A Poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings..© 2010
Type of Work and Date of Publication
......."Sympathy" is a lyric poem about a caged bird that symbolizes oppressed black Americans specifically and any oppressed people generally. Dodd, Mead, and Company published the poem in 1899 in Lyrics of the Hearthside.
.......Dunbar was believed to be the first black American to earn national recognition for his writing. He gained attention after selling a published collection of his poems to riders on the elevator he operated in a building in Dayton, Ohio.
.......Dunbar was the son of slaves, Matilda and Joshua Dunbar. His father escaped slavery and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. The extent to which the experiences of Dunbar's parents as slaves influenced his poetry is uncertain, but it was probably considerable. One can imagine Dunbar as a child listening at the fireside to stories his parents told about their lives as slaves.
.......In 1899—the year of the poem's publication—antipathy toward blacks was widespread in America. True, the Civil War had liberated blacks from slavery, and federal laws had granted them the right to vote, the right to own property, and so on. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—approved in
the post-Civil War era—granted black Americans basic rights as citizens, as did the Civil Rights Act of 1875. However, court and legislative decisions later emasculated the legal protection of blacks. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1896 (Plessy v. Ferguson) that it was legal to provide "separate but equal" accommodations for passengers of Louisiana's railroads. This ruling set a
precedent that led to segregated schools, restaurants, parks, libraries, and so on.
.......The first six lines of each stanza contain four feet and therefore make up a tetrameter. The last line of each stanza contains three feet and therefore makes up a trimeter.
......1..................2........................ 3................4.......The last line of the first stanza demonstrates the trimeter format, repeated in the last line of the other two stanzas. A red number appears over the iambs; a blue number appears over the anapest.
......1..................2........................ 3Rhyme Scheme
The rhyme scheme of each stanza is abaabcc. Each of the end rhymes is masculine—that is, only the final syllables are involved in the rhyme, as in lines 3 and 4, which end with grass and glass. (In feminine rhyme, on the other hand, the rhyme involves the final two syllables, as in ringing and
Figures of Speech
.......Examples of figures of speech in the poem are as follows:
Line 3: When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,Metaphor
Comparison of Unlike Things Without Using Like, As, or Than
The controlling figure of speech in the poem is an implied metaphor that compares the bird to an oppressed human being.Simile
Comparison of Unlike Things Using Like, As, or Than
Line 4: And the river flows like a stream of glass (comparison of the river to a stream of glass)
.......The speaker of the poem and the bird both experience the pain of captivity. The bird yearns to fly from its cage when it sees the sunlit landscape and smells the fragrance of the flowers. It flaps its wings until they bleed; it beats against the bars of the cage. The speaker also yearns to break free when nature beckons. He perhaps tugs at his bonds (literal or figurative) and beats his head against a wall. But neither the bird nor the speaker can escape. Both are prisoners. All they can do is sing a song that cries out to heaven for deliverance.
.......Since Dunbar avoids specifically mentioning blacks and their suffering, the poem can stand as a lament on behalf of all people oppressed by intolerance, prejudice, and unfair laws.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
1. Write a short poem that expresses your feelings at a time when you felt others had oppressed or "imprisoned" you.