Famous Sad Poem

Paul Laurence Dunbar worked at the Library of Congress for slightly over a year from September 1897-December 1898. He was the first poet to give a poetry reading at the Library of Congress. During his time working there, he was inspired to write “Sympathy,” which was published the following year in a poetry collection. Paul Laurence Dunbar suffered from tuberculosis. Dealing with the dust of books in a hot and confined space negatively impacted his health. It made him feel like a bird stuck in a cage, calling out to be free to enjoy the wind, the grass, and the river. However, “Sympathy” also has a deeper symbolism of the oppression of African American people. Maya Angelou used the last line of this poem as the title of her bestselling autobiography.

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Paul Laurence Dunbar By more 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!


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