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Caged Bird by Maya Angelou

by Molly Ross

Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘Caged Bird’, centres on the theme of freedom of speech and inequality within the human race; concepts which are profoundly conveyed through language techniques, poetic structure and form.


The structure of this poem is of great interest; with the regularity of the six stanzas, one could argue that Angelou has represented the stages of the human life, or perhaps its regularity. However, the alternating length of these stanzas contrasts the lives of the different human races. The third stanza, of which the lines are incredible short, often with only four words, such as ‘The caged bird sings’, could be representative of the lives of the black population. These short lines greatly increase the speed of the stanza, which has the effect of resonating the beating of a drum, or a march of protest – an idea that can be linked to the black people’s fight for equality. In contrast, the relatively long lines of the following stanza is suggestive of the languid disregard of the white people who live a relaxed and easy life, as is shown by the fluidity of lines such as ‘the trade winds soft through the sighing trees’.


As is shown in these examples, the author has chosen to use a ‘bird’ as a metaphor for the human race. This is particularly effective when referring to ‘a free bird’, which ‘leaps’ and ‘floats’ and ‘dips’, for its ability to fly and to move signifies its freedom, and that of the white population of humans. However, a bird which is ‘caged’, whose ‘wings are clipped’ and ‘his feet are tied’ is isolated from this freedom, representing the inhumane control exercised over the black population, despite us all being of the same species; just as all birds have the ability to fly.


As a result of the bird’s enforced restriction, the poet describes how ‘he opens his throat to sing’. Here the sufferings of the black population are further explored as the concept of freedom of speech is presented through the metaphor of birdsong. It succeeds in conveying the beauty and compassion that can be realised through words, and highlights the power of speech, even when physical capability is restricted.


The use of full end rhyme further communicates to the audience the power of the voice. Employing rhyme through use of the words, ‘trill’, ‘still’ and ‘hill’, adds fluidity to the poem, signifying the ease and success which can be achieved when granted the right to free speech.


However, when this speech is restricted from the black population, we are faced with the ‘grave of dreams’ on which the ‘caged bird stands’. A harrowing metaphor, this shows the hardship they have to endure; the lack of hope as a result of the incomprehensible superiority of the white race. Furthermore, when rhymed with ‘nightmare scream’, the extent of the inequality is conveyed, and we come to see the lives of the coloured population – the ‘caged bird’ – as a hell they are forced to endure.


This particularly resonating message is followed by the repetition of the final two lines of the third stanza, and the fourth stanza, which communicate the power of speech, as ‘the caged bird sings of freedom’. This conclusion to the poem, particularly following such a harrowing exposure of the lives of the black population acts as a message to the public, exemplifying Maya Angelou’s work as an activist for human equality. It reinforces the importance of freedom of speech, and leaves the reader considering the message, which was undoubtedly the intention of the poet.