Too loose to be formal, too free to be loose
"Africa" lives somewhere in the no-man's-land between formal regularity and an absolute free-for-all. You could say that each stanza has eight lines…unless you were talking about Stanza 2. You could say that most lines have four beats (four syllables), but it turns out that that's only true about Stanza 1. So what the heck is going on here? Well, fortunately, here at Shmoop we've put some time into puzzling through problems just like this one, and we've got a few thoughts on the matter:
Option 1: Maya Angelou has lost her mind. (C'mon, you know you were thinking it, too!) After all, how hard is it to count to eight? Or, for that matter, to count to four? Is it really that hard to keep up with a pattern for three short stanzas? Whew. Glad we got that out of our system.
Option 2: Once we look a little closer at the content of the stanzas, it starts to look like there might just be a method to all of this not-quite-madness. Here's what we mean:
Stanza 1 is about as regular as it gets: it's got eight lines, each with four syllables. Plus, it's got a regular rhyme scheme (ABCBDEAE). If you ignore the fact that "lain" appears twice in the stanza (and, let's face it, "lain" does rhyme with "lain"), then it seems like the stanza is divided into two quatrains, with the second and fourth lines rhyming. It's a pretty simple, stable pattern, one that complements the sense of timelessness that Angelou is trying to sketch in the stanza itself.
Stanza 2 is where all hell breaks loose. Sure, it's divided into two quatrains, just like Stanza 1 – but then there's an extra line tacked on at the end! Either Angelou just plain forgot how to count or there's something a little strange going on here.
Come to think of it, there is something strange going on here. Stanza 2 is all about the raping and plundering of Africa's resources and her people by outsiders. The lines themselves seem to strain against the bounds of their own meter, expanding to hold five syllables. Line 13, "took her young daught-ers," has five syllables. So do lines 9, 11, and 15. Try reading it aloud: there's an offbeat sort of rhythm that develops, as if the whole stanza is going off kilter. And then there's that last line, which just seems out of joint.
Feel uncomfortable? Well, maybe we're supposed to.
If you thought Stanza 2 was getting a bit too big for its britches, wait until you read Stanza 3. It's got all sorts of weird variations. Lines run from four to five to six syllables a line, and there doesn't seem to be any sort of pattern about it at all. As we read it aloud, we get the sense that Angelou is trying to speed up the pace. We've got the same rhyme scheme throughout the stanza (every other line rhymes), which pulls us straight through the stanza without any pause at all.
So, to sum up the form of "Africa," well, all we can say is that it's a topsy-turvy ride. But if you look hard, you can see a method behind the madness.