By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Still I Rise’ is one of Maya Angelou’s best-loved and most widely studied poems. It’s an affirmative poem about the power of the self, as well as a poem which celebrates the speaker’s strength and her ability to overcome the prejudices and setbacks she has experienced in her life.
Images of rising, unsurprisingly, play a central part in the imagery of Angelou’s poem. But the poem is full of fascinating symbols and images which are worthy of closer attention. Let’s take them in turn, one by one, and explore the significance of the poem’s symbolism.
First, a general note on Angelou’s use of figurative language in this poem. Her preferred literary device is the simile, whereby she likens one thing (usually herself, in this poem) to another thing by using the word ‘like’. The poem uses the word ‘like’ nine times in all, with each of these appearances of the word being linked to a simile.
Moons and Suns.
‘Still I Rise’ contains many similes for the idea of rising: dust, air, and hopes all feature, so the comparisons range from the concrete (dust, air) to the abstract (hopes). Two of the most important symbols for the speaker’s ability to pick herself up and rise again are those suns and moons which appear in the first line of the poem’s third stanza.
These two symbols for ‘rising’ – which appear in the form of a simile – are significant because, unlike dust and air, they are altogether vaster and more tangible. Because they are themselves ‘bodies’ in the solar system, they obliquely suggest the speaker’s own body, and ‘Still I Rise’ is, among other things, a paean to physical self-confidence, to being happy in one’s own skin.
Both the sun and moon are said to ‘rise’, of course: we talk about ‘sunrise’ and ‘moonrise’. But more importantly, they do so every day. So Angelou’s title really is significant: she’s talking about repeatedly having to pick herself up and dust herself off and carry on, her inner confidence preventing her from giving up. She ‘still’ rises, no matter what.
Gold Mines and Oil Wells.
Images of wealth feature at several points in Angelou’s poem. Both gold mines and oil wells suggest sources of extreme wealth: American figures like John D. Rockefeller, for example, build a vast multimillion-dollar corporation out of oil, and his business empire was very much an oil-based one, we might say.
However, Angelou is using these symbols of vast wealth to denote a different kind of richness: she has a confidence in herself which, she suggests, makes her as ‘rich’ as any oil baron or millionaire owner of an actual goldmine. The real ‘gold’, we might say, is found inside her: her personality, her sense of self, is as rare and precious as actual gold or oil. It’s just a different kind of commodity.
As ‘Still I Rise’ develops, these symbols of wealth continue to accrue. But the later example – of diamonds found between the speaker’s thighs – internalises (literally) the idea of spiritual ‘wealth’ which the speaker feels herself to be in possession of.
There is also a sexual connotation, of course: the fact that diamonds are found at the ‘meeting’ of her thighs implies that her sexual allure, her sensual confidence in her own body, is as rare as diamonds. And it is as beautiful.
Given that the speaker of the poem is female, there’s also an additional significance, and a suggestion of the life-giving properties of the female body. A woman’s body can grow and give birth to a new life: surely as rare and beautiful a gift as any precious stones.
Perhaps the last important symbol in ‘Still I Rise’ is Angelou’s image of a black ocean, because the choice of colour makes specific reference to the colour of the speaker’s skin. As a woman, she often faces prejudice from society, but as an African-American woman she also has to contend with racial prejudice.
Indeed, this is confirmed in the poem’s final stanza, with Angelou’s reference to ‘the dream and the hope of the slave’. She has the recent history of not only racial segregation in mind (Angelou was an important figure in American civil rights in the 1960s), but also, going back to the nineteenth century and before, the dark history of slavery in the United States.
The ‘black ocean’ concisely puts across both of these important elements of her identity. Oceans are often viewed as feminine for many reasons, not least the tidal link between the sea and that feminine body, the moon; so here we might recall Angelou’s reference to those suns and moons in the third stanza, and the ‘certainty of tides’.
But here the speaker’s alignment of herself with the oceans puts across her ability to work with the tide and to grow stronger and bigger (‘Welling and swelling’) as a result.