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      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 —
    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!


The above poem was published in Lyrics of the Hearthside by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1899. It was this poem that inspired the title to Maya Angelou's autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

Another poem named Sympathy appeared in his first book, Oak and Ivy, that he distributed at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

    The tear another's tears bring forth,
        The sigh which answers sigh,
    The pulse that beats at other's woes,
        E'en though our own be nigh,

    A balm to bathe the wounded heart
        Where sorrow's hand hath lain,
    The link divine from soul to soul
        That makes us one in pain,—

    Sweet sympathy, benignant ray,
        Light of the soul doth shine;
    In it is human nature giv'n
        A touch of the divine.

Both of these poems can be found, for example, in:

  • Dunbar, Paul Laurence. The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Joanne M. Braxton, ed. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.