I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou is arguably one of the most moving and eye opening poems ever written. Angelou also wrote an autobiography with this same title, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is clear that this title had great significance to Angelou, as it was the title to her entire life story. In her autobiography, she talked about the struggle of being a black author and poet. She often felt that her words were not heard because of the color of her skin. She felt that in some ways, she was still experiencing slavery. Although African American people were free people in Angelou’s time, there were still many restrictions on them in society, making it so that many black Americans did not feel free at all. This poem, which can be read in full here, reveals the depth of those feelings.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Analysis
She refers to nature. She describes the way “a free bird leaps on the back of the wind”. She describes the bird’s flight against the orange sky. The free bird has the right “to claim the sky”. The way she describes the “orange sun rays” gives the reader an appreciation for the natural beauty of the sky, and her description of the way the bird “dips his wing” helps the reader to appreciate the bird in his natural habitat, enjoying his freedom.
This stanza is in stark contrast with the first. By using the word “but” to begin this stanza, the speaker prepares the reader for this contrast. Then she describes the “bird that stalks his narrow cage”. The tone is immediately and drastically changed from peaceful, satisfied, and joyful to one that is dark, unnerving, and even frustrating. She describes that this caged first “can seldom see through his bars of rage”. While the free bird gets to enjoy the full sky, the caged bird rarely even gets a glimpse of the sky. She claims that “his wings are clipped and his feet are tied”. Text from her autobiography reveals that Angelou often felt this way in life. She felt restricted from enjoying the freedom that should have been her right as a human being. The speaker then reveals that these are the very reasons that the bird “opens his throat to sing”.
The author felt this way in her own life. She wrote and sang and danced because it was her way of expressing her longing for freedom.
The third stanza reverts back to the free bird, further cementing the difference between the free bird and the caged bird in the minds of the readers. She writes that a “free bird thinks of another breeze” that he can enjoy the “sighing trees” and be free to find his own food. The tone with which she writes the first and third stanzas so sharply contrasts with the second stanza, that readers can feel the difference. The first and third stanzas give the reader a sense of ecstasy and thrill, which serve to make the second stanza seem all the more droll and even oppressive.
The fourth stanza continues the parallel between the free bird and the caged bird. The first line serves to starkly contrast the last line in the third stanza. It is dark and daunting. The reality of the life of the caged bird is revealed in this line. That bird, “stands on the grave of dreams”. This reveals the author’s feelings about her own dreams. She has so many dreams that have died because she was never given the freedom to achieve all that her white counterparts were able to achieve. Discrimination and Racism made up her cage, and although she sang, she felt her voice was not heard in the wide world, but only by those nearest her cage. The second line of this stanza in not only dark, but even frightening. The speaker describes the bird’s cries as “shouts on a nightmare scream”. At this point, the caged bird is so despondent in his life of captivity that his screams are like that of someone having a nightmare. The author then repeats these lines:
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
Reaffirming the idea that the bird opens his mouth to sing because his desire for freedom and his desire to express himself cannot be contained.
This last stanza focuses on the caged bird yet again. The author implies that even though the caged bird may have never experienced true freedom, deep down that bird still knows that it was created to be free. Although freedom, to the caged bird, is “fearful” because it is “unknown”, he still sings “a fearful trill” because he still longed for freedom. Here, the speaker reveals that his cry for freedom is “heard on the distant hill”. This parallels to the author and her cry for freedom in the form of equality. She feels that her cries are heard, but only as a soft background noise. She still feels that she is caged and that although she sings, her cries are heard only as a distant noise.
The last line states, “For the caged bird sings of freedom”. With this, the speaker implies that although the caged bird may never have experienced freedom, he still sings of it because he was created for freedom. This is paralleled to the African American struggle in Maya Angelou’s time. She feels that black Americans wrote and sang and danced and cried out for the freedom they deserved, but they were only heard as a distant voice. Yet, this would not stop them from crying out for freedom and equality because they knew they were made for freedom, and they would not relent until they were given their rights as human beings to enjoy the freedom they were created to enjoy.
- “Maya Angelou.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, Jan. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.