An Analysis of Maya Angelou's Poem 'Passing Time'

With six short lines written in free verse, Maya Angelou’s “Passing Time” appeared in the 1975 anthology “Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well.” While the poem only has 23 words, it’s rich with imagery, reflection and metaphors. Analyzing “Passing Time” gives readers a glimpse into Angelou’s life and causes them to reflect on their own relationships.

Poem Summary

In the first stanza of “Passing Time,” Angelou gives the reader an idea of what she senses: a person with “skin like dawn.” Her own skin is “like musk.” In the second stanza, Angelou writes that one person “paints the beginning/ of a certain end.” In the third, the other person paints “the end of a/ sure beginning.” The words offer a photographic-like glimpse of a moment in time when Angelou ponders the beginning and end of a relationship.

Idea of Time

The title “Passing Time” and the poem itself don’t tell the reader about the empirical or subjective passing of time. If the reader interprets the title as a subjective action, the existential dilemmas of seizing the day, helplessness and inexplicable losses don’t exist in Angelou’s words. Instead of urging the reader to seize the day, Angelou’s poem pauses for reflection. If readers interpret the title as the passage of time from a more concrete, empirical point of view, they may sense that Angelou refers to an inevitable end of a relationship in the near future.

Imagery, Metaphors and Race

It is common for Angelou to write poems based on her life and experiences, making them biographical in nature at times. In 1973, Angelou married Paul du Feu, a Caucasian man. Angelou is African-American. When Angelou compares her companion’s light skin to the dawn, she may refer to du Feu. Angelou refers to her own skin as musk, a traditionally dark-colored perfume with base notes of aromatic sweet spices and wood. The metaphors of dawn and musk hint at the underlying theme of racial differences and similarities.

Antithesis in ‘Passing Time’

Antithesis in poetry is when a poet writes about contrasting ideas. Antithesis in “Passing Time” exists with the ideas of dawn and musk. The second and third stanzas also have examples of antithesis when Angelou writes about beginnings and ends. She also subtly includes the contrasting ideas of “certain” and “sure” in the last lines of the second and third stanzas. Angelou was married three times, and her marriage to du Feu, which lasted seven years, was the longest. The use of antithesis in this poem may signify Angelou’s contemplation on the longevity of her marriage.

Painting Time

As Angelou describes the act of painting time with her companion, it is as if the two are standing side by side with individual canvases. One person paints the beginning of a story while the other paints the end. Angelou never explains what the “end” is, but the idea of painting together may imply that the two create their own destinies.

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