Text of the Poem

"A little bird I am,
Shut from the fields of air,
And in my cage I sit and sing
To Him who placed me there:
Well pleased a prisoner to be,
Because, my God, it pleases Thee!

"Naught have I else to do;
I sing the whole day long;
And He whom most I love to please
Doth listen to my song,
He caught and bound my wandering wing,
But still He bends to hear me sing."

Footnotes

  1. The verb “to bend” also means to tie, fetter, or otherwise restrain. This meaning of the word suggests that the man deliberately restrains her in order to hear her song. While birdsong usually has positive connotations that symbolize freedom, joy, and peace, the “bending” in this line changes the connotations of the song. It becomes a symbol of her oppression rather than her freedom; He repurposes it for His own means. In this way, He not only metaphorically destroys her freedom but literally takes it from her.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. In this line, the verb “bends” means to stoop or bow towards something. In this way it once again highlights the bird’s littleness and the large stature of the man standing over her. The man “bending” demonstrates his lack of interest in the only action that this bird is allowed to do. He does not sit to hear her sing or arrive to hear her sing; he bends, a brief action that signifies a lack of commitment or interest.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The verb “to bind” suggests at type of restraint. The adjective “wandering” in this context represents freedom of movement. That He “caught and bound” her suggests the use of violence and force. The verbs used in this line further clash with the speaker’s eerily pleasant and complacent tone and suggest the reader should look past what is directly stated for the violence behind the speaker’s words.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The careful reader will read this line as incongruous. Rather than resenting her captor, the caged bird “most loves” to please him. Although the speaker says this line earnestly, readers should hear the claim through her situation: without choice or recourse to do anything else, without knowledge or experience of the outside world, the speaker can only gain pleasure from singing to the man who stole her freedom. The speaker’s pleasure in entertaining her oppressor is another sign of her oppression and another catalyst for the reader’s rage.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. This line could be read as voicing both the feelings of the speaker and the poet. “My God” can be read as a vocative that suggests an earnest address to God. In this reading of the line, the speaker innocently accepts her cage as a positive thing; denied “fields of air” and the perspective to understand her captivity, the woman believes He is good to her. “My God” can also be read as an expletive. In this reading, the voice of the poet seeps into the narrative to sarcastically comment on the speaker’s offensive conditions. The effect of the line is to highlight the outrage that the reader should feel over the speaker’s description of her “happy caged life.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Birdsong is typically associated with peaceful, hopeful, or joyful things. Throughout literature it is used to symbolize the coming dawn or spring, marriage unions, and the end of hardship. However, it can also represent the pain in the lack of freedom. The “caged bird” singing takes on heartbreaking connotations and invokes not only pity in the reader but indignation at the creature’s trapped condition.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The identification of the speaker as a human picturing herself as a bird is further emphasized by the verb “sit.” While birds typically perch, brood, or roost, people sit. From this verb choice the reader gets the image of a woman imprisoned in a cage, or even within her own house.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. The metaphor “fields of air” portrays the air as if it were part of the land. This metaphor suggests that while the speaker identifies with a bird, she is a human who would feel freedom in wide-open land spaces.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. In Greek mythology, women who were violated or pursued by men were often turned into birds to set them free. One example of this is the story of Philomela. Philomela is raped by her sister’s husband, who then cuts out her tongue to keep her from telling anyone. After Philomela enacts her revenge, she is turned into a nightingale to escape punishment and regain her voice in the form of birdsong. Alcott draws on this long history of bird imagery to create a sympathetic speaker in the first line of her poem.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. When word order is inverted from a typically normal structure, as it is here, it is known as hyperbaton. Alcott’s use of this particular device in the opening line of the poem not only emphasizes the speaker’s “I am,” but it also subtly indicates an inversion in how the text is presented and how it should be read. This means that readers should consider much of the poem as satirical, or mocking.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. Birds are a universal symbol of freedom. However, throughout literature they have typically been depicted as fragile or delicate and associated with women. Here, the “littleness” of the bird suggests that this creature is being persecuted in some way. It immediately makes the reader sympathize with this frail creature and creates a tone that should cause outrage within the reader.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The now-archaic pronoun “naught” simply means “nothing.” The little bird, trapped in a cage, has only one thing that it can do: sing. Beginning the second stanza with this word indicates the boredom and despair that the captive feels as she resigns herself to performing the only action that she can in the cage.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. Building on the inversion from the first line in the poem, the speaker provides us with a stronger example of sarcasm. Along with the absurd notion that a captive would be happy to be a prisoner, the exclamation mark at the end of this line provides a sarcastic twist. The logic here is also suspect: the little bird is pleased to be a prisoner because He is pleased to have her as a prisoner. This evidence further lends itself to a reading of the poem as a condemnation of the institutions that prevent women from having agency and authority in their own lives.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. Alcott’s speaker presents us with a statement here that operates on two levels. A more surface-level reading suggests that the little bird is happy to be God’s prisoner because it pleases His will. However, many readers should wonder why anyone would be pleased to be someone’s captive. This suggests then that the line is intended to be ironic—the little bird was taken from the “fields of air” and now can only “sit and sing.”

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. The speaker’s captor is simply identified with this capitalized, masculine pronoun. Western cultures and Judeo-Christian religious systems have typically used a capitalized, masculine pronoun to refer to God. This could suggest then that the speaker exists in a cage because God has willed it. However, since the speaker has identified herself as a “little bird,” the capitalized pronoun could emphasize the power that her male captor has over her. In either reading, the idea conveyed still suggests that the little bird, or woman, was put into a cage by someone with more power than her, emphasizing her lack of agency in this situation.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. While the word “fields” technically refers to land on the earth, it can be used to symbolically represent wide, open expanses. The phrase “fields of air” describes the freedom and endless possibilities that the speaker enjoyed prior to her imprisonment.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor