Dunbar’S Life Revealed in His Poem “Sympathy”

In the poem “Sympathy”, Paul Laurence Dunbar expresses his frustrations at the
limitations that his race, culture, and society put on his talent and aspirations through metaphors and word choice. “Sympathy” is a poem not only about a caged bird but about Dunbar’s life in general. Dunbar desires freedom and writes as if no living person could ever dwell peacefully in captivity. The bird is a symbolic representation of Dunbar’s own grievances and his own longing to be able to experience the true beauty of the world around him. It also shows, according to the poet’s background, the trials and struggles he endured.   Dunbar’s poem reflects in a tragic way, the horrors of captivity in his life.
Dunbar’s talent and frustrations can be seen from the beginning of his life. “He was born in the year 1872 to Matilda and Joshua Dunbar” (UDRI) in Ohio. Dunbar’s parents were both former slaves but his father escaped from slavery His father left at the age of two leaving his mother to work in Dayton as a washerwoman. Dunbar’s mother encouraged him to read and write poetry. At the young age of 6, Dunbar had already begun reciting and reading. Dunbar attended Dayton Central High as the only African American in his class. He found it difficult to find employment because of his race so he remained focused on school. Dunbar was involved in the debating society, editor of the school paper, and president of the school’s literary society. Dunbar finally received a job as an elevator operator in 1892 (UDRI) where he worked while writing the poem “Sympathy”.
Throughout his life, Dunbar dealt with rejection because of his skin color but praise over
his writings. Sterling Brown commands Dunbar as “a highly gifted man” (Gabbing 227) but then refers to him as “the Negro peasants as a clown” (Gabbing 227). His talent of writing becomes meaningless because of his race. Dunbar is denied equal opportunities and refers to this racial discrimination as a “caged bird” (Dunbar, Line 1). His...