‘‘Sympathy’’ is a lyric in iambic tetrameter, seven line stanzas of four metric feet per line. The last line of each stanza is shorter, with three feet. The first line establishes the poem’s controlling metaphor of the caged bird looking at a spring day, which mirrors the speaker’s situation. The speaker ends the line with an exclamation that suggests a sigh of regret. Although the main rhythm of the poem is iambic (alternating unstressed and stressed beats), many spondees (two strong beats together) are used for emphasis. The next few lines create a contrast between the cage and a beautiful spring day. The bird would especially feel restrained on a day when the sun is shining outside on the meadows and hills. In line 3, the image of wind blowing through fresh grass creates a feeling of refreshment and freedom, denied to the caged bird. The rhyme scheme of this stanza is ABAABCC. Lines 1, 3, and 4 are connected through end rhyme, which helps create the melodious singing sound of wind and the river in the next line. The alliteration (repetition of initial consonants) in lines 2, 3, 4, and 5, reinforces the flowing sounds of wind and water.
In line 4, the river, like the wind, is another image of movement. This dynamic quality of the landscape would make anyone inside a small space feel restless. The first bird singing in spring, depicted in line 5, and the first flower opening express hope ordinarily, but to one shut up, it would be torture not to share the joy of expansion, to be a mere onlooker. The perfume from the flower is delicate and subtle, like a bird’s song. The suggestion in line 6 that the perfume actually sneaks out of the flower cup when no one is looking (through alliteration) is another image of the natural expression of living things that cannot be denied or shut off. The thought breaks off with a dash creating suspense before the last line of the stanza. The expansion of the previous line is brought to a sudden halt in line 7 with the return to the image of the caged bird. The rhythm and rhyme of the poem establish the nature of life to sing out.
In line 8, the speaker says he understands why the bird beats its wing inside the cage. The spondees emphasize the useless flapping of the bird’s wings. In the next line, the bird continues hopelessly to beat its wings on the cage bars until it bleeds. The repeated alliteration in lines 8 and 9 create a feeling of restraint. The cage metaphor suggests the former slave status of black people, but it also signifies a current restraint. The poet’s wife, Alice Dunbar, says he wrote the poem when he was working all day in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., looking out the barred windows to the green grass and trees. He felt imprisoned, doing menial work, when he wanted to be writing. In line 10, the bird flaps his wings but instead of getting anywhere, it must return to its perch. The spondee in the middle of the line recreates this image of the flapping wings pushing the bird back to its perch.
In line 11, the speaker expresses what the bird wants to do. Instead of clinging to a perch, it wants to be on the swinging branch of a tree. Both a perch and a bough are made of wood, but one is alive with movement, and one is dead and artificial as part of a man-made birdcage. It is apparent in line 12 that the bird has obviously repeated this action many times because it has scars from previous attempts to free itself from its cage. The fact that the scars are very old, however, could also suggest the legacy of slavery. The current pain of facing racism and restriction evokes the old historical wound that is still bleeding. Each time the bird tries to get free and is thwarted, the pain in its wings hurts more. Line 13 ends with a dash, like hitting a brick wall. The pressure of the emotion has built up in this stanza without any resolution. To underscore this lack of movement forward, the concluding couplet is not CC but again, AA (the stanza’s rhyme scheme is ABAABAA). Lines 8, 10, 11, 13, and 14 all rhyme. There are only two rhymes in this stanza, A and B, as though the bird is only allowed to sing one or two notes. Line 14 is a concluding shorter line and echoes line 8, which is a variation of the refrain of the poem.
LINES 15–17 In line 15, the speaker says he understands why the bird in the cage sings, and again utters a sigh of sadness. The bird’s wing is injured and its heart is sore, in line 16, and yet the bird sings. Its heart is not in the song, and yet it still sings. This is what people want from a caged bird: a song. There is ‘‘B’’ alliteration in lines 16 and 17 as the speaker describes the bird once again beating his wings to get free. The ‘‘B’’ is a sound that stops as it is articulated. It suggests that the power of the bird’s song is stifled. This line could also paradoxically explain the fact that the only freedom the bird or speaker feels is in singing, even if constrained.
Lines 15, 17, and 18 rhyme, but the lyrical effect is muted in this stanza, with darker images and harsher sounds. In line 18, the speaker says that the song the bird sings is not joyful. The song the bird sings is a spontaneous prayer from its heart. The feeling that the bird has reached its limit is recreated in the three strong beats together at the end of line 19. In line 20, the bird’s song is also described as a plea, a begging to a higher power for relief. This tentative prayer ends with a dash at the end of the line, showing that it is inconclusive. The rhyme scheme of this stanza is the same as the first stanza (ABAABCC). It explains that the speaker understands why the bird is singing despite its imprisonment.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.