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Featured Poem: ‘Sympathy’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Written by Chris Routledge, 25th August 2008

Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem ‘Sympathy', first published in 1899, inspired the title to Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and after even the briefest of readings of the poem, it is easy to see why. I myself always return to Dunbar's poem, for which neither the words ‘sad' nor ‘happy' can apply, striking as it does at a deeper chord of human feeling that has to do with one's assertion of life even in the bleakest hours of struggle - an assertion of the life spirit which forces even those smallest of creatures, such as the small caged bird around which the poem revolves, to persist in their struggle for freedom which in turn requires their having to hold on to what might be regarded as an almost instinctive faith in life.

I read this poem last week at one of my Get Into Reading groups. After I had read it, two other women also wanted to take a turn in reading it. After I had read the poem, one woman, who is about seventy years old and has suffered from depression for most of her life, said ‘I think that is a lovely poem. I relate it to myself - with the prison bars and the bruised wings, I think about myself in here, but I also think about how I always make sure I go out and keep on going out, and walk around.' I hope you enjoy the poem as much as I continue to do.


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, 1889

Posted by Clare Williams

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