Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy” poem has a title which immediately reveals and invokes images of compassion and sorrow. The characters of the poem are a caged bird, Paul Laurence Dunbar, enslaved African Americans, and anyone being held against their will. The setting is one of a bird in a cage on what appears to be a wonderful spring day. The caged bird is looking out of its cage desperately wanting freedom. The point of view of the poem is from the caged bird, or enslaved person. A sense of lament sets the poem’s tone with sadness and grief throughout, but all the while hopes for freedom remain. The main conflict of the poem is the desire for freedom versus the reality of being caged, oppressed, and enslaved.
The sequence of events are in stanza one, the poem opens with “I know what the caged bird feels, alas!” (Dunbar, 1899); this immediately captivates the reader with feelings of sympathy and understanding why the bird feels this way. You are drawn into a sense of despair and know that Dunbar with the use of the word “alas” (Dunbar, 1899) feels this way too. The poet continues by describing the sun, the slopes, the river, the birth of a baby bird and new flowers, letting us know the beauty of this spring day. Stanza two begins again by letting us know the poet relates to and understands the plight of this caged bird with “I know why the caged bird beats his wing” (Dunbar, 1899). This line depicts the conflict between the landscape of nature and the metal bars of entrapment. There is contrast between the blood on the bars and the frustration of freedom, yet the bird sings and heals to start this journey of escape all over again. We also learn at this point, the bird has beaten his wings against the bars on many occasions. This is not the first time as indicated by the “pain still throbs in the old, old scars” (Dunbar, 1899). The bird is reminded of the struggle to be free every time he feels the sharp, strong stinging pulse of his wounds. Dunbar begins stanza three reminding us again of the pain and agony of the bird with the bruised wing and sore bosom. The bird beats the bars because he wants to be free and is sending a prayer or heartfelt plea to Heaven for freedom. The climax is the bird beating his wings and body against the cage repeatedly resulting in blood and the resolution of healing and doing it over again with the hope of freedom.
Figurative language, poetic devices and symbols used include the use of three stanzas with rhyming patterns. They include stanza one ABCCBAA, stanza two ABAABAA, and stanza three rhymes the same as stanza one using ABCCBAA. Alliteration is used twice in the first stanza with the use of the letters w and s, “When the sun is bright on the upland slopes, when the wind stirs soft through the springing grass” (Dunbar, 1899). Simile is also used with the comparison of the river with glass, as both are calm, clear, and beautiful. A metaphor is also represented when he compares the metal chalice to the smell of the flower bud. Stanza three also uses a metaphor between the imprisoned bird and a human being praying to show how strongly the bird wants and needs freedom. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s use of “alas” (Dunbar, 1899) and “ah me” (Dunbar, 1899) recaps his emotion and the bird’s inability to be free with flight. Agony is reflected in every stanza.
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s message or main idea is slavery or entrapment and the desire for freedom. This poem was written in 1899, a time of slavery, racism, and segregation in the United States. Dunbar expresses feelings of being trapped in a cage and the continuous desire to be set free to enjoy the surroundings and live life. This poem vividly captures the grimness of enslavement and torment. “Sympathy” is a symbol of oppression and slavery and reflects the cultural consequences of being an African American during the 19th century. Paul Laurence Dunbar shares his personal feelings of life in this poem, although born free, his mother was a former slave and his father escaped from slavery. He reminds us of his struggles and no matter how difficult and challenging life can be, we must try to enjoy and appreciate it even with dire or conflicting circumstances.
- Elements of Poetry. (n.d.). Retrieved from Lilpoets.org website: http://www.lilpoets.org/Poetry_Elements.html
- Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2013, from PoemoftheWeek.org website: http://www.potw.org/archive/potw219.html
- Paul Laurence Dunbar Website Biography. (n.d.). Retrieved from University of Dayton website: http://www.dunbarsite.org/biopld.asp