Caged Bird Summary

In “Caged Bird,” poet Maya Angelou uses birds as an extended metaphor to convey the frustration and suffering of those who are oppressed. 

  • Angelou first describes the joy that a free bird takes in soaring through the sky.
  • Angelou then describes a bird that has been caged, its feet tied and wings clipped.
  • The caged bird rails against its imprisonment. In spite of its fear and rage, it sings of freedom.

Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on July 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804

Introduction

Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird,” first published in 1983 in the collection Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?, is a celebration of Black resilience and dignity. Employing a simple metaphor of two birds, one free and one caged, Angelou powerfully evokes the pain and rage of one who is oppressed by contrasting their suffering with the carefree and willful ignorance of one who is free. Angelou first used the motif of the caged bird in the title of her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and originally drew the image from the 1899 poem “Sympathy” by the Black writer Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Caged Bird Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Summary

The first stanza of “Caged Bird” describes not the caged bird but one who is “free.” The free bird is able to choose where he goes and when: he rides the “back of the wind”; delights and “dips his wing” in the warm, “orange” sunlight; and “dares to claim the sky.” His life is depicted as joyous, carefree, broad, and full of possibilities.

The second stanza introduces the caged bird, creating a juxtaposition between the idyllic existence of the free bird and the misery of the caged bird. The caged bird “stalks” his “narrow” prison, unable to overcome his abject anger at being contained. He finds it difficult to see out of his cage and is trapped not only by ordinary bars but by “bars of rage.” He is surrounded by constant reminders of his narrow and oppressive life. Further, he is not only contained by the cage itself. His very body has been mutilated and bound to keep him imprisoned: “his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied.” These passive verbs contrast greatly with the active verbs that define the free bird’s joyful movements. The caged bird’s captivity prevents him from flying freely, as his own nature demands; the only thing left for him to do is to “open his throat to sing” his pain and anger.

In the third stanza, the caged bird sings “with a fearful trill” of a world he has never known. It is apparent that the bird has been caged for his entire life. Though true freedom remains “unknown,” this doesn’t stop the caged bird from instinctively yearning for it. He knows there’s a better life waiting outside his cage, and his cry for freedom travels far, until it is heard “on the distant hill.” The caged bird’s song and his longing for freedom are uncontainable, despite his physical entrapment.

The fourth stanza turns again to the life of the “free bird,” further accentuating the contrast between the free bird’s unrestrained roaming and the caged bird’s constricted existence. In his mind, the free bird delights in the beautiful aspects of the world he has full access to: soft breezes, “sighing” forests, and tasty “fat worms” on a morning lawn—all of which are experiences the caged bird has never had. At the end of this list, the free bird “names...

(The entire section contains 804 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Caged Bird study guide. You'll get access to all of the Caged Bird content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Analysis
  • Quotes
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial
Next

Themes