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18 pages 36 minutes read

Maya Angelou

On the Pulse of Morning

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) is a free verse spoken word poem by American poet Maya Angelou. Angelou wrote the poem for the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. In reading a poem, Angelou became the second poet ever to perform at a presidential inauguration (after Robert Frost for John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration) and the first woman and person of color to read at an inauguration.

“On the Pulse of Morning” is a metaphorical poem that focuses on uniting the American people and looking forward to a hopeful future. But while the poem is forward-looking, it also considers the injustices of the past and calls for recognition of those who have been oppressed in American history. The poem uses various natural images to convey this message, and it also includes anti-war, economic equality, and environmentalist messages. The poem is immensely popular and helped cement Angelou’s popularity with the American public. While her performance of the poem and the poem’s message have been universally praised, the poem itself has received mixed reviews. Despite this, it remains one of the most popular poems of Angelou’s career.

Poet Biography

Maya Angelou, born Marguerite Annie Johnson, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. During her time as a dancer and singer in the 1950s, she took on the name Maya Angelou. Her formative years were marked by a difficult upbringing overshadowed by trauma, mobility, and the profound impact of racism and segregation. Angelou and her brother often moved between their mother's residence and their relatively affluent paternal-grandmother's home in Stamps, Arkansas, during the Great Depression. At the age of seven, she endured a horrific incident when her mother's boyfriend sexually assaulted her. Despite reporting the crime to her family, the assailant spent only a day in jail before being murdered shortly after his release. Angelou suspected her uncles killed him in retaliation for the rape.

This deeply traumatic experience rendered Angelou mute for five years, as she believed her voice had caused her rapist's death. It was during this period of silence that she cultivated her love for poetry and literature. Angelou eventually found her voice again when a teacher encouraged her to recite the poetry she had grown to love.

As an adult, Angelou moved between a number of different jobs, including singing, dancing, acting, and sex work. She immersed herself in the civil rights movement as well as various political undertakings, channeling her contributions towards the cause through her literary endeavors. Her writing journey took her from New York to Los Angeles and even to Africa, where she lived for a few years in the early 1960s. Throughout that decade, she collaborated with prominent figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin, advocating for the end of Apartheid in South Africa and communism in Cuba.

Angelou achieved widespread fame with the publication of her inaugural and most renowned memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). This was the first of a number of autobiographical works she produced over the course of her life. This work propelled her subsequent career as a lecturer, professor, and lifelong writer of poetry and autobiographies. The pinnacle of her fame arrived in 1993 when President-elect Bill Clinton invited her to deliver a poetry reading at his inauguration. During her lifetime, Angelou was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award, and three Grammys. She was awarded the Spingarn Medal in 1994, a National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. The United States Mint included her in the American Women quarters series released in 2022.

Until her passing in 2014, Angelou continued to teach and write, leaving an indelible mark on literature and society.

Poem Text

Angelou, Maya. “On the Pulse of Morning.” 1993. Academy of American Poets.

Summary

“On the Pulse of Morning” opens with an invocation of three things: a rock, a river, and a tree. The speaker says these three things are “hosts to species long since departed” (Line 2). They contain the remains of creatures as powerful as the dinosaurs, but they provide no details about these ancestors’ lives or final moments of “hastening doom” (Line 7), as all of that has been lost with time.

The rock becomes the focus, as it calls out to humanity, imploring it to stand upon it as we look out to the future. However, the speaker says that the rock warns us not to use it to cower from what is to come. The rock says that humans, who were “created only a little lower than / The angels” (Lines 14-15), have cowered for too long in the darkness. It says that this has made people ignorant.

Next, the speaker invokes the voice of the river, which sings a song asking for people to rest by its side. The river calls out the various ills of society, including national borders, war, pollution, and waste. The river says that people can come to the river and enjoy peace like it existed “before cynicism was a bloody sear across your / Brow” (Lines 37-38). The river says humans previously understood the limits of their own knowledge.

In the next stanza, the speaker asserts that all people have a desire to respond to the river’s call for peace. They list a number of ethnicities, races, faiths, sexual orientations, and professions, saying all of these people share this same desire. These people all hear the Tree, who in the next stanza, invites the people to join it and plant themselves by the river. The tree speaks of people’s roots and mentions those who have been oppressed by American history, including various Native American tribes and the descendants of West African people who were sold into slavery in America. The tree acknowledges these people’s struggles and implores them to look to the future because “your passages have been paid” (Line 71). Switching between the voice of the Rock, the River, and the Tree, the speaker concludes this section with the belief that “History, despite its wrenching pain / Cannot be unlived, but if faced / With courage, need not be lived again” (Lines 74-76).

The speaker asks all people to lift their eyes to the brightness of the coming day, and to dream again, insisting that people must let go of the old, violent ways and have hope for the future. As the poem concludes, the speaker says this brighter future is reaching towards the people, inviting them to start anew. The speaker then invites the reader to look around at the faces around them, at their brothers and sisters, and simply say “Good morning” (Line 108).

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