Stylistic Analysis of Still I Rise by Maya Angelou
An Analysis of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou
This poem has no plot; it is not telling a story in the traditional sense, with a rising action, climax, and resolution. Instead, it is an expression of how the narrator feels and how she behaves in response. She asks an unknown person or group of people, likely her enemies or critics, if she is upsetting them with the way she acts. She states repeatedly that she will rise regardless, and ends the poem by saying that she has become what her ancestors could only dream of. The theme of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou is to remind the reader to remain confident and to not be ashamed even when others look down upon you or those like you.
It is clear from the very first stanza that this poem is meant to stand up against those who aim to crush you:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
She is saying that even if they try to tarnish her legacy with false statements and treat her as if she is worthless, she will not let it impact how she sees herself. Just like dust rises after being stomped upon, she will do the same. She does not mean “You may trod me in the very dirt,” (3) in a literal sense. Instead, she uses it figuratively to tell how they treat her with disrespect. However, her optimism makes her believe that their bitterness will only serve to lift her higher, which I interpret as Angelou’s way of saying that what does not kill her will only make her stronger.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
The stanza above supports the same conclusion. They can aim to hurt her with words, glares, and even just hatred itself, yet they will not succeed. Just like in the previous excerpt, figurative language is used to make her point. Clearly, she does not mean the violent verbs she uses literally; they are used to show the goal the enemy has of bringing her down in society, whether as an individual or as an African American. She will, again, rise above it. By saying she will rise, she means to triumph and overcome. Inner strength is the source of her defiance here; she never once mentions outside support. Rebellion against the views of the racists in society or even just her personal enemies fuels the strong and passionate wording of this poem.
This historical context of this piece is very important. It was written in 1978 by an African American woman, which explains why she mentions her ancestors and rising up “from a past that’s rooted in pain.” (31) She is clearly referring to the mistreatment of African Americans in the United States. Although she was born after the time period when slaves were kept, segregation was still rampant in her area as she grew up, as she was born in Missouri in 1928. Being treated like she was worth less than others would ignite a flame in anyone, and this is shown throughout the poem. There is no doubt that she could have identified with how a slave from the past may have felt, still being a victim of oppression herself, which explains why she mentions slavery in line 40. Angelou was also born in a time of great change. The fight for African American civil rights accomplished quite a lot between her birth and the writing of this poem. Such success might have contributed to her confidence and pride in being a black woman. Seeing others act in ways that rebel against the racist society they lived in could have inspired her to act the same way, leading to the creation of this poem. She had simply had enough, and that can be seen when reading this piece.
The organization of the poem can also help the reader’s understanding. Stanzas 1-7 consistently have four lines each. The only two stanzas deviating from this pattern are stanzas 8 and 9, where stanza 8 has six lines and stanza 9 has nine lines. The consistency of stanzas 1-7 shows the reader that the topics included in them are similar. All of them have to do with her personal struggles. However, stanzas 8 and 9 begin talking about her race, explaining that her people have shared this oppression. At first glance, it may seem that the change of the stanzas’ lengths are just used to organize the different parts of the piece, but when one looks deeper, they may also notice that this change in organization could be used to make the reader realize and pay attention to the fact that she is not just referring to herself when she mentions how others try to treat her poorly, and is instead referring to an entire race of individuals who often experience the same issues.
The lines of the poem are mostly similar in length. However, this is not the case, for example, when the author writes, “I rise” (41-43) as stand-alone lines at the very end. These lines are shorter to emphasize that the most important thing is that she will rise above it all, and are almost meant to be read as a battle cry, being repeated thrice in a row. This is the most powerful part of the piece for many. The rhythm of the piece, which is consistent before the last couple stanzas, also changes. Perhaps this expresses that she will disrupt the prejudices of those who oppress her and cause them to leave behind racist stereotypes, changing how they look at African Americans, just like the change in rhythm disrupts the poem. The rhyme scheme also changes a bit at this point, perhaps expressing the same idea. The rhyme scheme of the first stanzas tends to be abcb, while this is not the case in the last two.
The use of literary devices is frequent throughout this poem. One example is the following stanza.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Saying that she is a black ocean is a metaphor. An ocean has crashing waves and is dangerous for anyone who has not come prepared. This comparison shows that she feels like she is a powerful force to be reckoned with, and is in some ways undefeatable. Any attempts to knock her down will be futile. Nobody can stop the ocean from doing as it pleases, just as nobody can stop her from doing the same. The most frequently used literary device in this piece is repetition. As I’ve stated before, she repeats “I rise” (41-43) thrice in a row at the end, and several times throughout the poem. This is for emphasis, as the whole theme of the poem is overcoming and prevailing no matter the criticism you receive. One other literary device mentioned earlier is Angelou’s use of rhyme. The rhyme scheme is abcb in much of the poem, and I think this is used to simply make the poem more entertaining to be listened to when spoken aloud. Another literary device used is rhetorical questions, such as when she asks, “Does my sassiness upset you?” (4) and “Does my haughtiness offend you?” (17) This is a way to mock those who have something against her in almost a playful way, which is a much different attitude than much of the poem. This shows that Angelou does indeed have a sense of humor, and her ability to laugh in the midst of so much hatred is another indication of her strength. She also makes use of similes, as shown in the stanza below:
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
These similes are used to express just how sure one can be of her prevailing despite what may face her. One should have no less confidence in her than they do of the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening.
This poem does indeed accomplish its intended purpose. It is a poem that stands up to the abusers of the world in a highly effective way, while lifting the abused up in the process. It gives the reader a sense of confidence in themselves, while also reminding them of the struggles other groups have faced or might be facing currently, such as African Americans, if they are not one themselves. I found “Still I Rise” extremely touching because it really makes the reader realize that one doesn’t have to let others’ words define them. One can always rise up, at least by believing in themselves and rejecting the sometimes evil beliefs of others, even when faced with hatred, criticism, and oppression. It has often been said to be Maya Angelou’s greatest work, and I absolutely agree with that statement.
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