‘When You Come‘ is skillfully written and explores a subject that’s less commonly related to Angelou’s poetry. Most readers will be familiar with her political and social work. ‘When You Come’ addresses different themes, showing an emotional side of Angelou’s writing.
Explore When You Come
The speaker begins by describing how sometimes, “you,” the intended listener and her past lover, comes “unbidden.” This describes how the listener comes into her mind, reminding her of the time they spent together. She metaphorically travels into the attic of her mind, looking at the baubles and trinkets that represent the time they shared, secret words, and kisses. This experience is one that’s filled with reminders of happier times and brings her to tears. Her sorrow at the end of the poem explains why she hides these memories away.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, Angelou explores themes of love and loss. The poet’s description of the attic of her speaker’s mind is an interesting one. It’s a great representative of how people store thoughts and experiences from the past and only explore them on occasion. Her loss is embodied through the dusty, unused items in her mind. Her love for this person is clear through the allusion to the time they spent together and through how moved she is by the experience of reliving those moments.
Structure and Form
‘When You Come’ by Maya Angelou is a three-stanza poem that is divided into one set of four lines, one of five, and a final stanza of one line. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines vary in length, ranging from two syllables up to ten. Despite this, there are a few examples of rhyme. For instance, “lie” in the first stanza and “CRY” in the final stanza. There is also the sibilance in the words “kisses,” “loves,” and “words” in stanza two.
Angelou makes use of several literary devices in ‘When You Come.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza.
- Metaphor: a comparison that does not use “like” or “as.” In the second stanza, there are several. For example, “Baubles of stolen kisses” and “Trinkets of borrowed loves.”
- Simile: seen through a comparison that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “Offering me, as to a child, an attic” from stanza two.
When you come to me, unbidden,
Where memories lie.
In the first stanza of ‘When You Come,’ the poet uses the line that later came to be used as the title. She speaks to a listener, someone she used to be quite close to but is now distant from. It’s suggested, through the sorrowful tone and the reference to memories, that this person has passed away or is very distant from the speaker at this point.
She describes how this person comes to her “unbidden,” or without her calling to them. Their presence, in her mind, brings her back to “rooms, / Where memories lie.” This person reminds her of the time they spent together. It’s clear that these memories are ones she enjoys, but they bring her pain.
Stanzas Two and Three
Offering me, as to a child, an attic,
Gatherings of days too few.
Trunks of secret words,
The second stanza, which is one line longer than the prior stanza, describes the experience of becoming engaged with these memories of the listener and their time together. The speaker says that when this person comes, “unbidden,” they offer her “Gatherings of days too few.” She’s offered an “attic” filled with metaphors representing the past.
There are “Baubles of stolen kisses” and “Trinkets of borrowed loves.” When looking around this metaphorical attic, she sees things that remind her of their time together. Each is old now, unused, and static. These items, which represent the love they shared, are hidden away in the attic until her memories bring her back there, and she passes between them, thinking about what they represent.
The final stanza is only one line. It reads “I CRY.” The fact that Angelou put this last line in all caps, and uses it as its own single-line stanza, puts a great deal of emphasis on it. The line ends the poem with a solid push of emotion. Like a family member going through a lost loved one’s belongings, Angelou’s speaker cries as she goes through the memories of the past.
The meaning is that memories of love, even if hidden away in the past, can still bring sorrowful emotions when they come to the surface. The poet’s speaker expresses this through figurative language.
The attic represents the speaker’s mind. It contains the trinkets, trunks, and baubles which represent the love, words, and memories she shared with the listener. Her memories are as contained as an attic, used to store unused items.
Angelou wrote ‘When You Come’ to explore the nature of a past love. She uses the poetic form to relate memories to objects, and a lover to an unbidden memory, inspiring the speaker to explore the attic.
The speaker may or may not be Maya Angelou. Whoever it is, it’s someone who has lost a lover and attempted to forget their relationship by storing the memories in a metaphorical attic. It’s not clear how the relationship ended.
The tone of ‘When You Come’ is reminiscent and sorrowful. The speaker is engaged in an exploration of memories that bring her sorrow. She doesn’t address them regularly and is therefore even more moved when her past lover comes “unbidden” to her.
Readers who enjoyed ‘When You Come’ should also consider reading other Maya Angelou poems. For example:
- ‘A Conceit’ – indicates she is interested in a relationship that is real and tangible. This is not something she’s willing to back down from.
- ‘Africa’ – uses an extended metaphor to describe the continent of Africa. She draws attention to the complex social-political climate.
- ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ – a simple, heavily rhymed poem that describes the fears, or lack thereof, that a child speaker has.
- ‘Caged Bird’ – is arguably one of the most moving and eye-opening poems ever written. The poet describes the experience of two different birds, one free and one caged.