What happens in Caged Bird?

In "Caged Bird," poet Maya Angelou describes a bird with clipped wings. Its feet have been tied, and it has been placed in a cage that prevents it from flying away. Despite its fear, the caged bird continues to sing of freedom.

  • Angelou describes the joy that a free bird takes in soaring through the sky.

  • Angelou then describes a bird that has been caged, its feet tied and wings clipped.

  • The caged bird rails against its imprisonment. In spite of its fear, it sings of freedom.

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Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird,” published in 1983, is a celebration of African American resilience and dignity. Employing a simple metaphor—birds—Angelou powerfully evokes the pain and rage of one who is oppressed by contrasting it with the carefree and willful ignorance of one who is free.


The first stanza of the poem "Caged Bird" describes a free bird. The free bird is able to choose where he goes and when: he rides the wind, enjoys the sun, and "dares to claim the sky." This is joyous depiction is then juxtaposed with the troubles of the caged bird.

The second stanza introduces us to the caged bird. The bars of its cage make it difficult to see because they're not just cage bars; they are "bars of rage." The caged bird isn't able to overcome his anger at his captivity because he's surrounded by constant reminders of his narrow life: “his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied.” He is kept from soaring free, as his own nature demands, and the only thing left for him to do is to sing his pain and anger. 

In the third stanza, the caged bird sings of things he's never known. Never having experienced true freedom doesn’t stop him from longing for it. He knows there's something better out there, and his cry for freedom is heard “on the distant hill.”

The fourth stanza returns to the life of free bird. The free bird dreams of the things he loves: breezes, sighing forests, and worms in the morning—all things the caged bird has never experienced. The free bird "names the sky his own" because he's free to take advantage of the things that make birds the happiest. He doesn’t have to share his sky and, thus, lays ownership to it.

The fifth stanza brings us back to the caged bird. In stark contrast to the free bird, the caged bird "stands on the grave of dreams." He's never going to be able to enjoy the things the free bird does. While the free bird is dreaming of delicious morning worms, the caged bird can only rage at its captivity. Once again, we hear that his wings are clipped and his feet are tied. He cannot fly away from his misery, but he can open his beak to sing.

The final stanza repeats the lines of stanza three, and the poem ends with the bird singing for things that he has never known. The ending of the poem is ambiguous and invites multiple interpretations. Perhaps the caged bird's soaring song of freedom, which carries even to “the distant hill," will be heard even by the free bird—perhaps it will be ignored.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Maya Angelou’s highly romantic “Caged Bird” first appeared in the collection Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? in 1983. Inspired...

(The entire section is 746 words.)