By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Caged Bird’ is a 1983 poem by the African-American poet and memoirist Maya Angelou (1928-2014). The poem originally appeared in Angelou’s collection Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? The poem uses the image of a caged bird to explore issues of confinement, oppression, and restriction.
You can read ‘Caged Bird’ here before proceeding to our analysis of Angelou’s poem below.
‘Caged Bird’: summary
The poem is divided into six stanzas. In the first stanza, Angelou describes a free bird leaping in the wind, floating through the air until its wing appears to touch the rays of the sun. She likens this to the bird ‘claiming’ the sky, like someone claiming a particular territory as their possession.
By contrast, the second stanza describes the caged bird which provides the poem with its title. This bird’s horizons are far narrower than the free bird’s: he (Angelou describes the bird as male) has been rendered almost blind by his anger at having his wings clipped so he cannot fly away. His feet are tied together to limit his movement further. All he can do is sing – so he opens his throat to do so.
The third stanza tells us what the caged bird’s song consists of. He sings in a frightened manner, about things he doesn’t know or hasn’t experienced (such as freedom, we assume) but which he longs to have. Although he is imprisoned in his cage, the bird’s song can travel beyond the bars of his cage and be heard on a hill far away.
In the fourth stanza, Angelou returns to the free bird, who, she imagines, thinks of the territory of the air and sky which he had claimed as his own in the opening stanza. This bird also thinks of the worms waiting for him on a lawn somewhere, which he will be able to eat.
The fifth stanza once again contrasts this free bird’s existence with that of the caged bird. The caged bird stands upon a grave which represents the death of dreams (for instance, of a better life, such as that enjoyed by the free bird). The bird’s shadow is cast upon the wall behind it where it stands in its caged, its feet tied and wings clipped, and it once again prepares to sing.
The sixth and final stanza is a word-for-word repetition of the poem’s third stanza, in which the caged bird sings in a frightened manner, about things he doesn’t know or hasn’t experienced but which he longs to have. Although he is imprisoned in his cage, the bird’s song can travel beyond the bars of his cage and be heard on a hill far away.
‘Caged Bird’: analysis
In this poem, Maya Angelou gives voice to a common theme of the American Civil Rights movement: the longing for freedom and equality. The free bird is able to live as a free agent, and has dominion over the sky that is his natural habitat. By contrast, the caged bird is bound and his wings are clipped to restrict his movements, so he cannot live the life he was born to live.
Angelou’s contrast and juxtaposition between the free and caged birds offers a powerful metaphor, or analogy, for the struggle of African Americans to win their freedom: freedom from discrimination and oppression, and freedom to live as white Americans live.
Twenty years before she published ‘Caged Bird’, Maya Angelou had been an important participant in the Civil Rights struggle. One of the most rousing moments of the struggle came in 1963, the year of the march on Washington, which saw some 210,000 African Americans gather at the Washington Monument before marching to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., the US capital.
They were marching for several reasons, including jobs, but the main reason was freedom: King and many other Civil Rights leaders sought to remove segregation of black and white Americans and to ensure black Americans were treated the same as white Americans. 1963 was the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which then US President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) had freed the African slaves in the United States in 1863.
Slavery was now a thing of the past in the US, but a century on from the abolition of slavery, Black Americans were still not free in many respects. This is something Martin Luther King addressed in his memorable ‘I Have a Dream’ speech delivered that day at the Lincoln Memorial. In his speech, King outlined a dream or aspiration in which America was no longer a nation divided by racial segregation and discrimination, and African Americans were truly free, not just by being freed from slavery, but by being recognised as equal in the eyes of the nation’s laws.
Angelou’s reference to the ‘grave of dreams’ in the fifth stanza of her poem may even be intended as an allusion to King, whose ‘dream’ of racial equality had still not been fully realised. King himself was dead, having been assassinated in 1968. Did the dream of an equal society die with King, Angelou seems to ask? Is it with King in his grave?
Angelou does not make the birds ‘white’ and ‘black’, with the caged bird being the latter (unlike, say, Paul McCartney’s song, ‘Blackbird’, about the Civil Rights movement). And through resisting such reductive symbolism, she allows ‘Caged Bird’ to resonate as both a poem about racial inequality in the US and a more universal statement about inequality of all kinds, whether caused by race, class, or some other factor.
There are just two things which define the caged bird: the fact that he is caged and tied and unable to fly, and the fact that he can sing. In other words, he has a voice, as Martin Luther King had a voice back in Washington in 1963. And through singing, he can draw attention to his plight and the injustice of his condition. Perhaps Angelou is also recalling William Blake’s memorable couplet from his ‘Auguries of Innocence’:
A Robin Red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage
Angelou’s poem is not strictly in free verse, because she utilises rhyme at various points, and there is the ghost of a metre behind her lines. For example, the stanzas beginning ‘The caged bird sings’ are largely written in iambic dimeter, which involves two iambs per line. But the form is not stringently regular either, such as we’d find in a traditional sonnet, for example.
The poem thus combines freedom and restraint, aptly echoing, through its form, the plights of the two very different birds – birds who are, in the last analysis, not different at all, of course, but merely subject to very different circumstances.