‘On the Pulse of Morning’, famous till today for the emotive and forceful recitation of the poem by Maya Angelou, is one of the U.S. presidential inauguration poems.
The poet of ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, Maya Angelou, the voice of the unheard, was not only a poet. She was an American, brimming with the energy and vibes of the nation. Above all, her poetry resembles the urge of the untiring progress of humankind. Therefore, this poem which deals with the voice of nature can be a token of optimism. It is more than a combination of verses dealing with what the soul of nature feels. Rather it is about how humans should be hopeful for a better future, by not waiting for that moment. They have to create with the essence of unity and compassion.
Summary of On the Pulse of Morning
This poem begins with a short depiction of the lost era when the ancient creatures existed. However, with time, they lost. Now, the speaker says even nature, being the essence of life, is now on the verge of extinction. Therefore, the speaker of this poem urges everyone to join hands and cherish a better future not only for Americans but for the whole world. She hints at the voices of the rock, river, and tree to draw home the fact that nature is not kind anymore. Nature has changed a little, she is firm now, but her softness still exists. Therefore, humans have to take a pledge of saving nature as well as for the betterment of humankind.
You can read the full poem here.
Meaning of On the Pulse of Morning
The title of the poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, is a reference to the stock symbol of literature, morning. It symbolizes hope and advancement. Therefore, the essence of the poem, though covered by layers of meanings, deals with hope for a better future. Moreover, the last line of the poem, “Good morning,” also hints at the fact that humans have to make this dawning moment “good” together. Apart from that, in this poem, the poet also talks about saving the environment, restraining from war or other brutalities, and respecting the diversity of this world. Nothing bigger can be achieved without these humanitarian values. That’s the real meaning lingering in this long verse.
Structure of On the Pulse of Morning
Angelou does not follow any conventional form in this poem. Like any romantic poem, this poem progresses with the spontaneity of poetic feelings. Therefore, it is a free verse poem without having any specific rhyme scheme. However, one can find a few rhyming lines along with imperfect rhymings in this work. Moreover, the poet makes use of internal rhymings for maintaining the flow of the poem. Apart from that, this poem contains both the meters iambic and trochaic. For emphasis and presenting optimistic ideas, the poet uses the iambic meter. While the lines containing some dark or slightly pessimistic ideas consist of trochaic feet. As an example, the second and third lines of the first stanza contain trochaic feet.
Literary Devices in On the Pulse of Morning
Several literary devices, with an interesting association, make the argument of Angelou more solid and forceful. The beginning that does not contain conjunction, is an example of asyndeton. From the use of the device, it is clear that the poem is going to present a wide variety of devices. As the poet recited the verse on the presidential inauguration, the lines had to be gripping and emotive. However, one can find the use of enjambment throughout the poem. To create an internal rhythm, the poet uses several repetitions. As an example, “Marked the mastodon” contains an alliteration of the “m” sound.
The poet uses personification to invest in the rock, river, and tree the idea of speaking. Moreover, the poet presents several metaphors in this piece. As an example, “gloom of dust and ages” contains a metaphor. Thereafter, the line, “The bruising darkness” contains a personal metaphor. The lines, “The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me,/ But do not hide your face” contains irony. One can find an antithesis in the lines, “when you yet knew you still/ Knew nothing.” In the seventh, the lines beginning similarly show the use of anaphora. Likewise, there are also several other poetic devices in this poem.
Themes in On the Pulse of Morning
Angelou’s didactic poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ captures the theme of optimism, beginning, nature, compassion, unity, universalism, equality, liberty, and humanitarianism. One can find other themes too in this poem. However, the most important theme of this poem is optimism. The hope for a thriving nation and the betterment of her from every aspect collectively form the essence of this work. The theme of nature is another important theme of this poem. Though the poet hints at the saving environment, this piece touches on the theme of nature. Angelou tries to connect the thread of pantheism in this poem. Apart from that, in this poem, the poet upholds human rights and also throws light on the negative aspects of humankind. These are cynicism, brutality, war, inequality, and extreme materialism.
Analysis of On the Pulse of Morning
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
This poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ begins with three important elements of this poem. “A Rock, A River, A Tree.” All are capitalized, hence personified. These are the speakers of the poem, voicing the poet Maya Angelou’s opinions. According to the poetic person, they are the hosts to different “species” that departed long ago. Here, the poet uses a literary device known as inversion.
According to the speaker, the mastodon, an ancient elephant species, and the dinosaur left “dried tokens” on earth. It means on earth, only their remnants are left now. Like all the species, they were on their sojourn on earth. They were unaware of their “hastening doom” that was lost in the “gloom of dust and ages.” It means, in history, time and death darkened several ages. But, the progress of humanity never ceased. In this way, the first stanza of the poem sets the tone and mood of the overall work. Along with that, the use of the word “tokens” reminds a reader of ‘Animals’ by Walt Whitman (read more Whitman poetry here).
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
I will give you no hiding place down here.
From this section, the poet comes to the present moment. She refers to the “Rock” that cries out to everyone, clearly and forcefully. It says one can stand on its back and face the “distant destiny” of humankind. Here, one can find the use of consonance. Moreover, the “destiny” is at a distance. It means humans have a long way to go to reach their singular “destiny.” Thereafter, the rock alerts everyone by saying it will provide no recourse as it did. Its “shadow” symbolizes ignorance and darkness in society.
Moreover, it seems that here the poet is pointing at the government by referring to the “Rock.” It can also be a reference to the supremo of a nation. In the case of America, the president. Previously, the rock sheltered the ignorant humans. But now the ruler of the rock has changed, so follows his policy of non-compromise to treachery, brutality, hatred, and ignorance.
You, created only a little lower than
But do not hide your face.
In this section of the poem, the speaker hints at the progress of humankind. According to her, humanity has reached close to the reach of the angels. It means they have flourished. However, they remained too long in the darkness that was “bruising.” It is the darkness residing inside a person, constantly bruising the soul. Moreover, their face was down with ignorance.
On top of that, people spilled fiery words against each other causing mayhem in society. Not only their words, they too were armed not to show any mercy, but to slaughter. Hatred prevailed. The external flourishing is nothing in comparison to this animalistic mindset of humankind. Therefore, the rock, like a sagacious and non-compromising ruler of the creation harked them not to hide their gloomy faces. They have to come out and face the light of truthfulness. Here, one can find an echo to the second coming of Christ.
Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song. It says,
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
When the firmness of the rock grips those men with fear, the river comes with her babbling kindness. The speaker says across the wall of the world that divides the river from humanity, it sings a beautiful song. The river tells everybody to come and rest by its side. This line refers to the fact that humanity the more it advanced in materialistic terms, lost touch with nature.
Nowadays, each human now resides in a country detached from another nation. This border divides, not unites. Inside this metaphorical border, humans become delicate and strangely take pride in their race, color, or economic advancement. No matter how developed they are, they perpetually thrust others under military siege. Besides, they armed themselves with the collective struggle of mankind for personal gain. Here, the poet refers to the struggles of those who form the backbone of a nation. Those who desired power used their toil for their profit without compensating them properly.
Thereafter, the poet alludes to the war. In this way, she makes the idea behind the line, “Your armed struggles for profit.” According to her, the wars have left “collars of waste” and “currents of debris” upon the breast of the river. Such a pathetic situation of humanity pains the river deep.
“Each of you, a bordered country,” is parallel with the main idea of the poem, ‘To Marguerite: Continued’ by Matthew Arnold. However, Angelou’s stance in this stanza quickly bent towards the idea of James Kirkup present in his poem, ‘No Men Are Foreign’. The same idea is also present in the prose of John Donne, titled, ‘No Man is an Island’.
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,
The River sang and sings on.
Thereafter, in ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, the river says despite humanity’s brutality, it still calls everyone to the riverside. If they avoid indulging in meaningless wars with other nations, the river will sing the song of the “Creator.” To hear this song, they have to clad themselves in “peace.” Here, the poet uses a military metaphor. Thereafter, the river says the song it learned from God, is also known to the rock and the tree. As nature is a manifestation of God, the river knew the song of the creator.
However, people became cynical with the words of God, lost touch with his virtuosity, and became too mundane. Now they have a “bloody sear”, a metaphorical reference to bloodshed in war, across their brow. They believed they knew everything. Sarcastically, they knew nothing. In the last line, the poet refers to the perpetual nature of creation and the river’s song.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
At the beginning of this section, the omniscient narrator of the poem says that there is a true yearning in everyone to respond to the call of the “singing River” as well as the “wise Rock.” Thereafter, the poet refers to humans from different cast, races, and classes who have the yearning to respond to nature’s call. According to the poet, the African, Hispanic, Jew, African, Native American, and Sioux (the Dakota people of North America) all want to respond to the call.
Along with that, there is a yearning in the Catholic, Muslim, French, Greek, Irish, Rabbi (a Jewish scholar or teacher of Jewish law), Priest, and Sheik (Sheikh, an Arab leader). The list also encompasses people with different sexual orientations (gay and straight). The poet also refers to the Preacher, privileged, homeless, and Teacher (the capitalization of this word is significant here) in this section. Lastly, the poet uses a palilogy of the phrase, “They hear” to emphasize that they keenly hear what the “Tree” is speaking of.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.
Other seekers—desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
In this section of ‘On the Pulse of Morning’, the poet refers to the contemporary condition of the environment. Due to large-scale deforestation, now people have to listen to the call of nature. They should have to hear the first and last of every “Tree” that speaks to humankind today. The trees welcome humankind to come to the trees beside the river. They tell them to plant themselves like seeds there.
After reading the following stanza it becomes clear that the tree is expressing its gratitude to humankind. Long ago, an unknown traveler may have planted a seed. Now, the tree is thankful for that act of kindness of the person.
However, the tree tells the readers about the native Americans who were there before the colonizers came. Here, the poet talks about the Pawnee (a native of Nebraska), Apache (native to New Mexico and Arizona), Seneca (inhabitants of upstate New York), and Cherokee (native to the southeastern US).
They were with the tree. However, they were forced on “bloody feet.” Thereafter, the tree says those people left it for the employment of other “seekers” who were desperate for material gain. Those “seekers” were starving for gold. Here, “gold” is a metonym for wealth.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
With courage, need not be lived again.
This section reminds the readers of the history of mankind. The poet refers to the people in different countries such as Turk, Arab, Swedish, German, Eskimo, and Scot. Moreover, Angelou refers to inhabitants of south-central Ghana, known as Ashanti. Moreover, she refers to the Yoruba (native to southwestern Nigeria and Benin) and Kru (seafaring people of the coast of Liberia and Ivory Coast). They went after materialistic goals. Therefore, they bought, sold, or stole the wealth of others. In this manner, they made their lives so pathetic that they could not sleep well. They had frequent nightmares and prayed for only a dream.
The tree advises them to root themselves beside it. It is important to note here that throughout the poem, Angelou uses several end-stopped lines. One can find the use of such lines in this section too. Whatsoever, the tree tells others that the river planted it. Therefore, none can uproot it. As the creator protects it from all the harms.
Thereafter, all the three voices say in unison by repeating the “I” at the beginning, creating a resonating effect. They were for humankind and paid for the advancement of them. So they request those in darkness to lift their faces. The bright morning is waiting for them. It was the moment long-awaited. Those voices tell them that one should not forget history, no matter how wrenching or painful it is. They have to face their past with courage to learn a lesson of not repeating in the future.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
This section specifically refers to the morning of the inauguration. Here, the speaker requests her fellow countrymen to lift their eyes once again on the daybreak. They have to give birth to the dream again as it is a new beginning.
Women, children, and men, all have to take the “pulse of morning” on their palms. Here, the poet metaphorically compares the morning to a thing that can be shaped. The poetic voice tells everyone to shape their future for private needs. Moreover, they can sculpt it into the ideal image of a responsible citizen. There is no need to fret upon the past as each noir hours holds new chances, for either restarting or beginning anew. The speaker forbids them to wed forever to fear and yoke eternally to brutishness. As fear and brutality, both lead to the degradation of humanity.
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
And say simply
The last section of the poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ creates an uplifting ambiance and draws an image of optimism. The poetic persona refers to the horizon leaning forward. It is offering humankind space to place new steps of change. Thereafter, the rock, river, and tree tell them that they have to be courageous enough to look up. The nation was no less to Midas than the mendicant. It is no less to each American than the mastodon that lived in the past.
In the last stanza, the voice again highlights that on the pulse of a new day, they should be gracious enough to look up and out. They have to look at each of their brothers and sisters’ faces. With looking at their eyes compassionately, one has to simply say, “Good morning.” To say it, one has to be optimistic. Then the spirit of a new beginning will reflect in one’s eyes.
Historical Context of On the Pulse of Morning
Maya Angelou read her poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton on January 20, 1993. She became the second poet and the first African-American woman to read a poem at the presidential inauguration. The first inaugural poet was Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.
Angelou won the 1993 Grammy Award in the “Best Spoken Word” category for the audio recording of the poem. However, like her other poems such as ‘Caged Bird’, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’, ‘Phenomenal Woman’, and ‘Still I Rise’, this poem also has some autobiographical elements. Apart from that, her confusion regarding the future of the nation in ‘These Yet To Be United States’ gets cleared in her one of the best-loved poems, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly showcase the themes of optimism and advancement of mankind present in Maya Angelou’s poem, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’.
- The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman – This poem is a moving depiction of the United States as it was on the cusp of President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. Gorman’s poetry deals with such vivid imagery present in this poem.
- Nothing to fear but fear itself by Franklin D. Roosevelt – In his first inauguration speech, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used this phrase. In Angelou’s poem, the essence of this phrase is present in the lines, “Do not be wedded forever/ To fear…”
- I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes – It’s one of the best-known poems of Langston Hughes. Through this poem, Hughes emphasizes the importance of equality in a democracy.
- This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie – This folk song describes how America is for everyone. Here, the poet encompasses the themes of equality and liberty.