Introduction to the poem

Maya Angelou was a great poet of America. She writes a good number of great poems. I know why the caged bird sings is one of the famous poems. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is one of her powerful poems expressing the African American’s intense longing for freedom. Angelou uses the metaphor of a bird struggling to escape its cage as a central image throughout her autobiographical fiction. However, in this poem, the caged bird sings of freedom.

The poem reflects a pessimistic tone and it also articulates pent up emotions of the poet against racial discrimination and slavery. It reveals the domination of the White in the free bird and subjugation of the in the form of caged bird. The structure of the poem is very simple and austere, as a consequence, can be interpreted more easily as there are no hidden or embedded themes in the poem. The poet expresses her agonies and grievances through a caged bird that represents the Black race. The blacks are not dished out the legitimate social status on the land of America. They are thought as second rate citizens, not worthy of social, religious and cultural freedom. The encased bird (the blacks) are cramped for room in the American social milieu.

Outline

➢ Maya Angelou is one of the foremost 20th century Afro American writers. She was a writer, poet, activist, singer-composer, actor, all at once.

➢ Maya Angelou`s poem ‘caged bird’ is about the Afro-American experience of oppression and their historical struggle against it.

➢ The poem explores the world of the Afro-American people and their struggle for civil rights and equality, through the metaphor of a caged bird.

➢ The caged bird suffers a level of deprivation that, apart from physically enslaving it, damages its psyche as well. But the bird doesn’t disintegrate. It fights back and sends out a note of hope and courage to others through its song.

Notes and Explanations

Lines 1-14
caged bird : (here) the black race, discriminated against and segregated
free bird : (here) the privileged white race

Summary

A free bird flies on the back of the wind. The free bird symbolizes the privileged white who believe that the history of America is the history of the whites. The free bird claims to be the sole inheritor of the national tradition. It can fly anywhere as if the entire sky is its own. But a caged bird cannot fly. Its wings are clipped and its feet are tied. It hops about in the narrow cage behind bars. Here the caged bird symbolizes the oppression and suffering of black society. The caged bird opens its throat to sing.

Lines 15-30

fearful trill: trembling sound
fat worms : (here) opportunities

Summary

The caged bird sings in a trembling voice of unknown things that he longs for. His song is heard on the distant hills for he sings about freedom. The free bird thinks of another breeze and trade winds and fat worms on a lawn. But the caged bird stands on the grave of dreams. He is deprived of all freedom. His wings are clipped and his feet are tied. So he opens his throat to sing.

Lines 31-38

longed: desired eagerly

Summary

The caged bird sings with a trembling voice. He sings of unknown things that he longs for. His tune is heard on the distant hill. He sings of freedom.


Caged Bird Summary


This poem, “Caged Bird” is from a volume of poetry titled Shaker Why Don’t You Sing that Maya Angelou published in 1983. This was her fourth volume of poetry. Her first book was titled Ï Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The title of the book is borrowed from a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar called “Sympathy” published in 1896.

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;”

There is a deeper connection between the intensely personal experience of the poet as a woman, the image of a cage, and the idea of singing. The early childhood trauma made Mary Angelou turn inward preferring self-imposed silence over speech but this silence was also a cage at the same time. She could easily relate her own experience as a black woman in a deeply racial society with other similarly situated women. She saw herself as caged twice over, as a black Afro-American and then as a woman. It was a cage within a cage. It was during this period of self-imposed silence that her grandmother introduced her to Mrs Flower and it is this lady, by her own admission, who set her free from her caged silence. It is there that she learnt about the emancipatory power of singing. It is this idea of singing as the path to freedom that allows her to grow as an individual. The poem “Caged Bird” revolves around this idea as do many of her other poems. She firmly believed that black men and women can free themselves by finding their voices, as she herself did, in songs of freedom.

Stanza 1

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.

The first stanza paints a picture of a free bird by using a few powerful images of the very idea of freedom itself. We see a bird floating on the wind with extended wings as the current takes him downstream. The bird’s wing tips catch the orange rays of the setting sun. It seems that this little bird is bold enough to claim the sky as its own. The words and images used in the opening stanza set the tone of the poem and that is the idea of freedom. The idea of exercising a choice is central to the idea of freedom. The free bird occupies the subject position here. He leaps, floats, dips its wings, and dares to claim the sky. He is the master of his actions.

The fact that the bird can ‘leap on the back of the wind’ whenever it wants is a privilege though we often take it for granted. We can only appreciate the value of this privilege in the absence of freedom. Moreover, the bird doesn’t really struggle to fly. It ‘floats’ on the wind and is carried downstream. The experience of freedom here is effortless. It dips its wings only when it becomes necessary. The bird is in no hurry. It purveys the world from its position high in the sky and moves wherever it wishes to. It can and it dares to ‘claim ’the sky because it is not threatened. Because it is truly free. What this stanza is suggesting is that while there are birds that are free and that to be free is a privilege, there are also birds that are un-free. The bird here is a metaphor of freedom and perhaps refers to those white people who enjoyed this privilege as against people of colour who were un-free.

Stanza 2

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.

The second stanza comes as a sharp contrast to the first. We have a caged bird here. And this bird is only able to stalk down its little cage. Its wings are clipped and its feet tied. So, when he can do nothing else, he sings. The stanza begins with a “but’’ that emphasizes the contrast between a free bird and a caged bird. The caged bird can only stalk the narrow cage. The use of the word “stalk” is quite interesting. The narrow cage has severely restricted the physical space that the bird occupies it and forces it to stalk restlessly in the narrow confines of the cage.

The physical constraints of the cage are described as “bars of rage” the bars reflect the rage within. The bird is helpless, angry at his own plight. He feels trapped and sees no way out. This is one way in which the poet draws the reader’s attention to the plight of the Black Americans who have faced discrimination and oppression for a long time. At the same time juxtaposing the caged bird with the free bird, the poet is able to bring into focus the deeply racial and unequal nature of American society.

The bird’s wings are clipped and his feet are tied. These images clipped wings and tied feet bring out the nature of the violent nature of oppression that keeps the bird, and by implication the Black Americans, caged. However, these physical restrictions haven’t completely enslaved the bird. The body is trapped but the soul is not. Despite the hopelessness of its situation, the bird opens its throat to sing. The bird’s response to the confinement is to push back against and resist its enslavement through singing. And what would the bird sing of but freedom. The bird sings against the denial of freedom to float on the wind, to dip its wings any which way it likes and to claim the sky as its own. The juxtaposition of images of freedom in stanza 1 with images of un-freedom of stanza 2 renders the poem powerfully evocative.

Stanza 3

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.

The third stanza begins to describe the singing of the bird. The “caged bird” sings with a ‘fearful trill’. ‘Trill’ refers to a series of quick and high pitched notes. So the fearful trill of the caged bird would be repeated high pitched and nervous singing. This is not the steady singing of a free bird. What is it that makes the birds singing so uncertain and so high pitched? What is it fearful of? The bird is, perhaps, fearful because it is unsure and nervous about its future. It has only known oppression and enslavement. It is not sure if it will ever be free. The bird is singing of ‘things unknown….but longed for’. The bird knows only its cage and nothing of the outside world. Hence when it sings of freedom it is singing about something that it has no knowledge of. Freedom is an unknown category for the bird. It is assailed by anxiety. What does one do with freedom or the things associated with that freedom itself become the cause of anxiety. Freedom from confinement could lead to a fear of freedom as well. The trill of the bird, thus, suggests uncertainty. The bird is unsure about ever achieving the freedom that is so desired. And even if it does, will it ever be free of its own ‘bars of rage’? Even if the bars disappear there is a likelihood of the rage lingering on. True freedom is to be free at a physical, mental, and spiritual level. The bird is uncertain if it will ever achieve freedom in its true sense. In this context, the birds ‘fearful trill’ adds poignancy and some urgency to the poem.

Though the bird is caged and its song is fearful, it has not been cowed down to silence. The bird, even in the state of un-freedom, refuses to sit quietly. The struggle goes on and this is symbolised by the birds singing. It establishes its existence and its power to act through its high pitched trill. It is telling the world that it will not suffer the oppression quietly. This metaphor recalls the struggle of the Black Americans for their civil rights and equality. Maya Angelou herself was a part of the American Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. This was a long struggle and we must remember that music and singing played a big role in mobilising people and giving voice to their aspirations. The songs they sang filled the people with hope and courage. Some of these were songs that were sung by the slaves. The song “We shall overcome” became an unofficial anthem of the Civil rights Movement. I am sure you have heard this song or at least the Hindi version “Hum honge kamyab”.In this poem, Maya Angelou uses the bird’s song as a metaphor. She tells us that to hope and to act is to be alive and action is not necessarily movement. Even if the caged bird cannot fly in the sky like the free bird it can still assert its existence through its voice of hope and aspiration. To speak is to exist. The voice of the bird is heard on distant hills and it resonates because it is the voice of freedom, it is the voice of hope and courage.

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Stanza 4

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.

The poet returns to the free bird in this stanza once again. The first two stanzas set up the contrast between the birds and highlight the disparity in the physical space that they occupy. In a similar vein stanza, 4 and 5 highlight the different psychological spaces that the birds inhabit. The mental makeup of the birds differs from each other and this difference is the outcome of the differences in their physical existence. By implication, we can say that the poem highlights the difference in the socio-economic condition of the Whites and the Black Americans and also points to the fact that this socio-economic background shapes, to a very large extent, the mental makeup of the people. Just like the birds, Man is also a product of his circumstances.

This stanza paints a bright picture of the free bird`s world. This is a world of possibilities and aspirations. After floating down the back of the wind the bird is already thinking of another breeze and the trade winds blowing softly through the trees. It also hears the sighs of the trees as the wind passes through them. The image here is one of abundance and leisure and joy. The trade winds or easterlies as they are popularly known are extremely important permanent wind systems that cover both the eastern as well as the western hemispheres. They are called trade winds because ships followed the direction of the wind to help them to navigate the oceans. The free bird’s world is a world of plenty. The bird thinks of the fat worms that it feeds on waiting for him on sun-drenched lawns. In this world of plenty, food is indeed waiting for him and he doesn’t need to go scouting for it. The free bird lives a privileged existence and this privilege of freedom enables him to claim ownership of the sky.

Stanza 5/6

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.


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.

In sharp contrast to stanza 4 where the free bird is luxuriating in the world of plenty, the caged bird in stanza 5 becomes ‘a’ caged bird that comes to represent all the caged birds. And he is standing on the grave of dreams’. The poet now moves from the particular predicament of the caged bird to the general predicament of caged birds. This predicament is highlighted by words like ‘grave’, ‘nightmare’, and ‘scream’. The death of dreams is a consequence of the bird`s enslavement as well as a condition of his existence. The dream of a caged bird ends up in the grave. That is the reality of its existence and yet at the same time, it exists because it is able to dream. The duality of the state of enslavement is brought out poignantly in these lines. The nightmarish life that it leads makes even its shadow fearful. The scream represents all the pent up emotions and frustrations that spring from a life of confinement and deprivation. The last two lines of the second stanza are used as a refrain here to emphasize this condition. The bird, faced with impossible odds, sings.

The last stanza is a repetition of stanza 3. It is used as a refrain to assert the importance of singing and thereby declaring to the world its intent to continue its struggle for freedom in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. To reiterate the point made about the importance of singing in section 1.5, it must be said that if people keep singing of freedom it will protect them from despair and fill them with hope. Singing asserts the essential humanity of the oppressed. The bird’s song fills resonate all around it and gives everyone the hope that freedom will be theirs sooner or later and that it is worth fighting for. The poet uses the contrasting metaphor of a free bird and a caged bird to make the point that freedom is a necessary condition for equality in society. In this poem, the poet sends out a message of hope and humanity embedded within the bird’s song.

Theme

‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is one of the widely read poems written by Mary Angelou. The theme of the poem is the suffering of African- Americans and the contrast of slavery versus freedom. Maya Angelou’s 1983 poem “Caged Bird” compares the plight of a caged bird to the flight of a free bird. Many readers have interpreted Angelou’s poem as an extended metaphor with the caged bird representing the historical struggles of African Americans.

Maya Angelou, in her poem, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ presents a grave social conflict that especially prevailed during the 18th and 19th centuries in the world. Maya, a Black American, focuses on racial discrimination that she personally experienced in her country and many other countries. The world ‘apartheid’ was added to the dictionary because of this racial discrimination.
When the White people in America started plantations in their fertile lands, they expected the Red Indians would extend them support by working in their plantations but they refused. So, the White people in America were forced to deploy African workers. These African workers were considered as ‘second class people’. So, they had to work hard in the plantations but they were deprived of their human rights and privileges.

Maya Angelou, in her poem, discusses this matter in a precise poetic manner so that her poem was recognized as a dominant literary piece in the universal literature.

The poetess contrasts the life of the two birds, the free bird and the caged bird.
She draws more concentration to the caged bird because it symbolizes the oppressed people or the Black people in the USA. It is interesting to see how she builds up the image of the caged bird.
It is really a prisoner which is always anxiously waiting for precious freedom.

“But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
….. ”

This is how the poetess presents the image of the caged bird. With this description, the poetess builds up the visual imagery of the bird and how its life is confined to the iron bars of the cage. It can hardly see through the outside world where its fellow birds fly at their own will. It is unable to walk comfortably “Its wings are clipped” and “Feet are tied”. These phrases create the pathetic situation of the innocent bird more serious and crueller.


Questions and Answers


Question 1. Is there repetition used in the poem? Why?
Answer: Repetition is a technique used to draw a person’s attention to a certain idea. Think about the school. If a teacher wants to get her point across, is she going to say it once? No. She is going to repeat it multiple times so it begins to sink in. The same works with poetry. While the use of repetition doesn’t necessarily mean a poem is wonderful, it does help it to stand out. Sometimes a little repetition goes a long way. But too much repetition can make the poem boring to read, so it’s a delicate balance. This technique can be used in a variety of ways:

A word is repeated throughout the poem.
A phrase is repeated.
An entire line is repeated.

Question 2.What does the word “clipped” mean in this poem?
Answer: Maya Angelou’s poem is replete with avian metaphors and imagery. The poem itself is a metaphor for the limitations one experiences in a life of oppression. Angelou has drawn from her own experiences as a Black woman in the racially-segregated United States following the Civil War. In talking of birds, “clipping” involves trimming a bird’s wing feathers so that they cannot fly. Some bird owners or caretakers trim just one wing or enough feathers on each side, to render the bird unstable in flight but leaving them to be able to glide for a short distance. In Angelou’s poem, she uses the word “clipped” as a metaphor for the systemic forms of oppression. Being “clipped” in a society based on race (or other identities) prevents an individual from ever testing their capability for success. Historically, Black Americans have been denied access to schooling and certain kinds of work, and even today it is not uncommon for Black Americans to be turned down for jobs based on their appearance. To be “clipped,” as Angelou implies, is to never be given a chance for success in life.

Question 3.What does the line “and his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream” mean?
Answer: Maya Angelou’s poem compares the plight of a caged bird to the flight of a free bird. Angelou’s poem can be interpreted as an extended metaphor concerning the caged bird.

Question 4.Who and what does the free bird symbolize?
Answer: In Maya Angelou’s poem a juxtaposition is provided of a free bird’s life with that of a caged bird. The free bird symbolizes people who live in this world unencumbered by the prejudice of any type whether it be racial, socioeconomic, or psychological.

The free bird has the opportunity to move through life soaking in its abundance. The people who are afforded this freedom, forge through life making their own decisions and choices. “The sky is the limit” for those who are free; those who do not face oppression. Without worrying about restrictions, the free bird is able to experience life as an enjoyable adventure. The people represented by the free bird are able to think of the mundane things in life, instead of battling for survival.

Question 5. What is the message of Maya Angelou’s poem?
Answer: Angelou’s poem uses metaphor and juxtaposition to express the idea that freedom is a natural state and knowledge of this fact cannot be undone by any amount of oppression, „ imprisonment or limitation of opportunity. Oppressed people suffer psychologically and emotionally, the poem suggests, but never loses sight of the inverse of that suffering. In the poem, the free bird has power and “names the sky his own” while acting on inborn impulses to fly and float on the sky. The language and imagery surrounding the free bird are soft and also indicative of authority, innate rights and self-ownership.

Contrasted to the free bird, the caged bird is associated with darkness, pain, and fear. Reduced to an unnatural and lesser version of itself than the free bird, the caged bird cannot fly yet retains the desire to be free and to find self-expression (and, also, to claim self-ownership).

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.

The message of the poem then is largely related to the emotional and psychological effects of being oppressed and removed from the possibility of self-determination. The means of oppression and delimitation are only given a metaphorical explanation in the poem and are not connected to social or political realities outside of the poem. But the deeply felt difference between being powerfully free or being oppressed and caged is expressed in varied ways.

Angelou deals with a sense of limitation, separation and marginalization through the metaphor of the bird in a cage. Importantly, her poem suggests that the desire to be free will always be expressed, despite circumstances that might quell the spirit. There is an innate understanding of what it means to be alive that translates into a demand or an unquenchable impulse to see oneself in an open sky of one’s own.

Question 6. Explain what is imagery in a poem. Does flow have Angelou used it in the poem?

Answer: When a poet creates imagery, he or she uses words that create a mental picture in the reader’s mind. Only sensory words can create mental images; therefore, imagery concerns any words or phrases that pertain to the five senses: touch, taste, sight, sound, and smell. Maya Angelou’s poem is certainly full of imagery in every line and every stanza.

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The very first image we see is that of a “free bird” leaping on the “back of the wind.” Since we can literally see a bird in nature leaping, jumping, or flying against the wind, we can see how this counts as a sight image. Other images we see are that of the bird floating “downstream” and dipping its wing “in the orange sun rays.” Since the poet is now speaking of a bird in relation to a stream, we get the sense she is speaking of a waterfowl, like a duck. Plus, since we can literally see things floating downstream we know that the phrase “floats downstream” counts as a sight image. Besides, though a bird will not literally dip its wings into the rays of the sun, we know that the sun’s rays reflect on surfaces of water. Hence, based on the final couple of lines in the first stanza, we can picture the bird literally dipping its wings into the image of the sun reflected on the water and then flying off into the sky. Since we can literally see a bird doing such things in nature, we know that these count as sight images as well.

The sight images of the bird free in nature stand in great contrast to the sight images of a bird held captive in a cage in the next stanza. The juxtaposition of images of free and caged birds help to illustrate her themes concerning the effects of captivity, such as slavery.

Question 7. What are the fears of the caged bird? Answer with examples from Maya Angelou’s poem.
Answer: The “caged bird” stands for none other than the oppressed blacks. Devoid of liberty and basic human rights, the blacks have led hellish lives, full of pains and sufferings, for centuries. Its song of freedom demonstrates the rage and optimism of the blacks that toughen them to endure. Although the caged bird “sings of freedom”, she sings “with a fearful trill”.The dream of liberty has been seen by the blacks for ages. The poet’s uncountable ancestors have spent their whole lives hoping to see the light of freedom. This discomforting sense of undergoing persecution for years is well evoked in the following lines:

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

The blacks’ dream of liberty is very old. Despite their continued struggle, they have suffered defeat and frustrations repeatedly.

Thus, the caged bird’s fear is about the uncertainty of achieving freedom in the future. Its fears reflect those of the blacks who no more wish to go through the pains of racism, discrimination and bestial treatment at the hands of the whites. The blacks are scared of the darkness hanging over the lives of their offspring.

The word “nightmare” is suggestive of the blacks’ unspeakable suffering and “scream” reflects their expression of agony.

Question 8. Why does the caged bird stand on the “grave of dreams?”
Answer: Maya Angelou creates a vivid image with the line “But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams.” This is a death image. The hopes and dreams of a whole race of people are dead. Angelou uses the images of a free bird and a caged bird to compare the lives of those who are free to create their own destiny and those who are oppressed based on their race. Those who are oppressed have hopes and dreams but they are unattainable not because the people are incapable, but because they are born as people of colour. She goes on to say that the bird, representing the oppressed people, lives with its feet “tied” and wings “clipped,” which renders it devoid of choices to better its situation. Despite the dire circumstances, the bird chooses to sing.

In other words, its spirit will not be broken.

Question 9. How is the theme of self-awareness shown in the poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou?
Answer: The theme of self-awareness is shown in the poem when the poet highlights how this bird has a rage within itself. This rage is because this caged bird senses it is missing out on freedom that other birds and living creatures know. This bird “.stalks down his narrow cage.” This “stalking” alludes to the fact that the bird is prowling for release from his restricted way of life. This bird is self-aware that it is living in an unnatural environment. To this caged bird, the bars of the cage are “bars of rage.” In addition, self-awareness is conveyed by the fact that this bird makes a bold effort to sing. Because its wings and feet are restricted (due to clipping and tying), its only recourse to let anyone know of its desire to be free is to sing. The bird sings to let anyone who will listen that it is straining for freedom. Self-awareness here (the bird understanding its plight) is shown by the fact that the bird longs for something that is unknown. It desires this unknown that is out there because it senses that the unknown is better than being caged and, in essence, a slave to its man-made environment, where it cannot spread its wings and soar.

This feeling of being caged in’ can be extended to the human condition as well. Many people feel trapped in their respective life situations. They long to be free of poverty, sickness, addictions, dead-end jobs, bad relationships, destructive behaviour and more. Every day, many people are crying out, through their words and actions, for some kind of release from their burdensome stations in life, where they feel caged and unable to realize their dreams. They are self-aware, as this bird is, that there is a better way of life that must be fought for, even though this better way of living can be elusive.

Question 10. What are the poetic devices used in Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird”?
Answer: Maya Angelou uses a myriad of poetic devices in the poem, including metaphor, rhyme, imagery, alliteration, personification, and repetition. In the poem, Angelou employs these poetic devices to contrast a free bird with a bird who is confined to a cage; the two different birds serve as metaphors for people free from oppression and people who are oppressed by society, respectively. Considering Angelou’s personal history and the themes of her autobiographies, the caged bird, more explicitly, is a metaphor for African-Americans who experienced racism and discrimination through slavery. Like the caged bird in the poem, African- Americans were physically confined or restricted due to slavery and segregation, but they still vocally demanded their freedom.

In addition to using metaphor, Angelou utilizes repetition to reinforce the idea that African Americans cried out for freedom from oppression even in the bleakest of times when their oppressors did not want to “hear” them. Angelou repeats the third and fifth (final) stanzas, with the caged bird singing for freedom:

The caged bird sings/with 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.

In the above quotation, the end rhyme in the second, fourth, and sixth lines with “trill,” “still,” and “hill.” We also find end rhyme as well as alliteration in the second stanza of the poem, when Angelou describes how the caged bird is physically confined. In the second stanza, the caged bird is in “his narrow cage” and “can seldom see through/his bars of rage” (“seldom see” forms the alliteration, while “cage” and “rage” form the end rhyme).

Finally, there is vivid imagery in the first stanza when the free bird “dips his wing/ in the orange sun rays” and personification and alliteration in the fourth stanza when the caged bird’s “shadow shouts on a nightmare scream.” In this example from the fourth stanza, note the repetition of the consonant “s” and giving the caged bird’s shadow the human quality of shouting, which emphasizes the bird’s nightmarish existence living in confinement.

Question 11. What do you like about this poem?
Answer: This question is asking for an opinion about Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird.” This means you have to assess and analyze the poem to determine what you find appealing about it.

Personally, I enjoy Angelou’s use of vivid imagery when describing the free bird and the caged bird. When I read her descriptions of the birds, I can feel the carefree freedom of the free bird as it soars through the air. On the other hand, I can feel the desperation of the caged bird as it paces with clipped wings in its cage. Because Maya Angelou is so masterful in her descriptions, I experience the breeze as the free bird “leaps on the back of the wind and floats downstream.” When the caged bird sings, despite its circumstances, I identify with its song, “for the caged bird sings of freedom.” The imagery evokes emotions within me.

Others might like the lyrical writing or the message of the poem.

Question 12. What is the implied meaning of “his bars of rage” in the poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”?
Answer: The poet is creating the image of a bird held in a barred cage which is in opposition to a bird flying free that she describes in the first stanza. The bird is “stalking” around in that cage which connotes anger and frustration. It is blinded by that “rage” and understands that there is no escape from its bars of incarceration. The bird cannot visualize what the free bird can because it is caged with pent up anger. The “bars of rage” are a metaphor for the feelings of people who are bound by slavery, ignorance, and prejudice. Ms Angelou goes on to explain that the bird cannot obtain its freedom but it chooses to express itself joyously implying that although it maybe be angry and unable to break those bonds, it will not be silenced.

Question 13. In “Caged Bird,” what does the line “and his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream” mean?

Answer: Maya Angelou’s 1983 poem “Caged Bird” compares the plight of a caged bird to the flight of a free bird. Many readers have interpreted Angelou’s poem as an extended metaphor with the caged bird representing the historical struggles of African Americans.

The line above is in the 5th stanza, which describes the caged bird who “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.” The grave of dreams can refer to a person who has given up on his dreams. The shadow, rather than the bird itself, shouts, revealing a sense of powerlessness, for who would hear the shout of a shadow? This contrasts with the free bird described in the previous stanza who boldly “names the sky his own.”

The caged bird’s “nightmare scream” gives an otherworldly sense that, again, the cry will not be heard. The words “shadow” and “nightmare” evoke a dark outlook, where only the bird’s shadow or nightmares may escape the confines of the cage.


Extra Questions


Question 1.How does the poet describe the world of nature?
Answer: The poet uses various images to describe nature. She presents the image of a “free bird” leaping on the “back of the wind.” Since we can literally see a bird in nature leaping, jumping, or flying against the wind. Then she writes of the bird floating “downstream and dipping its wing “in the orange sun rays.” Since the poet is now speaking of a bird in relation to a stream, we get the sense she is speaking of a waterfowl, like a duck. Plus, we can literally see the bird floating downstream. Besides, though a bird will not literally dip its wings into the rays of the sun, we know that the sun’s rays reflect on surfaces of water. Hence, based on the final couple of lines in the first stanza, we can picture the bird literally dipping its wings into the image of the sun reflected on the water and then flying off into the sky. Thus, the poet gives us beautiful sight images of nature.

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Question 2. What is the symbolic significance of the sun, sky and wind in the first stanza?
Answer: The sun, sky and wind symbolically signify open spaces and skies or n other words freedom.

Question 3. What is the free bird metaphor for?

Answer: In Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird” she provides a juxtaposition of a free bird’s life with that of a caged bird. The free bird symbolizes people who live in this world unencumbered by the prejudice of any type whether it be racial, socioeconomic, or psychological.

The free bird has the opportunity to move through life soaking in its abundance. The people who are afforded this freedom, forge through life making their own decisions and choices. “The sky is the limit” for those who are free; those who do not face oppression. Without worrying about restrictions, the free bird is able to experience life as an enjoyable adventure. The people represented by the free bird are able to think of the mundane things in life, instead of battling for survival.

Question 4. What is the encaged bird fearful of?

Answer: The “caged bird” stands for none other than the oppressed blacks. Devoid of liberty and basic human rights, the blacks have led hellish lives, full of pains and sufferings, for centuries. Its song of freedom demonstrates the rage and optimism of the blacks that toughen them to endure. Although the caged bird “sings of freedom, ” she sings “with a fearful trill. ” The dream of liberty has been seen by blacks for ages. The poet’s uncountable ancestors have spent their whole lives hoping to see the light of freedom. This discomforting sense of undergoing persecution for years is well evoked in the following lines:

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

The blacks’ dream of liberty is very old. Despite their continued struggle, they have suffered defeat and frustrations repeatedly. Thus, the caged bird’s fear is about the uncertainty of achieving freedom in the future. Its fears reflect those of the blacks who no more wish to go through the pains of racism, discrimination and bestial treatment at the hands of the whites. The blacks are scared of the darkness hanging over the lives of their offspring. The word “nightmare” is suggestive of the blacks’ unspeakable suffering and “scream” reflects their expression of agony.

Question 5. His tune is heard on the distant hill’. Explain.
Answer: The author implies that even though the caged bird may have never experienced true freedom, deep down that bird still knows that it was created to be free. Although freedom, to the caged bird, is “fearful” because it is “unknown”, he still sings “a fearful trill” because he still longs for freedom. Here, the speaker reveals that his cry for freedom is “heard on the distant hill”. The last line states, “For the caged bird sings of freedom”. This is paralleled to the African American struggle in Maya Angelou’s time. She feels that black Americans wrote and sang and danced and cried out for the freedom they deserved, but they were only heard as a distant voice. Yet, this would not stop them from crying out for freedom and equality because they knew they were made for freedom, and they would not relent until they were given their rights as human beings to enjoy the freedom they were created to enjoy.

Question 6. How is the theme of self-awareness shown in the poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou?

Answer: The theme of self-awareness is shown in the poem “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou in that the poet highlights how this bird has a rage within itself. This rage is because this caged bird senses it is missing out on freedom that other birds and living creatures know. This bird “…stalks down his narrow cage.” This “stalking” alludes to the fact that the bird is prowling for release from his restricted way of life. This bird is self-aware that it is living in an unnatural environment. To this caged bird, the bars of the cage are “bars of rage.” In addition, self-awareness is conveyed by the fact that this bird makes a bold effort to sing. Because its wings and feet are restricted (due to clipping and tying), its only recourse to let anyone know of its desire to be free is to sing. The bird sings to let anyone who will listen know that it is straining for freedom. Self-awareness here (the bird understanding its plight) is shown by the fact that the bird longs for something that is unknown. It desires this unknown that is out there because it senses that the unknown is better than being caged and, in essence, a slave to its man-made environment, where it cannot spread its wings and soar.

Question 7.What do ‘trade winds’ and ‘fat worms’ symbolise?
Answer: Trade winds symbolise the freedom of movement, the free will of the free bird to go anywhere it pleases, unlike the caged bird who is restricted behind the bars of its cage. Fat worms symbolise the freedom to choose what it wants to eat by going anywhere it wants which is denied to the caged bird. The caged bird is restricted and discriminated and cannot exercise free will even for the most ordinary things.

Question 8. How does the poet use the contrast between the two birds to reveal racism in America?
Answer: Angelou celebrates her survival and that of all African Americans in oppression. In the poem, “Caged Bird” are two traditional literary themes: reversal of fortune and survival of the unfittest. By presenting the free bird before depicting the caged bird, Angelou helps the reader visualize what the caged bird must have been like before its capture; the description of the two contrasting environments helps the reader feel the sense of loss of the captured bird because of its reversed fate. Even with its clipped wings, tied feet, narrow quarters, and bars of rage, however, the fragile, caged bird is still able to survive and to soar again through its song; this imprisoned bird truly epitomizes the survival of the unfittest, the major theme in the verse.

These contrasting environments—the freedom of the open world and the restrictive surroundings of the caged bird—create the setting for the poem. The reader can feel the breeze, see the sun, imagine the rich feast of fat worms, and hear the sighing trees of the world of the free creature; in contrast, the reader feels the fear and restricted movement, sees the bars, imagines the wants of the oppressed. Racism and discrimination bound the Africans and they were not free to realise their aspirations. Many readers have interpreted Angelou’s poem as an extended metaphor with the caged bird representing the historical struggles of African Americans. The poem expresses the emotional and psychological effects of being oppressed and removed from the possibility of self-determination due to racism in American society.

Question 9. What parallel can be drawn to the poet’s feelings and that of the caged bird?
Answer: The line “For the caged bird sings of freedom” parallels the author and her cry for freedom in the form of equality. She feels that her cries are heard, but only as soft background noise. She still feels that she is caged and that although she sings, her cries are heard only as a distant noise.

And because of being discriminated she is restricted and cannot realise many of her dreams.

Question 10. Explain, ‘stands on the grave of dreams / his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream’.
Answer: The grave of dreams can refer to a person who has given up on his dreams. The shadow, rather than the bird itself, shouts, revealing a sense of powerlessness, for who would hear the shout of a shadow? This contrasts with the free bird described in the previous stanza who boldly “names the sky his own.” The caged bird’s “nightmare scream” gives an otherworldly sense that, again, the cry will not be heard. The words “shadow” and “nightmare” evoke a dark outlook, where only the bird’s shadow or nightmares may escape the confines of the cage.


Very Short Answers Questions


Answer the following questions
1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a poem written by…………..
Ans. Maya Angelou

2. Maya Angelou is an………………
Ans. African-American poet

3. “But a bird that stalks /down his narrow cage can seldom see through/his bars of rage”

These lines occur in………………..

Ans. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Short Answer Questions

Answer the questions in two or three sentences

1. How does Maya Angelou portray white supremacy in the poem?

Ans. The white race is represented by the free bird which can fly freely everywhere in the sky. The privileged white believe that the history of America is the history of the whites.

2. How does she evoke sympathy for the black?

Ans. The black is represented by the caged bird. Its wings are clipped and its feet are tied. It can only hop about in the narrow cage behind bars. It is denied of its freedom.

3. Why, according to the poet, does the caged bird sing?

Ans. The bird’s wings are clipped and its feet are tied. And so it opens its throat to sing.

Paragraph Type Question(s)

Answer in a paragraph of not more than 100 words

1. Comment on the use of metaphors in the poem.

Ans. Maya Angelou uses the metaphor of a bird in this poem. The entire poem is an extended metaphor of the racial segregation present in society. The caged bird symbolizes the oppression and suffering of the black race. The caged bird cannot fly for its wings are clipped and its feet are tied. It is denied of any free movement. This shows how the blacks are tormented by the whites. The caged bird sings with a fearful trill to show his protest. While the free bird symbolizes the white who believe that the history of America is the history of the whites. The free bird claims to be the sole inheritor of the national tradition. The whites think that the blacks have nothing to look back with pride or look forward with hope. The poet vividly gives a picture of the suffering of the blacks through the metaphor of a bird.

Essay Type Questions(s)

Write an essay of 300 words

1. Comment on the treatment of themes, such as discrimination, racism, and perseverance in the poem.

Ans. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of Maya Angelou’s powerful poem expressing the African American’s intense longing for freedom. Angelou uses the metaphor of a bird to point out the racial segregation present in society.

The caged bird represents the black race, discriminated against and segregated by the white race while the free bird represents the privileged white who believe that the history of America is the history of the whites. The free bird can fly everywhere without any limitations or restrictions as it has the entire sky as its domain. The free bird claims to be the sole inheritor of the national tradition. The caged bird is denied of its freedom. Its wings are clipped and its feet are tied. It cant fly freely. Its movement is restricted within the narrow confines of the cage. So it opens its throat to sing. This caged bird is the symbol of the oppressed black. The black find themselves exiled in their own land. The whites think that the blacks have nothing to look back with pride or look forward with hope.

The free bird thinks of another breeze and trade winds whereas the caged bird stands on the grave of dreams. What the poet means is that the white people have every opportunity to have a good living. But the black people are denied of every opportunity and they live in misery However the black people await release from all their miseries, with patience and determination.

Through the powerful metaphor of a bird, Maya Angelou has given expression to the themes of discrimination, racism and perseverance.

Conceptual Words

Downstream: In the direction in which a stream or river flows Stalks: Move silently or threateningly through (a place).
Seldom: Not often; rarely.
Rage: Violent uncontrollable anger.
Clipped: Cut off a thing or part of a thing with shears or scissors.
Trill: Produce a quavering or warbling sound.
Nightmare: A frightening or unpleasant dream

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