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

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).

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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...

(The entire section contains 900 words.)

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