Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Any analysis of “Caged Bird” must begin with the title. The reader knows immediately from the words “Caged Bird” that the story will necessarily involve the restrictions imposed by a cage on the bird within its bars. Dunbar’s “Sympathy” gave Angelou both the inspiration and the title not only for this poem and but also for her first autobiographical book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970); these two works by Angelou celebrate her survival and that of all African Americans in oppression.

Evident in “Caged Bird” are two traditional literary themes: reversal of fortune and survival of the unfittest. By presenting the free bird before depicting the caged bird, Angelou helps the reader visualize what the caged bird must have been like before its capture; the description of the two contrasting environments helps the reader feel the sense of loss of the captured bird because of its reversed fate. Even with its clipped wings, tied feet, narrow quarters, and bars of rage, however, the fragile, caged bird is still able to survive and to soar again through its song; this imprisoned bird truly epitomizes the survival of the unfittest, the major theme in the verse.

These contrasting environments—the freedom of the open world and the restrictive surroundings of the caged bird—create the setting for the poem. The reader can feel the breeze, see the sun, imagine the rich feast of fat worms, and hear the sighing trees of the world of the free creature; in contrast, the reader feels the fear and restricted movement, sees the bars, imagines the wants,...

(The entire section is 651 words.)