(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Maya Angelou’s highly romantic “Caged Bird” first appeared in the collection Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? in 1983. Inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy,” Angelou contrasts the struggles of a bird attempting to rise above the limitations of adverse surroundings with the flight of a bird that is free. She seeks to create in the reader sentiment toward the plight of the misused, captured creature—a symbol of downtrodden African Americans and their experiences.

The first two stanzas contrast two birds. Lines 1 through 7 describe the actions of a bird that is free; it interacts with nature and “dares to claim the sky.” The second stanza (lines 8 through 14) tells of a captured bird that must endure clipped wings, tied feet, and bars of rage; yet he still opens his throat and sings.

The third and fifth stanzas are identical. Lines 2, 4, and 6 and lines 5 and 7 of these identical stanzas rhyme. This repeated verse elaborates on the song of freedom trilled by the caged bird; though his heart is fearful and his longings unmet, the bird continues to sing of liberty. The fourth stanza continues the comparison of two birds, the caged and the free. The free bird enjoys the breeze, the trees, the winds, the lawn, the sky, and the fat worms; the caged bird with his wings still clipped and his feet still tied continues, nevertheless, to open his throat and sing. Like the refrain of a hymn, the fifth and final stanza is a reiteration.

Angelou’s characterization of a bird that is free (first and fourth stanzas) provides an effective contrast with the bird that is caged (second, third, fourth, and fifth stanzas). The sentiment that Angelou evokes in the reader is suggestive of Dunbar’s inspirational poem.