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On "Sympathy"


Jean Wagner

"Sympathy" is a heartfelt cry of a poet who finds himself imprisoned amid traditions and prejudices he feels powerless to destroy . . . .

from Black Poets of the United States, from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973. Copyright 1973 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.


Peter Revell

A poem like "Sympathy"—with its repeated line, "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!"—can be read as a cry against slavery, but was probably written out of the feeling that the poet’s talent was imprisoned in the conventions of his time and exigencies of the literary marketplace.

From Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.


Joanne M. Braxton

The assertion that Dunbar did not continue to grow as a poet may be answered, in part, through a comparison of excerpts from two poems from different stages of Dunbar's career, each bearing the title "Sympathy." The first poem comes from Dunbar's debut collection, Oak and Ivy, but was not reprinted in any of the later collections.

A balm to bathe the wounded heart
        Where sorrow's hand hath lain,
The link divine from soul to soul
        That makes us one in pain,--

Sweet sympathy, benignant ray,
        Light of the soul doth shine;
In it is human nature giv'n
        A touch of the divine.

The language of this excerpt as well as that of the complete poem is stilted and archaic, and while its rigid form demonstrates the author's ability to conform to a European model, the poem itself doesn't breathe. The "Sympathy" written by the young elevator operator who had just graduated from high school might be thought of as a juvenile work or an apprentice piece for the later "Sympathy," which was written sometime during Dunbar's 1897-99 stint as an assistant at the Library of Congress, and which first appeared in Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899). The mature "Sympathy" opens with the unforgettable lines, "I know what the caged bird feels, alas!" By this time Dunbar, although still a young poet at twenty-seven, is nearing the end of his career and his life; he has published a total of four volumes of poetry, each showing a greater mastery of the poet's craft. He has become a more well-rounded individual as a result of his marriage and travel at home and abroad. Even so, Dunbar proclaims, "I know what the caged bird feels." In the powerful imagery of the "Sympathy" from Lyrics of the Hearthside, Dunbar finds the mature form for the sentiment of the earlier poem from Oak and Ivy.

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!

In this later "Sympathy," Dunbar moves away from the imitation of European models and toward a strong poetic voice of his own. Yet he displays his keen awareness of the limitations imposed on him by his culture, including anxiety about self-support, and the psychic injury he felt he had sustained from the abusive misreading of his work by critics following what Dunbar saw as Howells's "dictum" regarding his dialect verse, as well as from the general neglect of his protest ballads and standard English verse based on classical models. Well, then, might Dunbar have identified with the caged bird who sings "When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore."

Writing in the A.M.E. Review in 1914 the poet's widow argued that "a poet is a poet because he understands; because he is born with a divine kinship with all things, and he is a poet in direct ratio to his power of sympathy." She explained that:

"The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird's cage. June and July days are hot. All out of doors called and the trees of the shaded streets of Washington were tantalizingly suggestive of his beloved streams and fields. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one. The dry dust of the dry books (ironic incongruity!--a poet shut up with medical works), rasped sharply in his hot throat, and he understood how the bird felt when it beats its wings against its cage." (Alice Dunbar, 129)

from The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993. Copyright 1993 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.


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