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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings : Summary and Analysis

A poem by Maya Angelou

About the poet 

A bold and an  uninhibited writer whose life and works was a celebration of her free spirit, Maya Angelou is a towering figure in the 20th Century American writing scene. An Afro-American female writer who overcame tremendous adversities to establish herself as the most iconic figures of the 2Oth century, Maya’s life has become a testament to the power of the human spirit. Born on 4th April 1928, Maya Angelou had a traumatic childhood. She was deserted by her father and was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. The rapist was killed and the trauma she had to go through rendered her mute for almost eight years. Reading and writing proved to be a therapeutic exercise and her companionship with literature has resulted in an enormous body of work ranging from autobiographies to movies. As a young woman, Angelou worked variously as a cook, a sex worker, a streetcar conductor, a dancer and a singer. She was a close associate of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Junior. Her first autobiography I know why the Caged Bird Sings made her a writer of international repute. This is the first among the seven autobiographies Angelou has written in her lifetime. Her works reflect steely determination and grit which is felt in many of her poems like Still I Rise and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Besides being a writer, she was also an activist, a singer, a composer, an actor and a movie director. She has three Grammy Awards to her credit and has also won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou died on 28th May 2014.

Maya Angelou is a terrific poet whose bold and uninhibited verse has encouraged and empowered generations of readers and writers alike. Angelou for one isn’t a self-effacing artist, silently working behind his or her craft. Instead, she makes her presence felt in loud and clear terms. Angelou’s verses often champion the twin causes of gender and race with an indomitable spirit and an unconquerable will. Despite her extremely traumatic childhood which suffered the vagaries of racism and sexual exploitation, Angelou time and again teaches us how to rise above one’s hardships through many of her poems, perhaps  best exemplified by poems like Still I Rise.

Angela’s poems passionately champion the Afro American and the feminist cause, for she is a strongly political poet, ever ready to expose and fight against the discriminatory status quo. Her powerful poems still continue to support the victims of institutionalized discrimination.

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: The poem

   I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an intensely personal and political poem which advocates the cause of the Afro-American community through the metaphor of a caged bird.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was actually the title of her first autobiography. The title of the poem itself is a bold statement and an assertion of one’s identity. The “I” in the title not only stands for Angelou the poet but also the Afro-American woman who has been through societal and institutional discrimination against people of color. This deep association with the caged bird on Maya’s part is due to the fact that the problems of the caged bird are Maya’s problems too. An artist can never be completely divorced from the socio-economic conditions surrounding her and s/he is, to a great extent, a product of the latter. And Maya is no exception. She recognizes this and attempts to change the status-quo through her art.

The second most striking aspect of the title are the words  Know Why. Now, I know Why is an affirmation of the one’s knowledge and understanding.  Its negation would be you don’t know why which is a language of negation of the other’s ability and individuality. Therefore, the title  I know Why the Caged Bird Sings is reflective not only of the empathy with which she identifies with the caged bird but also of the claiming of agency which has been long denied the latter.

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I know why the Caged Bird sings

 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings :  Summary and Analysis

 

Stanza 1

” A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

 

The first verse is replete with the idea of freedom as reflected in the flight of the free bird. Words like “leaps on the back of the wind“, “floats downstream” and “dips his wing” capture the ease of movement which freedom brings along. The free bird has it easy. Notice the ease with which all he needs to do is to leap on the back of the wind which will lift him up, let him float downstream till the current ends and he can dip his wing in the vibrant orange rays of the setting sun.  Unlike what is popularly understood, the motion of the free bird is not solely of flight (in the strictest sense of the term) but that of gliding. The manner in which the birds leaps leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream till the current ends is the motion of gliding. Gliding, unlike flight, is low-energy consuming activity which the poem describes as an effortless, leisurely movement. In short, the free bird has it easy. It commands a great degree of privilege, perhaps an exclusive white-privilege which gives him an enormous advantage over the caged bird.

Stanza 2

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his wings are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

In contrast, the second verse reflects the state of confinement which has constrained the movement of the caged bird.  Notice, the stanza begins with a big but.

The confinement is so powerful that the second bird is not only caged in a physical sense but also in a psychological sense. We see that the bird not only “stalks down his narrow cage” but also is unable to see through his “bars of rage“. The metaphor ‘bars of rage’ shows that the cage within which he is confined is both physical and psychological. Generations of racial discrimination has rendered him blind with anger that he seldom sees through his bars of rage. And rage isn’t a response but a reaction – a self-destructive reaction. But thankfully, the emotion at least leads him to open his throat to sing.

His wings are clipped and his feet are tied” reflect the external restrictions imposed on the bird. However, these external restrictions are unable to cage the spirit of the bird which bursts forth and asserts itself when he opens his throat to sing. The contrast between stanzas one and two also make one amply clear that one’s freedom and another’s confinement exists not merely in terms of the physical space but also in terms of opportunities and possibilities which one bird can access and the other cannot. The poem works with stark opposing imageries, juxtaposed against each other and it is the literary device of contrast which lends such force to the poem.

 Stanza 3   

 The caged bird sings

With a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom. 

The third stanza contains the most poignant and perhaps the most important lines of the poem.

The caged bird hasn’t known the type of freedom that the free bird enjoys. He hasn’t experienced what freedom is. However, what he knows for sure is that he needs the freedom he’s  long been denied and what’s more important, it hopes for freedom without having experienced it because the core of its being recognizes freedom as a basic necessity for existence which is why his tune of freedom is heard even in the distant hill.

This stanza, when analyzed keeping in mind the first two stanzas brings to light an important aspect of the poem : the relationship between speech and action. The free bird has the freedom to move around and the expression of its freedom is manifested in its action. The agency of the caged bird however lies in its voice – in other words, its speech. True, the bird cannot fly in the open sky like its free counterpart. But what the bird can do is to raise its voice against injustice and oppression. This idea gains significance when one recalls that Angelou, along with Martin Luther King Junior, was an active participant in the Civil Rights movement .

Stanza 4

  The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own.

 

Whereas stanzas one and two highlight the physical aspect of freedom or the lack of it, stanzas four and five mirror the same, albeit along the mental-psychological plane. Again, we come back to the point of a person being shaped by his/her socio-economic condition. One’s surroundings play an integral part in shaping one’s aspirations and one’s vision of the Self.

The free bird, by the virtue of having lived in a free space is able to think of the breeze, the trade winds, the sighing trees, the fat worms on a dawn bright lawn and goes so far as to “name the sky his own”. The brilliant visual, aural and tactile imagery captures the delight of the free bird in experiencing the sight of the dawn bright lawn, the sound of the sighing trees as trade wind pass through them and its gentle touch as he glides in the wind. The idea of ease and abundance in the life of the free bird can be understood by the fact that the free bird always has an access to  fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn to satiate his hunger.

Stanza 5

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

 

The caged bird on the other hand, stands on the “grave of his dreams” and the damage that has been done to his psyche can be gauged by the fact that his shadow shouts on a “nightmare scream” resulting from the frustration and the confinement his entire life has been subjected to.   Notice the imagery of death and suffering conjured by words like ‘grave‘, ‘nightmare‘ and ‘scream‘. His feet and wings have been tied down due to which he “opens his throat to sing”.

The sixth stanza is a refrain of the third stanza which is in turn a bold assertion of the agency of the caged bird. The reiteration of the song of this caged bird and the surety of the song’s effectiveness reflects the speaker’s strong faith in the power of the bird’s song. And this faith is derived from the fact that the caged bird longs for a condition which is intrinsically attached to its very existence: the state of being free.

Through the freedom-unfreedom state of the two birds, one thing becomes very clear: that freedom is a precondition to equality and that  self-respect is necessary for the caged bird to be at peace with himself and his surroundings. And as long as his wings are clipped wings and his feet are tied, the caged bird will continue to sing of freedom.

 

 

 

 

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