Paul Laurence Dunbar

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What is the tone in the poem "Sympathy" by Paul Laurence Dunbar?

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Thomas Mccord eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In the first stanza of "Sympathy," the tone is idyllic and peaceful. Despite talking about a caged bird, Dunbar creates a scene in which a bird flies freely around a beautiful landscape. To create this tone, Dunbar uses images of the sun, the soft wind and "faint perfume."

In the next stanza, however, Dunbar changes the tone of the poem when he describes the reality of the bird's captivity. The image of "blood," for example, and the bird's "old, old scars" are suggestive of violence, and this creates a darker, almost melancholic, tone.

But, by the final stanza, Dunbar's tone is celebratory. Despite the negative aspects of the bird's captivity, Dunbar talks about its "prayer" and "plea" for freedom, which emphasizes the bird's resilience. By leaving the reader with the final image of the bird sending his prayer up to Heaven, Dunbar creates a happy ending, tinged with joy and celebration. 

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The tone of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy" is one of desperation and agony; yet, there is also a reverent understanding for this unconquered, though desperate, human spirit.

There is an old Negro spiritual that contains these lines,

Ole Satan is mad en I am glad
Ain't got tired yit
Missed a soul he thought he had
En I ain't got tired yit

Oh, been in de war so long, ain't got tired yit
Oh, been in de war so long, ain't got tired yit

The little caged bird exemplifies this same unconquered spirit of the speaker of this spiritual. This bird must sing, or he will die. He must beat his wings against the bars of his cage in the desperate hope that one day somehow those bars will break and he will escape the misery and oppression he endures.

The speaker of "Sympathy" also feels the frustration and helpless rage of the bird that is a symbol of the repressed spirit of the "Negro." Both the bird and the speaker are confined against their wills and repressed; now, all they can do is pray and send "a plea upward to Heaven." 

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