“Sympathy” is an unusual name for a poem; however, when one reads the poem he or she can understand why the poet gives this poem such a peculiar name. The poet is comparing the oppression of his race during the late ninetieth century and early twentieth century to a caged bird.
Dunbar begins his poem, “I know what the caged bird feels, Alas!” That single word “alas” speaks volume. It could be expressing some truth that the poet finally understands; but this is not the case here; alas is an idiom for great grief or sorrow. Dunbar knows that a bird is not meant to be caged; it is its given right to fly at its leisure and experience nature. Throughout the first stanza Dunbar tantalizes the senses with the images of spring, when the bird returns from its winter sleep and is ready to enjoy spring, but it cannot do so because it is caged. And Dunbar knows exactly how that feels; for years he and his race are oppressed and kept static unable to fly. The adjectives of the first stanza are well chosen and they explain why in the second line of the second stanza the caged bird flops its wing untill it bleeds in an effort to enjoy the beautiful season.
“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!” (lines 5,6, and 7), In these three lines Dunbar is saying that despite the end of slavery, and the equal rights that have yet to be manifested, have left inedible imprints on the Negroes. Every time they are denied their right to excel the pain begins anew.. Reflecting on the past injustice is like digging up old bones and they feel the pain is always with them, “the pain still throbs in the ol, old scare.” Just like his people the caged bird beats its wing and yearns for freedom.
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,” Dunbar’s sadness is heavy and in case the reader ls not clear about whom Dunbar is speaking, he adds in the first line, “ah me.” He says it as if he were saying “poor me!” The songs of the Negroes sing of great distress and hope for deliverance, that is why they are termed “Negro Spiritual;”even to this day black people express great tribulation with songs. In line three Dunbar could be talking of several things, it is metaphorical representation of the ships that drought them to America, the invisible bars that hold them on the plantations or the bars of circumstances that stagnate them. The Negroes do not sing of happiness, and their songs can only be sang by the ones who have gone through great suffering; they belch from the hollow of their belles as groans. As Dunbar says the songs are wais entreating heaven-- pleas of deliverance. Like the other two stanzas Dunbar ends the third stanza the same way it began, stressing his connection to the caged bird.
Gary Hess says: “Sympathy’ is a metaphor for how Dunbar feels in life. That he is trapped inside a cage, wishing to get out and enjoy other areas of life. He wants to enjoy the river and the "springing grass"’(n, d.). However, no matter how hard he tries and how hard he prays, escape seems a far distance. The is written from the depts. of destitution.
Hess, Gary R. “Poem Analysis – by Paul Laurance Dunbar” web. Retrieved April 15, 2013