October 20, 2020

The Meaning and Summary of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Today, you have the opportunity to get the true meaning and summary of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

The poem, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings has  six stanzas.

I’m going to give you a simple, easy-to-understand summary of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, the African-American poet.

In this summary of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I will take you through the subject matter of each of the six stanzas of the poem.

But before we get to the meaning ans summary of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I want you to have the complete text of the poem.

So here first comes the full text of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Maya Angelou: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

ONE

A free bird leaps on the back

Of the wind and floats downstream

Till the current ends and dips his wing

In the orange suns rays

And dares to claim the sky.

TWO

But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage

Can seldom see through his bars of rage

His wings are clipped and his feet are tied

So he opens his throat to sing.

THREE

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill

Of things unknown but longed for still

And his tune is heard on the distant hill for

The caged bird sings of freedom.

FOUR

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.

FIVE

But a 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.

SIX

The caged bird sings with

A fearful trill of things unknown

But longed for still and his

Tune is heard on the distant hill

For the caged bird sings of freedom.

Now let’s begin to unravel the meaning also give the summary of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

STANZA ONE: FREEDOM FOR THE FREE BIRD

In the first stanza of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the poet introduces the reader to a free bird – the direct opposite of a caged bird.

The free bird clearly has the freedom to live the kind of life that all birds naturally love to enjoy.

Below are some of the liberties that the free bird enjoys without any restrictions.

It comes and goes as it pleases. His freedom of movement is guaranteed.

The free bird can easily fly high up in the sky

He hardly has any obstacles on the way as his life is only one of a downstream rather than an upstream movement.

The resources to enable him to soar as high as he wants are at its disposal. The wind, sky, currents and sun are  examples of these easily available resources.

Freedom allows the free bird to dare to dream as big as he wants.

It is obvious that this is a happy bird. He is not angry and has no bitter feelings. Because no one has tried to restrict his movement or take away his natural rights.

So busy is the free bird, enjoying his carefree life that he has no reason to ask for freedom. Because he has not been denied one.

STANZA TWO: THE PLIGHT OF THE CAGED BIRD

Unlike the free bird in the first stanza of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the Caged bird, in the second stanza, is full of rage and resentment. This rage is borne out of the simple fact that he has been denied its natural liberties.

Here are the major aspects of the life of the caged bird in Maya Angelou’s poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

He lives in captivity. The caged bird has been taken away from its natural habitat and literally placed behind bars twenty-four hours a day.

The caged bird is in a perpetual state of rage because of the treatment he receives from his captors.

Bitterness has numbed his ability to dream of distant places the way  birds are born to dream and explore the earth and the sky.

Every resource, that should enable him to go far in life has been taken away from the caged bird.

His wings are clipped and his feet are tied.

In such a sorry situation, the only thing the caged bird can do is to wish and hope for life without captivity. He does this with a song of freedom.

STANZA THREE: THE CAGE BIRD SINGS WITH A VOICE PACKED WITH EMOTION

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill

Of things unknown but longed for still

And his tune is heard on the distant hill for

The caged bird sings of freedom.

So the caged bird spends his time in captivity to dream and hope for all the things that are his natural right but which he has never seen before.

The caged bird cries out for freedom.

STANZA FOUR: THE FREE BIRD HAS ALL

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.

In the fourth stanza of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the poet gives us a clear picture of the stark contrast between the conditions of these two birds. Below are what the free bird has and can do. They are all denied the other bird held in captivity.

He can decide for himself where to go and which one of his numerous privileges to access next. These include

Travel to another location – another breeze

Fly freely on the trade winds

Perch on any tree anywhere

Feed on the best of meals – fat worms

Have all the world at his disposal – he names the sky his own

STANZA FIVE: THE CAGED BIRD GOES THROUGH A PAINFUL EXPERIENCE

 But a 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.

We return to the unfortunate condition of the caged bird in the fifth stanza of the poem. Here is the summary and meaning of the fifth stanza of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Any chance of realizing his hopes and dreams is almost non-existent. It is dead and buried in “the grave of dreams”.

The life of the caged bird is one long and painful nightmare. Because he appears to have lost everything.

But, at least, he still has his throat to force out a cry for freedom.

STANZA SIX: THE THIRD STANZA REPEATED

Stanza six is the last stanza of the poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is basically a repetition of the third stanza of the poem.

Photo by raza ali on Unsplash

Ralph Nyadzi

Ralph has a passion for the teaching and learning of Language and Literature mainly because these two help him to understand and appreciate why people act the way they do. Over the past two decades, he has coached over 5000 students and adult learners to achieve their educational goals. Ralph is the founder and CEO of Cegast Academy.

View all posts by Ralph Nyadzi →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Sign up to have personalized learning/teaching tips, tools & tricks delivered into your inbox.