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ICSE Class 10 Poems and Short Stories I know why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Synopsis and Important Questions

Synopsis


‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is written by poetess Maya Angelou. She is a powerful feminist writer of Afro-American ethnicity. She is a widely acclaimed author, poet and civil rights activist. She had a very difficult childhood, and this poem that was written in 1969 tells about the agonies of discrimination faced by her. She was doubly marginalised on the basis of race and gender.

She started writing poetry in order to recover from the trauma of an assault. Poetry thus played an important role in her recovery and signalled the success of the healing process.
In this poem, Maya has projected two contrasting images, namely of a free bird and a trapped bird. It metaphorically alludes to the differences between Whites and the African Americans during the Civil Rights era.

It is also relatable to the current times where any individual faces discrimination causing it to be a hurdle in his growth. Discrimination clips the assets of a person and restricts the process of development. This poem is a clear reflection of social disparity. It is quite symbolic, so there are various hidden messages. Angelou tries to convey her feelings indirectly. This poem also has a tinge of sorrow but shows many signs of perseverance also.

The title of the poem is a reflection of earnest struggle. It is also very motivational because it indicates that the bird is restricted, but he sings showing positivity in the darkest times.
The poetess initiates by describing the free bird flying in the sky. She says that the free bird soars high in the sky with the winds. She also describes the beautiful movements of the free bird when he floats in the direction of the stream as the orange sunlight falls upon him. The orange sun rays specify that it is early morning and a clear sky without any clouds. The bird is free to fly in any part of the sky and enjoy the beauty of nature. He is free to move wherever he likes without any bondages following his will. He can claim the sky every time he takes a flight. It is evident that the poetess is describing an individual who is not facing any discrimination or hurdles in the process of development and living.

The poetess further describes a contrasting picture of a caged bird who is in a miserable condition. The bird in the cage is unable to move freely as his wings are clipped and feet are tied. This bird is unable to see the world outside the cage and therefore is very angry. He is sad as his wings are tied and wishes that the days of difficulty end soon. The wings being clipped is a sign that freedom is snatched from someone. The caged bird cannot move too as his feet are tied. This helplessness gives rise to anger and sadness for the caged bird. All he can do is sing the songs of freedom showing his desire. This is how the poetess has shown positivity in difficult times as the bird sings despite being caged. She has described an individual in society who faces challenges that stops his growth.

An individual experiences rage and agony for not being considered equal but keeps striving for his worth.
In the third stanza, the poetess describes how the caged bird is singing. There is trembling and quaver in the voice of the caged bird. He aspires for freedom but his singing also has fear in it. He does not know the taste of freedom but he hopes to be free. His voice can be heard at far-off places, at distant hills inspiring others about freedom. The bird is in a difficult condition, but it dreams and hopes. He is scared but that does not stop him from singing and wishing good for himself. This has a symbolic relevance to everyone who is stopped and kept far from their rights. Like many caged birds, Black people wrote and cried for the freedom they deserved, but their voice was only heard at a distance. This did not stop them from aspiring freedom as everybody has the right to be free and treated with equality. Even when one is fearful, it is necessary that one aspires and is hopeful about good times. The caged bird is scared and is hoping for an inexperienced desire yet sings positively about it.

Freedom is an expression which is completely unrestricted and unrestrained. In the fourth stanza, the poetess gets back to the free bird flying in the sky. Without being stopped, he flies wherever he wishes and thinks about another breeze and wind that may come across his way. He flies high above the trees. His freedom is not only about his flying but also about choosing his food. The worms that are supposed to be consumed by him are in their best state and fat as though waiting for the bird to be consumed. The entire sky has become home for the free bird. He feels proud of his freedom and considers the entire sky as his own. This is an indication of the happiness and bliss that one possesses when they are unrestricted and given full authority of their rights. The sky is the limit to achieve, and there is complete happiness of existence.

The poetess creates a contrasting picture showing that all the hopes and desires of the caged bird have been killed. He is forced to bury whatever dreams he has. His dreams of flying free and experiencing freedom are futile. His slavery is like a nightmare. His wings and feet are tied, so he is unable to move or fly. It is only his throat that he can utilise to sing and express little hope about getting freedom. He keeps alive his voice despite all the adversities. This is the only freedom available to the caged bird. This is a symbolic representation of hardships faced by people deprived of their rights and equality. It becomes a tied-up situation for them where they do not experience the bliss of freedom.

The last stanza is a repetition of the third stanza which describes the condition of the caged bird. This repetition emphasises the distressing condition of the bird. This is also an indication that the state of the caged bird does not improve or change. There is a lot to describe about the freedom of the bird flying high in the sky; however, the caged bird can just sing and desire for his freedom. He can only sing and put forth his aspirations. This altogether is a sad scene, but the poetess has kept the ray of hope alive by mentioning that the caged bird sings about his dreams of freedom.

Short Answer Questions


  1. How does the free bird fly?
    Ans. The poet has described beautifully the movements of the free bird. The free bird flies upward in the sky, and at the next moment, he is floating effortlessly down the gentle current of a river. The morning sun has been described as ‘orange sun rays’, beautiful imagery of the rising sun that appears orange. The poetess mentions that the bird flies dipping his wings in the orange sun. He is flying in the sky as if he claims it to be his own.

  2. Why is the caged bird unable to move?
    Ans. The caged bird is deprived of freedom. His wings are clipped and his feet are tied in the cage. He is helpless, cannot fly or see the sky. Thus, this situation keeps him away from flying.

  3. What do the words ‘clipped’ and ‘feet tied’ indicate?
    Ans. ‘Clipped’ means cutting the bird’s wing feathers. It means that the freedom of a person is curtailed. He is not free to do or move around as he wishes. Similarly, ‘feet tied’ suggest that a person is not able to enjoy the liberty of freedom or to do things on his own. These words indicate the Blacks in America who had to face limitations and racial oppression. They suffered discrimination which affected their growth and living.

  4. What is the meaning of fearful trill?
    Ans. The poetess says that the caged bird sings with a fearful trill. It means that the bird sings in trembling and fearful voice. It is ironic that the caged bird is singing and not the free bird as the free bird is more likely to be happy. The word ‘fearful trill’ make us realise that the caged bird is not singing a happy song but is scared and desperately hoping for freedom.

  5. Why is the sound of the caged bird heard on a distant hill?
    Ans. The poetess says that the bird in the cage is singing in a trembling voice about freedom. She reveals that the caged bird’s cry for freedom is heard only as soft background noise. His cries are heard only as a distant noise. His voice is like one being heard but no action being taken. It illustrates that despite holding equal importance, freedom and liberty, some individuals are deprived of their basic rights as a result of discrimination.

  6. How has the sky become home for the free bird?
    OR
    What are various activities of the free bird?
    Ans. The free bird enjoys his liberty and rights. He is free to move in any direction. If he is not contented with the breeze, he chooses another breeze. He can enjoy his freedom and will to move wherever he likes. He is free to find his own food. The poetess also mentions that the insects are waiting to be consumed by him. He takes every flight as if the entire sky has become his home.

  7. Why did the caged bird scream?
    Ans. The caged bird in the poem represents the people in society who are deprived of freedom and liberty. Just like the bird in the cage is unable to move as his wings are clipped and feet are tied, people deprived of freedom are not able to progress and grow. The caged bird can only sing songs about freedom and hope to attain it, therefore, he raises his voice against the limitations expressing his longing for freedom.

  8. Why has the poetess repeated the last stanza?
    Ans. The free bird is enjoying his freedom by flying high in the sky. He has the liberty of choosing his way and food. He is capable of exploring any and every part of the sky. However, the condition of the caged bird remains the same. It does not improve. His wings and feet are tied. The poetess emphasises his situation and thus repeats the last stanza for greater effect about the caged bird's imprisonment.

  9. Despite being caged, the bird sings. What is the poet trying to convey by this?
    Ans. The fate of the caged bird will be unrelenting misery and death if the imprisonment and oppression continue. However, he does not give up and uses his only strength to express his longing for freedom. By this symbolism, the poet is trying to convey the idea of raising one’s voice against injustice. It also states that the caged bird wants to taste freedom which he is completely unaware of.

  10. Identify the literary device used in the following line:
    ‘his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream’
    Ans. Personification.
    It is a figure of speech in which abstract ideas are invested with personality and both inanimate and abstract ideas are endowed with attributes of living beings.

  11. Which figure of speech is used in the line
    ‘and he names the sky his own’.
    Ans. Hyperbole.
    It is an exaggeration of expression not to be taken literally but figuratively for greater emphasis.

  12. Identify the literary device used in the following line:
    ‘and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn’
    Ans. Alliteration.
    It is the repetition of the consonant sound usually at the beginning of words. Here, the sound of ‘w’ is repeated for greater poetic effect.

Long Answer Questions


  1. How has the poetess made significant use of contrast?
    Ans. The poem ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ written by Maya Angelou is a powerful illustration of a series of contrasts between a free and caged bird. Contrast is used to highlight the effect of differences between the privileged and underprivileged sections of society. The injustice felt by African Americans can be deeply understood when seen in contrast to the Whites. The poetess has made use of this contrast in separate stanzas for greater emphasis. The first stanza describes about the free bird enjoying his freedom, whereas the second and third stanzas describe the agonies of the caged bird. The fourth stanza again speaks of the free bird and his choices. However, the fifth stanza states the helplessness of the caged bird. The sixth stanza is a repetition of the third stanza for greater emphasis of the caged bird’s stress highlighting the effect of his imprisonment.
    There is a change of tone after each stanza reflecting a proper contrast between the dark and pleasant side. The caged bird is so dejected in his imprisonment that he screams, whereas the free bird is so happy and merry that he chooses where to fly and his food. Thus, the role of contrast has successfully portrayed a powerful idea about freedom and enslavement.

  2. How is this poem a reflection on social disparity?
    Ans. The poetess Maya Angelou has used metaphors of the free bird and caged bird interchangeably to reflect on social disparity. She has indicated the free bird as people who do not face discrimination or the Whites and the caged bird as people who face discrimination or the Blacks. With the use of these metaphors, Angelou represented the inequality and injustice in society during her times. The Blacks were not treated equally by the Whites and this lead to social disparity. This poem is also a reflection of how such a condition affects someone who faces injustice. They are not able to progress. She also illustrates the nature of both freedom and slavery by creating a deep contrast between the two by showing the free and caged birds.

  3. Why does the bird in the cage sing of freedom? What does it imply?
    Ans. The poem ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is written by poetess Maya Angelou. She has metaphorically used a caged bird and a free bird to indicate inequality in society. The bird in the cage has his wings clipped and feet tied. He is deprived of freedom, whereas the free bird flies in the open sky and considered it to be his home. The free bird is in a merry state and is expected to sing, but the caged bird is singing. He is not singing a happy song but is scared and desperately hoping for freedom. He may have never experienced freedom but still sings about it. This is similar to what the Black Americans did. They wrote and sang and cried for the freedom they deserved. It took a long time before their voice was heard. However, nothing stopped them as they were aware that everybody has a right to live as a free individual. They were against slavery and knew that their struggle would take time. They knew that they have to keep struggling in order to attain freedom and enjoy their life. The bird in the cage is just like the Black Americans who are struggling for freedom despite being in a difficult state.

  4. Comment on the appropriateness of the title of the poem.
    Ans. The poem ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ talks about the perks of freedom. People who are deprived of this freedom feel as if they are pulled down and held back from living free. The bird in the cage has his wings clipped and feet tied to the cage, hence making it impossible for him to move. He can only use his throat. It is a difficult situation, but the caged bird chooses to sing rather than give up. This is a way of the poetess to reflect a positive note. The Blacks who were deprived of their rights did not give up but kept fighting for their rights. The readers can clearly see that the poetess has a message to send across to readers. The atmosphere is quite motivational as despite clipped feathers, the bird sings and his voice is heard. This justifies the title of the poem appropriately.

  5. How does the description of a caged bird resemble the state of mind of the poetess?
    Ans. The poem ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is written by poetess Maya Angelou. She is a powerful feminist writer of Afro-American ethnicity. She is a widely acclaimed author, poet and civil rights activist. She wrote this poem in 1969, which certainly reflects it to be a result of the incidents of discrimination faced by her. She is a victim of racism. The caged bird and his grave of dreams represent the poetess’ feelings about her dreams. It shows how she felt when her desires, dreams and aspirations were suppressed and oppressed. The poem also reflects that the poetess has also faced partiality and slavery. Although she raised her voice or sang, her voice was not acted upon easily. Her use of words is very vivid and conveys deep meaning. It not only expresses the state of mind of the poetess but also of any individual who has been oppressed.

  6. What is the biggest possession of a free bird and how is it portrayed?
    Ans. The biggest and most prized possession of the free bird is his liberty to do whatever he feels like without any hindrance and restriction. Freedom or independence is his biggest possession. He is able to experience all kinds of beauty of nature by flying wherever he wishes to, eat whatever he wants and live or stay wherever he desires. He takes his flight in any direction possible in the sky. He changes his direction if he does not like the breeze. He is flying high and is not tied to any place. He can walk, run and fly as he wants. He is so familiar with the sky and so happy flying in it that it has become his home. He calls it as his own sky. If he did not possess such freedom, then it would not have been possible for him to even move his wings. Using this metaphor, the poetess has remarked about individuals who are unrestricted and unrestrained about living their lives. Their progress and growth are never stunted and they are able to live a happy life.

  7. Explain the theme of the poem.
    Ans. The theme of the poem is of freedom versus enslavement. The free bird flying and soaring high in the sky is symbolic of individuals who are treated equally in society. However, the caged bird who is unable to move is symbolic of the people deprived of their basic rights. The entire poem has a play of contrast for a better emphasis on the theme. The freedom of the bird flying in the sky in his natural habitat is shown. He is untroubled as he flies in the orange sun rays of early morning highlighting the idea of glow and happiness. On the other hand, the caged bird has his wings clipped and feet tied. The caged bird cannot fly freely in the sky. His vision of freedom is absent. He is filled with rage and is also helpless at the same time. All he can do is open his throat to sing songs of freedom.
    This is to capture the idea of racism and slavery in society. The free bird is referred to the White Americans and the caged bird is with reference to African Americans who were deprived of their rights. The caged bird represents the community that was prevented from social, religious and cultural freedom on account of the colour of the skin. However, the White Americans were unrestricted and the privileged section of society.
    The caged bird still longs for freedom in his song and the poem ends on a positive note as his tune is heard at a distant hill. This shows that the bird despite being caged was raising his voice against imprisonment and singing about freedom.

  8. This poem conveys an idea of raising one’s voice against oppression. Comment.
    Ans. The caged bird in the poem is in a state of physical pain and mental agony. The references to clipped wings, tied feet and restricted movement depict the physical pain that the caged bird has to endure. The loss of freedom resulted in the mental agony of the caged bird; however, the harsh and painful aspects of the caged bird’s existence did not take away his dignity. His voice is his only strength and he used it as a means of expression that is singing. His singing is symbolic of his rebellion against oppression. His song diverges his hope and his inner strength. The struggle of the caged bird is parallel to the African American struggle for freedom and equality. The African Americans wrote, sang, danced and cried out for freedom. Although initially it was a distant voice, it did not stop them from raising their voice against discrimination faced by them due to the colour of their skin until they were given equal rights as the Whites.

  9. The poetess has metaphorically articulated ideas on racism and slavery. Explain the relatability.
    Ans. The poetess Maya Angelou has used proper metaphors for illustrating the idea of racism and slavery in the poem ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. It articulates emotions against racial discrimination and slavery in America. Though she never mentions it directly is a bit satirical. She describes the restricted flight of a caged bird representing the condition of African Americans exploited by the Whites, who are represented as the free birds. The poetess expresses her agonies and grievances comparing them with the conditions of the caged bird. In her times, the Blacks faced racial discrimination due to the colour of their skin and were deprived of their basic rights. They were denied the right to vote or to organise a meeting or gather owing to their skin colour. They were not allowed to use some transport, some areas or to study in the same school as the Whites. Just how the caged bird is unable to move or fly in the sky, the Blacks were deprived of growing and progressing as individuals.
    The caged bird represents the underprivileged section, whereas the free birds represent normal individuals enjoying their basic rights. This difficult scenario is portrayed by the poetess under the issue of racism and slavery.

  10. Why does the caged bird stand on the grave of dreams?
    Ans. The caged bird is stuck inside the cage. He is not only deprived of freedom but is also unable to move. His wings are clipped and feet are attached to the cage. It is not possible for him to catch a glimpse of the sky properly. The only expression that is accessible to him is that of singing or using his throat. So, the poetess says that the caged bird is not free to pursue what he dreams as he lives in captivity inside the cage. He has not been able to fulfill his dreams and aspirations. The poetess calls the bird’s cage as the grave of dreams. The bird’s ambitions and aspirations are suppressed by the sorrowful captivity inside the cage.