In "Caged Bird," what does the line "and his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream" mean?
The "caged bird" of Angelou's poem is contrasted throughout with its opposite, the "free bird," who "names the sky his own." The structure of the poem forces the reader to continually view the differences between the two. Notably, the caged bird never stops singing, despite its entrapment. He continues to "open his throat to sing" of something "unknown, but longed-for still"—that is, freedom.
In the fifth stanza, the caged bird "stands on the grave of dreams." This suggests that his dreams have, for the most part, been buried. But the following line—"his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream"—makes us aware that the bird has not actually given up on all his dreams. The shadow of the bird that once was hopeful is screaming, as if in a "nightmare," at the thought of losing his dreams and aspirations. It is exactly because "his wings are clipped and his feet are tied" that the bird is moved to sing, knowing that this is the only thing he is still empowered to do. The "shadow" of the bird is the part of him that refuses to concede defeat and sit silent in the cage. Instead, he recalls what he has "longed for" and sings in support of freedom.
Maya Angelou’s 1983 poem “Caged Bird” compares the plight of a caged bird to the flight of a free bird. Many readers have interpreted Angelou’s poem as an extended metaphor with the caged bird representing the historical struggles of African Americans.
The line above is in the 5th stanza, which describes the caged bird who “stands on the grave of dreams/ his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream/ his wings are clipped and his feet are tied/ so he opens his throat to sing.” The grave of dreams can refer to a person who has given up on his dreams. The shadow, rather than the bird itself, shouts, revealing a sense of powerlessness, for who would hear the shout of a shadow? This contrasts with the free bird described in the previous stanza who boldly “names the sky his own.”
The caged bird’s “nightmare scream” gives an otherworldly sense that, again, the cry will not be heard. The words “shadow” and “nightmare” evoke a dark outlook, where only the bird’s shadow or nightmares may escape the confines of the cage.