‘Prayer at Sunrise’ by James Weldon Johnson is a two stanza poem which is separated into one set of nine lines and one set of eight. Each stanza adheres to its own rhyme scheme. The first follows a pattern of abbccdddd while the second rhymes, aabbccdd.
Summary of Prayer at Sunrise
The poem begins with the speaker describing the power of the sun in the morning. The dawn comes and the light and warmth drive off the shadows of the night. All of the layers of mist that covered the landscape and obscured the speaker’s view are removed. He describes the light as being powerful and omnipresent, just as God is.
In the second half of ‘Prayer at Sunrise’, the speaker turns his words to God, praying for the joy and strength to make it through the day. He also asks that he be able to impart some of his strength to the strength-less and his joy to the joyless. There is nothing else he wants, other than to help others when he can and make it through life himself.
Analysis of Prayer at Sunrise
Now thou art risen, and thy day begun.How shrink the shrouding mists before thy face,
As up thou spring’st to thy diurnal race!
How darkness chases darkness to the west,
As shades of light on light rise radiant from thy crest!
For thee, great source of strength, emblem of might,
In hours of darkest gloom there is no night.
Thou shinest on though clouds hide thee from sight,
And through each break thou sendest down thy light.
In the first stanza of ‘Prayer at Sunrise’, the poet’s speaker begins by describing the rising of the sun and how the warmth and light change the feeling of the day. The poem starts in this way in an effort to line up the first phrase of the poem with the sunrise. The day begins alongside the first line of the poem.
In the first line, the speaker states that the sun has risen and the day has already begun. The light and warmth cast by the sun dissipate the mist which is shrouding the landscape. It travels up to the speaker’s face and clears his view of his surroundings. The light can be seen as a representative of God’s power on Earth. This is especially evident in the second stanza when the speaker addresses his statements to God.
The speaker’s eyes are cleared by the new day and the “diurnal race” of daytime and nighttime begins. The “darkness” which ruled during the night is chased out “to the west.” It will be pushed farther and farther westward until it makes its way back around the Earth the following evening.
It is clear the speaker sees the light as being somewhat glorious. It has an inherent power that is sweeping over the landscape and clearing it of all darkness and evil. The following lines enhance the speaker’s feelings about what light can do and what it represents. It is at this point that the reader should fully understand that the sun feels like God to the speaker. He sees it as being one of God’s greatest sources of power on Earth.
The light is a “great source of strength” and an “emblem of might.” It represents power and the ability of God to make the world in any chosen way. In the next line the speaker states that even when it is cloudy, and dark gloom covers everything, light still has its power. It is always there even if you cannot see it at that moment.
The clouds in the sky are there to obscure the light, but it still exists behind them. In moments of clarity, the clouds will part and the sun will shine through the cracks. This will be a reminder to any who doubt the power of God to influence the world.
O greater Maker of this Thy great sun,
Give me the strength this one day’s race to run,
Fill me with light, fill me with sun-like strength,
Fill me with joy to rob the day its length.
Light from within, light that will outward shine,
Strength to make strong some weaker heart than mine,
Joy to make glad each soul that feels its touch;
Great Father of the sun, I ask this much.
In the second set of lines, the speaker begins by addressing his words to God. In the first stanza, the lines were spoken allowed to any who were listening. There was not one specific audience member in mind. Now though, the narrator is hoping to convey his love and devotion to God. This stanza also validates the above interpretation. God and his power, as seen through the light of the sun, are the centerpiece of this poem.
Additionally, it is important to note that these lines of the poem are like a prayer as he is specifically asking for something from God. This lines up with the title of the poem. He is praying at sunrise for a better day.
The speaker begins this stanza by asking the “greater Maker” of the “great sun” to grant him one request. Perhaps he is hoping that his previous description and devotions to the sun and God will endear him at this moment. He asks that God give him the “strength” to finish this particular day. He describes it as running the race which lasts through the upcoming hours of the day. There is something about the looming events which worries the speaker, he needs extra help at this moment.
In the next lines, he gets more specific about what he thinks he needs to succeed or at least survive his future endeavors. He wants to be “fill[ed]…with light” so that he might have the strength of the sun. The speaker sees it as being the ultimate source of power and now it serves as his inspiration.
He also asks to be filled with “joy” so that the joyless day comes to an end as quickly as possible. While these first lines seem to revolve around the speaker himself, the next concern others he might help.
Another request from the narrator is to be given the strength, and chance, to help others who are not strong. He hopes to “make strong some weaker heart than mine.” The final request he makes is that he is able to impart some of the joy he is given onto the joyless.
The last line concludes the poem and prayer. The reader is left wondering whether the speaker’s requests were granted. One might also wonder whether this is a ritual specific to one day or something repeated at the dawn of every morning. These questions are not answered.