A metaphor is defined as being “the transfer of a quality or attribute from one thing or idea to another in such a way as to imply some resemblance between two things or ideas” . The key features of metaphor ranges from exaggeration and extension to the resemblance and connection between ideas within the poem, as well as symbolism. Traditionally, the conventional interpretation of ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou lies within the concept of race relations in America, in particular the struggle of Black American women within the Civil Rights era.
On the other hand however, a different metaphorical exploration of the poem could reveal a darker side that is not expected at first. Within the text, there are links to the representation of death and the inevitability of a person’s life ending. Although this may not be prominent through the first reading, throughout the poem, the concept of death is most certainly present. The certainty of death is explored by Angelou through an extended metaphor over the entirety of the poem.
Throughout the poem, Angelou foreshadows the inescapability of death using the stark contrast of how the disyllabic “pumping” of a heartbeat is full of life, yet this rhythm becomes disrupted by the final stanza of the poem. Likewise, the idea of being written down in history “write me down” indicates that soon, the speaker’s life will soon be coming to a close as it refers to them being part of the past. The ABCB repetitive rhyme scheme of the first seven stanzas can be interpreted as the rhythm of a heartbeat due to its continuity.
However during the final fifteen line stanza the rhyme scheme changes to ABABBBCBCDDBBB which can be recognised as the death of the poem’s speaker, showing the inevitability of death. The repetition of “I rise” within the final stanza suggests to the reader that death is a never ending cycle which will always affect mankind. Throughout the poem the phrase “still I rise” repeats itself but within stanza seven and eight, the abrupt change to “I rise” draws the reader’s attention to the death of the speaker with this short, sharp phrase.
As the death takes place at the end of the poem, it structurally reflects the progression of life and how it comes to an end, just as the poem has to. Furthermore, the inevitable death is made explicit by the finality of the punctuation “I rise. ” as it contributes to the metaphorical and literal unavoidable ending of life and the poem. This finality and acceptance is contributed to by the simplistic language Angelou uses. This creates a sense of calm which could be interpreted as the poet emphasising that death can be peaceful and tranquil.
This sense of serenity could be further related to as acceptance of the inevitability of death because of the idea that life continues to carry on despite an individual’s death as the “moons” and “suns” continue to orbit the earth even when a person passes. Additionally, the “certainty of tides” emphasises how metaphorically, the cycle of life and death is comparable to the cycle of the tide coming in and going out. Within the poem, there are biblical and spiritual symbols, showing the ongoing theme of death. The obvious interpretation of “rise” reads as Angelou confronting those who dehumanised her for the colour of her skins.
On the other hand, the use of “rise” can also be interpreted as strong symbolism through resurrection imagery to represent how Jesus rose from the dead, overcoming how people negatively viewed him in the Bible. Alternatively, this could be interpreted as not Jesus but the speaker’s soul rising from the body. This could be considered an authorial comment due to Angelou’s personal Christian views and therefore may be an attempt to convey to the reader that her soul will ‘rise’ after death. The Christian imagery continues “hopes springing high” as “hopes” has connotations to miracles and how people ‘hope’ what they wish for will happen.
These ‘hopes’ may be prayers, emphasising the religious aspects and can speculatively be interpreted as prayers, perhaps for the speaker to go to Heaven. In addition, the monosyllabic, sharp phonology of stanza six and the hyperboles “shoot” “cut” “kill” suggest that no matter how a person is killed, they will still “rise” – go to Heaven. The heavenly symbolism continues as the simile “shoulders falling down like teardrops” could symbolise the Fall. The religious connection between “daybreak” which is “wondrously clear” alludes to Heaven and clarity, continuing to show how the concept of death frequents the scope of the poem.
The poem also shows spiritual elements in relation to death. The notion of “dust” rising could refer to the “dust” once the speaker has been cremated, once again linking to the inevitability of death and more so, the afterlife. The use of symbolism continues through the abstract concept of death as an apostrophe. Whilst the traditional view of the poem is that it is ‘spoken’ to those who have downtrodden Black Americans, instead the poem may be addressing death itself. The opening direct address of the poem using the personal pronoun “you” makes the reader question whether the person being addressed is an individual or a collective.
This forces the reader to consider if the speaker is talking to death or the grim reaper rather than racists. Thus, the symbolism of the grim reaper and death as an apostrophe builds on the concept of death as a metaphor within the poem. Similarly, the accusatory tone towards the apostrophe of death through harsh phonology through the consonance ‘t’ “bitter, twisted lies” which could be interpreted as how death makes a person unable to change people’s perceptions of them, producing a sense of anger towards the inevitability of death and how it affects a person’s memory of another.
As everyone eventually dies, Angelou’s use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ makes the reader feel as though they are inside the poem, resonating heavily with the reader personally. The extended metaphor of how the “you” is repeated consistently throughout the poem shows the need for answers surrounding the unknown – death. On the other hand, a positive reading of the poem is there are moments of joy within the poem despite the undertone of death.
For instance “Cause I…room” the verb “walk” represents how for the moment, the speaker continues to go on with their daily life, making the most of the time they have on earth. This joyful tone continues through the use of “laugh” in stanza five, continuing the association with happiness. The question of “don’t you take it awfully hard? ” could be interpreted as address of those who find it difficult to accept dying, whilst the speaker in the poem has accepted it their fate and no longer worries about it.
The magnification of “nights of terror” may be figurative for the worry of dying but as the speaker has left them behind, this suggests it is no longer of concern. This implies that although the poem can be interpreted as a metaphorical discussion of the inevitable, it can be interpreted as encouragement for the reader to continue on with their lives despite death. In conclusion, whilst the conventional interpretation of the poem highlights a serious issue within 1960s America, the alternative reading offers a perspective which can be further explored.
By using metaphor, the symbolism and resemblance of death adds a new depth to the understanding of the poem. The numerous ways in which Angelou demonstrates the prevalence of death continues throughout, showing that the implicit nature of this interpretation does consider the symbolic nature of death repeatedly within the poem. The likening to death throughout the poem using symbols of both biblical and spiritual nature and the exploration of the inevitable illustrates that the concept of death does have a place within the poem, regardless of obvious interpretations.