Undoubtedly, the figure and works of Paul Laurence Dunbar is another proof that giftedness of a person is not dependant on race, gender or any other nationality or community affiliation. However, the person’s patriotism, sufferings of the nation, and injustice of the outside world had evoked Dunbar’s most genuine feelings and became a motive to create deep and emotional works, which inspired the black community and condemned common for America of the 19th-20th century racial segregation and slavery. Consequently, referring to his poem Sympathy, which has first appeared in Lyrics of the Hearthside in 1899, a readercan instantly trace its connection to slavery and racism struggle (Braxton 21). Dunbar has chosen the extended metaphor of the caged bird to depict sufferings of the Afro-American community. Actually, the symbolic image of the bird in a cage together with numerous similes, alliterations, detailed descriptions, expresses Dunbar’s main idea of how painful and difficult the struggle for freedom is.
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From the title, it becomes apparent that Dunbar aimed to entail the feeling of sympathy, which he felt towards those, who were treated cruelly. Usage of strong imagery and careful word choice lets the author create the sad mood of the poem from the first line. The poem opens with the words that the author knows “what the caged bird feels, alas!” (Dunbar 126). Therefore, from the very first words Dunbar compares the black people with the birds in cages, who have no freedom and can not fly. In fact, he finishes the poem with the similar words, which sound firmly and arouse the readers to actions. However, not only the depressing image of a trapped bird, but also the word “alas” creates the sad atmosphere. It makes the readers understand that the author regrets. Hence it becomes clear that he is going to tell something unpleasant and sorrowful. The further details make the reader understand why the bird is suffering. Seeing from inside that “the sun is bright”, “the wind stirs soft”, “the river flows”, “the first buds open” and being unable to feel it is very difficult and oppressive for the being, in whose nature is to be free and to fly high in the skies (Dunbar 126). In the second stanza Dunbar tells that the bird was trying to struggle for freedom. Usage of the phrases “beats his wings”, “old, old scars” is allusion, which implies that it is already not the first time, when the bird tried to escape from the cage (Dunbar 126). At the same time, the usage of the words “pain”, “red blood”, “cruel bars”, “bruised wing” contributes to the depressing atmosphere (Dunbar 126). However, the bird does not stop trying, and each next stanza shows that with time the agony for the flight only grows and the bird beats the wings more and more. Hence Dunbar reveals not only the theme of sufferings and struggle, but also the theme of hope, which is irreplaceable in human souls. It is important to point out that all the story is told by the author himself as if he had observed the poor bird with his own eyes. In order to highlight the significance of the bird, the author used the pronouns “he, his” instead of “it, its”. This fact pushes the reader to reflections that the birds’ sufferings are similar to Dunbar’s ones (Camille 34).
Dunbar uses many literary devices in the poem. In the fourth line of the poem, the author used simile as he compared the river to “a stream of glass”. In such way, he was showing the beauty, clearance and calmness of the river. This helps the reader imagine how fabulous it looks. In the lines 5 and 4, a reader can find a metaphor as Dunbar uses the image of “chalice steals” to show the softness of the flower fragrance. All the detailed descriptions of nature are creating a strong image of its beauty and, therefore, explain why the bird considered it so essential. In the lines 18, 19, 20, Dunbar compares a bird in a cage to a free one’s stating that the song is not “carol of joy”, but a prayer (Dunbar 126). This metaphor emphasizes the difference between the life and feeling of the white Americans, who can be happy about their lives and have fun, and of the black Americans, whose life is a constant “prayer” for help. Alliteration is widely used in the poem. In the third line, there is a repetition of consonants “w” in the words “when”, “wind” and “s” – “stirs”, “soft”, “springing”, “grass”. The lines 5, 6 include alliteration of the sound “f” in the words “first”, “faint”, “from”. The style of Dunbar’s writing has a lot of visual imagery. Everyone, who read the poem, can notice that the language used in it to describe feelings is very frank and simple.
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Paying attention to the structure of the poem, it is essential to point out that it consists of 3 stanzas; each of them has seven lines, which are consistent and contribute to the fixed rhythmic pattern and poem’s appearance. Each stanza begins and finishes with the same words “I know…” (Dunbar 126). There also is the repetition of the words “caged bird” in each first and last line of the stanzas (Dunbar 126). Speaking about the meter, each six lines of all three stanzas are writer in a tetrameter and include both feet – jambs and anapests. For each last line the author used trimester. The rhyme pattern is similar in the first and the last stanzas – ABAABCC. The pattern ABAABAA is used in the second stanza. In order to indicate and emphasize the rhyme pattern, the author has used a new paragraph for each second and fifth line of three stanzas. It is particularly important that Dunbar has used lexical anaphor to emphasize his sympathy towards the bird. Thus, all these characteristics provide the poem with a simple form and make it easy to read for various society representatives. The punctuation in Sympathy also plays the important role in passing the main message of the poem. One should pay special attention not only to the commas and semicolons, which help the author to emphasize the new thoughts, but to exclamatory marks in each first and last line of the stanzas and the dashes in each fifth line of three stanzas, as they create a special pausing and tone of the poem.
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The first impression of the poem is quite depressing and evokes pity for a small creature. However, as the readers read it till the end, it pushes them to reflections about freedom and human life value. Therefore, the symbolic images of a bird, the detailed description of its life in a cage express strong feelings of the author about slavery and segregation in the American society. Having filled the poem with numerous descriptions of pain and sufferings Dunbar has let the reader feel strong emotions while reading the lines of the poem. He depicted modern to him American society, which limited black citizens’ freedom and humiliated them only because of the race affiliation. Such unjust treatment of other people should entail the same feeling of sympathy, which a reader feels towards Dunbar’s bird and makes a strong impression on conscious citizens motivating them to fight against injustice. The main idea of the poem was to arouse the citizens to unlock the cage of racism and prejudices and stop the constant agony of the slaves, who are not less people or anyhow worse than the white Americans.