Caged Bird and Song to the Men of England

3 March 2017

When Maya Angelou talks about a ‘caged bird’, she meant a black person in those times. Slavery had been abolished a few generations back, but black people were still widely discriminated. A black person never had the sense of freedom a white person had. Maya Angelou believed in this freedom for everyone, as did some others, as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. She was calling out to other black people, she was “singing” for freedom, as a caged bird that longs to escape, even though he seemingly can’t- ‘his wings are clipped and his feet are tied’.

So, the caged bird ‘opens his throat to sing’. In this poem, Angelou makes a contrast between the free bird, a white man, and a caged bird- a black man. She uses lots of personification in her descriptions of each bird, to make it clear that she is actually talking about humans. The free bird in her poem ‘leaps’, ‘dips his wing’, and ‘dares to claim the sky’. These are all heroic and beautiful descriptions of the free bird. The caged bird ‘stalks’, ‘seldom sees through his bars of rage’ and ‘his wings are clipped and his feet are tied’ so he ‘opens his throat to sing’.

The picture of the caged bird is a gloomy and nasty one- it ‘stalks’, meaning an awkward, stiff long step. Words as ‘narrow cage’ and ‘bars of rage’ create a disturbing effect. These bars of rage symbolize the terror, fear and anger of the black people in Angelou’s time. The clipped wings and tied feet are to show that the bird is powerless; it can do nothing to resist. This gloomy effect is carried on in the fifth stanza, when the poem states that a black man’s dreams are suppressed and die out- ‘a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams’.

Another gloomy choice of words is ‘shouts on a nightmare scream’. A stanza that is to be noted is the third, and it is also repeated at the end of the poem. This is Angelou’s vision. In the poem, the caged bird sings ‘of things unknown but longed for still’ and his ‘tune is heard over the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom’. The black man is inferior, but he dreams, and he must persevere, but he will succeed, because the black man dreams of freedom, and freedom is a right, it cannot be suppressed. “Song to the Men of England” is set a little earlier and obviously in England.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a Romantic poet, and in this poem, it seems clear he calls out to the workers in England, to rebel against oppression by the aristocrats. He seems to be on their side. But when one takes a deeper look, it becomes clear the poem is slightly controversial. Shelley starts the poem off with the repeated use of wherefore- ‘Wherefore plough for the lords who lay ye low’ and ‘Wherefore weave with toil and care the rich robes your tyrants wear’. This word slows down each line, thereby creating a romantic, soft feel at the start of the poem.

This continues, and when the poet states that the masters of the workers are ‘ungrateful drones’, meaning lazy, idle male honey-bees, this is encouraging and in support of the workers. But then, in the eighth line of the poem, the tone changes suddenly- the tone is now angry- ‘Drain your sweat, nay drink your blood? ’ This is comparing the lords to mythical bloodthirsty creatures, such as vampires? The alliteration of the words ‘drain’ and ‘drink’ with the heavy ‘dr’-sound mirrors the hard work endured by the men. From ridiculing them, Shelley now says that they are all-powerful and violent animals.

This contrast continues throughout the poem- the lords change from mighty ‘tyrants’ to ‘stingless drones’ and ‘idle’. I think the poet does this to show two possibilities- either the workers rebel against tyranny, or they continue working for nothing. This second possibility is portrayed in the final two stanzas, when the author says if the Men of England are not going to rebel, they might just as well ‘shrink to their cellars, holes and cells’, and ‘With plough and spade, and hoe and loom, trace your grave and build your tomb. Especially this last sentence is very morbid and disturbing. The heavy chopping effect is a vivid contrast after the gentle flow of the first stanzas. The last line ‘till fair England be your sepulchre’ leaves the reader almost feeling guilty about letting England fall dead, be entombed. Social injustice is very vividly portrayed in these two poems, often using symbolism. It is a clear example of how poets rebelled or inspired others to do so against their situation.

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