Loss is a tragic yet inevitable part of the human experience. When it strikes, it leaves despair and misery in its path. Loss can eat away at the very heart and soul of a human being. It leaves a gnawing pain that nothing can heal. It leaves an open wound that tries to heal and yet is re-opened again and again by memories and regret such are the topics discussed in ‘When Great Trees Fall’.
In ‘When Great Trees Fall’ by Maya Angelou, the speaker identifies with all who have felt the deep searing pain of losing someone close. The speaker is able to not only effectively identify with the feeling of deep loss and anguish but is also able to offer hope for healing through her powerful words.
This is accomplished through the general mood of the text and the clear, simple style of syntax and diction chosen by the poet. The mood transforms from moments of despair and depression to ones of hope and peace. It is clear Angelou cared deeply about this topic, bringing a well-considered, gentle, and calm tone to her discussion of death.
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Summary of When Great Trees Fall
In the first lines, the speaker begins by using an extended metaphor to describe a natural scene. She speaks about the reaction of animals when “great trees fall”. They hide, hunker down, and “lumber after safety”. The metaphor compares the death of loved ones to the monumental shifts that occur when large and powerful trees fall in the forest.
As the poem progresses she moves on to directly speak about “great souls” and how human beings react to loss. The third stanza discusses one’s inability to breathe and the sharpening one’s memory undergoes. The poem concludes with a message of hope and renewal, suggesting that after a loved one’s death that “We can be…better. For they existed”.
Poetic Techniques in When Great Trees Fall
‘When Great Trees Fall’ by Maya Angelou is a five stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. The stanzas range in length from five lines up to fourteen. There is no specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern but Angelou does make use of several poetic techniques that help to unify the text and create a feeling of rhythm and rhyme. These include examples of figurative language, such as metaphors, as well as alliteration, enjambment, and repetition.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “suddenly sharpened” in the eighth line of the third stanza and “breathe, briefly” in the fourth line of the third stanza.
Enjambment and Repetition
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.
It can be seen throughout ‘When Great Trees Fall’ but one prominent moment includes the transition between lines two and three of the third stanza. Here, a reader must jump down to the next line to find out what the “air around us becomes”. Another poignant use of enjambment can be seen in the space between lines one and two, as well as two and three, of the fourth stanza. Here, Angelou discusses the emotional moments between life and death and feelings of loss that consumes a prior reality.
Angelou also makes use of repetition or the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. In this case, repetition ties into the structure of the poem itself. The title, ‘When Great Trees Fall’ is in part utilized as a refrain throughout the poem. For example, at the start of stanzas one and two, it is used word for word. At the beginning of stanzas three, four, and five the phrase is altered to clear up the metaphor. Rather than speaking of trees as a stand-in for human life, she addresses the “Great souls” directly.
Analysis of When Great Trees Fall
When great trees fall,
and even elephant
slumber after safety.
This poem, which can be read in full here, opens with the metaphor of the tree that falls. It, of course, symbolizes the loss of a great person. When a great tree falls, it is felt for miles around. In the same way, when a great soul departs, the effects are felt deep and far. The image of the “rocks on distant hills shudder[ing]” symbolizes the ways in which the death causes people, even distant people, to feel despair and shudder.
The lions which “hunker down” reflect the way some people will react to the loss. The loss causes a certain amount of fear and the pressing need to hide away and escape to safety. Only, there is no escape from the feeling of despair that comes from losing someone great. The speaker’s use of nature and animals to create the image of the effects of death allows the reader to connect with the feeling through the visual imagery presented.
When great trees fall
eroded beyond fear.
The metaphor continues in this stanza. The speaker, having already revealed the way in which great things are affected by the death of a someone great, now turns her attention to the “small things”. This suggests that the loss of someone great is felt among the great and among the small. This could mean that the physically small, children, feel the effects of the loss as much as their older counterparts. It could also mean that those who are unknown, without fame or political significance, feel the effects of the loss just as as the great minds of their day feel it. The great tree that falls in the forest causes even the small things in the forest to “recoil into silence”.
This symbolizes the way people fall into silence in the midst of despair. There are no words of comfort. They are not even sure what they feel for their “senses [are] eroded beyond fear”. This refers to the numbness of heart and soul that often immediately follows the loss of someone great.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
With the third stanza, the speaker shifts from her use of metaphor to speaking directly about death. Just as the great tree that falls causes ripples for miles, so the great soul departed move affects the hundreds or thousands of hearts he or she has touched during the time they lived. The speaker describes the way in which the air, even, seems to become “light” and “sterile”. It is hard to breathe when one has lost an important loved one. The speaker describes the way in which those affected by loss have a brief moment of “hurtful clarity” in which they are able to see and understand just what a valuable soul has been lost. When loss hits, often a person’s memory is “suddenly sharpened” and they are able to remember the moments spent with the one who has been lost.
These memories, though precious, also feel like a dagger to the soul. The speaker then explains the feelings of regret that can often plague a person who has lost someone dear. When one loses a loved one, he or she will sometimes regret “kind words unsaid”. The speaker has clearly experienced the kind of loss which left her desperately longing for more time to express the love she felt in her heart for the person who was taken too soon. She thinks about the walks she promised to take with that loved one. Having never fulfilled those promises leaves her with a gnawing pain of despair and regret.
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
In this stanza, the speaker gives insight into the mental and emotional effects of losing someone close. In this stanza, the loss of a “great soul” means the loss of a soul that had a great impact on one’s everyday life. She explains the way that loss can truly change a person’s reality. The speaker explains the way that “our souls” can depend on the nurture of another, and when that person dies, it leaves us feeling small, like our very souls have shrunk. She describes the way in which one’s mind can be “informed by their [Great One’s] radiance” and the way those suffering loss can feel as though their minds “fall away”.
The speaker identifies with others who have felt this loss when she uses the second-person point of view and claims, “We are not so much maddened as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves”. This reveals that the speaker, in the face of loss, is not necessarily angry, though anger can be a part of the feelings that come from this loss. She feels a sense of despair more than anger, however. This despair is described as a “cold dark cave”. The feelings are so strong that they are “unutterable”. The speaker identifies with all who have felt this deep despair as a result of losing someone great.
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
With the final stanza of this poem, the speaker offers hope to all who have suffered loss by revealing the healing that has occurred in the aftermath of the death. The speaker seems to imply that time has allowed for this healing to occur. She explains that “after a period” she was able to feel “peace bloom”. It happened “slowly and always irregularly”. This reveals that she still had moments of despair and anguish even as she was slowly beginning to heal and feel peace. She described the feelings in between the healing as something “with a kind of soothing electric vibration”. In a sense, the pain still buzzed in the background of her very being, and yet the memory of the lost one was soothing and comforting. She explains that eventually her senses were “restored” even if they were “never to be the same”.
In the back of her mind and in the background of all that she does, she hears the presence of the one lost. She hears the whisper, “they existed. They existed”. This gives her new meaning and purpose in her life. She claims that because this great one existed, she can “be better”. The ending of this poem offers great hope to all who have experienced loss. The speaker continues to identify with others who have lost loved ones. This also creates a sense in the readers that they are not alone. Even if they will never be the same again, and even if there will always be pain and sadness, there is hope for healing and joy in the midst of great loss.