Miller Williams wrote the poem, ‘Of History and Hope’, marking the day of Bill Clinton’s inauguration for the second term. Inauguration, portraying hope and laying the foundation stone of a flourishing presidency, is a moment for hope for all Americans. They knew how the year went. Hence, they chose Clinton for the second time. Williams knew what should be best to portray at this day for the Americans, beaming with the hope of the coming years. Therefore, the poet tried to tell them, the future was in the hands of children. Their upliftment is synonymous with the betterment of the nation.
One should not be unaware of their origin, meaning history. At the inauguration, Williams wanted to show the people of America how their history reflected the zeal for the betterment of the nation. The speaker of the poem, an old and wide voice portraying the poet, expresses their days are about to end. They have achieved what they meant to achieve. Now, the future of America lies in the hands of the children. How one brings up one’s child leads to nation-building. Hence, the speaker advises everyone to invest in their budding generation to achieve optimum growth, both socially and economically.
You can read the full poem here.
This poem does not follow a conventional pattern. It is in free verse. However, the poet, in several instances, makes use of regular rhymings. As an example, in the second stanza, “how” and “Now” rhyme together. Thereafter, “grow” rhymes with “row”. This poem also contains slant rhymes. Apart from that, there is not a set metrical pattern in this poem. Miller uses both the iambic and trochaic meter. Besides, this poem has a conversational form. The rhythm of the poem does not halt due to the presence of internal rhymes.
This poem contains several literary devices. In the first line, the poet uses metonymy for referring to American history. Thereafter, the poet uses polysyndeton. He uses this device for reflecting a sense of continuity. Moreover, enjambment is another important literary device used in ‘Of History and Hope’. Here, the poet connects the lines for an unbreakable flow in this poem. However, the use of end-stopped lines sometimes breaks the flow. Apart from that, the poet uses alliteration in this poem. As an example, “disenfranchised dead” contains an alliteration. This phrase also contains a metaphor. Thereafter, one can find several rhetorical questions in this poem.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
‘Of History and Hope’ begins with a collective reference to Americans. The speaker of the poem does not use “I”. Rather he uses “We” to present solidarity and unity among Americans. In this stanza, the poetic persona refers to the history of America. He alludes to the long journey of Americans to reach where they are now.
In ceremonies and silence like the presidential inauguration, the speaker remembers the old stories and sings old songs speaking of the glorious history of America. He likes how history takes him to the past. Moreover, he can visualize the great personalities who contributed to the nation. Several others were there who lie anonymously inside the graves.
Thereafter, the speaker says he can feel the rich sound of the word, “democracy”. Thereafter, the poet somehow becomes confused regarding the future. It is not only his concern. Those who have died for the sake of the country also want to know. Here, the poet uses an ironic term, “disenfranchised dead.” Lastly, he sheds off all the confusion. According to him, Americans progressed how they meant to progress. They kept going. As an effect, America has become an admirable nation in the world.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
In the second stanza, the poet expresses his concern firmly regarding the future. He asks how they can fashion the future. Therefore, he rhetorically provides the answer. It is in the hands of those who are the primer for nation-building. Using repetition, also known as palilogy, the poet says, they are “The children.” Thereafter, the poet makes use of imagery for presenting how the children wave their hands. Nothing can keep them in a row. Their restless spirit to know, explore, and continue will lay the foundation of the future. However, in the last line, the poet says the government should not ever allow “brambles” to grow inside the minds of the children. Here, “brambles” is a metaphorical reference to hatred.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
Thereafter, in the third stanza, the poet suggests a few measures for a better future. According to the poet, if the people don’t know the power of unity, they will, in near future, fall apart. Moreover, to provide every child an even chance, the government should not let “luck” alone decide who will get quality education, and who won’t. Here, the poet uses personification. On top of that, the poet uses a metaphor, “doorknob” for an opportunity.
Williams, thereafter, praises the president and says he won’t let “chaos” make its way to the heart of the nation. Here, the poet promotes the idea of peace in the country. According to the poet, the people know how a vast majority of the children lack quality education. Therefore, one should not keep their children ignorant. Again, in the following lines, the poet goes back to history. He refers to the gradual growth of America and her people. In the last two lines, the poet refers to the value that the Americans possess. They are just, compassionate, equal, able, and most importantly free. Here, the poet uses the poetic device called the climax.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.
The last stanza of ‘Of History and Hope’, begins with a reference to children, the backbone of a nation. According to Williams, they can imagine their future but cannot visit. However, it is not there yet. As they have to create it. When the poet looks into their eyes, he can see how their gift to them may come to be. If Americans can truly remember how they have once seen a dream for creating a better nation, their children will not forget their struggle. Here, the poet emphasizes the significance of history in nation-building. It is the source of inspiration for a nation. As it possesses the tools for nation-building.
Stanley Miller Williams, an American poet, translator, and editor, belonged to President Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. Williams penned down this poem, ‘Of History and Hope’ for the second inauguration of Clinton. It was held on Monday, January 20, 1997, at the West Front of the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The day marked the second and final term of Clinton as President. Moreover, it is important to mention here that it was the last inauguration of the 20th century. The inauguration ceremony was the last in the 2nd millennium and the first to be streamed live on the internet. However, this poem of Williams features the themes of the importance of history and nation-building.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly present the themes reflected in Miller Williams’ poem, ‘Of History and Hope’.
- Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes – It’s one of the most popular poems of Langston Hughes. This poem focuses on the American Dream. You can read more of Hughes’ poems featuring America.
- I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman – This poem talks about the progress of America and the zeal of Americans for contributing to society. It’s one of Whitman’s best poems. Explore more Whitman poetry here.
- The Gift Outright by Robert Frost – This poem deals with the national sentiments and pride of Americans. It’s one of the best poems of Robert Frost and contains an optimistic note like Frost’s other poems.
- In This Place (An American Lyric) by Amanda Gorman – This poem presents several images that depict America as a country filled with poetry and song. Explore more Amanda Gorman poetry here.