Caged Bird Analyzed: Subject Matter, Themes & Poetic Devices

You are about to encounter a detailed analysis of Caged Bird (or I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings), a poem by the African-American writer, Maya Angelou.

This is Caged Bird analyzed for you. All key aspects of the poem you need to study for the examination are on full display in this all-in-one tutorial.

And I have a surprise for you. At the end of this post, you can click on the appropriate link to download the PDF copy of this analysis of Caged Bird by Maya Angelou.

For our full appreciation and analysis of Caged Bird, by Maya Angelou, we shall take a close look at the following aspects of the poem.

  • The full text of the poem, Caged Bird
  • Subject matter and meaning of the poem
  • The themes of the poem
  • The poetic devices Maya Angelou employs to convey her message to her audience.
  • A word about the title of  the poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

Subject Matter of the Poem

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

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

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

But before we get to its meaning and summary, I want you to have the complete text of the poem.

So, here comes the full text of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings popularly referred to as “CAGED BIRD”.

Maya Angelou: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

FULL TEXT

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 sun’s 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, it’s time for you to get the summary, subject matter or the meaning of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

STANZA ONE: What freedom means for a free bird

In the first stanza of the poem “Caged Bird”, the poet introduces the reader to a free bird – the direct opposite of a caged bird.

The free bird has the freedom to live the kind of life that, naturally, all birds cherish and enjoy.

Below are some of the liberties that the free bird enjoys.

The free bird lives without any restrictions on his life. He comes and goes as he 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 wish and hope for a life without captivity. He does this with a song of freedom.

STANZA THREE: The caged bird sings with a voice filled 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 dreaming and hoping 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 everything.

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.

Summary of the Basic Structure of “Caged Bird” Poem

Thus, I Know Why the Caged  Bird Sings is a six-stanza poem. Each stanza focuses on highlighting the state of the free bird and the caged bird. The poet goes about this in an almost alternating manner.

It is significant to note, however, that the poet devotes most of the lines of the poem to the plight of the caged bird.

As you can see, stanza one focuses on the condition of the free bird. The fruits of freedom that the free bird enjoys remain a distant dream for the caged bird.

The second and third stanzas go to tell us about the unenviable condition of the bird that has been held in captivity all his life.

Stanza four goes back to continue a description of the life of the privileged free bird.

The last two stanzas (five and six) tell us more about the humiliating situation in which the caged bird finds itself.

We are about to take our analysis of Caged Bird to the next level. So, please, fasten your belts and come fly with me.

Ready? Let’s go!

The Themes of “Caged Bird”

Maya Angelou’s poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” exposes and criticizes the state of affairs in an American society blighted by the scourge of racial discrimination.

The poet employs the metaphor of the different living conditions of two birds to give a disturbing narrative of the stark realities of life in her multi-racial country.

The caged bird represents the blacks who have been denied their freedom and basic natural rights.

The free bird, on the other hand, is representative of the privileged white race.

Following are the major themes in the poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“.

THE MEANING AND SUMMARY OF RAIDER OF THE TREASURE TROVE

ANALYSIS OF JOURNEY OF THE MAGI

ANALYSIS OF THE GRIEVED LANDS

1. Effects of Racial Discrimination on the Black Population

African-Americans live like caged birds in their land of birth. The injustices they suffer due to racial bias are many and the effects are humiliating.

Here is a country in which the whites are the ones who have an almost exclusive grip on political and economic power.

It is this control of power that is misused to oppress blacks.

The blacks have, for far too long, been denied every opportunity to lead a life befitting all human beings. Like birds in captivity, blacks have been denied their freedom.

They cannot move around as freely as the whites do. Neither can they enjoy the same social conditions that are freely available to their fellow white countrymen.

On a daily basis, the black population has to suffer the consequences of racism such as poverty, low-quality educational facilities and inadequate housing.

Thus, the poet paints a disturbing picture of life for the average black person in America.

Given these unacceptable conditions, blacks in America, like the caged bird, can only watch in anger and resentment.

Blacks in America can only look on with envy as their white counterparts live a life of privilege, luxury and comfort the way the free bird does.

2. The Importance of Human Freedom and Liberty OR The Themes of Freedom and Privilege

Another major theme in “Caged Bird” is the important role freedom and liberty (or the denial of it) can play in the life of every human being.

Like the free bird, freedom has enabled the white population to go very far in every aspect of life – political, economic and social.

Blacks, on the other hand, have been reduced to a state of deprivation, anger and despair because of their lack of opportunities.

It is an irony that even though American society is founded on the ideals of freedom and human dignity, a section of its population has been denied their fundamental human rights for so long.

Indeed, this unfortunate situation has its roots in the history of slavery in America.

3. The Theme of Captivity

Let’s now turn our attention to our next theme in this analysis of Caged Bird.

The theme of captivity in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is our next stop.

Captivity is another major theme in the poem. It is what the condition of the caged bird refers to. Captivity is the worst situation in which people can find themselves. Because a captive is just like a slave.

Like a bird held captive in a cage, the blacks have all their rights denied them.

Their inability to move around freely is therefore not only physical. Social mobility, for example, is impossible for the average African-American.

In addition, they have limited economic opportunities. Discrimination against blacks extends to the judicial system.

Blacks feel hemmed in by the white-controlled system. Under such circumstances, the best they can do is to keep crying out for the granting of their freedom.

Clearly, it is for freedom that the caged bird sings.

This, therefore, takes us to another important stage of our analysis of Caged Bird. Below is a brief comment on the title of the poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Comment on the Title of the Poem

This is basically about the significance of the song or singing in the lives of blacks in American society.

Let’s start with a quick question.

Is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” an appropriate title for Maya Angelou’s poem? Definitely, yes. She employs it to develop the theme of the song/singing or music in the poem.

One reason for this is that much of the poem contains references to the singing of the caged bird. So the poet has succeeded in making the title the central point in the poem.

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 why does the caged bird sing? The simple answer we have in the poem is this.

Singing a song is the caged bird’s only tool for fighting oppression in captivity.

In other words, the oppressed blacks use music, in general, and songs in particular, not only to cope with the racial injustice and lack of freedom they suffer but also to fight against it.

Apart from religion, music and songs have been known to be two of the popular coping mechanisms available to the oppressed blacks in American society.

This was both during the period of slavery and in the years of the civil rights movement following the abolition of slavery.

Blacks in this society used songs to soothe their pain. Further, they had songs that were symbols of defiance and of their struggle for freedom.

A song may appear to be a weak weapon for fighting captivity. But it is the only tool a captive can have since it is coming from the inside, his throat, and therefore cannot be easily taken away.

His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

Poetic Devices

Let’s now turn our attention to the poetic devices or techniques in our analysis of Caged Bird.

Diction and Imagery

The poet in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings employs certain words and expressions to create poignant images of freedom and captivity. We also have glimpses of the privileged lifestyle of the whites as compared to the lack of opportunities which has become the lot of the oppressed blacks.

POETIC DEVICES AND TYPES OF POETRY YOU NEED TO KNOW

Here are examples of diction in the poem and the images that they evoke.

FREEDOM AND PRIVILEGE:  free, freedom, leaps, floats, downstream, wing, dares, claim the sky, trade winds, breeze, fat worms, dawn-bright lawn, names the sky his own,

CAPTIVITY: stalks down, narrow, cage, seldom, bars, rage, wings are clipped, feet are tired, throat, caged, fearful, trill, longed, distant, sings, grave, dreams, screams

RACIAL DISCRIMINATION: rage, throat, sing, things unknown, dreams, shadow, nightmare,

NATURE: bird, wind, downstream, current, sun’s rays, breeze, trees, hills

Note that while the free bird easily gets access to the elements (all opportunities) and can “claim the sky as his own“, the hills (personal growth and achievement) are out of reach for the caged bird. (distant hills)

IMAGE OF ACTION/ DOING

thinks, sings, stands, shouts, opens, floats, leaps, ends, dares, stalks, see, names

These are appropriate to the poem about people’s ability (or the denial of it) to act on their dreams and aspirations.

IMAGE OF MOVEMENT/OF FREEDOM

float, leaps, downstream, current

These are associated with the life of the free bird and, for that matter, the privileged white population.

OTHER LITERARY DEVICES

You must not ignore the following literary devices in your analysis of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Metaphor

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings develops around the metaphors of a free bird and one held in captivity.

We’ve already noted that the free bird is a metaphor for the privileged white segment of American society. They are, at the same time, the perpetrators of racial injustice against the black population.

The caged bird that sings represents the blacks that suffer from the effects of racial inequality. Just like a bird that has been denied its most important freedom (to move around and explore the sky and the earth), blacks have been limited in their ability to develop themselves and enjoy a better life.

Here are other instances of metaphor in the poem

bars of rage

grave of dreams

Symbolism

Below are examples of the use of symbols in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

The Song:

The song that the caged bird sings can be seen as a symbol of black resistance against white domination. It stands for their hope for the future and their inner strength to fight and demand freedom from their oppressors.

Sky

Sky, in the poem, is a symbol of personal development and achievement.

Like many other words associated with nature imagery in the poem, the sky is there for only the free bird to claim.

In effect, in American society, it is only the free whites, who have the resources that all humans need to develop and prosper.

Cage

The cage, clearly, is a symbol of captivity. It stands for all the impediments put in the way of blacks in their attempt to reach higher and realize their potential.

Irony

The most striking irony in Maya Angelou’s poem is this. Freedom is denied to one segment of the population of a country that prides itself on the ideals of equal rights, individual freedom and liberty. This is clearly an indictment of a nation that preaches freedom to the rest of the world.

Contrast

The persona in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings contrasts the carefree, privileged life of the whites to the restrictions placed on blacks in American society.

Much of the poem Caged Bird’s diction and imagery revolves around the differences in the conditions of these two segments of society.

The most important words that convey the state of racial inequality in American society are FREE and CAGED.

The poem’s structure is also built around the poetic device known as contrast.

We can observe that while the first stanza speaks of the fruits of freedom freely available to the whites, the second and third stanzas turn in the opposite direction. These two stanzas speak to the sorry condition of the black race in the same society.

This movement between the two opposite conditions in America continues up to the end of the poem.

Thus, the poet has used the poetic device of contrast to expose and also criticize racial discrimination in her native land.

To Maya Angelou, the perpetuation of racial injustice is a blot on the conscience of a nation that was founded on the principle of equality for all.

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Personification

sighing trees

shadow shouts

Alliteration

Below are instances of alliteration in the poem

seldom see

but  a bird

worms waiting

shadow shouts

Assonance

his/wings

free/leaps

dips/his/wings

sings/with/trill

dawn/lawn

Repetition

His wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing

free bird

caged bird

sky

sing

Note also that all of stanza three is repeated in stanza six

Hyperbole

claim the sky

names the sky his own

Rhyme

The poem does not follow any specific rhyme pattern. However, there are few cases of rhyme to note.

rage/cage

trill/still

I trust that this analysis of Caged Bird will help you to deal comfortably with any question on the poem.

Look out for likely exam questions on Caged Bird.

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Image by Valery Pavlov from Pixabay

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Ralph Nyadzi is the Director of Studies at Cegast Academy. He is a qualified English tutor with decades of experience behind him. Since 2001, he has successfully coached thousands of High School General Arts WASSCE candidates in English, Literature and related subjects. He combines his expertise with a passion for lifelong learning to guide learners from varying backgrounds to achieve their educational goals. Ralph shares lessons from his blogging journey on BloggingtotheMax. He lives with River, his pet cat, in the Central Region of Ghana.

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