What are the poetic devices used in Maya Angelou's poem "Caged Bird"?

Poetic devices used in Maya Angelou's poem "Caged Bird" include allegory, anthropomorphism, rhyme, metaphor, personification, mood, imagery, alliteration, and repetition.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Caged Bird " uses multiple poetic devices to convey and enhance its meaning. I've only listed three of them here, but a close reading of the poem yields many more, so it would be a good idea to consult the eNotes Guide to Literary Terms while working through the...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

"Caged Bird" uses multiple poetic devices to convey and enhance its meaning. I've only listed three of them here, but a close reading of the poem yields many more, so it would be a good idea to consult the eNotes Guide to Literary Terms while working through the poem to see which poetic devices you can identify. Metaphor, alliteration, stanza, verse, and mood are all present within the poem.

Three devices I noticed include:

Allegory

An allegory is

an extended metaphor in which characters, events, settings, objects, etc. have symbolic as well as literal meanings.

The contrast between the lives of the caged bird and the free bird is an allegory for the contrast between the lives of African Americans and their white counterparts. The caged bird is trapped in a small space, tied down and mutilated (with his clipped wings) to prevent him from ever leaving. He dreams of the freedom that the free bird takes for granted.

Anthropomorphism

Anthropomorphism is when human characteristics are given to animals, objects, or gods.

"Caged Bird" anthropomorphizes both the caged bird and the free bird, describing them both with human thoughts and emotions. This poetic device enhances the allegory Maya Angelou has created. The caged bird, like the African American community, "long[s] for" freedom from the confines in which he is forced to live, while the free bird, like the white community, "names the sky his own" and assumes that his freedom is the natural state of things.

Rhyme

The entire poem is written in rhyme, which

serves as an element of rhythm emphasizing the beat [of the poem].

Rhyme can be used to make relationships between the rhyming words themselves, so it is worth examining where the rhymes occur within the poem. For instance:

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
The relationship here is between "cage" and "rage"—the cage is constructed of "bars of rage" from which the bird cannot escape and through which he can "seldom see" the outside world. Likewise:
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

The relationship between "breeze"/"trees" vividly evokes the sense of the outdoors, a bird's natural habitat, while the half-rhyme of "lawn"/"own" implies that the free bird feels that the breeze, the trees, the lawn, and everything else all belong to him by rights.

You may need to read the poem multiple times to pick out the various poetic devices Angelou has employed within it, but as you can hopefully see from the examples above, there are plenty of devices to choose from.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Angelou also uses metaphor in the first stanza to compare the wind to water, saying that the free bird "floats downstream / till the current ends." This makes the wind seem fast moving and powerful, and yet it something the free bird has learned to use for his own ends. The bird, moreover, is personified when she says that he "dares to claim the sky" and, later, that "he names the sky his own."

In the second stanza, we learn that the cage is figurative because its "bars [are made] of rage"; thus, Angelou uses another metaphor when she compares the state of a person who lacks freedom (perhaps because of their skin color) to a caged bird. We could also read personification in the depiction of this bird as a result of words like "stalks" and "sing." The personification of both birds helps us to understand the metaphor and ascertain the meaning concerning individuals who lack freedom rather than just birds.

Mood is used compellingly in the next stanza when Angelou uses words like "fearful," "unknown," "longed for," and "distant." The way these words make us feel is important; the life of the caged bird, like the plight of a person not free, is sad, dark, and desperate. The mood changes abruptly in the next stanza when she describes the free bird: words like "trade winds soft" and "sighing trees" with "fat worms" on a "dawn bright lawn" show the bird has a life of promise and possibility, as opposed to the thwarted life of the caged bird that lacks such promise.

In addition, "dawn bright lawn" and "fat worms" and even "sighing trees" are examples of vivid imagery.  The first two are examples of visual imagery, things we can see in our mind's eye; the last is auditory imagery, something we can imagine the sound of.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Maya Angelou uses a myriad of poetic devices in "Caged Bird," including metaphor, rhyme, imagery, alliteration, personification, and repetition.

In the poem, Angelou employs these poetic devices to contrast a free bird with a bird who is confined to a cage; the two different birds serve as metaphors for people free from oppression and people who are oppressed by society, respectively. Considering Angelou's personal history and the themes of her autobiographies, the caged bird, more explicitly, is a metaphor for African Americans who experienced racism and discrimination through slavery and Jim Crow laws in the U.S. Like the caged bird in the poem, African Americans were physically confined or restricted due to slavery and segregation, but they still vocally demanded their freedom.

In addition to using metaphor, Angelou utilizes repetition to reinforce the idea that African Americans cried out for freedom from oppression even in the bleakest of times when their oppressors did not want to "hear" them. Angelou repeats the third and fifth (final) stanzas, with the caged bird singing for freedom: 

The caged bird sings/with fearful trill/of things unknown/but longed for still/and his tune is heard/on the distant hill/for the caged bird/sings of freedom.

In the above quotation, note the end rhyme in the second, fourth, and sixth lines with "trill," "still," and "hill." We also find end rhyme as well as alliteration in the second stanza of the poem, when Angelou describes how the caged bird is physically confined. In the second stanza, the caged bird is in "his narrow cage" and "can seldom see through/his bars of rage" ("seldom see" forms the alliteration, while "cage" and "rage" form the end rhyme).

Finally, there is vivid imagery in the first stanza when the free bird "dips his wing/in the orange sun rays" and personification and alliteration in the fourth stanza when the caged bird's "shadow shouts on a nightmare scream." In this example from the fourth stanza, note the repetition of the consonant "s" and giving the caged bird's shadow the human quality of shouting, which emphasizes the bird's nightmarish existence living in confinement.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team