Sympathy (‘I know why the caged bird sings’), by Paul Laurence Dunbar


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Caged Bird in Tree; No credited illustrator; from an unknown book by author Alfred Gatty (1809-1873), published by Bell and Daldy, London
Source: Wikipedia Commons

Sympathy, by 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 first 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!
********

Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African-American poets to gain national critical acclaim. He was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872. His parents were ex-slaves from Kentucky. His father was an escaped slave who served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War.

Dunbar was the lone black student in his high school in Dayton, OH. He excelled in school, where he was a member of the debating society, editor of the school paper and president of the school’s literary society. Two of his high school classmates were Wilbur and Orville Wright; they invested in his newspaper the Dayton Tattler, which was aimed at the city’s black community.


Paul Laurence Dunbar stamp, US Postal Service

Dunbar died in 1906, at the young age of 33, due to tuberculosis. Even so, he created a huge body of work, including poetry, short stories and novels. He was also a lyricist for the musical comedy In Dahomey which was the first full-length musical written and performed by blacks to be booked into a Broadway theater. The play included the talents of fellow lyricist James Weldon Johnson and the vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker.

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