Sunday, June 27, 2010

Paul Laurence Dunbar: June 27, 1872--Feb 9, 1906

This is the poem that gave Maya Angelou the title for her poem and the first part of her autobiography--I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was written 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 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 this heart's deep core,
But a plea that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings!

- Paul Laurence Dunbar -

The last stanza reminds me of something I read in Frederick Douglass' autobiography, but I'm unable to find it at present for the exact quote. Douglass writes that those who defend slavery often state that slaves really are happier being slaves and that one proof of this is that they are always singing. To the contrary, Douglass writes that the songs they sang were really prayers for freedom and release and were "not a carol of joy or glee."

In this poem, I think Dunbar speaks for all who feel trapped or enslaved.

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