Last Updated on July 21, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1116
“Caged Bird” derives its power from rich imagery that encourages the reader to appreciate and interpret the poem in a variety of ways. Angelou uses the language of movement and immobilization to help readers think about the ways that freedom matters in our own lives—and perhaps make readers question what freedoms they take for granted. She draws from classic poetic traditions employing avian metaphors, as well as other Romantic images of freedom.
Yet the poem’s power also depends on Angelou’s ability to convey a powerful idea simply and succinctly. The poem is tightly constructed but not labored, and she uses only familiar words, which easily engage the reader and encourage identification with the two birds. Given that Angelou is not only a writer but also a singer and dancer, one can see how Angelou might identify with the highly expressive caged bird, and even readers without knowledge of her personal history may sense the autobiographical elements emerging through the poem’s central conceit.
Just when the depiction of the caged bird begins to cause discomfort in the reader, the poem jarringly switches to the positive emotions of the free bird. This startling contrast emphasizes the injustice of the caged bird’s situation, but it can also be read as a sign of hope: perhaps the quick switches between the caged and free birds are meant to help readers reflect on the impermanence of difficult situations.
Angelou’s choice of structure and diction together create a complete and admirably tight work. Almost all the words are ordinary, consisting of one or two syllables, and Angelou’s economy of language gives the poem a brisk, energetic quality. Despite the relative simplicity of the poem’s diction, Angelou’s placement of words and punctuation is intentional and expressive.
In her use of conjunctions, Angelou creates a subtle but powerful juxtaposition between stanzas one and two—and again between stanzas four and five. In stanza one, the actions of the free bird—“leaps,” “floats,” “dips,” and “dares”—are connected by a repetition of the conjunction “and,” which emphasizes the free bird’s limitless choices and actions. The placement of these conjunctions at the start of lines three, five, and seven underscore their empowering function. Indeed, there is a sense that the stanza could continue indefinitely, with the free bird engaging in an endless series of possible actions, each heralded by another joyous “and.” In stanza four, which also describes the free bird’s movements, this idea of limitless potential is made even more explicit: it is the only stanza in the poem that is not closed with a period. The free bird’s final act—“and he names the sky his own”—is followed by a blank space that mimics the open-endedness of both the sky and the bird’s unfettered existence.
By contrast, the diction Angelou employs in stanzas two and five, which describe the caged bird’s actions, underscore the bird’s limited existence. These stanzas contain only one “and” apiece, because—unlike the free bird—the caged bird does not engage in a succession of willful actions. Rather, the animating conjunctions of stanzas two and five are “But” and “so.” Each of the two stanzas begins with a “But,” suggesting the contrasting nature of the caged bird’s existence. Moreover, this conjunction, with its connotations of direct opposition, signals his lack of options. From here, stanzas two and five then progress toward a repeated final line that begins with “so”: “so he opens his throat to sing.” The conjunction “so” conveys the conditional nature of the caged bird’s song—he cannot do as he wishes, so he sings.
Despite the limitation and apparent hopelessness of the caged bird’s situation, the poem’s evolving metrical structure suggests a movement towards expansiveness. The stanzaic form that Angelou uses for most of the poem—stanzas one, two, three, and six—is a septet (a seven-line stanza) consisting of six lines of dimeter (a two-beat line) and one concluding line of trimeter (a three-beat line). This narrow, vertical stanza structure gives the poem a brisk pace and a somewhat tense, even claustrophobic, tone. This metrical structure conveys in its rhythms the feeling of entrapment. One can readily sense in these constrained lines the caged bird’s movements, as he “stalks” back and forth “down his narrow cage.”
Angelou alters the stanzaic structure in stanzas four and five, but she does so in a subtle way. These two stanzas are quatrains, each composed of three lines of tetrameter (four-beat lines) and, again, a final line of trimeter. What appears to be an altogether separate stanzaic form is in fact the familiar septet transformed. The septets’ six lines of dimeter have merely been paired together and allowed to expand into broader lines of tetrameter. This transformation conveys a new sense of spaciousness and freedom, perhaps signalling hope for the caged bird.
Another way to read this transformation from septet to quatrain is to consider the longstanding role of the tetrameter-and-trimeter quatrain in songs and ballads. Although the entire poem moves according to the song-like rhythm of the four-and-three beat quatrain, this fact is only made evident in the second half of the poem. The poem’s cage-like septets are finally shown to contain the musicality of the classic quatrain. This transformation directly parallels how the caged bird’s entrapment brings out his latent potential to sing.
Though her style is modern, the content of Angelou’s poem also places her within a long poetic tradition. The English Romantic poets, in particular, often made birds their central metaphor. The bird often stands not only for freedom of expression but also for the poet or poetry itself. These poets often employed apostrophe, or direct address, in their verses about birds.
John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” in many ways presages Angelou’s association of birds with hope. His address to this singing bird speaks of his sorrow and longing to overcome the limitations of mortality. He wishes to join the nightingale on the “wings of poetry.” Percy Bysshe Shelley extended the comparison in his essay “A Defense of Poetry”:
A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.
Angelou’s caged bird is also an “unseen musician,” as he sings to the “distant hill” he cannot see. In contrast to the Romantics, however, Angelou speaks not of the bird’s sorrow but of his fear, rage, and hope for freedom.