Sympathy is written by Paul Laurence Dunbar in 1889 and Caged Bird is written by Maya Angelou in 1983. The two poems convey the same theme using similar technique, but differ in their structure and form.
First of all, both Sympathy and Caged Bird convey the idea that African Americans are facing oppression using allusion. In Sympathy, Dunbar refers to African American using the symbol of a “caged bird” whose “blood is red on the cruel bars” and whose “wing is bruised” and “bosom sore” (second and third stanza) when they are trying to fight. Similarly, Angelou also uses the same allusion in Caged Bird as she refers to the African American who is bound by rules and regulations of the society as “a bird that stalks down his narrow cage” with his wings “clipped” and his feet “tied”. This allusion effectively demonstrates the situation of African Americans in which they have no freedom and are locked in the “cage” of serious racism and prejudices.
However, the two poems widely differ in their form and structure. Sympathy includes three stanzas with each consisting of 7 lines and a rhyming pattern of “ABCCBAA”, “ABAABAA” and “ABCCBAA” for the first, second and third stanza respectively. Caged Bird, on the other hand, is much more irregular. It has six stanzas, in which the first two stanzas have seven lines, the third and the sixth have eight lines and the fourth and the fifth have four lines. It is highly inconsistent in terms of its rhyming pattern — its rhyme scheme is hardly noticeable. There is no rhyme at all in the first stanza, a few in the others but do not form a specific pattern. There are, instead of rhyming, uses of anaphora present in the second, fourth and fifth stanza: “his bars of rage / his wings are clipped and / his feet are tied”, “and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees / and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn / and he names the sky his own”, “his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream / his wings are clipped and his feet are tied”. Therefore, the two poems have very different form and structure.
Furthermore, even though the two poems convey the same theme, implying the situations of African Americans as well as the racism and oppression they are facing, they differ in the technique of accomplishing this. On one hand, Caged Bird compares the situations of the caged bird with the free bird, while free bird “names the sky his own”, the caged bird “stands on the grave of dreams”. This is possibly implying the different conditions black people and white people are in. On the other hand, in Sympathy, the poet sympathises with the bird’s feelings of being caged by identifying with it rather than talking about what it would be like to be free: “I know what the caged bird feels, alas!” and “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me”. This puts the readers into the caged bird’s shoes and to feel the pain the caged bird has experienced, therefore stressing the poor conditions a caged bird has. Thus, Caged Bird and Sympathy uses different techniques to effectively convey the same theme.
As a conclusion, there are both similarities and differences between Caged Bird by Maya Angelou and Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar, but both of them illustrate the poor lives of a caged bird and pass on the message of freedom — every one shouldn’t live in restrictions or oppression like a bird behind the bars, every one in the world, despite their sex, nationality or family backgrounds, should have human rights.
Cover image from Dribbble by Elen Winata