Synopsis of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Synopsis of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

About the Poet I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Poet and novelist Maya Angelou (birth name: Marguerite Ann Johnson) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928. In 1940, she moved to San Francisco with her mother and brother, and gradually became associated with a professional theatre. After a few years, she moved to San Diego. She auditioned for an international tour of Porgy and Bess and won a role. From 1954 to 1955, she toured 22 countries. In 1959, she moved to New York and got involved with the civil rights movement. In 1961, she moved to Egypt and got a job with the Arab Observer. Subsequently, she headed to Ghana, where she took a job at the African Review, and stayed for several years. Her writing and personal development flourished under the African cultural renaissance that was taking place.

On the Pulse of Morning, The Rock cries out to us today, I Know Why the caged bird sings, Phenomenal Woman, Human Family, When I Think About Myself Still I Rise, are some of her famous poetries. She was best known for her seven autobiographical books some which include Mom & Me & Mom, Letter to My Daughter, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, The Heart of a Woman, Merry Like Christmas, Gather Together in My Name, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin Merry Like Christmas which was nominated for the National Book Award.

In 1992, Angelou was designated as a poet laureate by the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton. She composed and recited an original poem for his inauguration titled On the Pulse of Morning. In 2000, she received the National Medal of Arts, and in 2010 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Angelou died on May 28, 2014, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she had served as Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1982.

About the Poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' by Maya Angelou is one of the most acclaimed poetic pieces written by the prominent African American poet, Maya Angelou. Inspired by Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "Sympathy," this poem first appeared in 1983, in the collection of poems titled Shaker, 'Why Don't You Sing? Angelou's autobiography also had the same title, which only suggests that the title of this poem and the motif it carries was immensely significant to Angelou.

She often felt that her words were not heard because of the colour of her skin. She felt that in some ways, she was still experiencing slavery. Although African American people were free people in Angelou's time, there were still many restrictions on them in society, that many black Americans did not feel free at all. This poem reveals the depth of those feelings. Text from her autobiography reveals that Angelou often felt like the 'bird in cage in this poem. She felt restricted from enjoying the freedom that should have been her right as a human being. Responding to this with great courage and determination, she wrote and sang and danced because it was her way of expressing her longing for freedom.

Summary of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The poem describes the comparison of lives of a free bird and a caged bird. The first stanza spectacles a free bird who is fearlessly soaring with the winds through the sky. It is sunset and the orange rays of the sun colour the sky in beautiful shades. The stanza unfolds a bird flying carefree along the wind currents in the sky, enjoying the nature's beauty and claiming the sky to be her possession. The poet here alludes to the aura of 'freedom, a delightful experience' i.e., what it feels to be free...

The second and third stanza shows a caged bird whose wings are clipped and feet tied, preventing him from flying away. The bird can seldom see from the 'bars of rage' i.e., he is hardly able to get a glimpse of the sky which makes him angry. He longs to be free out of his sorrowful life in the cage. He is helpless so only opens his mouth to sing the songs of freedom. The bird is shown to be afraid of many strange or undisclosed things but still that fear doesn’t affect his singing and he continues to sing with a trill. His cry for freedom, to be free from the cluthes of the cage is heard far and wide.
The fourth stanza again takes us to the life of the free bird where he "thinks of another breeze" i.e., he thinks to make a flight with another breeze or a different air current of the soft trade winds that on blowing cause the leaves of the trees to move or shake to produce a pleasant sighing sound which he enjoys and can freely find his own food in the bright gardens and fearlessly claims the entire sky to be his own. On the contrary, the fifth stanza depicts the sorrowful caged bird with his dead or suppressed dreams. Being in utter restrictions he cries out like someone who has had a nightmare. This appears as a frightening spectacle. Under helplessness in captivity of the cage, the bird thus only opens his throat to sing.

The final stanza is a repetition of the third stanza that again emphasises the captive bird devoid of freedom, being unknown of many strange things but still sings the songs of freedom in quaver. His longing for freedom is so intense that his cries are heard far and wide. In other words, the poet seeks to draw the attention of the readers towards the downtrodden African Americans and their experiences. The free bird stands as a metaphor for the white people and the caged bird stands for black Americans who would continue to fight against the discrimination by their skin and struggle for the freedom which is their birth right.

Critical Analysis of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

The poem is based on an earlier poem by an African American author, Paul Laurence Dunbar. The poem compares the plight of a caged bird to the flight of a free bird. Comprising six stanzas the poem is often interpreted as a metaphor suggesting the free bird as the white people and the caged bird as the black Americans.

Maya Angelou uses a myriad of poetic devices in "Caged Bird," including metaphor, rhyme, imagery, alliteration, personification, and repetition. The poem is quite symbolic so there are various hidden messages of freedom and captivity, the longing for freedom, and the nature and effect of expressing a deep, genuine outcry which she tries to convey about her feelings mostly indirectly.

The "caged bird" actually stands for none other than the oppressed blacks, including the poet herself. Devoid of liberty and basic human rights, the blacks have led hellish lives, full of pains and sufferings, for centuries. Maya Angelou also uses irony to be cleverer and effective but less direct in conveying her feelings. "The caged bird sings with a fearful trill'. This sentence is ironic as the caged bird is the one singing not the free bird as we expect. However, the words 'fearful' and 'trill' makes us realize that actually it is not a happy tune but a desperate cry for freedom. This enables us to reach to more depth and appreciate freedom.

The contrasting environments—the freedom of the open world and the restrictive surroundings of the caged bird—create the setting for the poem. The reader can feel the breeze, see the sun, imagine the rich feast of fat worms, and hear the sighing trees of the world of the free creature: in contrast, the reader feels the fear and restricted movement, sees the bars, imagines the wants...

Another device Maya Angelou uses to emphasize the beauty of freedom is by repetition. The poet repeats stanza 3 as stanza 6; because it reflects the two birds that are different. 'For the caged bird sings of freedom' is the last line of the poem and it delivers a very important message for the reader - the caged bird the poem and it delivers a very important message for the reader - the caged bird wants to be like the free bird. This tells us that we should be aware and thankful for the freedom we have and basically, this sums up the whole poem.


leaps - jumps;
claim the sky - avow the full as one's own;
stalk - follow, trail;
narrow cage - the restricted place;
rage - anger;
clipped - cut short;
trill - warble, quaver;
sighing trees - sound produced by the leaves of trees in winds:
grave of dreams - dreams that seemed to be dead;
longed - desired.

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