Woman Work by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was famous during her lifetime for works that could represent her own identity with power and distinction, and Woman Work is surely one of the best examples of the style. Whether or not the “Woman” is meant to be an aspect of Angelou herself is unclear, but the complexity of emotion used to build up the poem makes it a very clearly very personal work for the late author, one that is an excellent example of her powerful style and insightful prose as well.

Woman Work Analysis

Stanza 1

The first verse of the poem, Woman Work, which can be read in full here, is the longest, noticeably more lengthy than the rest of the piece, and this is used to great effect. The first verse is in effect a list that the narrator — presumably the titular woman — needs to complete in an unspecified timeframe. This verse is intentionally lengthy to emphasize the weight of the world on this woman’s back. In poetic fashion, the lengthy verse rhymes all the way through, in a general AABB fashion (though it actually extends to GG), creating a fast-paced rhythm likely designed to mirror the fast pace of the woman’s life.

From the content of the list, we can infer that she is a mother, housekeeper, cook, hostess, gardener, nurse, and slave as well, working in fields to harvest cotton and sugarcane, suggesting that the setting of the poem is in the United States of America, or in British North America (likely the United States, considering the author’s heritage). Immediately, the reader is given the strong impression of a weary woman, aged beyond her physical years, and dealing with a difficult life and situation within the confines of her slaver’s home and business. There is no strong sense of poetic convention to this verse; rather, it’s structure and simplicity is enough to propel its meaning forward and make a heavy impact.


Stanza 2

The second verse, and the rest of the poem afterwards, follows a more typical structure: four verses of four lines each, rhyming in an ABCB pattern. The shortness of each line and verse stands in noticeable contrast to the lengthy and demanding list that constituted the first verse, and gives this verse a more calmed atmosphere. The verse itself is heavily laden with natural imageries. It invokes images of sun, rain, and dewdrops (and so plants by association). The woman seems to be petitioning to the natural world, but she isn’t asking for anything more than for it to do what it is supposed to do — she wants the sun to shine, and the rain to fall. This stands in stark contrast to the theme of slavery indicated in the opening verse; rather than railing against what is unnatural, she is instead yearning for the world to deliver her phenomenon that are entirely natural.


Stanza 3

The third verse follows a similar theme to the first one, with slightly rougher imagery. This time, the speaker invokes a storm that will take her away from where she is; to “float across the sky” and to not stop until she finds rest, implying that she will be far away. When the speaker sees sunshine and rain, as in the previous verse, she thinks about what is natural, and about relief — that verse concluded with the cooling of her brow. In this verse, it is rest she yearns for, a rest that is well-framed by the first verse and its list of demanding and, in some cases, insulting things to do. In both verses, the word “again” concludes the thought. This is an important repetition that highlights nostalgic peace. She is remembering the last time she was able to rest, and the last time her brow was cool. When she thinks about this state of being, she recalls it as being natural, and yearns for it once again, associating it with metaphors and imagery of the natural world, the world as it is supposed to be. By emphasizing nature, she emphasizes the unnatural, another reference to her presumed slavery, or even to the fact that she has an enormous list of tasks for which it hardly seems that there are enough hours in the day.


Stanza 4

The next verse uses winter as a frame for discussing the idea of peace. The approach the narrator takes is to describe the wintry season as a quiet, peaceful time to convey the idea of a comfortable cold that allows her to feel restful. Word choice is crucial here — “gently,” “snowflakes,” “white,” “kisses,” and “rest,” coupled with the perfect syllable and rhyming match on the second and fourth line, create an atmosphere of peace and rest. Again, the speaker is yearning for a break from the life that is described in the first verse and seems to never quite let up. The simple yearning for cool and white, for kisses of any kind, helps to create an image of this weary mother who’s mind is filled with beautiful images, and who’s life seems to deny them to her. The difficulties of motherhood and the pains of her predicament are made abundantly cleared through verses that do not discuss them at all, but rather focus on what her life makes her dream of instead.


Stanza 5

The natural imagery comes to a head in the final verse of Woman Work, and is used to great effect, as the speaker considers that the only things in the world she can think of as belonging to her are the natural phenomena that surround her. This seems to confirm the theme of slavery suggested in the first verse — the speaker is, after all, a mother, and so surely she should consider her child to be something that “belongs” to her — but this has rarely been the case historically. It is incredibly peaceful imagery used to indicate such a powerful and revolting aspect of history, and serves to give that message a unique and memorable means of approaching the reader, and of staying with them each time the natural world does something wonderful.

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  • Avatar Samuel says:

    Nice analysis. However, I believe the 14th line – “and the cotton to pick” – is a metaphor for her situation. I don’t think she is literally a slave. I think she is an overworked mother, perhaps a single mother, and her mention of cotton picking is an allusion to slavery, merely a juxtaposition of her laborious life with that of a slave. Maybe even sarcasm or irony. She doesn’t need to pick cotton literally; all of her chores are, figuratively, the chores of a slave. I think this because her need to feed guests and press shirts sound like something more in line with an overworked mother. But who knows? 🙂

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      That is a terrific interpretation. I think you are probably right.

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