The Caged Bird

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Here is a story from Persia and three American poems that reference the tale.

The great 13th Century Persian poet called Rumi visited a village where a merchant asked   “Master Rumi, my favorite possession is my bird.   But her wings and head droop every day, and no longer is my house filled with her sweet song. I have brought medicine and healthy food, yet nothing seems to banish its illness. Will you come to my house and see this bird?”

Rumi saw into the man’s heart.   It was hardened all around like stone, for the merchant was desirous only of his own gain. “This man’s heart is imprisoned in a cage,” he thought to himself. The merchant led the poet to his fine house and there by the window stood a large cage with a lovely plumed bird inside.   True to the merchant’s words the bird appeared to possess little vitality as though ill.   Then Rumi began to sing a song and as his soothing words fell upon the ears of the bird, first it began to twitter then at last began to join its voice to the melody of the poet. Then it let off abruptly and returned to its former state.

Rumi said to the merchant, “the bird is unhappy because it longs for its freedom.”   To which the merchant replied, “I will give the bird anything that it asks for that is within my power, but I cannot grant its freedom. I am traveling tomorrow for India and will return in forty days. Ask the bird if there is something that I can bring to it from its homeland.”

The poet whispered quietly to the bird who immediately began to flap its wings and burst into a short song.   The merchant was overjoyed to see his favorite possession restored to health.   Rumi then told the merchant that the bird would be fully restored if he were to do the following: While he was in India, he should visit the nearby forest where birds similar to his own live, and announce to them that one of their sisters is captive within his home.

Several weeks later, when the merchant was in India, he hurried out to the nearby forest.   He announced to the birds there, “one of your sisters lives captive in a cage at my home.”   No sooner had the merchant spoken these words, then one of the wild birds fell senseless to the ground from one of the boughs of the trees.

When he returned home to his village he approached the cage and speaking softly to the bird told it of the misfortune that he had encountered in the forest. “I have sad news for you my friend, for when I told the others of your captivity, one of your sisters fell immediately to the ground dead.”

As soon as these words were spoken, the bird collapsed and fell to the bottom of the cage. The merchant was aghast. “What misfortune is this! Now my bird is dead too!” he exclaimed. Sorrowfully, he plucked the dead bird from the cage and placed it by the window sill. At once, the bird revived, flew out the window and perched on a branch far out of reach of the merchant. “What is the meaning of this?” he cried.   Then, through the power bestowed by the poet the bird began to speak and the merchant understood its language. “You brought not sad news to me, but the way to my freedom,” said the bird, “for my forest sister showed by her action what I had to do in order to free myself.   O man, may your heart be set free to fly from the cage of your greed before it perishes in its captivity.”

Then the bird flew away, free at last.

Born on this day in the year 1849 in Maine USA Sarah Orne Jewett knew nothing of why the caged bird sings.  Her Canary is like a pretty but ofttimes petulant slave, kept safe and well fed by the master, but demanding the little luxuries of life. Despite growing up during the US Civil War and seeing emancipation first hand she experienced it as a WASP with none of the concerns of inequality, poverty, lack of education, opportunity or outright discrimination.

How different is the reply from Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem “Sympathy” below.  He finishes with the iconic line “I know why the caged bird sings”. Dunbar was born in 1872 after the Civil War, after emancipation.  He was born in Ohio to parents who were Kentucky slaves before slavery was abolished.  Born free, but knowing so much about inequality.  Dunbar experienced the false promises of the Reconstruction Era and the gradual decline of Black Civil Rights into the Jim Crow laws.

The Dunbar line became the title of Maya Angelou‘s 1969 autobiography.  Born in 1928 Angelou is one of the most popular poets in the world today, and yet she also experienced the deep rooted inequality of the United States.  A century after emancipation the Civil Rights movement was still struggling for the rights of the slaves now free for 100 years.

A Caged Bird; by Sarah Orne Jewett

High at the window in her cage
the old canary flits and sings,
nor sees across the curtain pass
the shadow of a swallow’s wings.

A poor deceit and copy, this,
of larger lives that mark their span,
unreckoning of wider worlds
or gifts that Heaven keeps for man.

She gathers piteous bits and shreds,
this solitary, mateless thing,
to patient build again the nest
so rudely scattered spring by spring;

and sings her brief, unlisted songs,
her dreams of bird life wild and free,
yet never beats her prison bars
at sound of song from bush or tree.

But in my busiest hours I pause,
held by a sense of urgent speech,
bewildered by that spark-like soul,
able my very soul to reach.

She will be heard; she chirps me loud,
when I forget those gravest cares,
her small provision to supply,
clear water or her seedsman’s wares.

She begs me now for that chief joy
the round great world is made to grow,
her wisp of greenness. Hear her chide,
because my answering thought is slow!

What can my life seem like to her?
A dull, unpunctual service mine;
stupid before her eager call,
her flitting steps, her insight fine.

To open wide thy prison door,
poor friend, would give thee to thy foes;
and yet a plaintive note I hear,
as if to tell how slowly goes

the time of thy long prisoning.
Bird! Does some promise keep thee sane?
Will there be better days for thee?
Will thy soul too know life again?

Ah, none of us have more than this:
If one true friend green leaves can reach
from out some fairer, wider place,
and understand our wistful speech!

 

Sympathy; by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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!

 

Caged Bird; by Maya Angelou

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Happy Birthday Paul Laurence Dunbar

PLDunbar

A prolific writer during his too short 33 years Dunbar was born June 27th, 1872.  He was a child of the hope that characterised the reconstruction period in the US following the Civil War.  He was an intellectual and suspicious of the “negro dialect” writing that was so popular in his day.  He preferred to express himself in proper English rather than in Uncle Tom pickaninny cant.

His influence was enormous and he inspired some of the greatest writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  More recently Maya Angelou acknowledged his influence in the title of her poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” from a line in Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”.

We Wear the Mask: by Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
this debt we pay to human guile;
with torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
and mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
in counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
we wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
to thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
beneath our feet, and long the mile;
but let the world dream otherwise,
we wear the mask!

A Sailors Life for me

First Fleet

Following the War of Independence in America the British Crown was denied a dumping ground for its convicts sentenced to transportation.  On 13th May 1787 a fleet of 11 ships was sent to a new dumping ground, Australia.  This is known as “the first fleet”.

The fleet consisted of 1,420 when it left Portsmouth in May 1787.  The number had fallen to 1,336 by the time the fleet arrived in Botany Bay in January 1788.  20 children were born along the way.  So I was curious about the statistics.  What was the most dangerous position to hold on the fleet?

Marines, their Wives and Children did best on the trip.  Beginning with 247 Marines and 46 wives and children, they lost only 3 along the way and with 9 births they increased their number overall.

Female convicts began with 193 and lost only 4 along the way, which is a 2% death rate.

Of the 14 convict children who departed 3 were lost, a staggering 21% death rate, the highest on board of any group.  Then 11 new convict babies were born on the voyage, so the overall number of convict children actually rose to 22.

Senior officials & ships officers had a 7% death rate, losing 1 of their original compliment of 15.  This is the same death rate as applied to male convicts, who lost 39 out of the 582 who left Portsmouth.

The fleet set out with 323 sailors and lost 54 along the way.  Being a sailor was a dangerous job in the 18th century.  That was 17% death rate.

A Sailor’s Song: by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Oh for the breath of the briny deep,
And the tug of the bellying sail,
With the sea-gull’s cry across the sky
And a passing boatman’s hail.
For, be she fierce or be she gay,
The sea is a famous friend alway.

Ho! for the plains where the dolphins play,
And the bend of the mast and spars,
And a fight at night with the wild sea-sprite
When the foam has drowned the stars.
And, pray, what joy can the landsman feel
Like the rise and fall of a sliding keel?

Fair is the mead; the lawn is fair
And the birds sing sweet on the lea;
But the echo soft of a song aloft
Is the strain that pleases me;
And swish of rope and ring of chain
Are music to men who sail the main.

Then, if you love me, let me sail
While a vessel dares the deep;
For the ship ‘s my wife, and the breath of life
Are the raging gales that sweep;
And when I ‘m done with calm and blast,
A slide o’er the side, and rest at last.