A caged bird in spring knows perfectly well that there is some way in which he should be able to serve. He is well aware that there is something to be done, but he is unable to do it. What is it? He cannot quite remember, but then he gets a vague inkling and he says to himself, “The others are building their nests and hatching their young and bringing them up,” and then he bangs his head against the bars of the cage. But the cage does not give way and the bird is maddened by pain. “What a idler,” says another bird passing by – what an idler. Yet the prisoner lives and does not die. There are no outward signs of what is going on inside him; he is doing well, he is quite cheerful in the sunshine.
But then the season of the great migration arrives, an attack of melancholy. He has everything he needs, say the children who tend him in his cage – but he looks out, at the heavy thundery sky, and in his heart of hearts he rebels against his fate. I am caged, I am caged and you say I need nothing, you idiots! I have everything I need, indeed! Oh! please give me the freedom to be a bird like other birds!
A kind of idler of a person resembles that kind of idler of a bird. And people are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don’t know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage.
I do know that there is a release, the belated release. A justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, disastrous circumstances, misfortune, they all turn you into a prisoner. You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive bars, railings, walls. Is all this illusion, imagination? I don’t think so. And then one asks: My God! will it be for long, will it be for ever, will it be for eternity?
– A letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo