Passing Time

Maya Angelou

‘Passing Time’ by Maya Angelou explores the similarities between all people. It uses figurative language to depict skin tones as “dawn” and “dusk.”


Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an iconic writer, known today for her empowering verse.

She's also known for her autobiographical works.

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‘Passing Time’ was first published in Angelou’s anthology Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well, published in 1975. She speaks on themes of race, time, and the cyclical nature of life. The poet outlines how, in reality, there is no difference between one person and the next. We are all on the same path whether the sun is setting or rising.

Passing Time by Maya Angelou

Summary of Passing Time 

Passing Time’ by Maya Angelou is a short, but powerful poem that speaks on the differences, or lack thereof, between skin tones. 

The poet compares light and dark skin tones to the rising and setting of the sun. One is “like dawn” another, her own, is “like dusk”. They appear different at first, but as the next four lines described, they are not. If one pays attention they will see that there is really no difference between sunrise and sunset. It’s all the same in the end. 

Structure of Passing Time 

Passing Time’ by Maya Angelou is a six-line poem that is separated into couplets or sets of two lines. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They vary in length, but are all around three to four words long, and between three and seven syllables long. 

Despite there not being a unifying rhyme scheme in this poem, there are a few examples of half-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, “skin” and “beginning” in lines one and three as well as “like” and “Mine” in lines one and two. 

Poetic Techniques in Passing Time 

Angelou makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Passing Time’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, metaphor, and personification. The latter occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. In lines three through six the poet speaks about human skin. She gives it the ability to “paint…the beginning” and the end. 

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There are two clear examples in the first couplet. The poet compares her skin to “dusk” and her listener’s to “dawn”. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “dawn” and “dusk” in lines one and two. 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. For instance, the transition between line two and three, as well as that between five and six. 

Analysis of Passing Time 

Lines 1-2 

Your skin like dawn
Mine like musk

In the first lines of ‘Passing Time,’ the speaker begins by using a metaphor to compare someone else’s skin to “dawn”. Here, she is referring to someone with light coloured skin. They are white, and their skin speaks to her of the light at the beginning of the day. 

Just as beautiful is her own skin which appears like “dusk”. It is darker, the sun is setting. A reader should take note of the use of alliteration with “dawn” and “dusk” in the first two lines. There is also a good example of consonance with the use of the hard “k” sounding “skin,” “like,” “like,” and “dusk”. 

These two lines are enjambed. There is no end-punctuation at the end of the first line, encouraging a reader to jump down to the second to see what happens next. The same can be said about the transition between the second line and the third. 

Lines 3-4 

The next two lines of ‘Passing Time’ refer to one of these two colours as painting of “the beginning / of a certain end”. This is not an entirely cheery message, nor is it clear which skin tone she is connecting these images to. Both are included in the lines.

The text alludes to something changing. There will be a transition between how things are now and what they’re going to be like in the future. A “certain end” to this way of life is going to come about.


Lines 5-6

The other, the end of a
sure beginning.

In the third couplet of ‘Passing Time’ she finishes her allusion. As things change, and now the two skin tones, which were initially different, are now the same. The difference between sunset and sunrise have merged and become one. The other skin tone, whichever that may be, shows us the “end of a sure beginning”. Through these lines she is seeking to connect the two colours, which are in the end the same, together. She is attempting to show there is no real difference between the two. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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