The central metaphor of the caged bird in ‘‘Sympathy,’’ with the bird forced to perform within confinement, could be taken as suggesting the slavery African Americans endured in the United States for two and a half centuries. Though Dunbar lived after the emancipation, the legacy of slavery continued through various social, legal, and psychological constraints. He was refused white collar or journalistic work because of his race, forced to work in the confinement of an elevator and the barred library stacks that were the inspiration for the poem. Dunbar was a brilliant and creative man, but he struggled to overcome the racial stereotype of blacks as slow, lazy, and child-like. The blacks he portrayed in his dialect poems, singing and dancing on the plantation, were part of the folklore of the past to him, like the Midwestern folklore used in James Whitcomb Riley’s poems. He heard stories of the Old South from his mother and had a talent for reproducing accent, phrasing, and characterization. Dunbar was also highly educated. He saw himself as middle class, urbane, worldly, and able to meet other artists from around the world.
Though Dunbar never denied his race, and in fact, made many statements on racial injustice, he did not feel he should be tied down to black dialect poems. He was interested in art and experimented with many genres and ethnic voices. He used both white and black characters in his fiction. Dunbar wrote serious literary pieces in the tradition of Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Dunbar became famous as an African American poet but few understood the range of his accomplishments or regarded his many talents as important. His dialect poems imitating the speech of southern plantation blacks were what made him popular, and people wanted to see him perform what they thought was authentic black speech. Like a bird in a cage, he felt he had to produce what audiences expected of a black man.
Dunbar never felt he had accomplished what he wanted. Critics have since interpreted his frustration in many ways; for instance, that he was unable to find an authentic black voice within white culture. The poem ‘‘Sympathy’’ is often taken as a statement of this dilemma, where the poet feels hemmed in and unable to be himself. The old scars that the bird carries from beating his wings on the bars could symbolize the scars of the black race that Dunbar also must carry, for though Dunbar lived a comparatively privileged life, moving freely in both black and white society, he was not free of being typecast. Similarly, much was expected of him as a symbol of his race. He was rarely allowed to be an individual publically. Other Dunbar poems that comment on racism include ‘‘The Haunted Oak,’’‘‘We Wear the Mask,’’‘‘The Poet,’’‘‘Right’s Security,’’‘‘The Warrior’s Prayer,’’‘‘To the South on Its New Slavery,’’‘‘Frederick Douglass,’’ and ‘‘Ode to Ethiopia.’’
A bird is a frequent poetic symbol for freedom since it can fly. It is also a common symbol in poetry for the poet. The yearning of the bird for its freedom in ‘‘Sympathy’’ is graphically portrayed when the bird sees the landscape outside. It hears other birds sing and the wind and river rushing and responds by beating its wings against the cage, trying to get out. The urge for freedom is so compelling that the bird endures pain again and again trying to fly, only to be beaten back. By presenting the contrast between the cage and the spring day, it is obvious that a cage is a cruel perversion of life. Whether meaning a literal cage, as slavery, or a psychological one, as Dunbar and many black artists have felt, Dunbar protests that it is wrong to thwart the potential of any living being. It is natural for every creature to express its life and want its freedom. In this poem, the bird, and by implication the speaker, is denied what is natural. The speaker has sympathy for the bird, so the poem is from the point of view of the one without freedom. An onlooker might think that the bird should be quiet, or that the speaker should be content. From the interior point of view, racial prejudice causes extreme suffering and damage. The poet emphasizes a sense of sympathy for the prisoner. Other Dunbar poems on the theme of freedom include ‘‘Emancipation,’’‘‘Ode to Ethiopia,’’‘‘Justice,’’‘‘Differences,’’ and ‘‘Lincoln.’’
The Nature of Poetry
Bird song is a metaphor for poetry. There are several implications about poetry in the poem. First, a poet is a person with sympathy. Sympathy means to feel with another being, to put oneself in the place of others. Dunbar’s writings, both poetry and prose, do exhibit such sympathy with a variety of characters from all cultures. For instance, his short story ‘‘The Lynching of Jube Benson’’ shows insight into both black and white psychology. He depicts African Americans in his dialect poems with humor and insight (‘‘The Party’’ and ‘‘When Malindy Sings’’).
Dunbar was influenced by Romantic literature for his serious poems and by regional local color writing for his dialect poems. His underlying aesthetic in the standard English verse is romantic in his choice of subject matter (love, great lives, art, freedom, injustice) and form (odes, ballads, sonnets, and lyrics). Romantic poets celebrated nature as Dunbar does in the first stanza of ‘‘Sympathy.’’ The poet, being sensitive, feels with all creatures, and sees and records beauty as well as injustice. While in his fiction Dunbar experimented with realism, for instance in his novel Sport of the Gods; in his poetry he holds romantic tenets, showing his talent as a great lyricist.
Freedom is essential for creativity to flow. A bird may sing in a cage, but it is not the same as the bird singing unfettered in nature. In fact, one cannot put restraint on song, for it is a spontaneous welling up of the impulse of life. This is brought out in the first stanza with the image of the perfume sneaking out of the flower cup. It is so delicate an expression that one might hardly notice how the perfume is emitted, but certainly, one could not stop a flower from putting forth its scent. It is part of the identity of the flower. Similarly, it is in the nature of a bird to sing or a poet to write. One does not tell the river how to flow or the bird how to sing. When society shuts down creativity or the voice of anyone trying to speak his or her truth, it is against nature, the nature of the individual, and of nature in general.
The song of a bird or poet comes from a deep place. Whether in joy or pain, the poet/ bird sings from the heart about the origin of its song. If restrained, the singer will not produce a happy song, but it is important to note that the desire to sing is so strong that even pain will not stop the singer from singing. In fact, it can make the song more poignant. This idea of the sorrow of African American song is inherent in the blues, and Dunbar believed that rich lyric sorrow was the essence of African music.
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.