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Written by Timothy Sexton
The most universal theme at play in the poem is condensed within the image of that famous bird that would later inspire Maya Angelou so deeply. You do not have to really “get” like the narrator does why a caged bird might be singing to share an affinity with basic situation of being trapped inside a cage. Hardly any person who has ever lived has not felt trapped by circumstances beyond his control at one time or another most people have probably felt it intensely at many points. The underlying situation leading to the mystery of why the bird is singing is universal and independent of racial imposition.
Trapped by One's Success
At the time of composition, Dunbar was the famous black poet in the country, had impressed his idol Frederick Douglass, was termed the Negro Poet Laureate of the country by Booker T. Washington and earned the distinction of having the most respected literary critic in the country, William Dean Howell, been the writer of the introduction to one of his poetry collections. And yet, he felt trapped by all that success. Trapped in the sense that the laudatory reception was primary directed to his talent for writing what was known as “dialect poetry” which attempt to replicate the speech of plantation slaves and thus reproduce the distasteful ideological assumption that being a slave is bad…but being a slave in America was maybe not as bad. Sympathy is a poem that only exists because the symbolic imagery of a bird being kept as a pet in a beautiful cage did not look like such a horrible way to live…but maybe it was not as good as it appeared, either.
The Effect of Racism on Perspective
The universality of feeling trapped is enough to bring people into the poem. The very personal feeling of a beautiful cage and guaranteed food and water every day perhaps not really being everything a bird could want is there to those who care to dig really deeply. Midway in between is somewhat less universal, but certainly more than personal thematic that directly speaks to the assertion of knowledge. After all, “Sympathy” is not really about what a bird feeling trapped in a cage. And it’s not even really about the bird preferring the risk of freedom to the security of being held in a prison by a benevolent despot. In fact, it’s not even about the fact that there is no such thing as benevolent despotism. The bird sings, or the narrator understands it, because that is what birds are born to do. What sounds like beautiful music is really a plaintive cry for freedom. Just because the bird is trapped does not mean it can stop singing beautifully. It’s just what seems beautiful or merely acceptable or just simply not too bad to others may be seem a miserable loss of the freedom to others who can never understand that there is more to that security and a guaranteed meal is a very high price to pay for the loss of one’s dignity.
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From the text, we can infer that the caged bird is desperate and filled with despair. The author also illustrates the way in which the bird beats its wings against the bars of the cage, personifying the bars as cruel. In line 10 & 11, the...