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Poetry Analysis Notes


by Paul Laurence Dunbar
interpreted by Kyle Russell

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-swinging;
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!

Poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar was a great African-American poet, who rose to acclaim from a family of freed slaves. Dunbar's parents, Joshua and Matilda Dunbar, were freed slaves from the state of Kentucky. Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on June 27, 1872 in Dayton, Ohio. Dunbar had a knack for poetry from an early age, even having several of his poems published in one of the local papers called the Dayton Herald. However, Dunbar did not receive national attention until a collection of his poems received a "thumbs up" review, from the well-known critic, William Dean Howells, in the Harpers Weekly. Dunbar created many works later in his life, but unfortunately to his poor health, Paul Laurence Dunbar died at the age of thirty-three.

Vocabulary: [NONE]

Type of poem:
Narrative, he is just expressing himself.

Speaker: The speaker is the poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Whoever reads it; he does not seem to direct it anywhere.

Somewhat excited at discovering why the caged bird sings, but never gleeful, for it is not a happy thing that causes the caged bird to sing.

Due to Dunbar's background, and living in a time that was not racially tolerant for the most part, the caged bird is singing for freedom. Also, since Dunbar's parents were freed slaves, he drew upon their stories to create this poem. The caged bird sings what is deep within it, it sings of the longing it has to be free. This poem tells the consecutive feelings of the bird. At first, the poet sympathizes with the bird, and says, "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!" The caged bird can see the world around it. Dunbar talks of how beautiful the surrounding world is, and how the smell of freedom in a way lingers around the caged bird. Second, Dunbar talks of how the caged bird reacts to the inability to be free. The torment of being enslaved, and caged up away from the world is so unbearable to the bird that he beats his wings on the bars until they bleed. The pain only gets worse as time goes on, "and a pain still throbs in the old, old scars / and they pulse again with a keener sting," Finally, in the last stanza, Dunbar tells at last why the caged bird sings. Instead of singing, the bird is praying, it is exhausting its last hope, and that is to have some. All the caged bird can do is pray, "But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings,".

Structure of poem: The poem consists of three stanzas, each with 7 lines, and a rhyme scheme pattern of ABAABCC. Dunbar isolates the first line of every stanza by indenting the same. He does this to show the separate progression of the caged bird's emotions.

Examples of poetic techniques used in the poem:

"and the river flows like a stream of glass" Simile
"when the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,"
Dunbar rhymes the last 2 lines of every stanza to emphasize the meaning.
Rhyme Pattern

Connection between the poem and the poet's life and/or times: Paul Laurence Dunbar came from two freed slaves. His parents at one time were slaves. And as he was growing up, the world was not as racially tolerant as it is today. Dunbar probably always felt a sense of being trapped, and having only limited freedom. That is how he was able to write this poem with so much feeling. He had the stories of his parents, and the experiences he had growing up to draw on.

Most memorable quote from the poem:
"But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings,"

© Smelli Notes 2001