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When we read this poem out loud, we kind of want to sing it. That's not a surprise, of course, given that it was, you know, written to be sung. The poem has such strong rhythms that it pulls us right into sing-song land. But don't take our word for it. Let's check out the first few lines:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. (1-6)
How can we not sing those lines? For one thing, all of the rhyming gives a strong sense of melodic sound to the poem (check out "Form and Meter" for more on that). There's also a pattern of iambic meter (again, "Form and Meter" has you covered there).
Sound-wise, however, there's a ton of consonance going on here. If you read those lines out loud (go ahead, we'll wait here while you do), you should hear a lot of S sounds flying around. In fact, S sounds pop up all through the poem. This gives the poem a sense of sonic smoothness and creates a pleasant sound echo.
In addition to those S's, we get some cool alliteration in a line like, "We have come over a way that with tears has been watered" (17). Dig those W's? This is just another example of pleasing sounds strung together in this poem.
So, what gives with these techniques? Well, this poem is a kind of celebration. It acknowledges racial progress in the face of adversity. So, these pleasant sounds act kind of like our ear's reward, subtly punctuating the lines with triumphant, sonic flourishes. Ultimately, all those good sounds add to the song-y-ness of the poem. Heck, even without music, we'll find ourselves singing along.
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" is a title that does a bunch of things at once. First of all, it's a title that calls for collective action: it's asking us, all of us, to lift our voices and sing. So the title is one that creates a kind of community, asking everyone to join in and lift their voices together.
The other important thing about this title is that it mentions singing. The word "sing" points to the fact that this is a poem that's also a song to be accompanied by music and performed out loud. It's a song-poem, in other words.
The reference to singing is also significant because it suggests the very important role that music has played in African-American history. Slaves used to sing on plantations as a way of getting through their difficult work. (That's how the blues started—why not sing if it helps pass the time?) Music and singing have been used by African-Americans for centuries not only to give expression to their experience, but also to protest their oppression.
There are a lot of settings evoked in this poem. A "road" is one setting (l. 11). This road is the metaphorical path that African-Americans have walked on their long march to freedom.
On a second level, though, the whole natural world is the setting of this poem. The speakers reference elements of nature—the "rolling sea" (l. 6), "the listening skies" (l. 5), and the "white gleam" of a star (l. 21)—as a way to talk about the power of their song and their hope for the future. Nature is powerful, and so the speakers describe nature as a way of evoking the power of their own song and hopes.
The setting of this poem is also American history. That history is referred to in images—such as "the chast'ning rod" (l. 12) and "the blood of the slaughtered" (l. 18)—that suggest the violent history that African-Americans have had to live through.
This poem isn't spoken by one speaker, but by several. It's a poem that asks everyone to join in. In fact, in the fourth line, the speakers explicitly say, "Let our rejoicing rise." It's not "my" rejoicing, or "your" rejoicing; it's "our" rejoicing. This signals the fact that, as a song, the poem is spoken, or sung, by a number of speakers. We're welcomed to lift our voices and sing right along with the speakers.
The implied speakers are African-American, as this is a poem that was written by an African-American poet about the hardships and the hopes of African-Americans. The references to the difficult path that the speakers have walked is an allusion to the oppression that African-Americans have faced in the U.S.
These speakers are very hopeful speakers. They've been through some really hard times, they've shed tears and blood, but they have faith that they're going to come through and achieve their freedom. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from their perseverance (especially when we're tearing our hair out, struggling with poetry).
What's more, these speakers are religious. They believe in God, they love Him, and they want Him to protect them. The speakers have nothing but good things to say about God. For them, the Big Boss is a Good Boss.
This poem isn't very hard, but it's also not a total breeze. For starters, we get a lot of poetic devices like metaphor and simile in the poem. We may not immediately understand what the "stony" road refers to or, for that matter, the "chastening rod." In the end, some of the dated vocabulary can prove slow-going for a modern reader. Luckily, we've got your back, Shmoopers. Just follow us on that path to enlightenment.
James Weldon Johnson was writing at a time when African-Americans were in the middle of their struggle for freedom. At the turn of the century, when Johnson lived, African-Americans still didn't have basic rights, like the right to vote or to attend desegregated schools.
For this reason, you'll find that a lot of his poetry deals with racial issues. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is a poem about the struggle for racial equality. This theme is a big one, not only in this poem but also in others of Johnson's poems, including "To America" and "The Black Mammy."
Given that Johnson's poem was written to be sung, it can be characterized as a hymn. A hymn, of course, is a religious song, and Johnson's poem fits the bill because the last stanza of the poem is all about G-O-D. This is a religious poem, even though God doesn't pop up until the end.
The meter of the poem is irregular, which means that it's written in a form known as free verse. But even though the poem doesn't adhere to any particular poetic meter, we can still see certain patterns at play. Let's take the first five lines as an example:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies. (1-5)
If we study these lines, we'll notice that there are seven syllables in the first two lines, ten syllables in the third line, and seven syllables in lines 4-5. This pattern is repeated in the second and third stanzas of the poem. We might also notice that there's a lot of rhyming in these lines. The word "sing" rhymes with "ring" and "rise" rhymes with "skies." Similar rhyming patterns are also in the other two stanzas. In fact, the rhyme scheme of the first ten lines of each stanza is exactly the same: AABCCBDDEE, where each letter represents that line's end rhyme. Stanza 1 stops after ten lines, while stanzas 2 and 3 tack on added lines, but the start of each is identical.
In each stanza, we'll also find a couple of really long lines. For instance: "We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,/ We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered" (17-18). There are fourteen syllables in each of these lines; in the other two stanzas of the poem, we'll also find a couple of lines that are fourteen syllables long.
What's more, a lot of the lines have an iambic rhythm: one unstressed syllable is followed by one stressed syllable. We can see this iambic rhythm in action in the following two lines, for example:
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet. (14-15)
So even though "Lift Every Song and Sing" doesn't conform to a specific meter throughout, we can see that Johnson's poem creates its own patterns and rhythms. That stands to reason, really. In a poem that celebrates the historical progress of African-Americans in the face of systemic racism, it seems fitting that this poem finds its own form. It may not be regular all the time, but it's rhythm is strong enough to maintain itself throughout—much like the people it celebrates.
The title of this poem is "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Is it any wonder that singing and music are an important motif? The speakers frame the poem as a song that is empowering and uplifting. Singing, and music, can help us find strength and the will to carry on. By evoking singing in this way, the poem also touches on the long history of music in African-American culture. In fact, beginning with slavery, African-Americans used singing and music as a way to resist oppression and to survive the brutality of their lives. In this way music was used as a kind of therapy. No access to a therapist? Just sing, baby.
There's a lot of imagery of pathways and roads in "Lift Every Voice and Sing." This imagery is used as a metaphor to indicate the very difficult times that African-Americans have had to live through in America. Just look at these instruments of torture used during slavery and you'll get an idea. The speakers suggest that African-Americans have come a long way on their journey to freedom (and away from those horrible instruments of torture), but they still have further to go.
Landscape imagery is important to this poem. The natural landscape is described by the speakers in order to give a sense of the power of their own song and struggle for freedom. Nature is beautiful, it's powerful, and it nourishes us. In the same way, the speakers suggest that their song (which represents a wider struggle for freedom) is also beautiful and powerful and nourishing—just as powerful and nourishing as nature. It's like the song equivalent of the Grand Canyon: awesome.
Sorry to disappoint, but we won't find any sex in this poem. It's a song about the struggle for freedom and equal rights. What's sex got to do with it?