Caged Bird Themes

The main themes in “Caged Bird” are freedom and confinement, artistic expression as resistance, and civil rights.

  • Freedom and confinement: As its title indicates, “Caged Bird” is concerned with both imprisonment and the innate urge for freedom.
  • Artistic expression as resistance: Despite being confined, the caged bird’s song is able to extend far past his physical conditions, thus serving as an apt metaphor for artistic expression even under oppression.
  • Civil rights: “Caged Bird” can be fruitfully read as a poem that expresses the ongoing need for equality, particularly for Black Americans.

Themes

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Last Updated on December 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

Freedom and Confinement

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The principal theme of “Caged Bird” is freedom—and the lack thereof. Angelou establishes freedom as the poem’s primary concern by using the word multiple times as she describes both of the birds, and the poem’s alternating stanzas contrast the “free bird” with the “caged bird.” The words “free” or “freedom” appear four times (in stanzas one, three, four, and six). “Cage” or “caged” appears even more frequently (seven times, including the title and stanzas two, three, four, and five).

Angelou writes of both physical and conceptual freedom. The caged bird is not physically free—“his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied”—yet his desire for freedom is so powerful that his song of yearning is heard even “on the distant hill.” Though freedom is “unknown” to the caged bird, the poem suggests it is only natural for him to desire it, as all living creatures do. This inherent longing for freedom highlights the cruelty of the caged bird’s imprisonment, particularly when juxtaposed with the free bird’s happy obliviousness and sense of ownership over the sky through which he “leaps” and “floats.” That one bird should be free and one needlessly caged is an injustice that remains unresolved at the poem’s conclusion, pointing to the injustice and inequality that remain unredressed in society.

The poem’s elaboration on the multiple dimensions of freedom is achieved seamlessly through the descriptions of the birds, one in flight and the other with wings clipped. Birds are particularly suited to this metaphor, as the natural condition of most birds is to fly. Further, the symbol of the imprisoned bird’s cage is connected to various negative emotions, particularly “rage.”

Artistic Expression as Resistance

Through the plight of the caged bird, Angelou conveys the resilience, dignity, and power of the oppressed. The caged bird rages against the injustice of his physical imprisonment, but still he “sings of freedom.” The repetition of this song (expressed in stanzas three and six) evokes the ongoing nature of the caged bird’s struggle while also suggesting that he will continue to sing and persevere, no matter the hopelessness of his situation.

Though the caged bird is physically imprisoned, the poem does not suggest that he is powerless. Freedom of speech and expression are conveyed primarily through the word “sing,” which is used four times, including the repeated phrase “sings of freedom.” Singing, in this respect, can be seen as a symbol for free expression, especially free artistic expression. The use of the words “sing,” “tune,” and “trill,” all words associated with music, help to convey the power of art to liberate.

Further, even though the caged bird is himself imprisoned, the poem emphasizes that his song is able to go beyond his physical confines, even to the point of being heard “on the distant hill.” The power of artistic creation to communicate—to move beyond a single consciousness, influencing and impacting others—is crucial, particularly to one whose physical body is confined. There is clear political power in this communication. The caged bird can share his emotions and dreams with others through song, just as Angelou expresses ideas of freedom through her writing, and the poem ultimately affirms the dignity and power in this expression.

Civil Rights

The image of the caged bird—which Angelou also uses in the title of her famous 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—is originally drawn from the poem “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, published in 1899. Dunbar, one of the first Black poets to gain a wide readership in the United States, was born in 1872 to parents who were freed slaves. “Sympathy” describes the specific pain of a caged bird, his “blood . . . red on the cruel bars,” and his instinct to sing regardless:

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!

The bird’s song is not joyful, but it is crucial. Though an article published by Dunbar’s widow gives evidence that the images of imprisonment in “Sympathy” were inspired by the stifling, enclosed experience of working at the Library of Congress, the poem can also be productively read as a reflection on the experience of Black Americans, as can Angelou’s “Caged Bird.” Even after the abolition of slavery, rampant inequality, prejudice, White supremacy, and hate persisted in Dunbar’s time—and, unfortunately, have also persisted into Angelou’s and our own.

Angelou was active in the civil rights movement and often wrote about the experiences, pain, and persistence of the Black community. During the 1950s and 1960s, Angelou became active in the Harlem Writers Guild, was asked by Martin Luther King Jr. to work as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an organizer for a march, and she intended to work on the Organization of Afro-American Unity with Malcolm X just before his assassination. Seen through the lens of the civil rights movement, “Caged Bird”—with its vivid descriptions of the agony of imprisonment juxtaposed with the openness of the free bird’s world—is both an expressive indictment of senseless inequality, especially as it continually affects Black Americans, and a celebration of the persistent, necessary impulse to sing for freedom even through experiences of injustice.

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