What is the tone of the poem "Caged Bird"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly, there is a poignancy to this poem. Much like Paul Dunbar's poem, "Sympathy," in which he writes, "I know why the caged bird sings," Maya Angelou continues this motif of the caged bird who sings in order to keep his spirit alive. 

his wings are clipped and   
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
He "opens his throat" in order to release the outpouring of feelings, his frustration, his sorrow, his despair. He sings because he must, and yet he also sings for the same reason all birds sing: they communicate with one another; for, somewhere there is a free bird who hears this caged bird, so that vicariously the bird whose feet are tied can feel free, at least in spirit. 
This poem evokes the sympathy of its reader for the bird who cannot soar under the sun with the wind beneath his wings. Still, the bird's spirit is resilient and the imprisoned bird expresses his desire to soar despite his bindings. The overall tone of the poem is sorrowful, but persevering.
ajf74 | Student

Maya Angelou's poem is about longing--the "caged bird," this animal whose very nature is to fly and to roam, is stolen from him. It is singing for freedom that it doesn't have. So, even more than longing, then, inherent in this poem is the feeling of intense pain and sadness that comes along with longing. What's important to understand about a writer like Maya Angelou is that she's heavily concerned with issues like Civil Rights and the residues of slavery. Some people in the 18th and 19th centuries defended slavery because they would hear the working slaves singing on the plantation and construe this singing as an indication of happiness: people sing because they are happy, was part of the claim and defense for this horrifying and dehumanizing institution. What Maya Angelou tells us here, in a poem like this, is that the singing isn't about joy, but, actually, quite the opposite--it's about longing for a joy that one has been denied.