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Maya Angelou’s poem entitled "Caged Bird" was inspired by Paul Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy.” The major theme of both poems is freedom.
Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings exemplifies the meaning of this poem.
In the book, she explores the struggle of being black, a woman, and an author. Living in America then, she felt like a slave and her voice wasn't paid attention to.
Who hears the song of the caged bird? Does he sing for his benefit? Does he sing to the person who put him in a cage? Does he sing out of boredom or because he loves to sing?
The free bird can fly, walk, and see the outside world. The caged bird can't do all these. He can only sing.
The free bird seems too busy to sing, as he has more pleasures to enjoy. He takes his freedom for granted. He doesn’t know what being caged means. Yet, his ignorance of oppression and slavery is his strength.
Perhaps, through the song of freedom, the person who caged the bird will tire of his constant songs and set him free. Thus, his voice is his weapon.
Unlike the free bird who “leaps on the back of the wind,” “floats” and “dips” and “claims the sky,” the cage restricts the abilities of the caged bird.
Nonetheless, he keeps his freedom of expression and uses it. The bird expresses himself through singing. He is still alive and despite being a prisoner, he can still use his voice. His throat is free. He sings so loudly that his voice reaches the "distant hill."
Even though he is in a cage, there’s no lock or cage that can restrict his voice and freedom of mind.
Even though he is in a cage, there's no lock or cage that can restrict his voice and freedom of mind.
Stanzas and lines
The poet positioned the stanzas based on emotions, themes, and mechanical patterns. The poem has 6 stanzas and 38 lines. The first and fourth stanzas have a happy tone and the rest are morose.
The poet grouped stanzas with similar patterns in the following pairs: Stanza 1 and 2 (7 lines), Stanza 3 and 6(8 lines), Stanza 4 and 5(4 lines).
It's quite interesting how this adds musicality to the poem and creates a rhythm. The poem reads like music. It's like a song with a chorus and a bridge.
Hence, "Caged Bird" can qualify as a lyrical poem.
"Caged Bird" is a free verse poem with some iambic metrical pattern. Iambs are two syllables whereby an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable. If you read aloud you will realize the rising intonation from the unstressed to the stressed syllable.
A free bird leaps (unstressed-stressed)
There is also anapest:
on the back of the wind (unstressed-unstressed-stressed)
The fourth line is a combination of anapest and an iamb.
till the current ends.
The rhyming scheme is "Caged Bird" is irregular since it doesn't follow an obvious pattern.
The end rhymes include these words:
An example of internal rhyme:
dawn—lawn (line 25, stanza 4)
The poet expresses human life through meaningful word choices that elicit different emotions and tones. For instance: freedom, dawn, sings, wind, leaps and free bird depict happiness and enthusiasm.
On the other hand, the words: caged bird, trill, grave, shadow, and rage imply sadness and powerlessness.
The persona and characters
The poem "Caged Bird" seems to stem from personal experience. However, he uses the pronoun "he" to refer to the bird.
The author’s choice of the second person pronoun “he” and thus the third person pronoun “his” instead of the feminine to describe the bird's song.
The persona is observing the birds and reflecting their lives to his own.
Sometimes it takes hardship to find out your abilities and strengths.
9 Literary Devices in the "Caged Bird" Poem
The hidden message in the poem is that it is not about a bird, but a person.
The title is a metaphor. Also, the line "the caged bird sings" is a metaphor.
It suggests more than what the meaning of the words first glances. There is a deeper meaning to the poem. This poem is not about birds, but mankind.
The dreams of the caged bird represent the dreams of the slave. The bird sings of “things unknown/ but longed for still.”
Things unknown to the caged bird are enjoyed by the free bird. Free people seem to have everything and live life to the fullest.
The action of the caged bird to choose to sing is also a metaphor. Music is often beautiful and enjoyable. But his state of being caged is despicable. However, when he sings of freedom perhaps someone will hear his voice and open the cage.
The speaker creates vivid imagery through descriptive words and phrases. Imagery enhances the theme and tone of the poem.
The speaker sees the physical appearance of the caged bird. It is locked in a cage and cannot fly because his "wings are clipped and his feet are tied." So, it stalks around. It shows the lack of freedom of the bird.
Then, the imagery of the free bird that leaps and floats develops the theme of freedom and a joyful tone.
The persona describes the surroundings and the actions of the birds: “Orange sun rays,” "fat worms," "dips his wing," "opens his throat."
These descriptions give the reader an image of the natural beauty and the actions of the birds in the setting.
The poem compares two birds in different situations. Slavery is in contrast to freedom. The caged bird and the free bird have different points of view.
Each bird expresses diametrically opposite emotions and actions. The free bird is joyful and energetic, in contrast, the caged bird is sad and lethargic.
The free bird enjoys life, but in the poem, he does not sing although he is capable of singing. The free bird does not sing of freedom because freedom is normal to him. The free bird knows no fear. His body has not been clipped or tied.
However, the caged bird sings with fear and knows the value of freedom. His freedom of movement has been taken away by whoever put him there.
4. Personification (or anthropomorphism)
Trees are given human qualities when the poet describes them as “the sighing trees.”
Another instance of personification is “on the back of the wind.” The wind doesn't have a back. Humans usually carry their children on their backs. This metaphor shows how the free bird is confident and feels secure in his freedom.
Repetitive lines create rhythm, musicality, and emphasis.
This stanza is repeated twice in the poem:
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.
This poem uses symbolism by including various objects or characters that have a meaning. symbolism strengthens the imagery.
The appearance of the caged bird is a symbol of captivity. The free bird is a symbol of freedom.
The objects in the poem also have their own meanings. They include the sky, sun rays, wind, wings, narrow cage, bars, throat, hill, and many more. You can group these symbols into the theme they represent.
Repetition of vowel sounds occurs several times:
A free bird leaps (line 1)
The free bird thinks of another breeze (line 23)
Repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of sentences occurs several times:
But a bird that stalks (line 8)
can seldom see through (line 10)
This is the use of incomplete clauses or sentences in a line. This poem uses this technique a lot.
Stanza 1 is a good example. It's a complete sentence that ends with a period at the end of the stanza. However, the poet has broken the sentence into a dependent clause that breaks at the end of the line and continues on the next line.
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind...
Freedom and slavery
The predominant theme of the poem is freedom. The first line depicts this by introducing "the free bird." And the opposite theme is "slavery." A caged bird in captivity "sings of freedom." The caged bird was created for freedom as a free bird.
Nonetheless, it is in an unnatural situation, trapped in a cage. Not only is it trapped, but its body has been mutilated as well.
Despair and hope
The caged bird is in a state of despair. Being tied up in the cage compromises his movement. He is hopeful that it will transform into a free bird.
That is why he sings of the anticipated freedom. Freedom seems out of reach, and his "tune is heard" in the distant hill. This tells us that the bird is hopeful one day he will fly over to the distant hill just like his voice.
Fear and courage
While the free bird finds it easy to fly and enjoy his freedom by claiming the sky, the caged bird lives in fear.
However, he is courageous enough to keep singing and use the power of his throat to fight for his freedom.
Adversity and good fortune
Sometimes it takes hardship to find out your abilities and strengths, like the caged bird. Sometimes you enjoy the good fortune of using all your abilities, like the free bird.
The caged bird uses his voice to the fullest to help him through hard time, but the free bird has time to enjoy himself with his free body. This can also explain the theme of power and powerlessness.
The word choice and imagery in the poem develop the mood and tone of the poem. The prevalent image is that of the caged bird versus a free bird. They are in different settings, have different behaviors, and appearances. Consequently, the words used to describe these birds set different moods as follows:
The stanzas describing the free bird have a joyful and peaceful mood. But the caged bird brings out a melancholic and somber mood, although it's also hopeful through the song. Also, the poet describes caged bird's anger, “can seldom see through his bars of rage”
The tone is set by the observer who knows why "the caged bird sings." It's contemplative but also switches from negative to positive tone when describing the different birds.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Centfie
Centfie (author) from Kenya on December 05, 2020:
Thank you, Pam. I am glad you enjoyed it.
I don't think there's a wrong or right way to interpret poetry unless the poet specifies.
Pam Morris from Atlanta Georgia on November 26, 2020:
Centfie, Lovely Analysis of the Poem "Caged Bird" by Maya Angelou. I like how you describe the difference between a free bird and a caged bird. I love that the hidden message in the poem is that it is not about a bird but a person who has been through a lot of hardship to find her abilities and strengths. (Maya Angelou). I hope I read and receive the right message and analysis of your Poem. Thank you for sharing.