Maya Angelou’s poem “On the Pulse of Morning” is about evolution, growth and freedom. Using motifs that invoke the eternal to measure change against history, Angelou calls on Americans to work to be more inclusive and ecumenical as well as welcome in a new president.
Written on the occasion of President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, “On the Pulse of Morning” begins by appealing to eternals – rock, river and tree. Whatever change has come, these remain as reminders of both the past and history. The rock resonates with overtones of the bedrock of religious faith as well as the pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth rock and Americans’ faith in democracy. The religious trope of the river blends with the Potomac River winding its way through Washington, D.C., while the tree serves as a symbol of Christ as well as a reminder of George Washington’s cherry tree.
A rich amalgam of world religion and politics, the poem’s imagery moves from the dinosaurs that represent old ways of thinking to the winding river that represents the flow of ideas and progress. From there, imagery moves to the rock, which is steadfast, unmoving but not unknowing and, more literally, the steps of the Capitol building where presidential inaugurations take place. In the crowd the faces of the Asian, the Jew, the Turk, and so on, represent the diversity of the American diaspora gathered to witness change.