What Is the Meaning of “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar?

The meaning of the poem “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar is that, as an African American man, the poet empathizes with the bird locked in a cage and the lack of freedom he feels as he views the outside world. The poet understands that the tune the caged bird sings, misunderstood by so many as a happy tune, is similar to his own song, “a prayer…from his heart’s deep core.”

The poem begins with “I know what the caged bird feels.” Dunbar paints a picture of a bird confined behind bars looking out at the world in springtime in all its fresh beauty, yet he is only able to enjoy it from afar. Dunbar relates to this because he feels that he is confined to a world where freedom is not his, and he is only able to watch the free world from his prison.

The second stanza begins “I know why the caged bird beats his wing.” Dunbar knows the bird wants to be free, but he is only able to go back to his perch. Dunbar, the son of former slaves, understands because he is still unable to go where he wants, and his world is limited. He feels the old scars, and the pain resurfaces as sharp as ever from time to time.

The third stanza begins “I know why the caged bird sings.” Dunbar says it is not a joyful song but “a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings.” The poet knows, and he empathizes because he also sends a similar plea.