Dr. Maya Angelou is a highly regarded and honored American writer and activist. The recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Presidential Medal of the Arts, three Grammy awards and the Lincoln Medal, Angelou currently teaches at Wake Forest University as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies. Though "Passing Time," published in her 1975 anthology "Oh Pray My Wings are Gonna Fit Me Well," is one of her shorter works, the six-line poem is rich for analysis.
"Passing Time" opens itself up to multiple interpretations. The reader can infer that enjoying the company of the other person present is a means of making the time go by, or passing time. The title can also refer to the author's observation of time elapsing, which is bolstered by her reference to skin as "dawn." This suggests that the author senses time elapsing from the prior night to this early morning dawn. The choice to interpret the title as a verb (passing the time) or as a noun (the passage of time) directly influences how the reader engages the poem. If this relationship is merely a means to pass the time, the poem's final lines suggest that the "certain end" that has begun is a relationship that will pass quickly. By looking at the title as the passage of time, the ending lines take on a new sense of urgency as the author and her love proceed quickly to the inevitable ending, whatever it may be.
The words "dawn," "musk" and "paint" conjure certain responses from the reader. "Dawn" is a period of ethereal light, sunrises and the expectations of a new day. "Musk" is an earthy, dark fragrance produced by certain deer to attract mates. Synthetic musk is added to perfumes as a seductive base note. "Painting the beginning..." suggests an artistic, thoughtful approach to this relationship. Though the descriptive words in this poem are few, they are placed strategically to engender a powerful sensory response from the reader.
Light and Dark
"Skin like dawn" can denote the passage of time, but it also forms a counterpoint to the following line, where the skin of the author is referred to as being "like musk." Musk is dark, and dawn suggests the light of the rising sun, forming a dichotomy of light versus dark. This can be read as a commentary on ethnicity in the piece -- Angelou is an African-American author, and the inference suggests that the figure to whom the poem is addressed may possess lighter skin. The light and dark motif could also symbolize the yin and yang, where light and dark, masculine and feminine, are united in perfect harmony. In feung shui philosophy, the masculine and light forces are yin, while the dark and feminine forces are yang. Angelou presents these two figures as the embodiment of this philosophy.
Beginnings and Endings
"The beginning of a certain end" suggests an inevitable conclusion to the relationship depicted in this poem, though there is ambiguity as to the outcome of the ending. While this fixed, inexorable end is clear to the author, readers are left to fill in the blanks for themselves. "The end of a sure beginning" is also provocative. There is a suggestion of confusion as to the nature of the relationship, as the author knew how to begin the relationship but does not know how to proceed into this new territory. Both the author and the figure she addresses are left in a state of transition, where much is certain, but even more is unknown.