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Notes for September 24 (2004) Class on the Poem, "Sympathy"

What is a story?

A story is a beginning a middle and an end about something happening.

What is poetry?

Poetry expresses feelings, using sound in special ways, is shorter than other kinds of literature, and is the oldest form in language. Before written language, our people gave out information, history, stories in poems (or songs) to the next generation.

A poem is a container for feelings.

Songs are nearly or are poems.

Poetry is difficult, because it is short and concentrated (like orange juice), and is special or out of the ordinary in feeling and words used.

Always look carefully at the title before you begin to read any literature. Make sure you know the meaning of "sympathy" before you begin!


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 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!

—Paul Laurence Dunbar

“Alas” is a kind of sympathy word used to express sadness to someone and often in poetry.

When you read a poem, remember to read the sentences for meaning.

Using a semicolon “;” is a way of joining two sentences into one.

Using a colon “:” is a way of saying, “I will explain more to follow.

Upland is a compound of “up” and “land,” so you can guess the meaning.

A “slope” is a hillside where the land goes higher from a lower place.

The wind “stirs” as we stir coffee (the same motion) and the grass “springs” and so is gently going up and down in that wind. It is a picture or image.

The river is like glass. The river is not glass, but it looks like glass. The poet compares the two things to help you see an image, this time using “metaphor.”

This is a special kind called “simile.” Simile uses “like” or “as” to compare.

“Opes” is a poetic word to mean “open,” but the poet needed a rhyme for “slopes” and open would not work, so he uses this word.

“Chalice” is compared to flower bud by its shape. A “chalice” is the cup used in a Christian church to hold the wine that represents the blood of Christ.

The group of words together in lines is called a “stanza.”

The baby “clings” to its mother.

The bird sits on its perch. The bird perches.

A “bough” is a tree branch.

A scar is left after a bad cut. Your finger throbs when you cut it. Your pulse is your heartbeat.

A knife is sharp when you make it keener.

A “plea” is a noun for when someone asks strongly for something. A child pleads with his mother to get a chocolate bar at the store. The mother must be very strong to resist his pleading. A good synonym to “plead” is to “beg.”

Try the Quiz on the notes above.

See our older notes from previous semesters



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