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Freedom and Confinement in the Poem Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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Literature is essentially, an appearance of life through the medium of language. A subaltern may refer to someone who is of low ranking in social, political, or other step. Denoted by a person who is marginalized or oppressed, many subaltern studies writers like Ranajit Guha, Gyan Prakash, Ajay Skaria and Saurabh Dubehad produced so many works in English on their own style. Among them Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African American poet, novelist, and playwright who had composed the poem “sympathy” which mainly focuses on sufferings of a “caged bird”. In this poem, the poet portray about lack of freedom.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Kentucky. He was an American poet, novelist, and playwright of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He became one of the first important Black poets in American literature, and was internationally highly praised for his dialectic poetry in collections such as Majors and Minors (1895) and Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896).Dunbar’s literary body is regarded as an inspiring representation of black life in turn-of-the-century America. Among the latter is one of his most popular poems, “Sympathy”, in which he expresses, in somber tone, the plight of black people in America society.

The theme of the poem 'Sympathy' is racism and imprisoning, it brings on the spirit. In the poem, the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar compares himself to a caged bird. He can empathize with how the bird feels; just as the bird looks with longing at the attractive world just beyond the bars that cage him in, so the poet, as a black man in America in the early 1900s, feels about his situation as a victim of a racism and discrimination in his civilization.

I know what caged bird feels

When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

When the first bird sings and t

he first bud opens,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals” (Dunbar 2-6)

I know why the caged bird feels for in the early morning when the sun shines in the morning the first bird opens in its own way and when all the natural things take place in natural way the caged bird feels blotted. It feels sad for not having freedom like others. This sentiment leads him to protest.

I know why the caged bird beats his wings

“Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

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When he fain would be on the bough a swing;

And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars

And the pulse again with a keener sting”(Dunbar 9-13)

I know why the bird placed in the cage beats his wings. I feel obstacles to the bird resistance leads to the resistance but he is not given anything other than that injury. Until red, his wound becomes a scar but he does not get freedom. In the result he moves to an act of singing for freedom.

I know why the caged bird sings

“When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,

When he beats his bars and he 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 upward to Heaven he flings” (Dunbar16-20)

I know why the cage bird sings. When it comes to singing, it tries to forget the situation. When protests give him nothing he starts to do a prayer, he sends towards heaven through this prayer he appeals for freedom. Empathy likes freedom and dislike prison have. The caged birds are not free to eat small worms or to build a nest on a tree, which means the birds cannot do what they want to do. But the speaker describes his own freedom and oppression like this cage bird how he feels like the cage bird because he is not free like that bird.

'Sympathy' is a poem about a bird. So in the game world this is about what race is? Dunbar was an important African-American poet in the Harlem Renaissance which is the flowering of African American literature and arts. The fact in this cage was that many writers and poets of the renaissance wrote about the race. Above all they were still living in a detached country where blacks were considered secondary citizens.

We usually do not think about this but a bird trapped in a cage is like a prisoner. Of course, those birds are very beautiful in the small oscillations in the cage. But the fact of the matter indicates that birds are trapped in cages not mean they are stuck in jail. This prison is the source of the suffering of birds in the poem. We find natural images in 'sympathy' - it's about a bird. The natural images in 'Sympathy' serve to make us feel all that poor cage birds are excluded. The beautiful landscape contrasts with the crowded cage of the bird and helps you understand how much the bird suffers from oppression.

The speaker in the poem and Paul Laurence Dunbar may have related way of thinking because B. Dunbar was an African American citizen in a society that limited his rights and freedoms. Although slavery has already sounded, the communal political inferiority is more common in the lives of many African Americans. That time Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African American poets to achieve great recognition in the U.S.

Freedom is life. Everybody wants to be independent. Life is sluggish without freedom. The bird is naturally a free flying creature but it is fascinated in the cage in the context of the poem. The bird wants to breathe fresh air in the forest and want to bathe in the cold water of the ostrich the bird stands metaphorically for slaves and oppressed people of America.


  1. Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar
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Freedom and Confinement in the Poem Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
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