The Bird Ch ri. William Adolphe Bouguereau. 1867.



Paul Laurence Dunbar


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 grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

When the first bird sings and the fist bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what  the caged bird feels!


I know why the caged bird beats his wing

Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;

And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars

And they pulse again with a keener sting—

I know why he beats his wing!


I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—

I know why the caged bird sings!


The writer Paul Laurence Dunbar is celebrated as the first important black poet in American history. He was highly acclaimed even in his own time by the likes of James Weldon, James Newton Matthew, and James Whitcomb Riley.

Dunbar’s first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1893 with editorial assistance from friend and former classmate Orville Wright (one of the famous flying brothers). The volume included what remains perhaps Dunbar’s most popular poem—”Sympathy,” in which he uses the image of a caged bird to movingly express the plight of blacks in American society.

One thought on “Sympathy”

  1. This is my favorite poem by Dunbar! I have an old antique book of his works, and this one is my favorite so far. I truly appreciate his contribution to poetry in spite of his racial background, and I am greatly happy that he does not rant and complain about his poor situation in every poem; rather he allows his dark emotions to cry out as well as his praise of the goodness of mankind and nature. Thank you, Dunbar!

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