Critical Summary of Maya Angelou’s Caged Birds

The poem, Caged Bird is from a volume of poetry titled Shaker Why Don’t You Sing that Maya Angelou published in 1983.

There is deeper connection between the intensely personal experience of the poet as a woman, the image of a cage, and the idea of singing. The early childhood trauma made Angelou turn inward preferring self-imposed silence over speech but this silence was also a cage at the same time. She could easily relate her own experience as a black woman in a deeply racial society with other similarly situated women. She saw herself as caged twice over, as a black Afro-American and then as a woman. It was a cage within a cage. It was during this period of self-imposed silence that her grandmother introduced her to Mrs Flower and it is this lady, by her own admission, who set her free from her caged silence. It is there that she learnt about the emancipatory power of singing. It is this idea of singing as the path to freedom allows her to grow as an individual. The poem “Caged Bird” revolves around this idea as do many of her other poems. She firmly believed that black men and women can free themselves by finding their voices, as she herself did, in songs of freedom.

Stanza 1

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.

The first stanza paints a picture of a free bird by using a few powerful images of the very idea of freedom itself. We see a bird floating on the wind with extended wings as the current takes him downstream. The bird’s wing tips catch the orange rays of the setting sun. It seems that this little bird is bold enough to claim the sky as its own. The words and images used in the opening stanza sets the tone of the poem and that is the idea of freedom. The idea of exercising a choice is central to the idea of freedom. The free bird occupies the subject position here. He leaps, floats, dips its wings, and dares to claim the sky. He is the master of his actions.

The fact that the bird can ‘leap on the back of the wind’ whenever it wants is a privilege though we often take for granted. We can only appreciate the value of this privilege in the absence of freedom. Moreover the bird doesn’t really struggle to fly. It ‘floats’ on the wind and is carried downstream. The experience of freedom here is effortless. It dips its wings only when it becomes necessary. The bird is in no hurry. It purveys the world from its position high in the sky and moves wherever it wishes to. It can and it dares to ‘claim ’the sky because it is not threatened. Because it is truly free. What this stanza is suggesting is that while there are birds that are free and that to be free is a privilege, there are also birds that are un-free. The bird here is a metaphor of freedom and perhaps refers to those white people who enjoyed this privilege as against people of colour who were un-free.

Stanza 2

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 second stanza comes as a sharp contrast to the first. We have a caged bird here. And this bird is only able to stalk down its little cage. Its wings are clipped and its feet tied. So, when he can do nothing else, he sings. The stanza begins with a “but’’ that emphasizes the contrast between a free bird and a caged bird. The caged bird can only stalk the narrow cage. The use of the word “stalk” is quite interesting. The narrow cage has severely restricted the physical space that the bird occupies it and forces it to stalk restlessly in the narrow confines of the cage. The physical constraints of the cage are described as “bars of rage” the bars reflect the rage within. The bird is helpless, angry at his own plight. He feels trapped and sees no way out. This is one way in which the poet draws the reader’s attention to the plight of the Black Americans who have faced discrimination and oppression for a long time. At the same time juxtaposing the caged bird with the free bird, the poet is able to bring into focus the deeply racial and unequal nature of American society.

The bird’s wings are clipped and his feet are tied. These images, clipped wings and tied feet bring out the nature of violent nature of oppression that keeps the bird, and by implication the Black Americans, caged. However, these physical restrictions haven’t completely enslaved the bird. The body is trapped but the soul is not. Despite the hopelessness of its situation, the bird opens its throat to sing. The bird’s response to the confinement is to push back against and resist its enslavement through singing. And what would the bird sing of but freedom. The bird sings against the denial of freedom to float on the wind, to dip its wings any which way it likes and to claim the sky as its own. The juxtaposition of images of freedom in stanza 1 with images of un-freedom of stanza 2 renders the poem powerfully evocative.

Stanza 3

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.

The third stanza begins to describe the singing of the bird. The “caged bird” sings with a ‘fearful trill’. ‘Trill’ refers to a series of quick and high pitched notes. So the fearful trill of the caged bird would be repeated high pitched and nervous singing. This is not the steady singing of a free bird. What is it that makes the birds singing so uncertain and so high pitched? What is it fearful of? The bird is, perhaps, fearful because it is unsure and nervous about its future. It has only known oppression and enslavement. It is not sure if it will ever be free. The bird is singing of ‘things unknown….but longed for’. The bird knows only its cage and nothing of the outside world.Hence when it sings of freedom it is singing about something that it has no knowledge of. Freedom is an unknown category for the bird. It is assailed by anxiety. What does one do with freedom or the things associated with that freedom itself become the cause of anxiety. Freedom from confinement could lead to a fear of freedom as well. The trill of the bird, thus, suggests uncertainty. The bird is unsure about ever achieving the freedom that is so desires. And even if it does, will it ever be free of its own ‘bars of rage’? Even if the bars disappear there is a likelihood of the rage lingering on. True freedom is to be free at a physical, mental, and spiritual level. The bird is uncertain if it will ever achieve freedom in its true sense. In this context the birds ‘fearful trill’ adds poignancy and some urgency to the poem.

Though the bird is caged and its song is fearful, it has not been cowed down to silence. The bird, even in the state of un-freedom, refuses to sit quietly. The struggle goes on and this is symbolised by the birds singing. It establishes its existence and its power to act through its high pitched trill. It is telling the world that it will not suffer the oppression quietly. This metaphor recalls the struggle of the Black Americans for their civil rights and equality. Maya Angelou herself was a part of the American Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. This was a long struggle and we must remember that music and singing played a big role in mobilising people and giving voice to their aspirations.The songs they sang filled the people with hope and courage. Some of these were songs that were sung by the slaves. The song “We shall overcome” became an unofficial anthem of the Civil rights Movement. I am sure you have heard this song or at least the Hindi version “Hum hongekamyab”.In this poem Maya Angelou uses the birds song as a metaphor. She tells us that to hope and to act is to be alive and action is not necessarily movement. Even if the caged bird cannot fly in the sky like the free bird it can still assert its existence through its voice of hope and aspiration. To speak is to exist. The voice of the bird is heard on distant hills and it resonates because it is the voice of freedom, it is the voice of hope and courage.

Stanza 4

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

The poet returns to the free bird in this stanza once again. The first two stanzas set up the contrast between the birds and highlight the disparity in the physical space that they occupy. In a similar vein stanza 4 and 5 highlight the different psychological spaces that the birds inhabit. The mental makeup of the birds differs from each other and this difference is the outcome of the differences in their physical existence. By implication, we can say that the poem highlights the difference in the socio-economic condition of the Whites and the Black Americans and also points to the fact that this socio-economic background shapes, to a very large extent, the mental makeup of the people. Just like the birds, Man is also a product of his circumstances.

This stanza paints a bright picture of the free bird`s world. This is a world of possibilities and aspirations. After floating down the back of the wind the bird is already thinking of another breeze and the trade winds blowing softly through the trees. It also hears the sighs of the trees as the wind passes through them. The image here is one of abundance and leisure and joy. The trade winds or easterlies as they are popularly known are extremely important permanent wind systems that cover both the eastern as well as the western hemispheres. They are called trade winds because ships followed the direction of the wind to help them to navigate the oceans. The free bird’s world is a world of plenty. The bird thinks of the fat worms that it feeds on waiting for him on sun-drenched lawns. In this world of plenty, food is indeed waiting for him and he doesn’t need to go scouting for it. The free bird lives a privileged existence and this privilege of freedom enables him to claim ownership of the sky.

Stanza 5

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.

In sharp contrast to stanza 4 where the free bird is luxuriating in the world of plenty, the caged bird in stanza 5 becomes ‘a’ caged bird that comes to represent all the caged birds. And he is standing on the ‘grave of dreams’. The poet now moves from the particular predicament of the caged bird to the general predicament of caged birds. This predicament is highlighted by words like ‘grave’, ‘nightmare’, and ‘scream’. The death of dreams is a consequence of the bird`s enslavement as well as a condition of his existence. The dream of a caged bird ends up in the grave. That is the reality of its existence and yet at the same time it exits because it is able to dream. The duality of the state of enslavement is brought out poignantly in these lines. The nightmarish life that it leads makes even its shadow fearful. The scream represents all the pent up emotions and frustrations that spring from a life of confinement and deprivation. The last two lines of the second stanza are used as a refrain here to emphasize this condition. The bird, faced with impossible odds, sings.

Stanza 6

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.

The last stanza is a repetition of stanza 3. It is used as a refrain to assert the importance of singing and thereby declaring to the world its intent to continue its struggle for freedom in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It must be said that if people keep singing of freedom it will protect them from despair and fill them with hope. Singing asserts the essential humanity of the oppressed. The bird’s song fills resonate all around it and gives everyone the hope that freedom will be theirs sooner or later and that it is worth fighting for. The poet uses the contrasting metaphor of a free bird and a caged bird to make the point that freedom is a necessary condition for equality in society. In this poem, the poet sends out a message of hope and humanity embedded within the bird’s song.


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