, enjoying the nature’s beauty and claiming the sky to be her possession. The poet here alludes to the aura of ‘freedom, a delightful experience’ i.e., what it feels to be free…

The second and third stanza shows a caged bird whose wings are clipped and feet tied, preventing him from flying away. The bird can seldom see from the ‘bars of rage’ i.e., he is hardly able to get a glimpse of the sky which makes him angry. He longs to be free out of his sorrowful life in the cage. He is helpless so only opens his mouth to sing the songs of freedom. The bird is shown to be afraid of many strange or undisclosed things but still that fear doesn’t affect his singing and he continues to sing with a trill. His cry for freedom, to be free from the clutches of the cage is heard far and wide.

The fourth stanza again takes us to the life of the free bird where he “thinks of another breeze” i.e., he thinks to make a flight with another breeze or a different air current of the soft trade winds that on blowing cause the leaves of the trees to move or shake to produce a pleasant sighing sound which he enjoys and can freely find his own food in the bright gardens and fearlessly claims the entire sky to be his own. On the contrary, the fifth stanza depicts the sorrowful caged bird with his dead or suppressed dreams. Being in utter restrictions he cries out like someone who has had a nightmare. This appears as a frightening spectacle. Under helplessness in captivity of the cage, the bird thus only opens his throat to sing.

The final stanza is a repetition of the third stanza that again emphasises the captive bird devoid of freedom, being unknown of many strange things but still sings the songs of freedom in quaver. His longing for freedom is so intense that his cries are heard far and wide. In other words, the poet seeks to draw the attention of the readers towards the downtrodden African Americans and their experiences. The free bird stands as a metaphor for the white people and the caged bird stands for black Americans who would continue to fight against the discrimination by their skin and struggle for the freedom which is their birth right.

Analysis

The poem is based on an earlier poem by an African American author, Paul Laurence Dunbar. The poem compares the plight of a caged bird to the flight of a free bird. Comprising six stanzas the poem is often interpreted as a metaphor suggesting the free bird as the white people and the caged bird as the black Americans.

Maya Angelou uses a myriad of poetic devices in “Caged Bird,” including metaphor, rhyme, imagery, alliteration, personification, and repetition. The poem is quite symbolic so there are various hidden messages of freedom and captivity, the longing for freedom, and the nature and effect of expressing a deep, genuine outcry which she tries to convey about her feelings mostly indirectly.

The “caged bird” actually stands for none other than the oppressed blacks, including the poet herself. Devoid of liberty and basic human rights, the blacks have led hellish lives, full of pains and sufferings, for centuries. Maya Angelou also uses irony to be cleverer and effective but less direct in conveying her feelings. ‘The caged bird sings with a fearful trill’. This sentence is ironic as the caged bird is the one singing not the free bird as we expect. However, the words ‘fearful’ and ‘trill’ makes us realize that actually it is not a happy tune but a desperate cry for freedom. This enables us to reach to more depth and appreciate freedom.

The contrasting environments—the freedom of the open world and the restrictive surroundings of the caged bird—create the setting for the poem. The reader can feel the breeze, see the sun, imagine the rich feast of fat worms, and hear the sighing trees of the world of the free creature; in contrast, the reader feels the fear and restricted movement, sees the bars, imagines the wants…

Another device Maya Angelou uses to emphasize the beauty of freedom is by repetition. The poet repeats stanza 3 as stanza 6; because it reflects the two birds that are different. ‘For the caged bird sings of freedom’ is the last line of the poem and it delivers a very important message for the reader – the caged bird wants to be like the free bird. This tells us that we should be aware and thankful for the freedom we have and basically this sums up the whole poem.

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