Wednesday, January 29, 2014


  Ah, the sad expression in the eyes
                     of that caged bird--
                            envying the butterfly!
                --  Basho   (1644-1694  -- 

    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!
                      -- Paul Lawrence Dunbar  (1872-1906)

From 17th century Japan and in late 19th and early 20th century US,  we find two poems, different in form, but very similar in spirit.  And, one must also keep in mind that the first part of  Maya Angelou's autobiography is titled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  In addition, I found the following quotation while reading Frederick Douglass' autobiography, which tells of his life as a slave and after he gained his freedom.  I have often wondered whether it was the inspiration for Lawrence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy."

“Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass   (1815-1895)
Remember this the next time someone insists that slaves are happy because they sing so much!  

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