‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ is a well-known poem by Maya Angelou (1928-2014). It is the title poem from Angelou’s 1993 collection Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, which was marketed as a children’s book although Angelou did not originally conceive the poems as being specifically for children.
A brave, defiant poem about the power that can be gained from overcoming one’s fears, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ is worthy of closer analysis, because there is a question mark hanging over precisely how the speaker of the poem has mastered her fear, and whether, in fact, she has fully succeeded.
‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’: summary
Angelou begins the poem with images of shadows on the wall and noises heard down the hall. Both of these things can often unnerve or even frighten people, but Angelou’s speaker announces that life itself doesn’t frighten her at all.
The second stanza continues to list things which can be construed as scary or unsettling: dogs barking or ghosts (or things whose shapes resemble ghosts). Once again, she asserts that nothing in life frightens her. Here, Angelou reverses the order of the images offered: in the first stanza we had a visual followed by an aural (or sound-related) image, but this time she gives us a scary noise followed by a frightening sight (the ghost).
The third stanza alludes to the fairy tales often collected under the title of Mother Goose or Tales from Mother Goose. These fairy stories often contain gruesome details or scary villains such as monsters, goblins, or wicked stepmothers. Lions free to roam and hunt wherever they want is obviously a terrifying prospect. But these things don’t frighten the speaker of Angelou’s poem.
Lions become dragons in the fourth stanza, breathing flame onto the counterpane (or bedspread) under which the poem’s speaker sleeps. Now she mentions the counterpane, we realise the speaker is definitely in bed at night, imagining, or literally hearing (those dogs, those noises down the hall) or seeing (those shadows on the wall) things which others might find frightening. But not her.
All the has to do to make these things (or thoughts) disappear is to ‘go boo’ to them, to frighten them away. She is the one doing the frightening, rather than them. She reminds us that mocking them and making fun of them removes their power to worry or upset her, and once they realise they cannot make her cry, they leave her alone. They are ‘wild’ with annoyance or anger that they have failed to scare her. But, as she reminds us, life doesn’t frighten her at all.
The next stanza continues the night-time theme: we are to imagine tough men fighting on their own outside in the (lawless) streets. But this thought, or even hearing it going on outsider her window, cannot get to her. The stanza which follows raises the stakes: what if, like those lions on the loose, panthers – another big cat – were at large in the local park? And what about that perennial threat of strangers approaching you in the dark, to rob or otherwise harm you? No, these things don’t frighten her either.
The identity of the speaker is now confirmed as a schoolchild. She is in a new classroom where boys pull her hair, but even being in a new environment and being bullied by the boys doesn’t frighten her. These boys might take the classroom animals (from biology class, for instance) and try to make her scream by springing them upon her without warning, but she asserts that she wouldn’t rise to the bait. If she is afraid, she will never show it, either to them or even to her (conscious) self.
The next stanza moves away from these (real or perceived) fears, and explains how and why the speaker can be so fearless. She says that she has a magic charm which she keeps up her sleeve. This charm means she can walk along the bottom of the ocean (swapping her literal bed for the ocean bed, we might say) and, despite being underwater, she doesn’t have to breathe. She can survive just fine.
In the poem’s final two stanzas, the title of the poem, ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’, is repeated, as are the defiant words ‘at all’, four times at the end of four successive lines.
‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’: analysis
What is fear, and how can one conquer one’s fears and live a life unburdened by terror or anxiety? This latter question is central to ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’, but although the speaker repeatedly reassures us that she is not frightened by life or any of the terrors or challenges it might throw her way, she doesn’t actually explain how she has arrived at a point where she is not ruled or governed by fear.
Fear, after all, is a natural state. It is right that we should feel fear if we see a panther or a lion stalking the local park, because that animal might present a very real danger to our survival. Other ‘fears’ which are mentioned in Maya Angelou’s poem are obviously less likely to cause us actual harm, however: shadows on the wall, or clouds resembling the appearance of ghosts, cannot physically hurt us.
Indeed, these things can only harm us if we allow them to get inside our minds and live there rent-free. We can choose to give ourselves over to fear, even though the danger poses by such things is entirely irrational and imaginary. And we can also master the fears we have over things which might happen, but which are, in reality, probably fairly unlikely. Lions and panthers may end up on the loose in the city, for instance, but this is not something that we should spend our nights lying in bed worrying about when we should be sleeping.
But the night, and bed, setting for ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ also brings in another angle. What happens once we do actually fall asleep, having resisted the urge to let those worries and fears conquer us? We will dream.
In this connection, the stanza mentioning the frogs and snakes is a curious moment, because it is the only moment in ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ where the speaker of the poem acknowledges that she may, in fact, know what fear is. But this is only in her dreams, when her unconscious mind unleashes fears or anxieties on her when she is not in conscious control of them.
This moment is significant, because it acknowledges that being afraid, or at least being susceptible to fear, is perfectly natural. But what the speaker of the poem has done is mastered that natural fear and brought it under control. It is often said that true courage is not in never being afraid, but in overcoming one’s fears and doing the brave thing anyway. Is a soldier who is absolutely immune to fear and charges at the enemy really brave, or is the truly courageous soldier the one who worries about the dangers to himself but nobly goes into battle anyway?
Or, to take a less military example, is the truly brave public speaker the person who gets up and naturally speaks without ever knowing fear (because they are just naturally confident), or is the brave one the person who has felt and confronted their fears about public speaking and got up and addressed the audience anyway?
And then there is the end of the poem. What is the ‘magic charm’ kept up the speaker’s ‘sleeve’? Is it nothing more than the message of the poem itself: that life cannot and will not frighten her, something that she repeats to herself so that it becomes true? And is she repeating it to herself so often because she is trying to convince herself, but, despite the poem’s reassurances, her fearlessness is not quite so secure as she is making out?
Someone who repeats to themselves before a stressful situation, such as a job interview, ‘you can do this, you can do this, you can do this’ must doubt themselves on some level, because they are having to tell themselves they can succeed, whereas there would be no need to do so if this fact was self-evident. At the same time, of course, fear can make us forget things which are self-evident, so perhaps the reminder is merely to overcome an irrational fear, or doubt, within the moment itself.
The reference to the ocean floor and not having to breathe is a masterstroke: note that she doesn’t say she can walk the ocean floor and still be able to breathe, but that she doesn’t have to breathe at all. This invites a seed of doubt into the poem: is it akin to holding one’s breath until a danger has passed, or is believed to have passed? Or should we take it at face value as an unequivocally positive image?
There is, of course, a strong link between anxiety (or panic attacks, brought on by fear) and breathing difficulties: hyperventilating or breathing too quickly, for instance. By removing the need to ‘breathe’, metaphorically speaking, the speaker of the poem is able to walk even in the darkest and most oppressive and dangerous situations (as the bottom of the sea would surely be) and still be free from fear.
‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’: form
The poem is written in an irregular form, although it is not free verse because Angelou nevertheless uses rhyme and metre throughout. The poem is made up of thirteen stanzas (unlucky for some), with the first four, and then the seventh and eighth, being three-line stanzas or tercets. These are, fittingly, all stanzas which outline various fears. The others are of different lengths.
The metre is overwhelmingly trochaic. A trochee is a metrical foot comprising a heavy stress followed by a light stress, as in the words ‘SHAD-ows’ or ‘NOI-ses’. Strictly speaking, the first four stanzas are written (loosely) in something called trochaic trimeter catalectic: three trochees in a line, but with the second half of the final trochee – the last syllable, in other words – missing. This means that many of the lines of ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ begin forcefully, getting our attention and making the fears mentioned by the poem’s speaker that much more fearsome.