Monday, January 16, 2012

Of caged birds

Today commemorates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, equal rights and peace activist, Nobel laureate and assassination victim. In honor of the date and the man, the poem below appeared on a couple websites, and the note with it (on -- Poem of the Week) explained the connection between the poem and Maya Angelou, who came much later.

Like many poems, this one can be read on many levels, including the literal level of a caged bird and the sadness it must often feel. "Caged bird" on every level is a contradiction in terms.


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 Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

(The above poem was published in Lyrics of the Hearthside by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1899. It was this poem that inspired the title to Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.)


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