If you’re a big poetry fan, you might be familiar with the iconic caged bird poem by Maya Angelou. However, you may be surprised to learn it is a derivative work of Paul Dunbar’s “Sympathy”. His masterpiece was published 30 years before Angelou was even born.
It is no secret that Maya Angelou admired Paul Dunbar’s works and that is likely what caused her to imitate him. But it is like covering Nirvana or copying the style of Van Gogh. Sure, it is still great. However, the pain of a great artist eludes even the most talented mimicry.
by 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 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!
Sympathy for a Shared Fate
What is especially great about the message of this poem, is that it applies to all oppression. Big and small. The oppression of our actions by overbearing authorities; our thoughts by excessive social expectations; and even our happiness by our own self-made cages.
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me”
Ah me– meant to emphasize that a singular person, myself, knows what it feels like to be caged. This poem is not to say the speaker has it worse. There is no comparison. It merely seeks to state: I know what it feels like. That is the first bridge of empathy made when people try to connect their problems. And through that bond, we can begin to heal.
The structure brings harmonic sounds to the speakers painful words. Each stanza follows a rhyme scheme of ABAABCC. The first six lines of each stanza are tetrameter while the seventh line is trimeter. I refuse to analyze a poem down to its math, but I just wanted to recognize the orchestrated structure for the beautiful brilliance it is.