Study Guide

On the Pulse of Morning

by Maya Angelou

On the Pulse of Morning Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“On the Pulse of Morning” was read at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony in January, 1993. Only the second poet to read at a presidential inauguration, Angelou has said this about her poem: “In all my work, what I try to say is that as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike.” This piece celebrates that sense of similarity, connectedness, and human solidarity.

Beginning with the recognition that rocks, rivers, and trees have witnessed the arrival and departure of many generations, “On the Pulse of Morning” proceeds to have each of these witnesses speak to the future, beginning with the Rock, which announces that people may stand upon its back but may not find security in its shadow. On the contrary, says the Rock, humans must face the future, their “distant destiny,” boldly and directly.

The River sings a similar song, calling humans to its riverside but only if they will forego the study of war. If human beings will come to the River, “clad in peace,” this ageless body of water will sing the songs given to it by the Creator, songs of unity and songs of peace.

The Tree continues this hymn of peace and hope, reminding humankind that each person is a “descendant of some passed-on traveler” and that each “has been paid for.” Pawnee, Apache, Turk, Swede, Eskimo, Ashanti—all are invited by the Tree to root themselves beside it. Thus united with Rock, River, and Tree, the poem announces, the human race can look toward a future of peace and connections and away from a past of brutality and discontinuity. In the final stanza, this paean of praise is most lyrical:

Here on the pulse of this new dayYou may have the grace to look up and outAnd into your sister’s eyes, intoYour brother’s face, your countryAnd say simplyVery simplyWith hopeGood morning.

Like Angelou’s autobiographies and like her volumes of poetry, “On the Pulse of Morning” speaks of survival. Lyrical and inspirational, it calls human beings to have the imagination and courage to build up instead of tear down, and it echoes the titles of Angelou’s other works, especially I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. If all caged birds sing together, this poem asserts, then the human race will indeed survive.

On the Pulse of Morning Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Coulthard, R. “Poetry as Politics: Maya Angelou’s Inaugural Poem, ’On the Pulse of Morning.’” Notes on Contemporary Literature 28, no. 1 (January, 1999): 2-5.

Hagen, Lyman B. “Poetry.” In Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997.

Koyana, Siphokazi, and Rosemary Gray. “Growing up with Maya Angelou and Sindiwe Magona: A Comparison.” Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Comparative Studies 7 (November, 2001).

McPherson, Dolly A. Order Out of Chaos: The Autobiographical Works of Maya Angelou. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

McWhorter, John. “Saint Maya: A Song Flung Up to Heaven.” The New Republic, May 20, 2002.

Moore, Opal. “Learning to Live: When the Bird Breaks from the Cage.” In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001.

Neubauer, Carol. “Maya Angelou: Self and a Song of Freedom in the Southern Tradition.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonnette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.

Saunders, James Robert. “Breaking Out of the Cage: The Autobiographical Writings of Maya Angelou.” The Hollins Critic 28 (October, 1991): 1-11.

Sylvester, William. “Maya Angelou: Overview.” In Contemporary Poets, edited by Thomas Riggs, 6th ed. New York: St. James Press, 1996.

Walker, Pierre. “Racial Protest, Identity, Words, and Form in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” College Literature 22, no. 3 (1995): 91-105.