Paul Laurence Dunbar
On the most immediate level, the poem was a response to the stifling confinement and heat he felt as he worked behind the iron grating of the book stacks in the summer. "All out of doors called” to him, and the sweltering heat and oppressive dust contributed to his deteriorating health. But he also depicts a relationship between suffering and creative expression that resonates far beyond the immediate discomfort of his occupation. As the son of freed slaves, he captured the conflict between the desire to take his place in the world, and the artificial barriers and prejudices he faced.
Despite being cut off in his prime by tuberculosis, Dunbar was a prolific writer. He published a dozen books of poetry, eight books, a play, and the lyrics for a musical. He also inspired Maya Angelou who used the last line in Sympathy as the title of her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
In our illustration, a musical staff is knotted into a cage. The clefs form a makeshift perch, and the trapped musical notes fill the stifling space.
Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar:
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 the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats its 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 bird sings, ah me,
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—
I know why the caged bird sings!