“We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups, alone in races, even alone in genders.” – Maya Angelou. Now imagine a scenario where one man is isolated from the rest of society, having to accomplish all his daily tasks by himself. Slip into this man’s shoes and wonder how it would feel to live a life such as his. Such is this emotion a reader goes through from reading Alone by Maya Angelou.
Maya Angelou is a prominent contemporary poet that was well-known for poems such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and On the Pulse of Morning. As an African American woman born in the early 1900s, Maya Angelou went through many hardships during the course of her life and often shares her experiences of those sorrows in her works. In the poem Alone by Maya Angelou, Maya Angelou does not simply make the point that no one can make it through in life alone but does so in such an impactful manner that she is able to induce vigorous emotional feelings such as sadness and a reflective mood.
Angelou first establishes the main theme by incorporating uses of deep allusions to the bible and also introduces a character that embodies of all mankind. Lines 4-5 of stanza 1 become the most vital part of the stanza, as this is where the allusions are mentioned. After setting up the mood by creating a scenario where Angelou’s character is first lying back and thinking about her life, she immediately goes soul searching and voices her thoughts on life. In these lines, Angelou talks about her wishes in this hunt, saying that she wants to find her “soul a home” (3) “Where water is not thirsty And bread loaf is not stone”(4-5). At first, it seems really confusing because it’s very contradictory for “water” to be “thirsty” since it’s supposed to quench a human being and it’d be weird for “bread loaf” to be “stone.”
However, upon further research, one can see that Angelou’s uses of references are actually very strong and hits the heart. These two lines are an irregular use of diction, suggesting that this person’s soul is lost. The protagonist’s life could potentially be upside-down and she is stuck in an alternate universe where “water” is in fact “thirsty” and “bread” is “stone”, thus implying that this soul needs to relocate to the proper destination. The notion of the bread is stone is also interesting in regards that it refers back to the bible when Satan tries to convince Jesus to turn stones to bread. By saying that the bread did turn to stone, it is suggesting that Satan has won the battle against Jesus in this alternate universe.
By using such deep allusions just in those two lines alone, readers are able to feel the impact behind Angelou’s intentions. Priscilla R. Ramsey states the perfect reasoning behind why Angelou is such an active contributor to society when she says “While Maya Angelou’s poetry may not have taken us into every nook and cranny of her long and complex life starting with the Lafayette County Training School–its various movements and insights have nonetheless helped us understand the themes, the issues even some of the conflicts which have pervaded her inner life.”(Ramsey)
Ramsey makes a solid point because the poem in fact relates to Angelou’s actual experiences as a child growing up. In fact, Maya Angelou knows first hand what it feels like to be alone in life, living between homes though out her adolescence and getting to where she is in life on her own. Angelou’s mastery of allusions are vivid throughout the opening stanza due to her experiences in life, but especially in her prowess in imagery.
Angelou strengthens her claim in the proceeding stanzas through the use of visual imagery, integrating an example that contradicts popular belief and establishing that wealth isn’t as appealing as it seems. It is thought-provoking to note that a wealthy individual is often envied by other people. Think to the celebrities like Emma Watson, Neil Patrick Harris, and Matt Damon. However, in this stanza Angelou justifies how being a millionaire might not be the best situation in the world.
Like Lindsey Lohan is always getting in trouble for the most obscure crimes or Kanye West frowning in every single picture Kim Kardashian takes of him; someone rich might not actually be able to live his life contently without a society around to support him. Angelou’s words are: “There are some millionaires with money they can’t use. Their wives run round like banshees, Their children sing the blues, They’ve got expensive doctors, To cure their hearts of stone.”(14-19). When one first reads this stanza, they might think that it’s crazy that a “millionaire” can’t use “money”, “their wife” runs around like a fairy woman from Gaelic mythology, or a “heart” being of “stone”. In the bigger picture when an individual really tries to visualize, this is just an enchanting use of diction.
The “money the millionaires can’t use” represents the happiness they can’t buy, the “wives” running around like “banshees” symbolizes the spoiled complaining woman of the house, the “children singing the blues” means that the children feel isolated for being special financially, and the “expensive doctors” and “hearts of stone” refers to the large amounts of money they spend on care when there’s no solution. Angelou uses social standing and wealth to delineate a definite illustration that wealth is generally associated with happiness but it’s ironic that here in her own words, wealth is useless in identifying satisfaction.
This further reinforces Angelou’s point and the realization that even regular people rely on others in their lives in order to enjoy themselves, not wanting to end up like the egotistical Kanye or trouble-maker Lindsey, and more like the celebrities that contribute and receive back aid from the ones around them like Emma Watson or Matt Damon. Imagery naturally causes an influence on a reader’s emotional state and this is no exception as Angelou continues her onslaught of pathos on stanza 5 when Angelou uses nature imagery.
Humans tend to hold many connections to nature, so when Maya Angelou uses nature imagery towards the end of her poem, she is able to remind the readers that are alone of their true misery. In stanza 5, Angelou uses nature imagery to compare storm clouds to the reader’s life, saying “Storm clouds are gathering, The wind is going to blow, The race of man is suffering, And I can hear the moan.”(28-31). In this use of both nature imagery and metaphor, Angelou is showing the appearance of the “storm cloud” and then “the race of man” reacting to that storm cloud with a moan. The “storm cloud” is foreshadowing the future despair of the reader.
This was a brilliantly timed as Angelou juxtaposes between “storm clouds” and the “reader’s life” because at this point, Angelou has fully touched the readers with the accumulation of all her pain and experiences throughout her life. By employing this comparison to nature, the readers are more likely to reflect upon their own life. Angelou’s use of allusion and nature is certainly a strong point in terms of causing the reader to relate to the speaker, but Maya Angelou’s real forte lies in her usage of repetition.
Maya Angelou’s use of repetition allows for smoother transitions from one piece of knowledge to the next in order to reiterate her despair into the reader’s mind. The message that Maya Angelou strongly tries to push on the reader is “All alone, all alone, Nobody, but nobody Can make it out here alone.” This quote is pretty self-evident. Nobody can live life alone. However, what makes this repetition strong is where Angelou places them. The considerable use of allusion and imagery is conveyed in stanzas 1, 3, and 5.
This quote makes up stanzas 2,4, and 6. Those are perfect positions to place the quote since it is a reminder of Angelou’s point right after an impactful example and only intensifies a reader’s emotional reflection on Angelou’s words. As stated in the introduction paragraph, Angelou often writes her pieces off of her own life experiences. When asked about an autobiography in an interview, Angelou stated that she thinks about what she writes and derives it off her experiences:
I have an idea that the books are very much like the Everyman stories so that there is greed and kindness and generosity and cruelty, oppression, and sloth. And I think of the period I’m going to write about and I try to see which of the incidents in which greed, say it’s green, which of these that happened to me during that period will most demonstrate that particular condition(Neubauer).
One of the examples that Angelou confesses in this interview is “In Gather Together there is an incident in which a man almost killed me—tried to, in fact—and kept me for three days and he was a mad man, literally. My escape was so incredible, literally incredible, that there was no way to write it, absolutely, to make it credible and not melodramatic.”(Neubauer). From these two quotes in Angelou’s interview, an individual can see Angelou’s true down-to-earth nature and this shows how much Angelou cares for the public for the greater good. By utilizing the use of repetition after a strong point, it displays the amount of seriousness Angelou has in bringing out the “Eureka!” in human beings and make them feel or relate to her experiences. Through Angelou’s unique balance between imagery, allusion, and repetition, she is able to make a masterpiece off of a short and simple poem.
In the poem Alone by Maya Angelou, Angelou uses strong imagery, allusion, and repetition to generate feelings of sadness and grief in the poem. Her skilful diction causes the reader to relate to the speaker and reflect upon their lives. Poems like these that make you wonder if solitary people truly enjoy their lives. There have been multiple comedians and celebrities such as John Belushi, Bruce Lee, and Elvis Presley that have all died prematurely due to their depression from isolation, despite their success globally. Maya Angelou’s way of life clearly reflects itself in Alone as it continues to leave an impact on each and one of our own lives.
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