Williamson is best known for her run for the Democratic nomination for the US presidency in the 2019/2020 cycle. Before that, she had gained some amount of fame as an advisor to Oprah and the author of the popular self-help book (in which these lines can be found) A Return to Love.
Explore Our Deepest Fear
Meaning of Our Deepest Fear
This poem taps into themes of spirituality, religion, self-perception, and self-confidence. The speaker addresses, “you,” the reader, telling you that it is not the darkness that humanity fears but light. Everyone who hides their light is shirking their potential the God imbued them with. It is her belief that by doing this we are only harming one another. It is up to us to change the way we see ourselves so that we might do justice to the lives God gave us and improve the lives of others.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Our Deepest Fear
‘Our Deepest Fear’ by Marianne Williamson is a six stanza poem that is separated into five sets of four lines, known as quatrains, and one set of two lines, known as a couplet. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They range in length from three words up to ten.
Although there is no clear rhyme scheme in ‘Our Deepest Fear’ there are several examples of rhyme. These appear as half-rhymes at the end of lines as well as within them, known as internal rhyme. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. For example, “light” and “frightens” in the first stanza and “Actually” and “be” in line two of the second stanza.
Poetic Techniques in Our Deepest Fear
Williamson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Our Deepest Fear’. These include but are not limited to repetition, alliteration, and enjambment. The first of these, repetition, is seen through the literary device anaphora. It is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “Our deepest fear” in the first two lines of the poem as well as “We” and “Its” in other stanzas.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “glory” and “God” in stanza four and “people permission” in stanza six.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are several examples in this poem, for instance, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza and lines one and two of the third.
Analysis of Our Deepest Fear
Stanzas One and Two
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
In the first stanzas of ‘Our Deepest Fear’ the speaker begins by making a very clear statement about what our, the human race’s, deepest fear is. It is “not that we are inadequate” she says, but that “we are powerful beyond measure”. These first two lines are the two most famous of the text. They are often quoted in speeches, especially at convocation ceremonies. They are also sometimes wrongly attributed to Nelson Mandela. Although this happens less than it used to after Williamson’s expanded fame during her 2019/2020 presidential bid in the United States.
She goes on, juxtaposing the light within a human being to the darkness. It is the “light…that most frightens us” she says in the conclusion of this stanza. The second stanza explains that we fear reaching our full potential because we don’t feel like we deserve to be “brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous”. But, the speaker contradicts this way of thinking immediately. She believes that because “You are a child of God,” you have every right to be.
Throughout this poem, Williamson’s speaker, who is likely Williamson herself, addresses the reader directly. This makes the lines more personal and moving than if they were directed in the third person to someone else. It helps the reader relate to them and read them as applicable to their own lives.
Stanzas Three and Four
Your playing small
Does not serve the world.
We were born to make manifest
The glory of God that is within us.
In the next two stanzas, she goes on, using techniques like alliteration and enjambment to help with the rhythm of the text. She addresses human fear, that we are small and unable to grow, and pushes back against it. One of the main themes she presents in this part of the world is the desire to hide away one’s light from the world when “We are all meant to shine”. The speaker believes that human beings are doing a disservice to God if they do not reach their full potential.
Stanzas Five and Six
It’s not just in some of us;
It’s in everyone.
As we’re liberated from our own fear,
Our presence automatically liberates others.
The fifth stanza is the only two-line stanza in the poem. Its brevity allows the two lines more impact than they might’ve otherwise had if they were included in one of the longer stanzas. She says that it is not just some of us that have potential but it is “in everyone”.
This leads into the final four lines where she connects all human beings and their individual and mutual potentials together. We are all interconnected she says, so much so that our fear damages others and our liberation frees others. It is an automatic process. If “you” free yourself you are helping to free others.