The Exploration of Dedication in “Sympathy” and “Caged Bird” Martin Luther King

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A notable revolutionary, once said, “If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” (King) Similarly, both poems 'Sympathy' and 'Caged Bird' examine related themes about dedication through the captured bird’s continuous persistence and use of his helpless song despite previous efforts. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy” focuses on an enclosed bird’s constant fighting against numerous physical limitations from deserved opportunities, emphasizing his hopeless shouting for liberty. In contrast, Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” explicitly discusses a trapped bird’s attempts to overcome various boundaries using his underestimated song and constant perseverance. While both poems “Sympathy” and “Caged Bird” share a comparable theme about African American's battle for deserved advantages by using the captured birds’ helpless song as a representation for African American’s only resource against restrictions and examining the idea of the enclosed birds’ dedication to freedom despite previous painful efforts, they also differ as “Sympathy” has a more regulated form than “Caged Bird” contributing to their different perspectives about the possibility of liberty for African Americans.

In both 'Sympathy' and 'Caged Bird,' the authors purposefully use the enclosed bird’s sorrowful song as a representation of African Americans’ only remaining tool against various restrictions, explaining the theme about African American’s battle for deserved advantages. In “Sympathy,” the captured bird uses his song as his only tool for communication and an indirect protest for his deserved opportunities. Dunbar states, “It is not a carol of joy or glee, / But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core” (lines 18, 19). In this quote, the bird’s cries and sorrowful song were misinterpreted for happiness, although they were his only resources for demanding liberty. Even though the bird’s song is full of longing and anger, others misunderstood the bird’s cries as cheerful and dismiss its true meaning. As a result, the bird’s misunderstood singing represents African American’s secret portrayal of difficulties disguised under joyful songs. Similarly to “Sympathy,” the enclosed bird in “Caged Bird” used his voice as a resource to try to overcome these injustices despite his restrictions. The author notes, “His wings are clipped and / his feet are tied / so he opens his throat to sing” (Angelou 12-14).

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In this quote, readers can observe that despite the trapped bird’s physical restrictions, he will forever maintain control over his feelings and words. Although tying the bird’s wings restrict his physical abilities, his perspective and emotions cannot be controlled by anyone else, accurately connecting with African American's underestimated voice. Similar to the lack of response in 'Sympathy,' in “Caged Bird,” the captured bird’s “tune is heard / on the distant hill” (19, 20) represents that although African American’s protests about their restrictions are heard, they continue to be disregarded and overlooked. Thus, both authors in 'Sympathy' and 'Caged Bird' used the trapped bird’s helpless song to represent African Americans’ only resource against multiple limitations, contributing to the theme about African American’s battle for liberty. Secondly, along with the use of helpless songs as single remaining tools, both “Sympathy” and “Caged Bird” continue to examine the idea of the enclosed birds’ dedication to freedom despite previous painful efforts and destroyed envisions. In “Sympathy,” the trapped bird uses his dedication throughout painful attempts to break through restrictions. In Dunbar’s words, “And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars … When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore” (12,16). In this quote, the helpless bird forcefully throws and injures himself in order to achieve liberty, relating specifically to African American’s continuous and never-ending efforts against injustices. Additionally, readers can observe the captured bird’s endurance despite old wounds, demonstrating that his painful injuries and failures serve as reminders and encouragement for a greater dedication. Similarly to the captured bird, post injustices persuade African Americans to battle even harder for their deserved advantages.

Likewise, the captured bird in “Caged Bird” is faced with various moral and physical limitations but continues to portray persistence during devastating times. The author comments, “But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams / his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream” (Angelou 27, 28). In this quote, the enclosed bird has anticipated and dreamt before of advantages and liberty, but his visions were continuously crushed and destroyed. The helpless bird’s desires represent his previous efforts and persistence at wanting to express his decisions, individuality, and longing for liberty, contrasting slightly with “Sympathy’s” painful and violent attempts for similar opportunities. As a result, the captured bird’s constant perseverance during impactful and scarring failures represents African American’s dedication to unreachable advantages despite their surrounding’s disapproval. All in all, both authors in “Sympathy” and “Caged Bird” examined the idea of the enclosed birds’ continuous perseverance for freedom despite previous painful efforts, thus adding to the theme about African American’s persistence for liberty.

Finally, while both poems share similarities regarding the enclosed bird’s dedication against restrictions, they differ as “Sympathy” has a restricted form whereas “Caged Bird” has an unpredictable structure, contributing to their contrasting perspectives about the opportunity of liberty for African Americans. On one side, “Sympathy” consists of a predictable rhyming pattern and a controlled syllable count, providing an intentionally limited form. Dunbar writes: 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 grassAnd the river flows like a stream of glass. (1-4)In this quote, readers can observe the stanza’s restricted rhyming pattern and 7-10 range of syllables, explaining the enclosed bird’s restrained decisions and lack of individuality.

Additionally, while the poem’s square-shaped structure creates the effect of a cage, readers can notice several lines advancing to the right, demonstrating the enclosed bird’s slight opportunity at fighting back against his boundaries. Furthermore, the poem’s time period in 1899 explains its regulated structure and indirect representation of African American’s hopeless opportunity for liberty. On the contrary, “Caged Bird” contains an erratic rhyming pattern and an unlimited syllable count, emphasizing a purposefully irregular form. Angelou explains:The free bird thinks of another breezeand the trade winds soft through the sighing treesand the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawnand he names the sky his own. (23-26) In this quote, contrarily to “Sympathy,” the author’s unstable rhyming pattern and syllable count portray the enclosed bird’s hopeful battle against injustices. Beginning with a regulated form, the poem’s shape suddenly breaks, but quickly returns to its restricted shape, therefore only hinting African American's possibility of gaining their deserved advantages. Written in 1983, the poem’s recent time period explains its hopeful structure and enables readers to observe the beginning of African American’s true decisions and rebellion. Thus, the restricted form of “Sympathy” differs from the uncontrollable rhyming pattern and erratic syllable count of “Caged Bird,” therefore demonstrating contrasting views about African American's opportunity for liberty.

To conclude, even though 'Sympathy' and 'Caged Bird' use the trapped bird’s helpless songs and painful wounds as only tools for fighting against injustices, they differ with their contrasting perspectives about the possibility of liberty for African Americans through their opposing structures. First, by incorporating the enclosed bird’s sorrowful song, the poems were capable of using his cries as a representation for African American’s single remaining tool against limitations, therefore emphasizing the theme about African American’s constant fighting for opportunities. Secondly, by examining the captured bird’s persistence for liberty despite physical restrictions and painful efforts, the poems were able to demonstrate African American’s endless dedication throughout injustices. Finally, the regulated form of “Sympathy” differs significantly with the erratic structure of “Caged Bird,” explaining their different views about the possibility of liberty for African Americans. Thus, both authors successfully portray that despite the world’s hopeless obstacles and restrictions, previous generation's dedicated battles for their liberty will allow future ones to eventually become the free birds who release themselves from their ancestor’s worn down cages.

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The Exploration of Dedication in “Sympathy” and “Caged Bird” Martin Luther King. (2020, November 26). WritingBros. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from
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