Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

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Angelou does not allow meter, rhyme, and stanza to control her poetry. She determines her own structure—or lack of it—and uses form and device for her own means; she searches for the sound, the tempo, the rhythm, and the rhyme appropriate for each line.

“Caged Bird” is an example of unstructured verse. The number of beats per line varies; for example, line 1 has four beats, line 2 has six, line 3 has four, and line 4 has five. The number of lines in each stanza fluctuates as well; stanzas 1 and 2 have seven lines each, but stanzas 3 and 4 have eight. In addition to her use of the intermittent stanza, Angelou repeats stanza 3 as stanza 5; this repetition is reminiscent of the chorus in a song. The only other structuring device that Angelou employs in the thirty-eight lines is sporadic rhyme. For instance, only lines 9 and 11 in the entire first two stanzas use rhyming words (“cage” and “rage”); in the fourth stanza only lines 30 and 31 rhyme (“breeze” and “trees”). The only other rhyming words that Angelou uses—and at her own discretion—are in the third stanza, which she repeats as stanza 5. She rhymes “trill” and “still” with “hill”; she also rhymes “heard” and “bird.”

The repetition of the third stanza gives some predictability to the poem and allows the reader to participate actively in the unpleasant plight of the caged bird. By contrast, other parts of the poem are unpredictable and at times even pleasurable; the joy of the free bird makes it possible for the reader to bear the tragic story of the oppressed one.

To convey her message clearly, Angelou applies many stylistic devices in her poem. She employs personification when she writes “his shadow shouts,” when the free bird “names the sky,” and when the sailing bird rides “on the back of the wind.” She uses imagery to advantage in “Caged Bird.” Her adjectives enable the reader to see clearly the “orange sun rays” and the “dawn-bright lawn.” Her precise verbs make clear the action in the verse. For instance, the free bird “leaps,” “dips his wing,” and “dares to claim the sky”; conversely, the caged bird “stalks” and “can seldom see through/ his bars.” Angelou presents both the dance of the free bird and the impeded hobble of the caged one. The pathetic visions of clipped wings, bound limbs, and prison cell are in direct contrast to the dipping wings of a free bird riding the wind. Angelou does not compromise the cruelty; she unhesitatingly conveys the heartrending message and the sorrowful images to the reader. Likewise, she presents the joy of freedom and flight.

Metaphor is one of Angelou’s most obvious stylistic devices. The reader recognizes that the caged bird is Angelou herself—as well as any African American in an oppressive society. The “grave of dreams” is the perch in the confining cage.

Angelou’s use of foreshadowing is evident. The fate of the caged bird will be unrelenting misery and death if the imprisonment and oppression continue. The poet hints at this despair and inevitable outcome when she pens the words “grave,” “nightmare,” “stalks,” and “scream.” Sounds are an essential part of the poem. The poet refers to songs, to tunes, to “a fearful trill,” to singing, and to sighing trees.

Among the most effective of Angelou’s stylistic devices are her comparisons and contrasts. She presents similarities between the free and the caged birds: their wings, their physical form. Her use of contrasts, however, is particularly effective; for example, the “nightmare scream” of the caged bird’s shadow is in direct opposition to the bird’s fearfully trilling his song of freedom. Angelou juxtaposes cultures—the open air and a cage with bars—and the ways that the two birds use their wings: the free bird flies freely in the rays of the sun, but the caged bird endures clipped wings.


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