What is the theme of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy"?

The themes of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem “Sympathy” include freedom and sympathy. The speaker discusses the effects of unfreedom, implicitly commenting on American racial inequality while explicitly depicting the plight of a caged bird. In this depiction, the poem explores the dynamics of sympathy, a process by which two entities suffer together.

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The theme of Paul Laurence Dunbar 's poem "Sympathy" is expressed in the title. More specifically, Dunbar writes of the sympathy between those who are oppressed, which extends to animals as well. The word "sympathy" comes from the Greek words "with" and "suffering," to feel sympathy is to suffer along...

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The theme of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy" is expressed in the title. More specifically, Dunbar writes of the sympathy between those who are oppressed, which extends to animals as well. The word "sympathy" comes from the Greek words "with" and "suffering," to feel sympathy is to suffer along with someone because you understand the nature of their suffering.

In the first stanza, the speaker hears a caged bird singing. Others might hear happiness, praise, or contentment in the song, but the speaker hears longing for the freedom represented by the idyllic pastoral landscape outside the bars of the cage. The second stanza makes the bird's frustration and anger more explicit, as he beats his wing on the bars, an action which is obviously habitual, since it brings new pain to "the old, old scars." In the final stanza, the song is connected with the act of beating the bars and is seen as a prayer for freedom.

The poets avoids talking about his own struggles in the poem in overt terms, subsuming his experience of racism and oppression into the metaphor provided by the caged bird. The reader is left to imagine precisely what he has suffered, with only the knowledge that it has left him with a profound sympathy for any abused creature.

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One of the central themes of "Sympathy" is freedom, particularly in the context of racial inequality in the United States. The speaker knows "why the caged bird sings" because, like the bird, he is unfree. As a Black American living in a society steeped in racism and injustice, he feels trapped as if in a cage.

What's particularly frustrating for the speaker is that he can see the benefits of freedom all around him, as represented in the poem by the sun shining brightly on the upland slopes. But because of the color of his skin, he is denied freedom and the numerous benefits it brings to white Americans.

This denial of freedom induces the speaker to pray to God. But this is no prayer of joy; it is an earnest plea borne out of utter desperation. The speaker prays because he has no other choice. Unable to secure freedom in a racist society, he can only hope that God will intervene and secure for him the liberty that is rightfully his.

It's a sign of the desperation that the speaker feels that he can only seek salvation from his chronic lack of freedom through prayer. He cannot escape the iron cage of unfreedom through his own efforts, an indication of just how hard it was for Black Americans at the turn of the twentieth century to overcome discrimination and oppression.

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While racism is one theme of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy," in a broader sense, oppression is also a theme.

The son of slaves, Dunbar was restricted in the development of his talents by the Jim Crow Laws, which operated from 1877 into the 1960s. These laws enforced segregation, which became a literal and figurative barrier behind which African-Americans were held. Thus, the cage of Dunbar's poem becomes the symbol of the social restrictions and confinement to a low social status and few opportunities.

Yet despite this social suppression, the heart and spirit of man as the "caged bird" express themselves in song (i.e.poetry), keeping hope alive in the oppressed's heart.

And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting--
I know why he beats his wing!

The caged bird continues to sing despite his captivity and his bruised wing and sore bosom. But it is not a joyous tune that he sings. Instead, it is a psalm that he chants, a prayer to Heaven that the suppression of his soul will end and he will be able to live without social restrictions, restrictions symbolized by the bars against which the caged bird beats his wings.

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The theme of the poem "Sympathy" is racism, and the imprisoning effect it has on the soul.

In the poem, the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar compares himself to a caged bird.  He can empathize with how the bird feels; just as the bird looks with longing at the beautiful world just beyond the bars that cage him in, so the poet, as a black man in America in the early 1900s, feels about his situation as a victim of a racism and discrimination in his society. 

The poet goes beyond the empathy he feels for the caged bird in the second stanza of the poem, when he develops his theme further, describing the helpless rage both he and the bird feel as they look out from behind the bars that confine them at opportunities and freedoms others can enjoy but which they are denied.  Like the bird, he "beats (his) wings" ferociously against the cage's cruel bars, but to no avail.

Finally, in the last stanza, exhausted and in pain from his futile attempts to escape his prison, the poet identifies the song of the caged bird.  It is not "a carol of joy or glee", but a desperate prayer for deliverance, for the bird and for himself, that one day both "would be free".

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