Friday, December 16, 2011

Sympathy by Dunbar

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Empathy or Sympathy


Paul Laurance Dunbar was an African � American whose poetry inspired by the struggles of his people. Although Dunbar had no direct experience of slavery, he believed African Americans continued to be treated as second-class citizens. Their freedom was limited due to their skin color. Dunbar tried to express his feelings of sorrow. He craved freedom and the ability to live like other groups of people. In order to share his sorrow and sadness Dunbar wrote poems. In this poem that entitled “sympathy “ he uses imagery of a caged bird to articulate his desire for freedom. He uses the caged bird as a metaphor in all three stanzas. In the first stanza the bird desires freedom, in the second stanza the bird seeks freedom and in the third stanza the bird recognizes that he will never achieve freedom.


In the first stanza Dunbar uses metaphor to show that he desires freedom. He uses fragments such as wind, river, sun, and singing birds to describe freedom to his readers. The Sun represents warmth, life and brightness. People can see things better when it is daylight. The image of the shining sun elicits feelings of warmth and happiness. The power of the sun over the highest point of the land can be seen, when the sun is bright on the upland slopes. Although the sun is not available and upland slopes are not available at all times, with closed eyes one can feel the sun. The same is true of the wind. When Dunbar says, “when the wind stirs soft through the spring grass“ it is like he can reach out his hand to touch the spring grass and feel the breeze go through his fingers. In “Sympathy” wind represents movement and happiness of life, especially when it is gentle and slow. Wind also evokes freedom because it goes in every direction. Wind can travel through the spring grass, desert and through the opening crack of a window or door. River has the same meaning to the poet. The wild river flows wherever it wants and makes a wild noise. A stream of glass is another image in this poem that intensifies his hearing. The sound of the river reminds the bird of freedom and wildness. Bringing the opening of first bud together with the first singing bird is not a coincidence. The two events represent spring and he intensifies the good feeling about spring. Dunbar feels all the beauty of nature. He uses metaphor to describe his own feelings to be free. Sun, wind, river and singing birds are ways to express his desire for freedom. He sees and feels freedom in society, all the opportunities that other people have, but he just desires and wishes to have them ”I know what the caged bird feels!”


In the second stanza, he explains his desire to achieve his highest potential and break all the chains of discrimination. He is like the caged bird stretching his wings to fly, but is constrained by his small cage. There are visual fragments in this stanza such as blood, old scars and physical pain to represent his emotional pain. Dunbar represents society as a cage that does not allow him to achieve his potential. The swing on the bough and flying back to his perch and clinging are the symbols of freedom. He wishes for the same opportunity as his neighbors, namely other birds. He sees other birds singing and the wind stirring at will. Dunbar describes discrimination as being trapped in a cage. It is not like a wall because he can see freedom of the other people, but he cannot achieve it himself. Society deprives him of opportunities that others enjoy. But he does not lose confidence and struggles for his freedom until symbolic blood flows. These efforts and struggles have existed for ages. “A pain still throbs in the old, old scars and they pulse again with a keener sting“. His ancestors have been fighting for years but have yet to gain complete freedom. He feels the pain of old scars, the scars incurred by his parents and grandparents. The injustice and suffering of his ancestor remains as scars. Despite these problems, he as the bird beats his wing and fight to confront the injustice of his situations “ I know why the caged bird beats his wing “.


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The third stanza is about realization. The poet realizes that he can’t get rid of these scars “ know(s) why the caged birds sings …when he beats his bars and he would be free”. He is tired of trying and fighting to confront society and all the injustices with which he is faced. He then acknowledges a greater power. He prays and begs God to help him get his freedom and this prayer is like a pleading song. This prayer and song is not inspired by happiness. “It is not a carol of joy or glee, but a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core“. He asks God to break his chains. Dunbar manages to convince his readers that although the bird in the poem is singing, it is a song of sadness and sorrow, not a song of joy. He again uses metaphor to express his feelings about the injustices he faces. He realizes that his plea to society is useless, so he prays to God to help put an end to all the discrimination.


In conclusion, one can say Dunbar tries to convince his readers of the inequalities that African-Americans continue to suffer. Society did not allow them to live their life as others did. This poem expresses life seen through the eyes of a man yearning for freedom. The readers will be convinced that the poet tries to express his feelings by empathizing with the bird in his poem. He describes his situation as that of a bird struggling for freedom but realizing it is beyond his reach. This relates to the plight of the poet himself. Dunbar desires to be free, to do as others do and to achieve his full potential. Yet at the end he realizes that no matter what he does, he is always at a disadvantage. His struggle for freedom is hopeless.





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