38 pages 1 hour read

Caged Bird

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1983

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“Caged Bird” (1983) by Maya Angelou is a free verse poem about freedom and oppression. The poem builds on her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), which was her first autobiography chronicling her experiences growing up as a Black woman in America.

“Caged Bird” utilizes an extended metaphor to capture the experience of an oppressed group of people. The poem contrasts freedom and captivity and utilizes everyday language and sentence structure to offer an accessible message of hope and freedom. Because Angelou does not specify an oppressed group, the poem can represent any group of people who feel trapped; however, most critics view the poem as a comment on the experience of Black Americans.

While Angelou’s poetry does not have the same historical legacy as her prose, this poem is one of her more popular works. More than anything, the title’s allusion to her most popular book has given this poem more exposure and readership over the years.

Poet Biography

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson, but she changed her name to Maya Angelou when she worked as a dancer and singer in the 1950s. Trauma, movement, and the devastating effects of racism and segregation marred Angelou’s childhood. She and her brother moved between their mother’s house and their grandmother’s house in Stamps, Arkansas. When Angelou was seven, her mother’s boyfriend raped her. When she told her family about this, the man went to jail for one day; however, when he left jail, he was murdered. Angelou believed her uncles were responsible.

The rape and subsequent murder traumatized Angelou, and she became mute for the next five years, believing it was her voice that killed her rapist. During this time, she developed a love for poetry and books. Angelou wouldn’t regain her voice until a teacher encouraged her to speak the poetry that she had fallen in love with.

As an adult, Angelou moved between many careers, including as a singer, a dancer, an actress, and a sex worker. Eventually, she became involved in the civil rights movement and other political activities, contributing to these movements as a writer.

Her writing took her from New York to Los Angeles to Africa, where she lived for a few years during the early 1960s. Throughout the decade, she worked with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and she advocated for communism in Cuba and the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

Angelou became famous in 1969 with the publication of her first and most well-known memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book launched her later career as a lecturer, a professor, and a lifelong writer of poetry and autobiography. Her fame reached its zenith in 1993 when President-elect Bill Clinton asked her to do a poetry reading at his inauguration.

Angelou would continue to teach, write books, and compose poetry until her death in 2013.

Poem Text

Angelou, Maya. “Caged Bird.” 1983. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

“Caged Bird” features two contrasting characters: a caged bird and a free bird. The poem opens with a description of the free bird’s life. The free bird flies with the wind, moving however the bird wants. The bird exists in a natural world where the wind “floats downstream” (Line 3) like water and where the sky is lit by “orange sun rays” (Line 6). The first stanza ends by proclaiming that the free bird “dares to claim the sky” (Line 7).

The second stanza introduces the caged bird. The image of the caged bird is very different from the free bird. This bird can barely see through the bars of the cage, and “his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied” (Lines 12-13), suggesting he cannot move or fly. However, even though this bird cannot move, he can sing.

The bird sings of what he has never experienced. Even though he does not personally know of the things he sings of, he sings of them anyway, as they are “things unknown / but longed for still” (Lines 17-18). The third stanza ends with the image of the caged bird’s song echoing over the land.

The poem then returns to the free bird. This bird seems not to hear the caged bird’s song; instead, the free bird only cares for the next breeze, the trees, “and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn” (Line 25). The description of the free bird again ends with the idea that he has ownership over the sky.

The fifth stanza returns to the caged bird, who “stands on the grave of dreams” (Line 27). His situation is like “a nightmare scream” (Line 28), “so he opens his throat to sing” (Line 30).

The final stanza repeats stanza three, again reminding the reader that the caged bird sings of what he longs for but does not know. The poem ends with the declaration that the bird sings for freedom.

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