I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou Analysis



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Background

Maya Angelou (Marguerite Ann Johnson) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4. Maya Angelou is an American poet, memoirist, actress, Angelou is known for her series of six autobiographies starting with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was nominated for a National Book Award. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a 1969 autobiography about the early years of author Maya Angelou’s life. Maya Angelou’s racially centered poetry has a very powerful tone. Maya poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is about the repression of the African American race, she uses her coming-of-age story to illustrate the ways in which racism and trauma can be overcome by a strong character and a love of literature. As a young black woman growing up in the South, and later in war time San Francisco, Maya Angelou faced racism from whites and poor treatment from many men.

Analysis


The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats down stream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays 

free bird – metaphor/symbol
free bird leaps on the back of the wind/ orange sun rays – kinaesthetic/visual imagery
dips his wings – assonance
rhyme – AABC (not regular)

First and second stanzas sharply contrast the symbols free bird and caged bird. Free bird symbolizes physically and mentally free set of people. According to the background we can infer that the symbol represents the white skinned American people who possessed power and freedom without any restriction. The images ‘leaps back of the wind’, ‘floats down the stream till the current ends’ show the freedom and opportunities they experience. Their limit of power is the ‘sky’.  

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bar of rage
his wings are clipped
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

bird stalks in narrow cage/ opens his throat to sing – visual/kinaesthetic imagery
caged bird/bars of rage – metaphor/symbol
seldom see through – alliteration
Rhyme – AABC (not regular)

In contrast, second stanza depicts the restricted life that caged birds led. The caged bird may be suggestive of the dark-skinned people who had experienced mental and physical restrictions from the oppressive party. The narrow cage, clipped wings and tied feet show their restriction of movement. The passive structure shows their passivity as well as it is indicated that the actions are done by somebody upon them. ‘bird stalks down his narrow cage’ creates a kinaesthetic image of movement that a bird slowly moves around his limited space. ‘The bar of rage’ depicts the bottled up anger of the caged one which cannot be let out. The only way of expressing themselves is raising their voice. Knowing that the supressed one raises his voice as a song. The song is symbolic of their struggle made against the powerful oppressors.      

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

caged bird/his tune – symbol
Rhyme – AAAB (last rhyme restricts the regularity of rhyme)

Although the caged bird sings in a fearful trembling voice. The caged bird fears for the oppression which may result his singing. Although he does not know what is really he is requesting, (the reason is he has never experienced such freedom) he keeps on struggling for the right which every human being should receive, the freedom. The power of that voice spreads all over the world.  The reason might be it is about freedom, which is a universal crisis which many people face due to cast, colour, religion so on. ‘his tune is heard on the distant hill’ suggests the impact of their struggle. The restricted rhyming scheme shows that their desire to have freedom is restricted by oppressors.

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

sighing trees – personification
fat worms – metaphor
Rhyme – AABB (regular)

The fourth and fifth stanzas again sharply contrasts with regard to the privileges which the free bird and caged bird indulge. After indulging one comfort they think of another opportunity (another breeze) and the environment is quite favourable for them (trade wind soft). They have enough food and opportunities waiting for them (fat worms waiting) and they enjoy the beauty of the world (on a dawn bright lawn) claiming that all the comforts only belong to them not anybody else (names the sky his own). ‘Sighing trees’ may be suggestive that the nature only worries about the black people’s suffering. Regular rhyme scheme depicts the regularity of this process.    


But the 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

grave of dreams – metaphor
shadow shouts – personification/alliteration
are clipped/are tied – passive structure
opens his throat – visual/kinaesthetic imagery
Rhyme – AABC (irregular)

When the dreams are dead, there is no hope for living. First line suggests that the caged bird’s dreams are dead and buried which means they have no hope for living. Even his powerless figure (shadow) suffers from numerous harassments (nightmare). As all the opportunities are barred for him he starts singing which is the only thing he can do.  

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

refrain – repetition used with a reason.

The repetition shows their continuous struggle. They are not ready to give up on the battle till they receive the right place to live. 

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Download the worksheet to the poem I know why the caged bird sings here. 


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