Metaphors for Expressing Feelings

July 23, 2011

Students examine how feelings are expressed in a poem, and then use metaphor to write about their own feelings.

Lesson in brief:  Students will examine how feelings are described and expressed in a poem. They will employ a literary device to write about their own feelings.

Handout (below): 
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Paul Laurence Dunbar
(original title, "Sympathy")


Ask students to complete the following statement, "A strong feeling I've had recently was...." (Students can pass if they choose to.)


Review the vocabulary words for the lesson. Write the term "metaphor" on the board. Explain that we frequently use metaphors in our language and our thoughts. They are a way of relating one thing to another. For example, saying someone's victory was a "slam-dunk" is a metaphor that compares the victory to a winning basketball maneuver. Poets like to use metaphors because they summon up concrete images and cause us to see things in fresh ways.

Introduce Poem 

Tell students that we will read a poem entitled, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Then we will consider how feelings are expressed and how the author used metaphor.

1. Distribute the handout to students.
2. Ask for volunteers to read the first and second stanzas aloud.
3. Read the last stanza for the class.

Feelings Web

1. Write the word feelings on the board and circle it. Ask the class: What are the feelings expressed in this poem? How does the caged bird feel?

2. Write students' responses in web format extending from feelings circle. Ask:

  • How does the author describe these feelings?
  • What are some of the images he describes?
  • What images "remind" the bird of freedom?
  • Why does he repeat the line, "I know why the caged bird sings"?

3. Explain that metaphors were used in the poem to contrast the images of feeling free with feeling confined. Define metaphor as a comparison between two unrelated places or things. The caged bird is a long metaphor expressing feelings of imprisonment, longing, even despair. Refer to students' responses from the feelings web here.

Feelings Poems Using Metaphor

1. Ask students to take out a sheet of paper to write their own feeling poem. (They can use one of the strong feelings they mentioned in the Gathering or a different one.)

2. Using a metaphor, they will describe their feeling, comparing it to a person, place or thing. Give a few examples:

____________________ is a train.

____________________ is an anchor.

____________________ is a sinking ship.

____________________ is a pillow.

____________________ is a lion on the prowl.

3. Next, list characteristics of the second noun, place or thing. For example: Excitement is a train (fast, moving, destination, track).

4. Finally, extend the metaphor by answering the questions: Who? What? Where? and Why? or How? about the comparison. Example:

Excitement is a train
moving fast along the track
Its destination anticipated
quickly reaching impact

Sharing Poems
Ask for a few volunteers to read their poems aloud. Collect the poems from the students.


Ask the class, What is one thing you learned from today's lesson?

Follow-up Suggestions

1. The author, an African American poet writing in the early 1900s, shows that he identifies with the bird's feelings by repeating the phrase, "I know...." Ask students to write about a time they understood or identified with someone who was feeling bad in some way. Define empathy for students.

2. The real title for the poem is "Sympathy." Ask students to explain the difference between empathy and sympathy. Who should sympathize with the "caged bird"?

This lesson is adapted from Writing Poetry by Shelley Tucker, Good Year Books, 1992.


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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 a 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!