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“Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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    In the poem “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, he describes himself, trapped like a bird in a cage, symbolizing himself being trapped somewhere he has no desire to be. In the first stanza, the author describes a delightful scene with “the sun bright on the upland slopes” (Dunbar 2). This might have been the author describing his life when he graduated high school, thinking he had so many options with life. After reading into the second stanza the mood changes, almost becoming gloomy.

    The author feels caged like this bird as he is trying to “beat his wing/ Till its blood is red on the cruel bars ;”( Dunbar 8-9). Dunbar was held back from many things, including furthering his career because of the racial profiling during the civil war. The author “knows what the caged bird feels” (Dunbar 1), because he too was also held back. In the last stanza, Dunbar goes on to tell about the bird singing, and wanting to get out of this caged in dungeon so bad “that he sends [a prayer] from his heart’s deep core”( Dunbar 19).

    This is symbolizing the author’s deep need to escape into something more than what he is, a lonely poet working at a hotel. In the literature book, it gives information that enlightens the understanding the meaning behind the poem, the book states in the author’s paraphrased biography that the author, Paul Dunbar’s, first job after high school was an elevator cage opener. In my opinion the author felt trapped at this job, because of his race and the time period. Dunbar had been denied jobs that he truly wanted in business and journalism positions.

    In my opinion, the author felt held back and it was shown in this poem describing himself as a, “Caged bird that beats his wing” (Dunbar 8). Dunbar uses great descriptive words so that you can almost see the bird in the cage, being trapped and bleeding. I feel the author almost feels desperate to get out of this position, he wanted to go far in life and instead he’s trapped in a cage because of the prejudices in this time era. Over and over the author refers to himself as the bird, that he now “knows what the caged bird feels” (Dunbar 1). Part 2: Author Biography

    In the 1900s, Paul Laurence Dunbar was described as one of the most popular poets of his time. Dunbar was also the first African American to acquire fame in this nation and also across many other countries. (Paul Laurence Dunbar 1). Dunbar faced a lot of different challenges when trying to become a successful writer. One thing Dunbar did not lack was intelligence and talent in everything that had to do with literature. By the age of sixteen he had already published a book of his own poetry titled, “Dayton Herald” (Paul Laurence Dunbar 3).

    Dunbar was successful in high school; he thought when he graduated he would go on to greater things. Dunbar set out to find his own way as a journalist after graduation, but after being denied all base jobs he could applied for, he found a job as an elevator operator, only making a minimal four dollars a week (Paul Laurence Dunbar 3). Dunbar was inspired by many of the great authors and poets of all time, like Williams Shakespeare, John Keats, and Alfred Tennyson. Also, in his free time he wrote his own poetry and articles to publish (Paul Laurence Dunbar 3). Dunbar’s writing soon attracted many people.

    He gave the opening statement to the Western Association of Writers in1892, and his twenty-six- line poem attracted the attention of many in the audience, such as Newton Matthew, who became one of his greatest supporters (Paul Laurence Dunbar 3). He was also acknowledged by other past times authors such as Booker T. Washington, who described him as the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race”. (Paul Laurence Dunbar 1). Dunbar’s poetry was so popular because it was filled with humor, pathos and the true struggles of the African American population, in and out of slavery (Paul Laurence Dunbar 1).

    Paul Laurence Dunbar made his place in American literature, he became every well-known because his poetry is written in a Negro dialect (Dunbar’s Poetry in Literary English 1) Part 3: A Different Perspective In countries like Israel and Egypt women are the most discriminated against. It has become a religious norm for hundreds of years to treat women like they are less than human and inferior to men. In the article “Women on the Front Lines of Faith vs. State” by the Monitor’s Editorial Board it goes on to describe all the tortures that women have had to endure. Hilary Clinton tries to define the line between faith- based bias and human rights” (Monitor’s Editorial Board 1). In the holy land of Israel signs were put up at religious synagogues telling women they could not even walk past the holy sanctuaries with out prosecution. Government workers quickly removed the signs and denounced the discrimination (Monitor’s Editorial Board 2). Israeli woman are known for not even being able to show their heads in public, the men of this country do not see the women as being equal in rights and privileges.

    In Israel it is just normal to treat women differently especially in public, like they are strictly sexual beings (Monitor’s Editorial Board 3). Women are treated as less than humans in most of these countries. This article was very similar in comparison to this poem, “sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar feels the discrimination because of his skin color, and was denied the chance to further advance in his writing career because of it. Yes, the women is Israel where discriminated against for an entirely different reason, but they were still shown the same hate that comes with all predigest.

    Dunbar was trying to describe the feeling of being trapped like the bird, not being able to excel and succeed because you are stuck in that one place because other people think that is where your belong. These women and Dunbar are very similar in the way they cannot go on to do better things in their life because others say they cannot and hold them back with the power of prejudice. Part 4: Interviews Seeing how other people viewed your poem seemed like an important part of the research process.

    Everyone has an opinion and many viewing topics, my interviewees got to share theirs after reading the poem “sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Amanda Porter‘s view was much different then my older father, Greg Williams’ view on what the poem by Dunbar truly meant. Difference in education and age was very relevant in these interviews. While one was very broad and on the surface the other one showed much more depth and feelings into what the meaning behind this poem truly was. Amanda Porter, age 17, was my first interviewee. Porter, felt very strongly about how the author, being the main speaker of the poem.

    After asking what she thought the meaning of the poem was, Porter believed that, “the meaning behind this poem was to show that maybe humans and animals were a lot alike”. The aspects she found interesting about the poem was the use of metaphors though out referring this man to the “trapped bird”. As well as these response was they were very shallow into the deep pool that this poem was. Greg Williams, my father, show great emotion as he answered the questions that were asked to him. The responses showed great depth and feelings.

    Williams felt the meaning of this poem was that this man, like the bird was, as Dunbar describes it as the bird “(in) pain that still throbs in the old, old scars” (12) as he is in pain now but he is trying to “release his heart and the pain in his life for freedom to gain release [from the pain]”. Williams goes on after being asked what he thought the poem‘s purpose was, saying that it sounded to him as, “that if your feeling good or bad you need to look to heaven for release”. Williams goes on after several more questions were asked. These responses were very helpful going into finding a deeper meaning into the poem.

    Both my interviewees were very helpful into discovering what others thought about this poem by Dunbar. Both of them felt sadness for the bird and also for the man in this much pain that “[he] knows now what the caged bird feels” (Dunbar 1). Although there were similarities in what both people said, there were many differences. The younger subject felt the poem was modeled after cruelty toward animals, the other subject felt how the author was metaphorically saying the bird was himself. The experience was shown in the responses of the two different people’s opinions. Part 5: Reflection

    After reading this poem “Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, and going through the many steps of research to find the deeper meaning to this particular poem, I now understand the deeper meaning Dunbar was trying to get across to the readers. By using metaphors, similes and other figurative language he truly gets the agony of the pain of this character out to the reader. After going through the research process I feel like I got a more profound understanding into my poem. By going and finding an article relating to my poem I learned that discrimination is going on all through out the world.

    Women in Israel get treated as badly as African Americans did during Dunbar’s time. Getting to see how others viewed my poem way also very helpful, getting to see a different perspective to enlighten the meaning. This was a very insightful poem and the process to finding the details behind it was a very interesting endeavor.

    Works Cited

    Burch, Charles Eaton. “Dunbar’s Poetry in Literary English. ” The Southern Workman 50. 10 (Oct. 1921): 469-473. Rpt. in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. Literature Resource Center.

    Web. 29 Feb. 2012. Dunbar, Paul L. “Sympathy. ” The Language of Literature. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell, 2000. Print. Editorial Board, Monitor’s. “Women on the Front Lines of Faith vs. State. ” Christian Science Monitor. 28 Dec 2011: n. p. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 29 Feb 2012. Gerhard, Jane, and Cynthia McCown. “Paul Laurence Dunbar. ” American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, et al. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 29 Feb. 2012. Porter, Amanda. Personal interview. 14 February 2012 Williams, Greg. Personal interview. 14 February 2012

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