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Alone

Alone

by Maya Angelou

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-2

Lying, thinking
Last night

  • You know how your teachers always ask you to locate the time and place of the action in a literary piece? Well, Maya Angelou is making it pretty easy for you to get that little bit of tediousness out of the way in the first few lines. Our speaker's relating something that happened last night as she (or he) was drifting off to sleep.
  • You could think of this as the "pre-flight" messages of this particular poem. You're still on the tarmac, but the flight attendants make sure to let you know where you're at and where you're going (along with passing along nifty information like how to tighten your seat belt and maybe even how to ask for more peanuts). You can almost feel this poem revving its engines and getting ready to take off.
  • Notice how the first two lines are almost half the length of the other lines in this stanza? It's almost as if Angelou split the first line in two.

Line 3-5

How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone

  • If you're wondering why you get a whole bunch of religious websites on your screen when you Google this poem, look no further. These lines are the religious heart and, um, soul of the poem.
  • So, what are they all about? Well, for starters, the speaker seems to think that her soul is a-wandering. You'd think that it would be safely lodged in her body, but no. It turns out that the soul needs somewhere else to live.
  • And here's where these lines really get interesting: have you ever heard of water being "thirsty"? For one thing, water isn't a sentient being. It doesn't really get hungry or tired or worry about being late for school. It's just… water.
  • But that's beside the point. Even if water did feel things, it probably wouldn't feel thirsty, would it? After all, what do you usually drink to quench your thirst? (If you said "Diet Pepsi," we really need to talk.)
  • Nope, you usually drink…water. So, Angelou's turn of phrase suggests that something is seriously screwed up in the natural order of things. If even water can recognize its natural qualities in this world, then maybe the soul does need to go searching for another world in which to live.
  • …and BAM. That's where we get into God's territory. See, a fundamental component of Christian theology is the belief that the human soul is in God's care. In other words, its "home" is not in this world (Earth) but in the heavens (with God).
  • The next line might seem to reinforce this belief, but it does so with a weird twist. See, the whole bread/stone thing is actually a reference to the Bible, specifically Matthew 4:3, when Satan tries to tempt Jesus to turn stones into bread. (Jesus, of course, doesn't fall for it.)
  • So, how does this particular reference fit into the poem? Well, here are our best guesses:
  • Option 1: Angelou's suggesting that Satan has won: stones turn into bread (so bread, conversely, is actually stone). We're a little worried about what that means for Jesus, but hey, that's not our concern right now.
  • Option 2: Angelou's using the reference loosely, suggesting that bread which is anything but bread is a bad thing. We'd be inclined to agree!

Lines 6-7

I came up with one thing
And I don't believe I'm wrong

  • OK. Here it is. After hours and hours of sleepless searching, our speaker's figured it all out. Stay tuned, folks….
  • …but before we get there, we should mention that it seems a little strange that our speaker needs to assert how right she is before she tells us what she's figured out. Doth our speaker protest too much? Right now, it's still too early to tell.

Lines 8-10

That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

  • Ah. Here's the wisdom acquired by that sleepless soul searching. People need other people.
  • And just so you don't think that you're excluded from that statement, our speaker makes sure to say it twice: Nobody can get by all by themselves. That means you, too.
  • Notice how the speaker puts herself in the same boat as the rest of us? She doesn't say that people can't make it out "there" alone. Nope. The speaker is in the same mess as the rest of us. We're all "here" – wherever that is. And believe us, "here" isn't all that pretty.
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