I Know Why the Caged Bird Wants to Sing by Maya Angelou

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Reading the biography of Maya Angelou (1928-2014) is a riveting experience. It is an account of a girl against whom all possible odds in life are stacked – poverty, skin color, lack of education, broken home, racial hatred, physical abuse, murder, loss of speech, and many more. Yet, the more the system tried to maul her, the stronger she pushed back. Defiance, perseverance, tenacity, and a desire to succeed pushed her all the way, until she came to the limelight.

Maya Angelou was a girl of prodigious talent, and steely will power. She excelled as writer, dancer, actor, singer, political activist, journalist, and a torch bearer of the Civil Rights Movement. Her talent dazzled the world, and even the die-hard white supremacists acknowledged her as a ‘true’ American. She sang in Bill Clinton’s inaugural ceremony, leaving the audience worldwide spellbound and choked in emotion. Life was very cruel to her, but made amends for all the wrongs done to her by propelling her to the place of the most admired African American icon of the century.

Her autobiographical account named ‘I Know why the Caged Bird Sings’ is a mix of anguish, hope, pathos, and optimism. For the down-trodden and the deprived, it will remain a poem of inspiration, to be read when the whole world seems to have turned  its back on you.  


Caged Bird


A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind   

and floats downstream   

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.


Meaning .. A bird of the wild senses the wind current, latches on to it, and effortlessly soars higher and higher. When the current points downwards, the bird, too, heads downwards. Thus, the flying in the loop in the vast limitless sky becomes a joyride that knows no limits, no fetters, and no fear of predators. The orange sun rays fall on his plumage lighting it up. The bird feels he owns the sky.


But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and   

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.


Meaning .. An encaged bird leads his life in sharp contrast to that of his ‘free’ counterpart. He can’t break open the iron cage. HIs wings are clipped, and his feet are tethered. Condemned to a life of captivity in the cramped cage, he can only rail against his captors by singing aloud. That’s only freedom left for him to vent his frustration.


The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom.


Meaning .. The bird in the cramped enclosure is careful enough not to enrage his captor. With fear at the back of his mind, he warbles about the joys of flying with gay abandon, exploring new lands, and feasting his eyes with new sights. He yearns for these joys, though with sardonic resignation. Though his voice is muffled by fear, it reverberates far and wide. The song reaches distant hills. The verve and vibrancy of the tiny caged bird’s voice comes from its theme – the value of freedom.


The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own


Meaning .. The dawn arrives. It’s time for the free bird to fly off. He waits for the suitable breeze, when winds start blowing rustling the leaves of the trees. In the lawn down on the ground, fat worms bask in the sun light.  (They make sumptuous breakfast for the birds.). The bird begins to soar into the sky that stretches as far as he can see.


But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   

so he opens his throat to sing.


Meaning …A caged bird is condemned to a life in captivity. His dreams of flying high up in the blue sky surveying the vast landscape below, and the the vast blue expanse ahead remain as delusions only. He knows he can never savor this joy of freedom, because his wings are clipped and his feet are tied. He sees the demise of his reverie and his plunge into the abyss of bondage. He realizes the dream is nothing but a dream that brings him more distress. It’s a nightmare. He appears to scream at the disaster that is going to plague him all his life.


The caged bird sings   

with a fearful trill   

of things unknown   

but longed for still   

and his tune is heard   

on the distant hill   

for the caged bird   

sings of freedom.


Meaning … This is a repetition of the first stanza. The reiteration appears so apt, because it captures the caged bird’s undying spirit to the last freedom he is left with – the freedom to sing. The spirit of freedom is so strong that it traverses long distances although it emanates from the enfeebled bird’s throat. In a nutshell, the poet seeks to underline the fact that it’s impossible to muzzle the call for freedom.


Theme of the song …

Theme of the poem.. The poem is an autobiographical account of Maya Angelou, but it fills the readers’ hearts by its depiction of the horrors of bondage, the yearning for freedom, and the poignancy in the voice of a caged bird. No doubt, Maya Angelou was a person of redoubtable will power, prodigious and multifaceted talent, and steely resolve to stare adversity in its face and defeat it.


The poem exudes positivity, a never-say-die spirit, and a resolve to upend the entrenched white supremacist theories that blight humanity. The poem radiates goodness, a desire to dream big, but singing – the only freedom the captors couldn’t snatch from the caged bird. The  disadvantaged African American girl languishing in the lowest rungs of the society defies the odds and reaches the pinnacle of glory. In a nutshell, the theme of the poem is the yearning for freedom by all the people in chains, crushed under the weight of racial prejudice and grinding poverty. Their cry for freedom can be subdued, but not silenced. The poem calls upon the downtrodden not to lose hope, but continue to loudly protest asking for freedom.

Readers are requested to send in their comments, and requests for additional notes on the poem.



3 thoughts on “I Know Why the Caged Bird Wants to Sing by Maya Angelou”

  1. Sir when are you going to write upon the poem “Abou Ben Achem” by Leigh Hunt.
    It would be help full to.


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