Poem #28: Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.


Paul Laurence Dunbar

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   
For he must fly back to his perch and cling   
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
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!


I've read several of Dunbar's poems and while I vaguely remember this being one of his, it's in the re-reading that the lightbulb also goes off about how this is the poem from which Maya Angelou's memoir  I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings comes from, and now better understanding this poem, Angelou, and Dunbar in the bigger cultural and historical lens, the poem is all the riper to read.  

This is another poem where both the sounds and the message align to make it all the more powerful.  The repetition of phrases (I know, When the, And the, And a, But a) and assonance (bird feels, bird beats, bird sings) remind me in part of a bird song with its repeated sounds cast out into the world for anyone to listen.  I also appreciate the contrast between the first and second stanza, where you are offered a view of the world outside from the caged bird and then the harder view of life within the cage.  Still, through all three stanzas the insatiable urge to be a bird despite the confinement and resistance to the one who caged the bird.  The resonating message to understand just how the speaker too has been caged but cannot be contaIned.  

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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