Maya Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’: An Analysis

Eyoh Etim

Maya Angelou was an African-American poet, activist and autobiographer. She was born in 1928 and died in 2014. ‘Caged Bird’ is one of her best known poems, which she uses to relive her traumatic childhood experiences and her determination to rise above them. On a broader context, however, the meaning of the poem transcends Angelou’s personal experiences and speaks for the historical trauma the African Americans have been made to go through and their determination to overcome such psychological wounds.

Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’ is rendered in six stanzas of varying lengths. The poem is written in free verse and uses enjambment, but there is a conscious attempt to make the stanzas rhyme. Perhaps, the use of free verse is to poetically represent the freedom of movement which birds enjoy and which the caged bird strives to achieve. The conscious use of rhyme, in my opinion, serves to highlight the theme of singing which is depicted in the poem. Of course, the art of poetry itself is a musical experience, as poems have musical qualities, and Angelou was a singer. Singing is equally seen as a means of self-expression which, in this case, Angelou uses to speak of not only her dreams and determination to succeed, but also of the collective aspirations of the African-Americans to be free.

The subject matter and the thematic concerns of the poem are represented through the metaphor of a bird. The major poetic device deployed in the poem is contrast. This can be seen in the depiction of two kinds of birds – a caged bird and a free bird. At one level of interpretation, the caged bird allegorically represents the African Americans who are seen not to be free in the true sense of the word. The free bird can then represent the white Americans who enjoy more freedom compared to the African Americans. At another level of interpretation, the caged bird and the free bird could be metaphors for African Americans in their oppressed positions and their struggle to free themselves through creative activism and speaking truths to power as was done by the civil rights activists like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and James Baldwin, all whom Angelou knew and worked with. At a more personal level of signification, the caged bird could refer to Angelou herself who went speechless for many years after a rape experience in childhood. Thus, the free bird could represent her wish and determination to speak again and to rise above the challenges posed by those traumatic childhood experiences.

The first stanza of the poem comprises seven lines and reads: ‘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 rays/and dares to claim the sky’. The most dominant imagery in this stanza is kinesthetic imagery. It is used to depict the freedom that is associated with the free bird. Kinesthetic imagery is found in words such as ‘leaps’, ‘floats’, and ‘dips’ which are all movement words. Visual imagery can be seen in words like ‘bird’, ‘back’, ‘current’, ‘wing’, ‘orange’, ‘sun’, ‘rays’ and ‘sky’. These words help the reader to visualise the extent of the freedom enjoyed by the free bird. What the stanza illustrates is that the free bird can go wherever it pleases, as it is allowed to live out its full potential, which is that of flying. The expression ‘the back of the wind’ exemplifies at once personification and metaphor because it gives the wind a sense of personality and also compares it to a horse which the fortunate bird rides.

The use of the third person pronoun ‘his’ in the description of the bird corroborates our earlier statement on the allegorical significance of the bird. It is important to note the metaphoric heights that the free bird can attain as captured from lines five to seven of the poem. These are not literal heights; they represent the apex of individual and collective aspirations and achievements in life. The expression ‘dares to claim the sky’ has a hyperbolic texture and conveys a sense of the vast territory dominated by the free bird, which gives the bird a kingly status over whatever lives below.

The second stanza of ‘Caged Bird’ equally has seven lines and reads: ‘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’. It is in the second stanza that one begins to perceive the contrast between the free and the caged bird, which is established through the use of the conjunction ‘but’ at the beginning of the stanza.

The second stanza describes the experiences of the caged bird. The word ‘stalks’ reeks of frustration and anger; it describes the abnormal existence of the bird. The normal bird is expected to fly, not to stalk. ‘Stalk’ is a movement word but it does not conventionally describe the movement of a bird. The word ‘narrow’ speaks of the spatial limitation of the caged bird. It is sad enough for a bird to be caged and worse when the cage is described as ‘narrow’. Note the alliteration in the third line in ‘seldom see’ which reinforces the idea that the caged bird might be oblivious or ignorant of the root causes of its anger and frustration. The rhyming words that gives the stanza its melody are ‘cage’, ‘rage’, ‘clipped’ and ‘feet’. The stanza also makes use of anaphora as can be seen in the repetition of ‘his’ at the beginning of lines 4, 5 and 6.

What this stanza depicts is the restricted movement of the caged bird, which illustrates its lack of freedom. The word ‘bars’ conjures up an image of imprisonment for the bird, which is further substantiated when the persona reports about its clipped wings and tied feet. The only alternative opened up for the bird in such a situation is singing. Singing can then be seen as a coping mechanism for the caged bird. It is a form of fantasy which the bird uses to forget its present predicaments and to dream of a better future. Singing can also be a form of prayer for the bird. Singing can equally stand for a voice of activism that demands some easement for the oppressed. So what does the caged bird really sing about?

The third stanza is made up of eight lines and reads: ‘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’. As this stanza obviously indicates, the caged bird is singing of freedom, demanding to be freed. The musicality of the stanza is observed in words such as ‘trill’, ‘still’, ‘hill’, ‘heard’ and ‘bird’, which are rhyming words. The expression ‘fearful trill’ constitutes personification. There is an instance of alliteration in the fifth line in the words ‘his’ and ‘heard’. This stanza captures, for me, the mood of the civil rights movement especially as the tune of the caged bird ‘is heard on the distant hill’. It should be noted that this stanza constitutes a repetend in the poem as it is repeated as the final stanza of the poem. It is like the chorus of the caged bird’s song, Angelou’s song, the African Americans’ song.

The fourth stanza consists of four lines and rhymes aabb as exemplified in the words ‘breeze/trees’ and ‘dawn/own’. The stanza focuses on the free bird. It dramatises the idea that the free bird only has to wish or think of something and it is done. This is seen in how the free bird merely wishes for breeze and quickly arrive the ‘trade winds’. Thus, everything is at the beck and call of the free bird. Its needs and desires are instantly met. The expression ‘sighing trees’ constitutes pathetic fallacy in the poem and reinforces the effect that the winds that serve the free bird have on the trees. The free bird does not lack food as the third line indicates: ‘the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn’. The line itself is rich in alliteration and assonance as can be seen in the expressions ‘worms waiting’ and ‘dawn/lawn’, respectively. The harmony they bring to the poem serves to illustrate that all is well with the free bird.

This stanza also makes use of anaphora which is exemplified in the repetition of ‘and’ in lines 2, 3 and 4. This allows for a free flow of thought and connectivity of ideas in the stanza. Again, the ownership of a vast territory is ascribed to the free bird in the final line of the stanza as ‘he names the sky his own’. What this stanza illustrates is that the free bird does not lack resources for its daily and meaningful survival. There is abundant wind to serve its flying needs, food waiting for him in the morning and an ample space to live, rule over and explore.

The penultimate stanza returns to discoursing on the caged bird. The use of ‘but’ again establishes a point of contrast between the caged and the free bird, including the differences in their circumstances. The expression ‘grave of dreams’ is a metaphor that points to the unfulfilled, wasted and dead dreams of the caged bird, which has always been the lot of most African Americans. The expression ‘shadow shouts’ exemplifies alliteration. The expression ‘nightmare scream’ is an example of personification. The line illustrates the desperate existence of the caged bird. Instead of realising its dreams, the caged bird is visited with nightmares. There is none of the harmonious experiences enjoyed by the free bird being depicted in this stanza. The caged bird’s imprisonment is restated in the depiction of its clipped wings and tied feet. All that the caged bird has is its voice which it uses to sing and demand freedom.

In conclusion, Angelou’s ‘Caged Bird’ is a dramatisation of the African American’s resilience in the face oppression and injustice. The courage of the caged bird to keep singing for freedom should serve as a source of inspiration to all.

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