Sympathy Poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


The poem “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar explores the feelings and experiences of a trapped bird in a profound and moving way. The poem represents the African American experience and the desire for freedom and equality because it was written at a time of racial segregation and persecution. Famous African American poet Dunbar, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, masterfully portrays the essence of the bird’s captivity and its longing for freedom. The poem awakens a strong sense of empathy and sheds light on the challenges and resiliency of individuals who experience oppression through vivid imagery and powerful language. “Sympathy” serves as evidence of Dunbar’s ability to tackle significant issues of identity, injustice, and the common longing for freedom.

About the poet

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was a well-known African American poet, writer, and dramatist. He was the son of former slaves and was born in Dayton, Ohio. He struggled with racial prejudice and had little prospects, yet he showed early literacy skill and was one of the first African American poets to win much recognition. His writings frequently addressed issues of racial identity, inequality, and the pursuit of dreams while examining the realities of African Americans. His work is lyrical, expressively beautiful, and filled with vivid imagery. Despite being a successful poet, he struggled throughout his life. His works are still praised for their artistic and cultural value.


Stanza 1

I know what the caged bird feels, alas! 

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!


The speaker conveys his understanding of the caged bird’s feelings in this stanza. He talks about how nature is full of life and joy, with things like the bright sun, the quiet wind, the springing grass, and the flowing river. The first bird’s singing and the opening of the first blossom, which releases a mild, enticing smell into the air, announce the beginning of spring. The speaker claims that he is intimately familiar with the emotions and hardships that the caged bird suffers through.


These lines from the poem effectively describe the caged bird’s contrasted experiences with the natural world. The depiction of the sun, wind, grass, and river uses images to convey a sense of life and freedom. The phrase “I know” is repeated to highlight the speaker’s understanding of and connection to the feelings of the caged bird. The reader’s senses are awakened by the use of sensory imagery, which increases the poem’s emotional effect. Examples include the bright sun, soft wind, and flowing rivers. The speaker’s sympathy for the caged bird indicates a more extensive symbolic meaning. The poem explores issues of confinement, the desire for release, and the human spirit’s resilience in the face of injustice. The overall message of these lines is a sense of sympathy and understanding for individuals who are restricted and denied life’s simple pleasures.

Stanza 2

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!


The speaker provides an explanation for the caged bird’s wing flapping in these lines. He explains that the bird hits the cruel bars of its cage until its wings bleed because it yearns to go back to its perch and be liberated, to swing on the branch like birds in the wild. The bird beats its wings in anger and longing for freedom while the pain of old wounds and scars continues to throb and ache in its body.


These lines delve into the reason for the caged bird’s agitation and constant wing-beating. The speaker explains the bird’s behavior as a result of its underlying need for freedom and resistance to the confinement’s limitations. The illustration of the bird beating its wings against the ferocious bars of the cage till they become red illustrates the creature’s fierce determination and battle for freedom. The term “cruel” implies the oppressiveness of the cage and the pain the bird must have gone through. The reference to “old, old scars” implies that the bird has been trapped for a long time and has gone through several episodes of chaining and restriction.

The speaker’s empathy for the bird’s situation is supported by the use of the phrase “I know” several times. These lines emphasize the wish for freedom, the negative effects of confinement, and the persistent suffering of oppression—the poem’s main themes. They serve to demonstrate the resilience and determination of people who are oppressed or confined, as well as the innate human urge for autonomy and the pursuit of a fulfilling life.

Stanza 3

I know why the caged bird 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 upward to Heaven he flings— 

I know why the caged bird sings!


The speaker thinks about why the caged bird sings in these lines. He believes that the song of the bird is a moving prayer or cry for liberation rather than a statement of joy or contentment. The bird still sings in a frantic attempt to escape its cage and soar to the heights, even when its wings have been damaged and its heart is heavy.


The last stanza of “Sympathy” focuses on the significance and nature of the caged bird’s singing. The speaker recognizes that the bird’s song expresses a profound longing for freedom and deliverance from its captivity rather than delight or glee. The depiction of the bird’s damaged wing and sore bosom emphasizes the psychological and physical costs of imprisonment while highlighting the brutal reality of its existence within the bars of the cage. The statement “I know” is repeated to further emphasize the speaker’s understanding of and sympathy for the suffering of the bird. The idea that the bird is pleading with Heaven suggests that its desire for freedom has a spiritual component. The song of the imprisoned bird is heartbreaking and immensely symbolic, and these lines reveal its true meaning as a passionate cry for freedom and a manifestation of the indomitable human spirit.