The bird in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem is yearning for a freedom he may find in the natural world. The poem is primarily concerned with the idea that because birds are natural creature, they belong outside and physically free; the bars of a cage are cruel and prevent the bird...
The bird in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem is yearning for a freedom he may find in the natural world. The poem is primarily concerned with the idea that because birds are natural creature, they belong outside and physically free; the bars of a cage are cruel and prevent the bird from being free. This bird could be seen as a metaphor for how Dunbar feels about humans and the human spirit: we are caged inside buildings as well as within social and economic structures. The bird in Dunbar’s poem knows the freedom he wants: he “fain would be on the bough a-swing” (line 11), which means that he would gladly sit in a tree; the bird has seen freedom, and his song is longing for it.
This can be contrasted against the bird in Angelou’s poem. In Angelou’s poem, we have two birds contrasted against each other. One is a free bird who “leaps / on the back of the wind” (lines 1–2) and so knows and enjoys his freedom. The other bird in Angelou’s poem is the caged bird, who can “seldom see through / his bars of rage” (lines 10–11) and sings of “things unknown / but longed for still” (lines 16–17). The caged bird in Angelou’s poem “sings of freedom” (line 21) and his song is “heard on the distant hill” (line 20), but the free bird thinks only of the breeze, bright lawns, fat worms—and most importantly, the free bird “names the sky his own” (line 25). The conclusion that we can draw from this is that the caged bird in Angelou’s poem perceives freedom as a freedom from his cage and his pain, but outside of that he does not know what a bird’s life should be.
The contrast in the worldview between the caged birds in these poems are that Dunbar’s caged bird has an idea of what he wants freedom to look like, whereas Angelou’s bird does not know what freedom is. This bird knows that freedom is something like the absence of pain, but he knows that he does not have it. Dunbar’s bird’s song is a “prayer ... a plea” (lines 19–20) as the bird beats his wings and flies around inside his cage. Angelou’s bird’s “wings are clipped and / his feet are tied / so he opens his throat to sing” (lines 12–14), showing that the bird’s only option to express his pain and desire for freedom is to sing.