On The Pulse of MorningMaya Angelou Written: Spoken at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony, January 20, 1993.

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their 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 spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
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 stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings 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 and 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 hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here 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 and 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 Swede, the German, 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 the 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, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The 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 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,
Into your brother's face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Poem Summary

​Lines: 1-8
In these opening lines, Angelou sets the scene and tone of the poem. She places three objects before the reader: “A Rock, A River, A Tree,” but doesn’t give a specific location. These three elemental pieces seem removed from any landscape, and, from the capitalization of each name, it has been speculated that Angelou intends each to stand for itself in a type of grandeur. The poem goes on to explain that these objects are “hosts to species long since departed,” still surviving though their “tenants” are long extinct, further implying they carry a certain “historical wisdom.” From here the poet lists a few of those creatures known only from their “dried tokens” dug up and reassembled in museums. Their “sojourn,” or temporary stay here, ended in a “hastening doom,” which they had no way of predicting or preventing. “Any broad alarm” of their extinction is now dwarfed by the mountain of history between their time and the present.
If lines 7 and 8 are read aloud, it’s possible to hear the rich sounds Angelou crafts into the poem. The repetition of long vowel sounds and the internal rhyme of “Doom / is lost in the gloom” perhaps reflect the somber mood Angelou is setting while describing these extinct creatures.

Lines: 9-13
Line 9 marks a shift in time, a move from looking back at history to the present. The “Rock” from the first stanza now has a voice, which it is using to cry out “clearly, forcefully.” It offers the reader an invitation to climb up and get a better perspective of where America might be heading in a journey toward a “distant destiny.” But like a teacher the Rock warns against seeking any shelter or hiding place behind it in the darkness. “Shadows” have long been the places that cause fear, where bad things lurk under beds or behind closet doors. They are also, literally, the absence of light: within shadows it is difficult to see clearly. For the religious, light is divine; for philosophers it is knowledge. Believing this, divinity and knowledge are absorbed by the stone but absent in its shadow.

Lines: 14-18
In the third stanza, the Rock continues its lesson, addressing the reader directly as “You, created only a little lower than / the angels.” Here the poet seems to close the gap between man and heaven, the stone again raising the reader. This Rock has seen dinosaur come and go, and now humans, who, it notices, “have crouched too long in / the bruising darkness / face down in ignorance.” Angelou’s verb choice “bruising” in line 16 may describe how a shadow casts a blue-black mark across a face, reminding the reader of conflict and its dark wounds. The speaker suggests humans have been hiding, not looking up toward the light, afraid of what they might learn.

Lines: 19-23
Angelou ties the third and fourth stanzas together with the line “Your mouth spilling words / Armed for slaughter.” She may have broken the line here to force the reader to pause in the white space between, to guess “what kind of words?” before finishing the sentence. The harsh words “spilling” from humans’ mouths seem to be pouring out of our control, “armed for slaughter,” ready for a fight with anyone listening. But the Rock warns again, summarizing “stand upon me; / But do not hide your face.” People may wear many “faces” — student, laborer, wife, father — that are different, but they all provide an identity and a sense of individuality.

Lines: 24-26
With the beginning of a new section, Angelou introduces a new speaker, the “River,” which, in a song, invites the reader to come closer and “rest here by [her] side.” To get to the River, the reader had to cross “the wall of the world,” which may be some real geographic feature, or just representative of a boundary or obstacle on humankind’s journey.

Lines: 27-34
The River compares each person in America to “a bordered country / perpetually under siege,” relating the troubles of an entire nation back to its million voices. The River explains what the country has done wrong: gone to war for money, polluted waters with machines and factories, ignored the needy. Angelou describes the toxic waters as a “current of debris upon [the River’s] breast,” giving nature gender and perhaps reminding that it is “Mother Nature” who is being destroyed. There is a place for Americans to rest on her shore, but only if they “study war no more.”

Lines: 35-40
If people come “clad in peace,” the River offers them a song: a gift the Creator gave before the tallest tree ever broke soil as a single shoot. “I and the / Tree and the Rock were one” once, the River explains, in a time before recorded history, in a time before man began drawing boundaries and daring others to cross these lines.
“Cynicism” is the belief that people are motivated by selfishness, and the “bloody sear” across their brows may be a reminder of the mark Cain was cursed to wear for his selfish act — the murder of his brother. “When you yet knew you still knew nothing” perhaps means a humbler or even wiser time; Plato said “True wisdom is knowing we know nothing.”

Lines: 41-49
Using a list — or a litany — to create a wide panoramic scene of diverse peoples, Angelou introduces the reader to a new speaker, the Tree. It seems everyone is here to listen, regardless of culture, occupation, which gender with which they fall in love, or to which God they pray. This diverse list works to welcome any and all to the foot of the Tree, much like the engraved invitation at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”

Lines: 50-54
In this short stanza the poet repeats again the invitation to “plant yourself beside the River,” the entire mass of humankind welcome to hear the song. The Tree has many symbolic meanings, not the least of which is the concept of extended family — or “Family Tree.” A tree also has roots that stretch into the very earth. In these symbols Angelou is reminding the reader of their place both within their family (blood relations and other) and within nature.

Lines: 55-63
Calling Americans “descendants of passed-/ On traveler” the River asks the reader to consider both their own past and the past of the country as a whole. There is a reminder that all Americans are immigrants, that they are “just passing through.” Angelou follows this up by directly addressing the Native Americans, those who lived in this country centuries before Europeans ever arrived: the Pawnee tribe, Apache, Seneca; the people who first named the rivers and trees and mountains. These people who once rested with the River were “forced on bloody feet” by the visitors in their land to work and mine.

Lines: 64-69
In these lines Angelou advances the poem through another list of diverse people, the rhythm of the names keeping beat, Arabs and Eskimos sharing company in the same breath. She begins the list with people who came to this country to escape religious persecution or find a better life for their family, and concludes with those who were forcibly uprooted and “bought / Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare / Praying for a dream.” This “dream” may be a reference, or allusion (a reference within a literary work to another work), to Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” sermon, which became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Lines: 70-79
In the second section of the poem, the stanzas become longer, building in imagery and force. In lines 70-74 the poet returns to the comforting refrain “root yourselves beside me.” The three voices — Rock, River, Tree — may be a single “I,” the whole of nature speaking. Back in lines 55-56 Angelou writes “each of you / has been paid for,” and a similar statement is made in line 74: “your passages have been paid.” Who’s paid for these passages? What have America’s ancestors done to insure the journey? Regardless of origin, the Rock/Tree/River asks humankind to “lift up [our] faces / For this bright morning dawning for you.” These lines mirror the second stanza, where Angelou offers images of shadow and light. This is also the first indication to the poem’s title, perhaps working to create an overall theme or mood of dawning hope. Yet Angelou also cautions that the hardship that has led to this new day should never be forgotten: “wrenching pain, / Cannot be unlived.” She warns that America must learn from its dark past so that when new problems arise they can be overcome; “if faced / With courage, [history] need not be lived again.”

Lines: 80-83
Following this revelatory stanza, where the three voices merge in a call to a bright new morning, this shorter stanza closes the entire second section on a quiet, consoling note. The lines become short — most less than four words — the poet perhaps wishing to slow the pace before the complete stop of the section break. For the third time Angelou invokes the refrain “lift up your eyes.” The dream the slaves prayed for might be alive again if a new generation “will study war no more” and instead “give birth again” to a peaceful world.

Lines: 84-92
Beginning the third section with a single addressing line, Angelou maintains the encouraging, powerful tone of the Rock/River/Tree, yet the speaker is not specifically identified. She asks America to “Sculpt [your private need] into / The image of your most public self.” This is an elusive line in its generalization, perhaps telling instead of showing, but if it is broken down into its parts, a central tension reveals itself. The line asks the reader to sculpt or transform their most private needs into something that can be shared with others, the personal made public. Angelou doesn’t develop further what “private needs” may be, but most critics have speculated a reference to the most basic human freedoms. In this sense these lines are a call to action, an encouragement to emphasize the importance of human rights. Whereas before Americans are asked to lift up their eyes, line 87 asks the same of their hearts, the center of all life and emotion. There are “chances / For a new beginning” if people can divorce themselves from fear and unchain themselves from their violent ways. “Yoked” refers to the wooden harness which keeps an ox secured to the plow it drags, a heavy bar across the animal’s shoulders and fastened with straps around its body.

Lines: 93-101
The sections are shorter and more frequent as Angelou nears the end of the poem. In the fourth section she returns to the locale of the second stanza, perched on the back of the land looking out toward the future. “The horizon leans forward,” providing room for “new steps.” This metaphor of taking steps may mean literally to walk forward as well as take “steps” or actions to ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. The speaker now reveals itself as the voice of America, the “Country” and all the trees, rivers, rocks, people, and animals of which it is composed. “Midas” in line 100 refers to the fabled king who could turn any substance to gold with his touch, including, he regretfully discovered, those he loved, leaving him with a castle filled with lifeless riches. A mendicant is a beggar; like the privileged standing next to the homeless before the Tree in line 47, all are equal in the larger “pulse of this fine day.”

Lines: 102-110
In this closing section the title of the poem reveals its meaning, the theme of a new dawn for humankind coupled with the pulse that courses through America’s common veins. The lists of various peoples earlier in the poem now become the simple image of family: when people look up and out at their future, they are looking at their “sister’s eyes” and their “brother’s face.” Whereas most of the poem asks the reader to rest and listen to the wise teacher, these last lines implore speech. A “simple” lesson, Angelou refrains certain lines as many as four times throughout the poem, the tone taking on an almost lulling, song-like effect. The first step to this new day is a simple but meaningful action. Look up and out and say “Good Morning.”