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Sympathy
A Poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Date of Publication
Dunbar as Trailblazer
Son of Slaves
Historical Background
Text of the Poem
Meter and Rhyme
Theme
Figures of Speech
Universality
Questions, Writing Topics
Biography of Dunbar
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings.. 2010
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Type of Work and Date of Publication

......."Sympathy" is a lyric poem about a caged bird that symbolizes oppressed black Americans specifically and any oppressed people generally. Dodd, Mead, and Company published the poem in 1899 in Lyrics of the Hearthside

Dunbar as Trailblazer

.......Dunbar was believed to be the first black American to earn national recognition for his writing. He gained attention after selling a published collection of his poems to riders on the elevator he operated in a building in Dayton, Ohio. 

Son of Slaves

.......Dunbar was the son of slaves, Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. His father escaped slavery and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The extent to which the experiences of Dunbar's parents as slaves influenced his poetry is uncertain, but it was probably considerable. One can imagine Dunbar as a child listening at the fireside to stories his parents told about their lives as slaves. 

Historical and Social Background

.......In 1899u0097the year of the poem's publicationu0097antipathy toward blacks was widespread in America. True, the Civil War had liberated blacks from slavery, and federal laws had granted them the right to vote, the right to own property, and so on. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitutionu0097approved in the post-Civil War erau0097granted black Americans basic rights as citizens, as did the Civil Rights Act of 1875. However, court and legislative decisions later emasculated the legal protection of blacks. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson) that it was legal to provide "separate but equal" accommodations for passengers of Louisiana's railroads. This ruling set a precedent that led to segregated schools, restaurants, parks, libraries, and so on. 
.......Meanwhile, hate groups inflicted inhuman treatment on innocent blacks, including brutal beatings. Lynchings of innocent blacks were not uncommon. Many so-called "enlightened" or "liberal-minded" Americans looked the other way, including law-enforcement officers, clergymen, politicians, and ordinary Americans. Some churches even limited membership to whites. Because blacks had been relegated to the lowest stratum of society, they had to attend poorly equipped schools and settle for menial jobs as porters, ditch-diggers, servants, shoeshine boys, and so on. Dunbar, a brilliant student in high school, worked as an elevator operator before his writing earned him a measure of respect. .......Hatred of blacks continued in the 20th Century. The Ku Klux Klan, which disbanded in the early 1870's, reformed in 1915 and attracted more than 4 million members nationwide by the mid-1920s. Prejudice against blacks in America remains strong today in spite of major advances in favor of blacks. Consequently, Dunbar's poem remains relevant. Schools throughout America continue to include it in curriculums. 
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Sympathy
By Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

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 first bud opes, 
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals u0096 
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 u0096 
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, u0096 
      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 u0096 
I know why the caged bird sings! 

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Meter

.......The first six lines of each stanza contain four feet and therefore make up a tetrameter. The last line of each stanza contains three feet and therefore makes up a trimeter
Some of the feet in the tetrameters and trimeters are iambs, and some are anapests. An iamb contains an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, and an anapest contains two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable. 
.......The first four lines of "Sympathy" demonstrate the tetrameter format. A red number appears over each iamb; a blue number appears over each anapest.

......1..................2........................ 3................4

I KNOW..|..what the CAGED..|..bird FEELS,..|..aLAS

..........1......................2................ 3....................4
When the SUN..|..is BRIGHT..|..on the UP..|..land SLOPES

...........1......................2....................... 3............................4
When the WIND..|..stirs SOFT..|..through the SPRING..|..ing GRASS,

........1.....................2................. 3.........................4
And the RIV..|..er FLOWS..|..like a STREAM..|..of GLASS

.......The last line of the first stanza demonstrates the trimeter format, repeated in the last line of the other two stanzas. A red number appears over the iambs; a blue number appears over the anapest.
......1..................2........................ 3

I KNOW..|..what the CAGED..|..bird FEELS

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of each stanza is abaabcc. Each of the end rhymes is masculineu0097that is, only the final syllables are involved in the rhyme, as in lines 3 and 4, which end with  grass and glass. (In feminine rhyme, on the other hand, the rhyme involves the final two syllables, as in ringing and singing.)
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Figures of Speech

.......Examples of figures of speech in the poem are as follows:

Alliteration
Repetition of a Consonant Sound

Line 3: When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
Lines 5, 6: When the first bird sings and the first bud opes, / And the faint perfume from its chalice steals u0096 
Metaphor
Comparison of Unlike Things Without Using Like, As, or Than
The controlling figure of speech in the poem is an implied metaphor that compares the bird to an oppressed human being. 

Line 6: And the faint perfume from its chalice steals (comparison of the unfolding petals of a flower to a chalice)

Simile
Comparison of Unlike Things Using Like, As, or Than

Line 4: And the river flows like a stream of glass (comparison of the river to a stream of glass)
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Theme: the Agony of Captivity

.......The speaker of the poem and the bird both experience the pain of captivity. The bird yearns to fly from its cage when it sees the sunlit landscape and smells the fragrance of the flowers. It flaps its wings until they bleed; it beats against the bars of the cage. The speaker also yearns to break free when nature beckons. He perhaps tugs at his bonds (literal or figurative) and beats his head against a wall. But neither the bird nor the speaker can escape. Both are prisoners. All they can do is sing a song that cries out to heaven for deliverance. 

Universality

.......Since Dunbar avoids specifically mentioning blacks and their suffering, the poem can stand as a lament on behalf of all people oppressed by intolerance, prejudice, and unfair laws.

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Study Questions and Writing Topics

1. Write a short poem that expresses your feelings at a time when you felt others had oppressed or "imprisoned" you. 
2. Explain line 11: When he fain would be on the bough a-swing.
3. Write an essay explaining why a poem written in 1899 remains popular today.
4. Give examples of people today who can be compared to the caged bird.
5. Is it right for zoos, aquariums, and research institutions to hold living creatures in captivity? 
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