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Analysis of 'I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1182 words Published: 30th Jul 2021

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In today’s society many people struggle with the feeling of being under lock and key, unable to reach and prevented any goals made for themselves. Both the Poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and the song, Caged Bird both discuss this dilemma in much the same way. A further look into both poem and song at hand serves to provide a better understanding of the symbolic meaning behind the caged bird.

In Maya Angelou’s riveting poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings dramatic metaphors and detailed imagery are used to compare and contrast the differences between a caged bird and a free bird. With these descriptions, inferences can be drawn to produce the much deeper meaning behind the symbol of a trapped bird.

The first lines of the poem discuss what a free bird does. Angelou writes, “The free bird leaps / on the back of the wind / and floats downstream / till the current ends / and dips his wings / in the orange sun rays / and dares to claim the sky” (1-7). With these words we get a real sense of sensory experiences from giving the wind a back, to making the rays of sun something that can be touched or dipped. This adds to the intensity and impact of the poem right from the start. Notable characteristics of the free bird can be seen here as well. It leaves no stone unturned and is not afraid to try new things. It has a sense of adventure that is unparalleled and has a fighting spirit. When the writer says that the free bird “dares to claim the sky” she saying that the free bird doesn’t wait for anyone to tell it to do something before it does. It does what it wants and this defines its freedom.

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The free bird is brought up later on in the poem for a second time. This instance describes what the bird is thinking about. It has dreams and can imagine and freely think of other things beyond himself and his environment. The author writes, “The free bird thinks of another breeze / and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees / and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn / and he names the sky his own” (22-25). The ability of this bird to declare the sky as belonging to him shows confidence and self-assurance. This bird knows what it wants and not even the sky is the limit.

The caged bird on the other hand is very different from its free counterpart. The reader is introduced to the second bird quite dramatically. This serves to show the extant of how contrasting the two creatures are. Maya Angelou writes, “But a bird that stalks / down his narrow cage / can seldom see through / his bars of rage / his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied / so he opens his throat to sing” (8-14). The line that stands out the most is the fact that the birds’ wings are clipped. Wings give birds freedom to fly above the rest. It allows them to get from one point to the other. It is the ideological independence. Opening his throat to sing also gives a poignant image of pain and distress. Mostly the caged bird is suppressed. More is stated about the cries of the caged bird. It is a piercing sting of a song that spreads far and wide. Although the singing is full of pain, anger and fear, the bird sings of “things unknown.” The caged bird craves to learn about its surroundings. It dreams of a better life.

The issues of dreams and goals come into question with the caged bird as well but in a different fashion. The author writes, “But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams / his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream / his wings are clipped and his feet are tied /so he opens his throat to sing” (26-29). These lines paint such a vivid image of dreams that cannot be fulfilled for which other reason. A grave, for instance, is a symbol of death. A grave of dreams is rather grim. It shows an environment where dreams can’t be fulfilled. Instead of happy and positive dreams they are nightmares instead, nightmares that keeps the caged bird grounded.

These two birds however serve to symbolize much more than what lies on the surface. As examined, the cage keeps the bird locked in unable to escape and enjoy the freedoms life has to offer. Maya Angelo grew up in a time and place where African Americans were segregated by law and were heavily discriminated against. These unfair laws are similar to the way the cage keeps the bird locked in. Also the caged bird sings and screams a dreaded tune. This was a way of rebellion and protest of the enslavement. A lot of African Americans at this time also used music as their means of defiance against unlawfulness. These songs although insignificant to outsiders served as a means of freedom.

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The history behind this piece by Maya Angelou is a true indicator for its meaning, however many have grown to use this poem to symbolize different obstacles in their lives. This poem can represent a wide range of things from society, physical barriers, fear, addiction or any negative behavior. The free bird can then represent the longing and desire for a better way of life. A better life is a universal desire.

One such artist that has taken the idea behind Maya Angelou’s poem and turned it into a piece of art that represents her life is singer Alicia Keys’ song, Caged Bird. Keys shares the same distress and negative feelings of being locked in a cage that she doesn’t have the key to. She sings, “Right now I feel like a bird / Caged without a key / Everyone comes to stare at me / With so much joy and rivalry / They don’t know how I feel inside / Through my smile I cry” (1-6). Her cage here is the stares of society and the eyes of a watchful public over her life. On the surface she is happy and puts a smile on, but deeper down in the surface she is distressed and saddened to the point of tears.

In the next lines Keys elaborates by telling us exactly what they’re doing to her. “They don’t know what they’re doin’ to me / Keeping me from flyin’ / That’s why I say that / I know why the caged bird sings” (7-10). Alicia knows that society has locked her in a cage and that the only thing she can do is sing. Music is a release for her to escape the constraints put on her from society’s watchful eye. Just like in Maya Angelou’s poem, music is freedom and the key to unlocking and getting past your cage. In “Caged Bird”, Alicia Keys personifies her song and gives it the ability to fly. It gives her a solace from the hectic life she leads. “Let her / Fly, fly fly / For the whole world to see / She’s like caged bird / Fly, fly / Ooh just let her fly / Just let her fly / Just let her fly  / Spread the wings / Spread the beauty” (17-26). This is allowing for her spirit to be set from her cage because of the power to look deep within oneself and find what it is that elevates him or her. In this case Alicia Keys uses music.

All in all, both poem and song serve to provide a relevant piece of art that can withstand the test of time. Both manage with ease to inspire a mass of people to better their lives by using the power of words, an honor prominent authors only dream about achieving.


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