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Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar


Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem titled "Sympathy" is a metaphor for what it means to be a black male during the 1800s. As a poet, Dunbar was praised as the Poet Laureate of the black race, but at the same time he was criticized for being too pro-white within his writings. With this being said, much of Dunbar's literary success didn't happen until the second-half of the 20th century.

Dunbar was an intelligent man who wrote in both common English and black dialect. Poetic scholars like William Dean Howells has suggested Dunbar's poetry can be divided into two specific groups: dialect and literary. It is often believed that Dunbar's poetry written in dialect is a more authentic view of himself and his culture.

This poem, "Sympathy", is an example of Dunbar's literary poems. However, this poem does serve cultural significance even without Dunbar's use of dialect. This poem is made up of three stanzas with each consisting of a rhyming pattern: ABCCBAA, ABAABAA, ABCCBAA.

"Sympathy" is about a bird who is peeking outside his cage and sees a beautiful landscape with the sun shining bright. The author continues the poem by stating he knows the way the bird feels. The second stanza mentions the bird clanging his wings against the bars until it bleeds. The bird's "old, old scars" suggests that the bird has done this many times before, wanting terribly to get out. The author also wants to get out. The final stanza is about the bird singing, not of "joy or glee" but of prayer. The bird is asking God to let him leave his cage to enjoy the beauties of the outside world. Dunbar states he knows why the bird acts this way and even suggests that he does the same.

This writing is a metaphor for how Dunbar feels about his life and how many blacks felt about their own during the time of its writing. They felt trapped inside a cage, wishing they could get out and enjoy the other areas of life the same way whites could. They wanted to enjoy the river and the "springing grass." However, no matter how hard they tried and prayed, it wasn't possible. But even knowing their fate, they continue trying.



I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright in the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
Whend the first bird sings and the first buds opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals -
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting -
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged birds sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that updward to Heaven he flings -
I know why the caged bird sings.

Next: We Wear the Mask
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Literary Movement
Modernism, 19th Century

Race, Animal, Nature, Freedom, God, Life

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