The first African-American poet to rise to that level of accomplishment and fame which critics designate as the status of “major poet” was Paul Laurence Dunbar. The most famous line of verse he ever wrote can be found in “Sympathy” although the credit for that fame must go to—or at least be shared with—another African-American poet who has risen past the level of “major” to take on the full responsibility of being legendary: Maya Angelou.
When Angelou decided to lift from Dunbar’s poem its recurring motif “I know why the caged bird sing” as a title for her next book, a chain of events was set in motion that led backward in time to pull Dunbar from almost total obscurity and make him an even more potent force in 20th century American poetry than he had been in the 19th century. As that century drew to a close, Dunbar published his fourth book, Lyrics of the Hearthside. Even before the publication of that volume, Dunbar’s rise to major poet was assured: on his wildly popular tours he recited his dialect poems in the syntax and patois in which they were written and at which many white readers for the first and probably only time heard them in the voice in which they were written. In the marketing and advertising material for his tour appearance, Dunbar was marketed as the Negro Poet Laureate of America.
Notably, “Sympathy” is not an example of that incredibly popular, but artistically empty genre of poetry which Dunbar wanted desperately to escape. “Sympathy” eschews the trappings of "slave" inflection and mispronunciation to take on the assured and precise language of a thoughtful man. The poem reflects the dual constriction under which Dunbar personally operated: being a black man in America and being an artist from whom fans expected merely more of the same. The cry of the narrator who compares himself to being a bird trapped in a cage is no mere poetic device. It is a metaphor of the man who produced the now-famous phrase.