Maya Angelou’s “When You Come” is an evocative poem that speaks to the power of love and nostalgia, as well as how to process feelings of longing or sadness. It displays Angelou’s understanding of the human psyche and how we handle complex emotions. By using simple language and a lyrical structure, Angelou produces a powerful poem with confronting sentiments.
The poem is composed of three quatrains and a final couplet. This structure gives the poem a melancholic tone, while the short lines create a lullaby-like effect. The first three stanzas are directed at a person who is no longer around, conveying the speaker’s grief. The speaker implores this person to come back, exclaiming: “just come.” The speaker then goes on to describe their despair when the person does not arrive.
Angelou immerses us in the speaker’s anguish. This is especially emphasized in the second stanza with the lines: “Run—just run/ To my arms begging me/ Cry—just cry/ To my breast pleadingly.” We witness the desperation and longing of the speaker, who is fully exposed and raw. Angelou continually makes use of vivid images to portray the speaker’s emotions. The speaker imagines that their pain is so great it would be bigger than a mountain, “so goddamn big/ It’d make a mountain whimper.”
Angelou’s use of figurative language helps the reader to connect to the speaker’s sentiment. Near the end of the poem, the speaker introduces a tone of empowerment and defiance. They demand: “if you don’t come/ I’ll stand.” The speaker refuses to take control of their emotions, instead, they boldly declare that they will stand despite the longing and sadness they feel.
The final couplet, “my love for you shall outlive/ All grievances, misdemeanors, and follies,” brings the poem to a heartbreakingly beautiful ending. Angelou portrays how love is able to transcend even our darkest moments, and how it can remain in our hearts and stay resilient, even in the face of sadness or hardship.
Structure Of ‘When You Come’
The structure of “When You Come” helps to convey the emotion and power of the poem. Split into four quatrains and a couplet, the poem maintains a consistent lyrical flow throughout. The repetition of short lines creates a lullaby-like effect, which aids in conveying the peaceful tone. In an interview with PBS in 1996, Angelou spoke about her use of the repetitive line structure, saying: “I cut my rhythms and my rhymes so to the bone that if people don’t take the time to really listen and feel, they will miss my meaning.”
The three quatrains show the speaker’s emotion, while the couplet gives a powerful conclusion. This structure complements the lyrical quality of the poem, while also allowing Angelou to portray the intricate emotion of the speaker. The combination of this structure and Angelou’s evocative use of language enables her to create an emotionally powerful poem.
Language and Imagery
Angelou’s use of language and imagery in “When You Come” allows her to convey the powerful emotion of the speaker. With simple diction and vivid imagery, Angelou speaks to the power of love and longing. We witness the speaker’s grief and sadness through lines such as: “the loneliness dims my eyes/ Til I almost can’t see.” The speaker expresses their immense longing for the other person, and their despair when they don’t arrive. Angelou also uses figurative language to add even more emotion to the poem. The speaker’s anguish is portrayed in lines such as: “My sorrow would be so goddamn big/ It’d make a mountain whimper.”
At the end of the poem, Angelou introduces a tone of defiance, as the speaker vows to stand despite their sadness. This is achieves by the use of strong verbs, such as “harvest,” “greet,” and “stand.” These verbs convey a sense of power, as the speaker stands proud in the face of adversity.
Discussion Of Power
In “When You Come,” Angelou speaks to the power of love and longing. This is conveyed by the speaker’s grief and then their defiance, which is the result of enduring their intense emotions. Angelou’s use of simple language and lyrical structure allows her to bring a complex emotion to life. The repetitive structure further emphasizes the speaker’s feelings of longing, as the poem moves from grief to defiance, from sadness to strength.
In the second stanza, the speaker expresses desperation, with lines such as: “Run—just run/ To my arms begging me/ Cry—just cry/ To my breast pleadingly.” This portrays the intensity of their longing, as the speaker beseeches the other person to come back. In the final couplet, we witness the strength of their love for this person, as the speaker declares their love will outlast any pain or suffering.
By using vivid imagery and figurative language, Angelou speaks to the power of love and how it can overcome our darkest moments. It shows the strength of the speaker, and the power of love that can remain in our hearts when we’re suffering or feeling lost.
Analysis of Poetic Devices
In her poem “When You Come,” Angelou employs a variety of poetic devices to illustrate the speaker’s emotions. She creates an intimate and lyrical piece by making use of imagery, metaphors, and repetition. Angelou’s use of imagery allows the reader to experience the speaker’s grief, longing, and eventual strength, while the metaphor of the mountain adds to the emotionally powerful tone. We witness the speaker’s sorrow become so intense that it’s enough to make a mountain whimper.
The speaker’s strength is also illustrated by Angelou’s use of repetition. In the first three stanzas, the speaker uses short lines to express their longing and despair. The repetition of the lines “just come,” serves to emphasize the speaker’s desperation, while the repetition of the word “cry” in the second stanza creates an intimate effect, letting us witness the speaker’s inner thoughts and turmoil.
Angelou also uses assonance to create a lyrical effect throughout the poem. Examples of assonance in the poem include: “Run—just run,” “Thunder—just thunder,” and “My love for you shall outlive.” The combination of assonance and the short line structure gives the poem a calming and peaceful tone, while the use of imagery, metaphors, and repetition allows Angelou to convey the immense emotion of the speaker.
Context and Interpretation
“When You Come” was published in 1971 in Angelou’s fourth volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Die. The literary climate of the time was dominated by the Civil Rights Movement, and Angelou’s work was heavily influenced by this. Angelou was not only a poet but also a prominent activist, and her work addressed the issues of poverty, racism, and identity.
When analyzing the poem, it’s helpful to consider the context in which it was written. Angelou was known for her strong feminist stance, and the poem can be seen as a reflection of this. The speaker in the poem longs for the other person to come, yet despite their sadness and despair, they vow to stand. Angelou illustrates how the speaker is able to find strength in the face of adversity, and remain resilient despite the grief and longing they feel.
The poem reflects not only the feminist ideals of strength and defiance, but also the power of love. Despite their grief the speaker is able to continue to feel love and joy, and to find solace in it. The poem speaks to the power of romantic love, as well as its ability to transcend pain and suffering.
Legacy and Admiraion
Maya Angelou was a prominent figure in the worlds of literature and activism, and her writings have been influential to many. Angelou’s poetry speaks to her understanding of life and the power of love, as we witness in her piece “When You Come.” Angelou often used her poetry to explore themes of identity, racism, and women’s empowerment, and her work has been admired by readers and writers around the world.
“When You Come” beautifully portrays how love and nostalgia can remain in our hearts, even during times of hardship and struggle. Angelou is able to create an intimate bond between the speaker and the reader through her poetic devices, as she conveys the speaker’s emotion and strength. Throughout the poem, we witness the speaker’s longing and despair, followed by a strong sense of resilience and defiance. This allows Angelou to illustrate the power of love, and how it can instill us with courage and strength, even in the darkest of times.