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Paul Laurence Dunbar's "Sympathy"

Updated on October 22, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Sympathy"

Although Dunbar's poem, "Sympathy," commits the pathetic fallacy, it makes a useful and accurate statement about the confinement of the human soul as it becomes aware of its stifling condition of being "caged" in a physical body.

The soul as a fully spiritual being of pure energy is capable of instantaneous flight similar to bird to any location of its choice. Burdened with the physical encasement, that soul must contend with the slow, earth-bound limitations put on it by living under the delusion of Maya, wherein it remains affected by the dualities of good/evil, right/wrong, success/failure, etc.

Sympathy

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 his 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!

Reading of "Sympathy"

Commentary

First Septet: "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!"

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—

The speaker begins with an anthropomorphic-pathetically fallacious statement, claiming that he knows how a bird in a cage feels. He adds the interjection, "Alas!" to indicate that it is unfortunate that he knows what he knows.

The scientific fact holds that the claim of knowing how a bird feels cannot be true; it cannot be proven that birds and human beings feel in similar ways. However, poetic truth can sometimes outsmart and make irrelevant scientific facts.

Dunbar's anthropomorphic-pathetic fallacy rises to the occasion as it elucidates an inferred truth that can be accepted as an apt comparison between the "caged bird" and a caged soul.

The speaker then catalogues all the beauties of nature that the caged bird remains unable to enjoy: bright sun, hillsides, wind rustling the new spring grass, rivers streaming smooth and clear, the songs of other birds, flowers opening from buds with their "faint perfume."

Clearly, the caged bird remains in a small area of space; a creature on whom its Creator has bestowed the delicious ability to fly must confine its movements in such a drastic way that the human heart and mind are loath to accept such a state of affairs. It becomes difficult to understand how the notion of caging a bird as pet came about.

On the other hand, birds in captivity do live longer: they have a secure food supply and are out range of predators. But something in the human romantic essence still longs to believe in the free range life of all things living. It is felt in the very heart-core that living things should never become captives of other living things. And when the captivity is observed, it does seem that only the disagreeable aspect of the captivity remains in the human consciousness.

Second Septet: "I know what the caged bird feels!"

I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his 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—

In the second septet, the speaker turns to the direct negativity of having a bird caged, as he reports the activities of the bird. This poor creature will "beat his wings" on the cage bars until they bleed.

And yet after beating his wings into a bloody mess, the bird can fly only back to his perch in the cage instead of to an open bough in nature where the creature would prefer to stand. The poor injured bird then suffers again the wounds that he had already experienced at an earlier attempt to beat his wings out of the cage.

The pain becomes more and more pronounced each time the creature attempts to break out of his confinement. His memory of freedom may spur him on, but his inability to regain that freedom forces him to continue his bloody battle against entrapment.

Third Septet: "I know why he beats his wing!"

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!

The speaker then repeats what has become a refrain that he knows why this bird continues to beat his wings and bruise his breast on the cruel bars of incarceration. The speaker also knows why the bird sings. The poor singing creature does not sing out of "joy or glee." His song is not a carol; instead it is a prayer of supplication that the bird is sending to its Creator to deliver him from his captivity.

The birds song is actually a plea that the animal is flinging "upward to Heaven." Yet the speaker only implies the reason for the plea. It is supposed to be perfectly obvious why this bird is singing then. He hopes his plea, his prayer will reach the sympathetic heart of his Creator and bring him release from his cruel cage.

The speaker concludes with his claim, "I know why the caged bird sings!" With this repetition the speaker hopes to make it clear that he understands the poor bird's frustration. He, therefore, is offering "Sympathy" to this caged creature.

The Historical Aberration of Slavery and the Body-Caged Soul

Human history is replete with the despicable institution of slavery—one people taking another people captive and using their labor and resources to enrich the enslavers. The Romans enslaved vast portions of the world under the Roman Empire. Muslims enslaved vast swaths of the Middle-East in their empire building stage, including the Ottoman Empire. The British ruled India for nearly a century. The list goes on and on, from Biblical times to the present day in some areas of the world.

But because of the fairly recent proximity to the slavery of Africans in the United States, too many immature thinkers associate slavery solely with the American experience, and the repercussions of that evil institution still vibrate throughout twenty-first century America.

Because the poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, was of African descent, readers may have a difficult time accepting his poem as elucidating any other issue than black life in America—both before and after the Civil War. And of course, the poem can be interpreted with that narrow focus. If a person of African heritage is denied the ability to choose his own life path, he then finds himself hemmed round and may be likened to a bird in a cage. That scenario cannot be denied.

However, Dunbar's poem's achievement is much greater than the interpretation of a black life in a cage will allow. Dunbar's poem speaks a cosmic, not simply cultural, truth. Every human soul is represented in that poem, not just black individuals. Every human soul that finds itself in a human body feels like a caged bird. Each soul suffers the same confinement that the bird suffers because both the bird and the soul are made to be ranging far and wide throughout an unlimited sky.

The soul is an immortal, eternal entity that has in its power the ability to range the unlimited sky of Omnipresence, without chains of flesh or straps of mental trammels to cage it. Dunbar's poem offers a marvelous, concrete description of the soul confined in a human body through the metaphor of the caged bird. The poem deserves to read through the lens of omnipresence not through mere cultural temporality.

Maya Angelou's First Memoir

The late poetaster and once-upon-a-time prostitute/madam, Maya Angelou, who insisted on being addressed as "Doctor Angelou," even though her only claim to a doctorate was an honorary, not an earned degree, appropriated Dunbar's line, "I know why the caged bird sings," to title her first memoir. More specifically, Angelou credits Abbey Lincoln Roach with titling her book, but she neglects to mention the Dunbar poem, about which one would expect not only a mention but an exact quotation featuring the line.

Angelou also composed an unremarkable and completely forgettable piece, which she titled, "Caged Bird." Angelou's piece is a vacuous as Dunbar's poem is profound. While Angelou's piece will likely be left off the shelves of literary history, Dunbar's poem will stand like a shining beacon, "So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see."

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
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    Linda Sue Grimes 4 weeks ago from Spring Hill, TN

    Thanks, Louise! It is a lovely poem. Dunbar was quite a skilled poet.

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    Louise Powles 4 weeks ago from Norfolk, England

    Oh that's a lovely poem. Once again, I enjoyed reading your article. Thankyou. =)