Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist and civil rights activist. ‘I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing’ is one of her most popular works. On its very superficial layer, the poem contrasts the experiences of the caged birds with that of the free birds. But it is not only that, remember Maya Angelou was a civil rights activist. Through the extended metaphor of birds, the poet talks about the historical oppression of the African-American community in the American society.
The opening stanza of the poem demonstrates the freedom the bird experiences as it moves freely in the wind, gliding up and down but the poem quickly takes a somber tone when it talks about the caged birds. Words like ‘narrow cage‘ and ‘bars of rage’ signify the distressed situation of the caged bird. Further, his wings are clipped and his feet are tied. The wavering voice of the caged birds shows his desire for freedom. The free bird, on the other hand, enjoys his freedom as he flies over the trade winds. The free bird has no limitation to its freedom as he can fly anywhere it wants to and can make the sky its own. The caged bird ‘stands on the grave of dreams’ because he knows that he cannot fly in the sky, he is not free but a prisoner. His dream of freedom is futile, thus, he stands on the grave of his dreams. The poet again talks about the clipped wings and the tied feet of the caged bird, but his mouth is not tied up so he opens it to sing. The bird is hopeful for his freedom. The idea exerted by the poet is that one must always be hopeful for one’s freedom and raise voice against its oppressors.
The poem is also titled as ‘Caged Bird‘, can be seen as a reflection on social disparity, and the ideals of freedom and justice. There is an extensive use of metaphor in this poem. Angelou, with the metaphor of the birds, represents the inequality of justice seen in the American society between the African-American community and their White American counterparts. The freedom enjoyed by the White American contrasts with the freedom enjoyed by African-Americans. Refrain is also used in the poem to heighten the distress experienced by the caged bird. The lines which show refrain are:
“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.“
The idea of desperate longing of freedom is expressed more clearly through these lines. The repetition of the entire third stanza — which also appears, word for word, as the poem’s sixth stanza — further demonstrates the resilience of the African-American community. This refrain conveys the message that the caged bird does not simply give up, but rather will continue to sing for freedom — thus suggesting that the African-American community endures its intolerable circumstances, it will continue to yearn and work for freedom. Symbols are also used very prominently in the poem. The cage, described as narrow, which holds the bird captive, preventing free movement. This cage defines the bird and strip its identity, as indicated by the fact that the bird is referred to as the ‘caged bird‘ for a major part of the poem. As mentioned earlier, the two birds symbolize two different American communities. The caged bird is a symbol of imprisonment, while his song is the symbol of freedom. Also juxtaposition is used between caged and free birds, to compare and contrast them.
The poem also contains allusion to literature and historical events related to the oppression of African-Americans. The most prominent allusion in the poem is the ”caged bird” itself, which Angelou borrows from the poem of Paul Laurence Dunbar titled ”Sympathy.” Dunbar in his poem compared his experience as a black man to that of a bird in captivity. Angelou’s poem builds off on Dunbar’s ideas. The poem also makes an allusion to the slave trade when it mentions ‘trade winds‘. The trade routes of these slave trades were significantly influenced by the trade winds, which blew east to west from Africa towards the Caribbean. The reference to the ”free bird’‘ thinking of the ”trade winds” is part of what makes it clear that the free bird symbolizes white America, which sees its freedom as justifying the exploitation of the rest of the day.
Imagery is another literary device which has been used by the poet. The poem is full of different images. ”free bird” is an imagery for sight. The image of a free bird going wherever it wants, ranging from enjoyment on stream to soaring on the wind. Some other example of imagery in the poem are ”orange sun rays” and ”throat to sing”.
Some other literary devices used in the poem are alliteration and assonance. The example of alliteration can be seen in the repetition of /s/ sound in ”seldom see through”, /w/ sound in ”worms waiting” and the /sh/ sound in ”shadow shouts”. The example of assonance can be seen in the repetition of /i/ sound in ”distant hills” and ”sings with fearful hills’. Personification is used in the poem such as ”sighing trees”, as if the trees were feeling sorrowful.
The poem does not follow any specific form. It is written in free verse. It contains six stanzas which vary in the number of lines and the length of those lines. It has no set rhyme scheme, but it uses rhyme in many ways. The poet uses end rhyme to make the stanza melodious as in the case with rhyming words like ”trill”, and ”shrill”. Internal rhyme is used in the line like ”waiting on a dawn bright lawn”. The poet also uses repetition to emphasize a particular point like in the case of ”A free bird thinks” and ”The caged bird sings” which have been repeated several times in the poem.
The poem reflects the facts of racial segregation or social discrimination in American society against African-American people. Through the metaphors of caged and free birds, Angelou highlights the nature of captivity and the importance of American ideals of freedom and liberty.