Maya Angelou - Caged Bird: A Commentary

Essay by ShelkHigh School, 10th grade April 2009

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Caged Bird by Maya Angelou explores themes of Social injustice, Lack of freedom/choice and Shattered dreams in six stanzas of varying length. There is no set rhyme scheme to the poem but there are noticeable rhymes in stanzas two, three, four and five. Stanza six is a repetition of stanza three. There are half rhymes throughout. Vocabulary and sentence structure is very straightforward. The stanzas alternate between the free bird's perspective and that of the caged bird with regularity: two stanzas are spent on the caged bird sandwiched between one stanza discussing the free bird.

The line lengths of stanzas four and five are noticeably longer than the other four stanzas.

The free bird's liberty is emphasized by the use of vocabulary such as 'leaps' and 'floats' and highlights the bird's ability to choose how s/he wishes to spend the day and where s/he wishes to go. The bird described in this stanza has the option to 'claim the sky'.

This is a stanza full of hope and potential. This further illustrates the endless possibilities the free bird has when compared to the bird described in later stanzas.

The caged bird of the second stanza is an angry and frustrated one as is shown in 'stalks'. 'Stalks' has the possible connotations of waiting for someone possibly to the point of persecution. A secondary connotation is that the bird is walking in a haughty fashion. Which is most likely? Are there alternative connotations? The bars of the cage are described through the metaphor of 'bars of rage' which also adds to the general mood of frustration.

The bird's limited vision can be perceived in many ways. Is the bird's vision limited because of his conditions in the cage or perhaps because his life is limited and therefore his horizons are limited?We often use the phrase 'clipped wings' to describe a person whose development has been limited in some way. Here the phrase is used in its literal sense. Since its wings are clipped and its feet tied, the bird communicates through the only means available to it - his voice. Is this really why the caged bird sings?The bird sings with 'a fearful trill/ of things unknown/ but longed for still' which suggests that the bird has an awareness of what it is missing. The third stanza ends on a somewhat surprising note as the poet claims the bird sings of 'freedom'. Whose freedom? Is this hope for the future or is this referring to a past in which the bird was free?Note the break of the rhyme 'freedom' (just like 'sing' in stanza 2)Returning to the carefree bird, we are presented with more images of a life with few limits and boundaries. In this stanza, the free bird even 'names the sky his own' which links back to stanza one where he 'dares to claim the sky'. There is abundant potential here as shown in the phrase 'fat worms waiting'. The description of nature here is also very peaceful and relaxed: 'sighing trees', 'dawn-bright lawn'. This highlights the contrast between the lives of the two birds, a contrast which is developed further in the fifth stanza.

The metaphor 'grave of dreams' is a harsh and dismal description of the bird's dashed hopes. The contrast between the negative connotations of 'grave' and the positive ones of 'dreams' jars in its stark contrast. The bird's shadow is described as shouting 'on a nightmare scream' again suggesting the bird's frustration and impotency. The last two lines of this stanza are repeated from stanza two but in keeping with the longer line lengths of stanzas four and five, the three shorter lines have been combined to make two longer ones. This changes the rhythm giving an uncertain effect and perhaps showing a loss of hope.

'shadow shouts' is personification suggesting that the bird is a shadow of his true potential as a result of his being caged.

The poem ends with a repetition of stanza three perhaps to show hope for the future.

The tone of the poem from the caged bird's perspective is certainly one of frustration: the caged bird has only one means of communication. It knows what it's missing and understands the unfairness of situation but questions why does the free bird have choices?The tone of the poem when looking through the eyes of the free bird is idyllic (in stanzas one and four) and serves to mark a contrast between his freedom and the caged birds dire situation.

The alliteration of stanza four in 'fat worms waiting' and soft through the sighing trees' serves to underscore the easy lifestyle of the free bird.

Angelou has written an autobiography entitled 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' and in it expands on this poem. Angelou is almost certainly alluding to the struggle Black people have faced over the years to gain equality.

BibliographyIGCSE Literature notes for teachers. 2007, 2008, 2009