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“Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

“Sympathy” is the poem written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African-American poets, whose works gained popularity at the end of the 19th century. The son of the enslaved father, Dunbar, knew a lot about the misfortune of being a slave. “Sympathy” is the author’s narration about the caged bird, its feelings, and intentions.

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There are three main actions of the bird: feelings, beating the wing, and singing. “I know what the caged bird feels, alas!… I know why the caged bird beats his wing… I know why the caged bird sings, ah me” (Dunbar 536).

Usually, people do not think about the consequences of their actions when they want to put a bird in a cage just to be satisfied. The same happens to people. When they are enslaved, they undergo a number of tortures because of being misunderstood, punished, and deprived of the possibility to live in accordance with personal dreams.

Dunbar is a speaker of the poem “Sympathy.” He does not find it enough to tell the story about the bird that has to live in a cage. He wants to underline that he knows what he is talking about. Maybe, he does not know a lot about the bird and the conditions under which that bird was put in a cage.

However, he ensures the reader that he knows its feelings, emotions, and actions. Dunbar introduces a simple story and uses simple words to discuss one of the hardest and terrifying periods in human history when people were enslaved by people.

Racial discrimination and the intention to prove the rights of all people on the planet is an urgent topic for discussion even today. Not all people realize how unfair their attitudes to other people with low incomes, fewer possibilities, or personal disabilities.

Paul Dunbar is the speaker, who talks about what he knows and wants his readers to understand how it is difficult and unfair to be or even feel caged, “beats his bars and he would be free” (Dunbar 536) and observe the others doing whatever and whenever they want.

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The organization of the poem is not complicated. There are three stanzas with seven rhythmic lines in each looking like ABAABAA. The author uses repetition of the first and last lines to emphasize how close the chosen topic can be to him.

The first line of each stanza introduces its main concept. The next line is a kind of explanation of choice. The next two lines perform the role of the connectors between some general facts and a particular story.
The following two lines are the enumeration of the facts that help the reader to understand the essence of the speaker’s message better: “But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,/ But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings” (Dunbar 536).

And the final line is the repetition of the first line to mention how burning and personal the idea of the bird in a cage can be. This kind of an echo in each stanza affects the reader a lot as if the speaker tries to finish the thought, but the reality does not provide him with such an opportunity.

At the end of the 19th century, it was not allowed to write about the threats and challenges of slavery. Still, people, like Dunbar, made attempts to share their experience and used metaphors in their works. It can be explained by the necessity to hide the truth from those who do not want or simply are not ready to hear it.

The title of the poem, “Sympathy,” is the main metaphor that explains what it means to be a black man in the middle of the 1800s. “The caged bird” may be interpreted as a black enslaved man, who is trying to get rid of the duties and tasks given or as a soul that cannot understand why the body has to follow all those rules and meet the expectations. The bird’s singing that “is not a carol of joy or glee” (Dunbar 536) is the possibility to survive, heal the wounds, and keep the spirit alive to resist the current challenges.

In addition to the metaphors, it is possible to find several unclear words like “chalice” or “fain.” This choice may be explained as the formal language of that period. However, not only words may confuse the reader. For example, there is a necessity to clarify how old the bird in the case can be. “And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars/ And they pulse again with a keener sting” (Dunbar 536).

Can it be that the presence of old scars means the age of a bird (person) or the frequency of bites a young bird has to survive? This question remains to be open even after reading the poem.

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An unclear sense of the authors’ messages may be observed in other poetry. For example, in Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” the speaker, the Duke of Ferrara, shares his marriage experience with the Duchess with the reader. He admires the lady because “she had/ A heart – how shall I say? – Too soon made glad” (Browning 667).

Due to all her smiles (that is one of the metaphors in work), she gave, the Duke could not share the Duchess with the others and made sure that “all smiles stopped together” (Browning 667).

Donne’s “The Flea” is also full of metaphors with the help of which the speaker wants to describe his intentions in regard to his beloved woman. The image of the flea is used by the speaker to accomplish his main goal and enjoy “a sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead” (Donne 504).

The sin is a metaphor for the possibility of the development of sexual relations and man’s opportunity to touch each part of the female body as if he was a flea. In comparison to these examples, Frost’s metaphors are defined as the most challenging and interesting. His “The Road not Taken” undergoes numerous discussions for a long period of time.

On the one hand, it is impossible to avoid the fact that two roads symbolize the choice people have to make in their lives. However, it is unclear why there are only two roads because people get access to millions of choices at the same time. On the other hand, the author divides the world into two parts, and a person is free to choose one because “sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveler” (Frost 683).

Still, it is hard to resist the temptation and be confident in the choices made. People are not able to return in time and have to continue living with the burden of the choices they prefer. All these poems are understood by people in a number of different ways.

It is possible to believe that the poems teach the reader to think about the choices made when people get married, have sex, divorce, etc. At the same time, the chosen poetry is an opportunity to realize how wrong and inappropriate people’s thoughts can be. In fact, much depends on the reader and his/her desire to accept poetry and the authors’ messages. People and their tastes differ, and they cannot be understood all the time.

Works Cited

Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 11 ed. 2013. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. New York: W.W. Norton. 667. Print.

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Donne, John. “The Flea.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 11 ed. 2013. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. New York: W.W. Norton. 504. Print.

Dunbar, Paul, Laurence. “Sympathy.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 11 ed. 2013. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. New York: W.W. Norton. 536. Print.

Frost, Robert. “The Road not Taken.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 11 ed. 2013. Ed. Kelly J. Mays. New York: W.W. Norton. 683. Print.

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StudyCorgi. "“Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar." May 2, 2020.


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StudyCorgi. (2020) '“Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar'. 2 May.

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