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Analysis of Poem 'On The Pulse Of Morning' by Maya Angelou

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou

'On The Pulse Of Morning' Meaning and Summary

'On The Pulse Of The Morning' is a long, all-encompassing poem that isn't afraid to look back into darker times before pushing on forward into a future full of hope. It has historical elements and philosophical passages and urges everyone to do their best and share the planet wisely.

Although it was written especially for one occasion - Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration in 1993 - it carries a universal message that resonates beyond the United States of America.

"In my work, in everything I do, I mean to say that we human beings are more alike than we are unalike, and to use that statement to break down the walls we set between ourselves because we are different." MA

Inspired by Negro spirituals and other songs, the poem asserts that human beings can change for the better and that, working with Nature (rock, river and tree), learning from the past, and despite differences, great things can be accomplished together.

'On The Pulse Of Morning'

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon.

The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.

I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.

Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.

Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song,
It says come rest here by my side.

Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.

Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,

Clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.

Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
Knew nothing.

The River sang and sings on.

There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.

So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.

They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside the River.

Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of
Other seekers--desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.

You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot ...
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought
Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.

I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours--your Passages have been paid.

Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.

Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.

No less to Midas than the mendicant.

No less to you now than the mastodon then.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, and into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Analysis of 'On The Pulse Of Morning'

'On The Pulse Of Morning' is 106 lines long, free verse, with no set rhythm to its lines, no pattern of rhyme in its many stanzas. It is a slow-building kind of song-story with a heart-beat made up of diverse elements - from a rock to a mythological king, from native Americans to dinosaurs.

As pure poetry the language is not so musical or textured, the sense not so challenging, but where the poem does succeed is in its breadth and inclusiveness. It is a poem for everyone, it gives hope to all.

Certain sections suggest a Whitmanesque influence, others point to Ginsberg and the songs of Bob Dylan. Here is an authority giving the people guidance, pointing them in the right direction, towards the light and out of the shadowy dark.

Musical influences are apparent in the personae of the Rock, River and Tree:

  • Rock - from the song 'No Hiding Place Down Here'.

There's no hiding place down here
There's no hiding place down here
Well, I run to the rock just to hide my face
And the rocks cried out, no hiding place
There's no hiding place down here

  • River - from the song 'Deep River'.

Oh, don't you want to go,

To the Gospel feast;

That Promised Land,

Where all is peace?

  • Tree - from the song 'I Shall Not Be Moved'.

Just like a tree that's planted by the water

I shall not be moved.

Line by Line Analysis

Lines 1 - 8

With a strong iambic beat the first line introduces three fundamental things: a Rock, a River, a Tree. Note the capitals which mean that the Rock for example represents the entire family of rocks.

The speaker looks back objectively, way back in time, to when dinosaurs ruled the planet.

A mastodon is a primitive elephant and, if anything like today's elephants, lived in strong family groups peacefully grazing. Modern elephants are sensitive creatures and are said to never forget. It seems they mourn their dead. Perhaps the poet chose the mastodon for this reason?

Dinosaurs have had their day and are now extinct but they did live amongst the rocks, rivers and trees, leaving their bones behind as proof.

Differing line length and rhythm mark the opening but note the internal imperfect rhyme link of dinosaur/sojourn/floor/broad and doom/gloom. The long vowels slowing everything down.

Lines 9 - 22

A sudden shift into the present - the speaker announces that the rock has a voice and that voice is crying out to modern-day humans, not only in the USA but all over the world. This personification of the rock leaves the reader in little doubt that this is now a shared world, one world in which the fate of the human and the rock are bound together.

The Rock has a vital message - humans must face their destiny with a fresh openness, come out of the shadows and live up to their spiritual potential. Open hearts are what is needed.

Maya Angelou's language in this section reflects the seriousness with which the Rock speaks:

forcefully/seek no haven/no hiding place/crouched too long/ bruising darkness/in ignorance/spilling words/armed for slaughter.

Lines 23 - 40

After the Rock comes the River, whose song can be heard over the barriers, the wall of the world. There is a peace attainable for humans, if only they'd stop the war machine, if only they'd quit yearning after profits they might understand how this peace is achieved.

Nature is forgiving, Nature is resilient. Water washes waste away and cleanses most things. This in itself is a beautiful thought but will the human listen? Can human beings let go of their military mindset and simpy rest by the riverside?

This is a powerful section which poses an existential question in metaphorical form. Addressing all humans as a country, You, the River suggests the human is ignorant, knows nothing, yet arrogantly persists in the pursuit of war and delusional dominance.

  • line 33 ... If you will study war no more. The Negro Spiritual song 'Down By The Riverside' has the lyric ain't gonna study war no more.

Lines 41 - 50

All of humankind feels a need for beauty and wisdom as experienced in the songs of the River and the cries of the Rock. From gay people to Muslims, from teachers to Jews, everyone is included, all are equal in this respect.

Note the form of the list which features specific religious and cultural types - something Walt Whitman liked to do in his poetry.

This section ends with the introduction of the Tree, which all can hear speaking.

Lines 51 - 70

The voice of the Tree is reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty's in 'New Colossus' (a sonnet). It is a welcoming invitation to all peoples to stay and be secure. Those who arrived as slaves, native American Indians, immigrant newcomers - there is no debt to pay - all individuals can be rooted again, just like the Tree.

The symbolism is hard to ignore in this section. Just think of the family tree, the Tree of Life, the Trees of Genesis. And those who have gone through nightmarish times to live the dream (the dream of Martin Luther King?) the American Dream, can seek solace in strong family and ongoing traditions.

Lines 69-70 see the Rock, River and Tree, now truly personified, acknowledging the fact that humans and they are one, and they have paid the price for their journey so far.

Lines 71 - 106

So, onward the human race goes, each new day an opportunity to make progress, to put past mistakes behind and forge ahead with a positive pride. The lines become shorter then stretch out long as the message is driven home - private needs are one thing, public expression another. Try and balance the two to make the dream become reality.

Perhaps the only truly full rhyming part of the poem:

History, despite its wrenching pain

Cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage

Need not be lived again.

And anaphora, repetition, is apparent:

Here on the pulse of this fine day/Here on the pulse of this new day.

You may....

No less to Midas than the mendicant. (King Midas, from Greek myth, who asked to be given the gift of turning everything into gold. A mendicant is a beggar.)

No less........

The poem celebrates hope by looking back in time and saying, Hey we've made it this far but maybe we've been too greedy, warlike and brutish..... perhaps we can do even better by humbling ourselves, returning to fundamental kindnesses, listening more to Nature, admitting our weaknesses and ignorance.

Take the first steps forward, wrap your hands around the Earth, sing and greet.


© 2017 Andrew Spacey