Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sympathy by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

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Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the most prolific African-American poets of his time. Born to parents who were former slaves, in a time where prejudice was a huge part of every day life, a good bit of his poems revolve around racism and slavery. Although his poem, Sympathy can be read as a poem about slavery, it seems to be more about the racism and societal restrictions he faced in his own life. He uses very vivid imagery and symbolism to portray his entrapment and how his emotions evolve, as he is restricted from a world he wishes to be a part of.

Although Dunbar is known for using dialectic speech of blacks of that time in his poems, he uses language that would be classified more typically as white. If he had used dialect familiar to blacks of the time, he would have separated himself from the rest of society instead of presenting himself as an equal yet restricted man. Another tool Dunbar uses to make his point is organization. He organizes his poem into three stanzas with one main emotion experienced per stanza. This allows his to be able to really show the progression he and others trapped by society experience. He uses a format of seven lines of similar length with a rhyme scheme of ABAABCC consistently throughout the three stanzas. Using the same format for three stanzas also enhances this portrayal because it allows the reader to focus completely on the emotions being felt in each stanza.

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In the first stanza his main emotion is desire to be a part of the world. His opening line, “I know what the caged bird feel, alas” immediately presents the idea that he feels caged, restricted from something. Judging by his background and society at that time, it can be assumed that he feels confined by prejudice and society’s restrictions. The second line refers to the sun, bright on the upland slopes. This is a reference to how he can see where things are bright, but brightness is unobtainable for him. The sun is for other people and for him to only see from a distance. One of his most effective lines in this stanza is line four. He refers to the river flowing like a stream of glass. This could be drawing a clear picture of what it feels like to see something that seems so real and so close, like social privileges and equality, but not be able to be a part of it. The river seems to taunt him because he can see it so clearly, but because it is glass he can’t get in and feel it’s coolness, just as it would be like to observe the white world from a distance. The next two lines present more of this longing to be in the world at the same time that it taunts him. The first bird singing represents those who are free and are able to enjoy the world. The song that they sing is quite different from a song he would sing from his cage (maybe a reference to sorrow songs).

As a progression of emotion, Dunbar moves from desire to be in the outside world in the first stanza, to utter frustration and anger in the second. The first line, “I know why the caged bird beats his wings,” shows a much different emotion that just knowing how the caged bird felt. The image of beating wings is much more along the lines of frustration. The next line presents the first image of blood and violence, saying, “Till its blood is red on the cruel bars”. This could represent the blood that was shed during slavery, or attempts at fighting society, or just the emotional damaged it caused him to be confined. In the next line he seems to give up in a way as he flies back to his “perch”, or his place in society. He uses the word “cling” to show how he is barely hanging on. However, the next line suggests a strong remembrance and ever-present feeling of pain.

Moving from utter frustration, Dunbar uses the third and final stanza to show how he had to give up in a sense. His opener, “I know why the caged bird sings, ah me” seems out of place given the rest of the poem. Usually the though of a bird singing would bring about positive emotion. However, the “ah me” at the end provides negative connotation to the song. This could be a direct reference to sorrow songs that slaves sang. This also contrasts to the earlier image of the free bird singing in the spring. The next two lines depict the pain and agony that being free causes and the following line questions whether or not it is worth it, saying, “It is not a carol of joy or glee”. He then concludes his poem with a final idea that only way to be released from the cage and truly being free would be through dying, as he says, “But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings”. This shows his acceptance that where he is will never get better; he will never be free until his spirit leaves his body and this world, his cage. By using this image to end his poem, he leaves his readers with that final thought that he and others are so confined that death is the only way to be released from the constraints of society and the prejudice of the world.

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