in CIE, English Literature, Poetry

Here’s part of an analysis of the poem ‘Caged Bird’ by Maya Angelou, tailored towards GCSE/IGCSE students but also suitable for those studying Angelou at a higher level.

Includes a breakdown of the stanzas, an insight into the context of the poem, and an exploration of the themes and deeper meanings. This is only a quick overview to help you get to grips with the poem; you can access a full in-depth breakdown of the poem below.


Thanks for reading! If you’re studying this particular poem, you can buy our detailed study guide here. This includes:

  • Vocabulary
  • Story + Summary
  • Speaker + Voice
  • Language Feature Analysis
  • Form and Structure Analysis
  • Context
  • Attitudes + Messages
  • Themes + Deeper Ideas
  • Extra tasks to complete by yourself

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Caged Bird

“The free bird leaps

on the back of the wind..”

Maya Angelou

(Full poem unable to be reproduced due to copyright)

STORY / SUMMARY

The lyric poem makes a comparison between two types of birds: birds that are free, and birds that are caged.

Stanza 1: When a bird is free it claims the sky by flying. 

Stanza 2: When a caged bird is unable to fly because his wings are clipped and his legs are tied, he sings a song.

Stanza 3: The caged bird trills for his sound to be heard from afar — and sings of freedom. 

Stanza 4: A free bird thinks of nice breezes and times where the fat worms are ready to be eaten, and he calls the sky his own.  

Stanza 5: A caged bird is tied and clipped, he has a “nightmare scream” that shows his suffering. Stanza 6: The caged bird trills for his sound to be heard from afar — stanza 3 and stanza 6 are the same, they are a refrain that repeats and underscores the ideas of the poem, the main idea being that a caged bird sings of freedom.

CONTEXT

  • The title “Caged Bird” suggests that while there are two subjects in the poem — the caged bird and the free bird — the former bird that is trapped is really the main focus. Angelou encourages both trapped and free people alike to listen to her poem and empathise with the plight of oppressed people. Those who are trapped may better understand their difficulties and lack of privileges, whereas those who are free may better appreciate what they have and work harder to free the oppressed.  
  • The caged bird symbolizes African-Americans, who are desperately trying to get their voices heard by the American public. Even though African-Americans have a cage in front of them, their voices can be heard. African-Americans were treated differently in America, though they wanted to be equal.
  • Civil Rights — a political movement in the mid-1960s that campaigned for African Americans to have equal rights and proper integration with white Americans. Slavery was abolished a long time before (1865), but since that time African Americans had still not been treated equally — they had to go to separate schools, ride separate buses and eat in separate restaurants. This was called segregation, and it led white people to still consider African Americans as separate from and inferior to themselves.  Though legally the African Americans were no longer enslaved, many argued that socially and culturally they were still ostracised and not at all provided with the same opportunities as other people in America. So, in the 1960s a lot of people campaigned to get this changed, led by political leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Support for this movement occurred in the US and around the world. 
  • Angelou wrote the poem in 1968, at a time when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining power and the social oppression of African Americans was finally starting to change. Her voice is one of many voices that collaborated at this time to encourage the emancipation of her people.

Maya Angelou’s autobiography is also called “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, showing her strong connection to the poem — perhaps she views herself as a caged bird too and identifies with victims of oppression.

THEMES / ATTITUDES

Nature vs Unnatural

  • The bird is supposed to be free and allowed to fly, and it enjoys life when it is this way. When the bird is caged with clipped wings, it becomes sad and can only find enjoyment when thinking of freedom.
  • Angelou is suggesting that captivity and oppression are unnatural states for living things to exist in. The state itself leads to a change in behaviour and breaks the spirit and soul of the captive being. 

Freedom vs Captivity 

  • Birds are supposed to be in nature and not in cages, and in the same way men are supposed to live freely, with equality of opportunity. 
  • The state of freedom is a privilege, and people should appreciate what they have when they are not being oppressed or controlled by governments or social pressure. 

Liberation

  • Being set free and the need to be freed from constraints is the central idea of the poem.

Human nature and Creativity

  • Humans are creative, expressive individuals and even in times of difficulty they can find moments of hope or positivity, such as the way a bird will sing when trapped in a cage
  • However, it is not in human nature to enjoy, accept, or even get used to captivity — arguably, it is not in the nature of any animal to enjoy this. A state of freedom should be a given right to all individuals, not a privilege for some and an impossible dream for others. 

Politics

  • The poem is a political allegory — though it tells the story of two birds, it is really a way of expressing the political systems and forces that keep some people in a state of captivity for their whole lives. 
  • There is a positive and motivational political message behind the poem – there is no anger or resentment towards the “free bird”, i.e. the white people, instead there is just a desire to be free like them. 

Race 

  • The poem explores the way in which racial inequality can lead to oppression and lack of opportunity within societies that do not encourage racial integration. 
  • The “bird” in the cage and “bird” in the sky are the same, perhaps suggesting that Angelou feels we are all the same species and should get along as equals.

‘I can wade Grief’ by Emily Dickinson – Poem Analysis


Thanks for reading! If you’re interested in our complete CIE IGCSE Poetry course, click here.

For all our English Literature and Language courses, click here.

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