Sympathy

Sympathy

 by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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 opens,
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!

Summary of Sympathy

  • Popularity of “Sympathy”: Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a renowned African American poet, wrote the poem. Sympathy is a thought-provoking literary piece about slavery and freedom. It was first published in 1899. The poem speaks about brutal slavery, racial segregation, and social discrimination practiced in American society against the African-American community. Using the metaphor of a bird, Dunbar highlights the importance of freedom. He also describes captivity through the plea and struggle of a caged bird.
  • “Sympathy” As a Representative of Sorrow: As this poem is about the caged bird, the poet explains how the bird feels after deprived of the pleasures of life. This feeling leads him to protest against it. The poem opens with a natural setting. A bird starts chirping and the river takes turns to its way and the sun shines. Only the caged bird feels underprivileged. His sufferings and feelings of constraints lead him to protest, but his protest goes in vain. He helplessly bashes himself to the bars and gets wounded. His wounds turn into scars, but he does not taste freedom. After a continuous struggle, he decides to sing for freedom. It is through the act of singing he is going to shake the doors of heaven. Thus, he starts singing and longs for the happy days of his life. The poem describes the persistent efforts of the bird that does not lose hope.
  • Major Themes in “Sympathy”: Struggle, prejudice, and social discrimination are the major themes of this poem. Throughout the poem, the caged bird tries his best to win freedom but fails. Although he is captivated, when he sees his fellow birds playing with the wind, he longs to see the same freedom in his life. For the sake of freedom, he bleeds, gets scars, but nothing happens. It is through the analogy of this tiny creature, Dunbar highlights the never-ending sufferings and catastrophic situation of the African American people. Unlike this bird, their wounds have become scars. They are deprived of natural and fundamental rights and are imprisoned even in normal life. After many years, they stood up for their rights. Unfortunately, their voices were choked by the supreme authorities. Despite facing hardships, they never lost hope.

Analysis of Literary Devices Used in “Sympathy”

Literary devices are tools used by writers to present their ideas, feelings, and emotions. They also make the poem and stories appealing to the readers. Paul Lawrence Dunbar has used various literary devices to enhance the intended impacts of his poem. Some of the major literary devices have been analyzed below.

  1. Imagery: Imagery is used to make the readers perceive things involving their five senses. For example, “When the sun is bright on the upland slopes”, “And the river flows like a stream of glass” and “I know why he beats his wing.”
  2. Assonance: Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in the same line. For example, the sound of /o/ in “And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars” and the sound of /i/ in “I know why the caged bird beats his wing.”
  3. Simile: It is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between different persons and objects by using ‘like’ or ‘as’. For example, the flowing river is compared with the stream of glass in the fourth line, “And the river flows like a stream of glass.”
  4. Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line in quick succession. For example, the sounds of /h/ and /b/ in ‘When he beats his bars and he would be free’.
  5. Symbolism: Symbolism is using symbols to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings different from literal meanings. The caged bird symbolizes African Americans desperate for freedom from slavery. Cage stands for various tactics white people used to block their ways to freedom.
  6. Metaphor: It is a figure of speech in which an implied comparison is made between the objects different in nature. There is an extended metaphor of bird used in this poem. Here the caged bird is an entire African-American community in slavery.
  7. Enjambment: It is defined as a thought in verse that does not come to an end at a line break. Instead, it continues in the next verse. For example,

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!”

  1. Anaphora: It refers to the repetition of a word or expression in the first part of some verses. For example, the words ‘I know what the caged birds feel’ as repeated to express the poet’s agony of his people.

Analysis of Poetic Devices Used in “Sympathy”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  1. Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are three stanzas in this poem, with each having seven lines.
  2. Rhyme Scheme: The poem follows the ABAABCC rhyme scheme, which continues until the end.
  3. Repetition: There is a repetition of the line ‘I know why the caged bird sings’. It has created the musical quality in the poem.
  4. Refrain: The lines repeated at some distance in the poems are called a refrain. The line, ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ is repeated with the same words. Therefore, it has become a good refrain.

Quotes to be Used

These two lines are useful to the people who realize about wildlife and the value of freedom in general.

“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.”