What are some literary devices that are used in the poem "Caged Bird" by Maya Angelou?

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shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” is built around a metaphor that contrasts the condition of a free bird with a caged bird. There are several important things about the way this particular metaphor is used in the poem.

First, since this metaphor encompasses more than a line or two, we call it an extended metaphor. Many metaphors are quick—consisting of just a line or two, or sometimes even just a couple of words. In “Caged Bird,” however, the metaphor extends to the entire poem—every line in the work is about either the free bird or the caged bird.

Second, the free bird and the caged bird are symbols. The poem, believe it or not, is not really about birds, it is about people. Look at what Angelou tells the reader about the free bird:

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind . . .

And dares to claim the sky.

 Now look at what she says about the caged bird:

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage.

Angelou’s free bird is a free person, someone who has the freedom to pursue their ambitions, no matter how grandiose they might be. The caged bird, on the other hand, is a slave or prisoner, stuck in a “narrow cage” and beset with “rage.”

Sometimes students are not convinced about a poet’s intentions. Many times I’ve had a student ask me something like, “Well, how do you know that she isn’t just writing about birds?” I would answer that by referring to the following line from the poem:

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream.

We can be sure that Angelou’s real intention is to teach us something about people, because we would not normally think of birds as having “dreams” or “nightmares.” Those are people things.

Another literary device in this poem is called juxtaposition. When we juxtapose we place two ideas together for the purpose of looking at their differences. In this poem, the free bird is juxtaposed with caged bird. Both are described, but they are very different.

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