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.
Last Updated on July 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804
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.
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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 sky his own.” He is utterly free to take advantage of the things that make birds the happiest. The sky is wide, capacious, and seemingly empty, and as a result, the free bird feels empowered to claim ownership over it.
The fifth stanza returns to the caged bird, beginning with the word “But,” which signals the comparative restrictiveness of his existence. In contrast to the free bird, the caged bird “stands on the grave of dreams,” which suggests that any dreams he might have had are completely inaccessible: metaphorically, they have already died and been interred. He will never be able to enjoy the free bird’s liberty, nor his access to the beautiful sights and sensations of the world. While the free bird dreams of mellow winds, swaying trees, fat worms to eat, morning lawns edged with light, and the open sky, the caged bird lives a nightmare. His shadow can only “shout” the terrible “scream” of his continued captivity, suggesting the unalloyed pain that undergirds and gives rise to the sweetness of his sung longing for freedom. The lines “his wings are clipped and his feet are tied / so he opens his throat to sing” are repeated, reinforcing the trapped and unchanging nature of his caged existence.
The final stanza repeats the lines of the third stanza, and the poem ends with the image of the caged bird singing for a “freedom” he has never known. The ending of the poem leaves room for multiple interpretations. Readers cannot know for certain whether the caged bird will ever find freedom. Though the passive formulation of the phrase “his tune is heard” means that readers cannot know who hears it, there is some hope in the fact that the caged bird’s soaring song extends so far—to “the distant hill”—that it does reach someone.