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.