Paul Laurence Dunbar's most famous poem

One of Dayton's most famous artists, Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet, novelist and playwright.

On the anniversary of his death -- Feb. 9 -- we thought we'd share his most popular poem, "Sympathy."

>>THEN & NOW: The house where famous Dayton poet lived and wrote before his untimely death

You'll likely recognize a line or two -- "I know why the caged bird sings" ended up becoming the title of Maya Angelou's autobiography of the same name.

>>MORE: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s prose a treasured legacy

ExploreA cabinet card portrait of author Paul Laurence Dunbar as a young man in 1890. Dunbar was born in Dayton in 1872 to former slaves and was the first African-American poet to receive critical acclaim for his work. He died in Dayton Feb. 9, 1906. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OHIO HISTORY CONNECTION Staff Writer


I know what the caged bird feels, alas!     When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;    When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,    And the river flows like a stream of glass;     When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,    And the faint perfume from its chalice steals— I know what the caged bird feels! 
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! 
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,     When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,— When he beats his bars and he would be free; It is not a carol of joy or glee,     But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings— I know why the caged bird sings!

>>LOOK: Downtown mural inspired by Dayton poet is a message to the community

Source: Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2004)


About the Author