Summary and Analysis
A prevalent writer and headstrong woman, Louisa May Alcott wrote many poems and novels that portray independent and flawed female characters. Alcott’s poem “A Little Bird I Am,” published in 1880, portrays a sense of entrapment by a male society and gives a satirical portrayal of a woman’s expected place within the world. The poem’s speaker fights against these expectations through an underlying sarcastic tone and a succinct paradox of a bird that’s happy to be imprisoned.
Louisa May Alcott’s poem “A Little Bird I Am” is clean and short, with only two six-line stanzas. It uses a rhyme pattern in which the second and fourth lines rhyme, and each stanza ends with a rhyming couplet. Alcott also employs internal rhyme schemes, alliteration, and an inverted syllabic structure. The syllabic structure points to the paradox that the poem is. Halfway through each stanza of six lines, the meter flips, creating a shift from trimeter to tetrameter. This change may cause readers to feel an uncanny discomfort, as the tetrameter at the end of each stanza depict wrong, violent, or strange imagery.
The speaker portrays herself as a caged bird who appears, on the outside, to love and happily sing for her captor. However, the underlying sarcastic tone in the poem creates paradoxical metaphors that speak the truth of the poem. The speaker means to show that her freedom has been taken.
“A Little Bird I Am” begins with a hyperbaton, or an inverted sentence. The speaker claims, “A little bird I am / Shut from the fields of air.” By using a hyperbaton in line one, the speaker places emphasis on “I am” in order to focus the poem on the speaker or subject. It also suggests an inversion of meaning, in which the reader should read the poem as a satire or mockery.
In line two, the speaker reinforces this claim by stating she is “Shut from the fields of air.” A bird is often interpreted as a symbol of freedom. The speaker describes herself as being kept from her natural environment, making her small and powerless when she should be free and inviolable.
Lines three and four show the reason for the speaker’s entrapment: “And in my cage I sit and sing / to Him who placed me there.” Line three invokes the idea of birdsong, which connotes joy and is typically heard in nature. The imagery of a bird's singing from a cage creates a melancholic vision. By using this contradictory image, the speaker urges readers to feel indignation or frustration with the speaker’s unjust predicament.
In line four, the speaker introduces “Him,” or the captor, who can be seen in two ways: First, the captor is a male presence. The capitalization of “him” can denote the power that he holds over the speaker. This is apparent through the juxtaposition of the littleness of the bird to the capitalized, seemingly powerful “Him.” Second, in Judeo-Christian tradition, God is referred to as “Him,” “He,” or “His,” with a capitalized H. The speaker may mean to say that the will of God has placed her in this entrapped state. If God has willed it, then the caged bird, or entrapped woman, becomes something “natural” or expected.
The final lines of stanza one appear to show the speaker’s pleasure at her entrapment: “Well pleased a prisoner to be / Because, my God, it pleases Thee!” This statement, if taken at face value, portrays the speaker as “pleased” to be trapped, because it pleases the speaker’s conception of “God.” However, upon deeper examination, the sarcastic or mocking undertone can be sensed.
- Line five is meant to point out the ridiculous nature of the speaker’s predicament, as no prisoner can be “pleased” by their lack of freedom. The impossible relationship between pleasure and imprisonment is ironically reflected in the rich consonance of the words “pleased” and “prisoner.”
- In line six, the speaker may be using “my God,” as an exclamation as opposed to an apostrophe. The phrase can be read as a frustrated or even angry statement, using “my God” for added emotion and emphasis. The mention of God’s name, whether as an address or an exclamation, sustains the reference to “Him” in the fourth line.
The second stanza begins with “Naught have I else to do,” in line seven. The word “naught," which means “nothing," highlights the lack of ability and movement the speaker has in their imprisonment.
In line eight, with nothing to do and no ability to change her situation, the speaker states “I sing the whole day long.” This re-emphasizes her lack of choices and points out the pre-established expectation imposed upon her.
Line nine, like the first line in the poem, reflects a inverted syntactic pattern: "And He whom I most love to please." In comparison, a more typical syntactic pattern which could be “and I love most to please him." Line nine's syntactic pattern appears to highlight the captor’s power and the wrongness of the speaker’s situation. It also continues the underlying sarcastic tone.
Line ten emphasizes the speaker’s arguably archaic position as man’s prisoner and entertainer with older language such as “doth.” The final lines encompass not only the violence behind the speaker’s situation, but also the speaker’s subordinate position to her captor.
Line eleven suggests violence: “He caught and bound my wandering wing.” The use of the verbs “caught” and “bound” point out the physical entrapment of the speaker. They also show captor’s use of brute force used to capture the bird that is meant to be free. The “wandering wing,” can no longer work or move when bound, and thus is the speaker’s freedom made unattainable.
Line twelve, the final line, denotes the captor’s power over the speaker: “But still He bends to hear me sing.” The verb “bends” denotes the captor’s physical height or larger stature over the speaker. It also points to the speaker’s inability to move due to her trapped state. Conversely, the verb “bends” may also point to the bird’s or speaker’s power over her captor, in that she makes him bend to her in order to hear her song.
“A Little Bird I Am” places the speaker into a space of subjugation and imprisonment. The poem, although succinct and short, is powerful in its ability to instill frustration and righteous anger towards the captor. The sarcastic tone calls to mind that this poem is a satire, which points out the fallacy of a woman who is not allowed to be free.