Performed by the Temple University Concert Choir
Paul Rardin conducting
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem Sympathy is a moving depiction of perseverance in the face of adversity. It has been celebrated since nearly the time it was published in 1899. The well-known line “I know why the caged bird sings” was the inspiration for the title of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. There is something incredibly touching about the manner in which Dunbar portrays the caged bird – at the same time despairing, angry, and mournful; yet it is not these traits alone that make Dunbar’s poem so poignant. The genius of this work is found in the fact that the caged bird still sings, in protest against its captivity, in mourning for its loss of freedom, and in frustration at its situation. Its song is transformative; the caged bird is beautiful because it rails against its imprisonment with the power of its music. Dunbar was one of the first renowned African-American poets. Examining his life at the turn of the 20th century, it is easy to imagine how this poem related to his own experiences.
Dunbar’s work has long been a profound influence and joy in my life. The three sections of the piece correspond to the three stanzas of the poem. The first depicts the pastoral moments that the bird longs for from its cage. The second is filled with anger and frustration, portraying the violence the bird inflicts upon itself in its misery. The third and final stanza depicts the bird’s song as a hopeful prayer for freedom.
I KNOW what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!