Illustration of the silhouetted profile of a person's face and three birds next to an orange sun

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

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In the poem "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" what is the figurative language in the first two stanzas?

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Figurative language refers to the techniques a writer uses to enhance his or her writing and to create images so that the reader can enjoy the text and understand his or her purpose. This can be done by using comparisons such as metaphors and similes, sound devices such as onomatopoeia, rhyme and rhythm, or any other literary device. Using these techniques effectively leads the reader to new insights and brings to life what the author perceives through the five senses and reflects his or her sentiment.
In stanza one of Maya Angelou's poem, she uses, firstly, a metaphor in the second line: 'on the back of the wind.' This indirect comparison equates the current created by the wind to the back of something. In this context, the back provides support and is something on which someone can sit to be carried somewhere, such as, for example, when one sits on the back of a horse. The image indicates how the bird relies on the strength of a wind to take it where it wants to go. 
Secondly, by using 'his' instead of 'its' in line five, Angelou uses personification, which gives a human quality to something not human. The bird is personified. This personification is extended to the last line of the stanza which states: 'and dares to claim the sky.' This is clearly a human attribute, for animals (and birds) act on instinct and their actions cannot be deemed a considered option. Humans, though, would consider risk, and if they ignore or reject risk, they 'dare.' The suggestion is that a free bird shows courage when it claims the open space for itself, thus inviting the risk of becoming an easy target for predators. 
In stanza two, the personification is extended further through the use of the possessive pronoun 'his' and the personal pronoun 'he' in reference to the caged bird. The metaphor 'bars of rage' in line 11 is an indirect comparison in which the bars of the bird's cage are made the equal of its anger and frustration since it is these bars which restrict its freedom. The bird then sings of its lot and expresses its outrage at being confined in the last line of this stanza.
Birds are the ultimate symbols of freedom since they have wings and can fly wherever they wish. Angelou uses juxtaposition by contrasting the life of a free bird to that of one caged. The former can express and indulge its freedom whilst the other can only express frustration, anger, and disillusionment for its entrapment. Furthermore, the image of the 'caged bird' could be read as ironic since a bird signifies freedom ('as free as a bird') whilst 'caged' indicates imprisonment.
By personifying the birds and emphasizing this personification through the use of anaphora (the repetition of 'his' at the beginning of consecutive lines) in the second stanza, Angelou alludes to humanity. Her poem is a protest against the enslavement and restriction of certain members of society whose freedoms have been removed because of prejudice, racial and otherwise. Just like the birds in her beautiful poem, all people have the right to be free and taking away their freedom is a grave and malicious injustice.
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Figurative language is a broad general category for a variety of literary techniques.  Some of the most common forms of figurative language are metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, and symbolism.  Those are focused on word meanings.  Other forms of figurative language might focus on word sounds to further develop a picture, emotion, or sound.  Those devices are things like alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance, and consonance. 

Stanza 1, line 2 contains an example of personification.  The line is “on the back of the wind.”  It personifies wind by giving it the human trait of a back. Perhaps the last line “and dares to claim the sky” is personification as well, since claiming something is generally a human trait, too.  

Stanza 2, line 3 (of the stanza) contains an example of alliteration.  The “s” sound is repeated with the phrase “seldom see.”  Beyond that, the entire stanza is a symbolic metaphor for the oppressed black people of Angelou’s time.  Angelou is illustrating how unfair laws and social conventions limited the true potential of African Americans.  Their “wings are clipped.”  

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