The first stanza of the poem focuses on singing and music. The speakers of the poem say that we should all lift our voices and sing together like one big happy family in honor of liberty. The song that the speakers call on us to sing is full of hope and faith.
The second stanza digs into the very difficult history of African-Americans. The speakers refer to the "stony" road that African-Americans have walked and the "rod" that was used to "chast[en]" them. The stony road and the rod are both metaphors that suggest the violence and difficulty of the African-American experience. Even so, the speakers call on us listeners to continue to have hope. They say that African-Americans have come a long way, through a lot of hardship, and now they're standing at the brink of a new, more hopeful future. Hurray!
The final stanza of the poem focuses on God. The speakers acknowledge that, if they've come this far, it's because of the Big Boss sitting up there in the clouds: God. It's God who has guided the speakers through difficult paths, and the speakers ask God to continue to guide them. The poem ends with the speakers hoping that they will "forever" be true to their God and to their native land (America).
Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
This poem opens with music. It's about voices singing for, and about, liberty. So from these first few lines, two of the poem's major themes are introduced: music and liberty.
"[T]he harmonies of Liberty" is a phrase that suggests that liberty is a beautiful thing. Harmony is pleasing—our ears go "ahh…" when we hear it. So, by saying that liberty is harmonious, the speakers suggest that it's a good thing. These speakers are on the side of liberty; they dig it. That makes sense to us. How could liberty not be a good thing?
We get a sense of the power of this singing through the imagery of earth and heaven "ring[ing]" with the sounds of voices. This is some powerful music we're dealing with here. It's way stronger than the music blasting through the super-duper high-tech speakers in our bedroom.
The reference to the rising voices in these lines also suggests the power of speech and song. If we ask for freedom loudly enough, if we sing for it, we'll eventually get it. (Hmm, we wonder if that works for everything. Maybe if we sing as loud as we can for lunch someone will bring it to us?)
Let our rejoicing rise High as the list'ning skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
The speakers present the song that they're singing as "rejoicing." This is a happy song. But no, it's not Pharell's "Happy."
As we've mentioned before (check out "In a Nutshell"), this poem was written to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Lincoln was the president who ended slavery in America. This poem is a reflection not only of all the hardships that African-Americans have faced in their history, but also of the long way that they've come since slavery.
By saying that their song is a song of "rejoicing," the speakers suggest that there is joy and happiness to be found in their experience and in the progress that they've made—in spite of all the difficulties that they've lived through. Slavery was definitely a difficulty.
In these lines the speakers use a simile in order to give us a sense of just how powerful this song is. The song rises "[h]igh as the list'ning skies" and it resounds "loud as the rolling sea."
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
In these lines we get, for the first time, a reference to the very tough history that African-Americans have experienced. This history is a "dark past."
But the speakers suggest that this past isn't all bad. It's taught African-Americans to have faith, to keep believing no matter how dark and depressing things may get.
The speakers say that it's good not to lose faith in the future, because the present shows us that there is in fact hope, no matter how dark our history has been.
We can see a lot of repetition in these lines. "Sing a song full" are words repeated in both lines. In the poetry biz, that's called anaphora.
As well, the repeated S sounds at the beginning of these words is an example of alliteration. For more on the poem's sound, check out "Sound Check."
The word "us" at the end of the line is also repeated. That's important because we'll find that the poem puts a lot of emphasis on collective experience. Words like "we" and "our" and "us" focus attention on a group of people and their shared experiences. What's more, these words indicate that this poem is being spoken (or sung) by multiple speakers. And that's just great with us. We believe in doing things together (hey, aren't we understanding this poem together?).
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.
"Facing the rising sun of our new day begun" is an example of a metaphor. The speakers use the image of the rising sun and a new day in order to give a sense of new beginnings, or a new and a more hopeful future, one in which the speakers can be completely free. (Of course, we're one of those late risers who doesn't even know what a rising sun looks like.)
Line 10 makes it clear that victory has not been won yet. In 1900, when this poem was written, African-Americans were still struggling for their basic civil rights. In many ways, the same kind of battle for racial equality continues even today.
The words "march on" imply strength and determination. These speakers are determined, they're moving forward, and they're going to "march on" until they get what they want, which is the victory of complete freedom.
One last thing: notice any rhyme going on here? These last two lines rhyme and, looking back, we can see that so do lines 1 and 2, lines 3 and 6, 4 and 5, 7 and 8, and now 9 and 10. For more on how this poem's put together, check out "Form and Meter."
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chast'ning rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
These lines start us off with a couple of metaphors. The "[s]tony" road that the speakers refer to is, of course, a metaphor for the very difficult history that African-Americans have had to live through in the U.S. Heck, they not only had to live through slavery, they lived through Jim Crow.
Likewise, the reference to the "chast'ning rod" is a metaphor for all the violence that African-Americans have had to endure in their time in America. African-Americans were literally beaten with whips and rods back during slavery. Nowadays, if a mom spanks her kid that's considered bad. So this image of a "chast'ning rod" works to evoke all the violence that African-Americans have experienced.
In line 13, the speakers describe those difficult days in terms of a hope that was "unborn" and that "died." The speakers' description of hope as something "unborn" is an example of personification. That's when something that isn't human is given human characteristics. In this case, the description of hope as something "unborn" evokes an image of a fetus that's died in the womb.
Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
There's a change in the speakers' perspective here. Up until this point in the stanza, the speakers have been describing what a difficult path African-Americans have had to tread. But with these lines, the speakers show us just how far they've come despite all of the great obstacles they've had to face.
The descendants of those first slaves are now at a place that their ancestors only dreamed of: they've come to the place "for which [their] fathers sighed." So these lines put an emphasis on the huge strides that African-Americans have made since they first arrived in America. From slavery to freedom is a big, giant step indeed.
In these lines the speakers also use metaphor. The description of "weary feet" moving with a "steady beat" is a metaphor for the progress that the speakers (and African-Americans more generally) have made since their ancestors' enslavement. Those feet are also a synecdoche, a part that represents the whole of the speakers' struggle.
What's more, "weary feet" and "steady beat" are rhyming phrases. So we're getting a sense of the rhythm of these feet moving forward through the rhyme in the words "feet" and "beat." Check out "Form and Meter" for more about the poem's rhyme and rhythm.
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.
Using more anaphora, these lines again suggest what a grim history African-Americans have had to live through. The "tears" and the "blood" recall all the violence and sorrow that African-Americans have had to deal with, beginning with slavery all the way through to the Jim Crow era.
In these lines, we'll also find the speakers using metaphor. The "path" the speakers refer to is a metaphor for the difficult experiences that African-Americans have endured. And the images of the "tears" and "blood" are metaphors for the sorrow and violence that African-Americans have had to contend with.
Out from the gloomy past Till now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
These lines emphasize a sense of renewed hope. The speakers have made it out "from the gloomy past." That is, they've made it through the really tough times, and thank goodness for that.
The image of the "white gleam of our bright star" is another example of metaphor. It's used to suggest a new beginning. The "gleam" of the star and its "bright[ness]" give us a sense of just how hopeful this new future is. It's a future that will be full of liberty. Ahh… we're all looking forward to it.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; Thou who hast by Thy might, Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
This stanza begins by invoking God. The reference to God allows us readers to frame the poem as a hymn, or religious song.
These lines present God as the Big Boss. He's there during the "weary years" and he's there during the "silent tears." He's the one who brings people toward "the light" and who supports them during hard times.
The speakers' reference to "the light" can be understood as a metaphor. The speakers aren't talking about a literal light that God is leading them toward. They're telling us that God is leading them toward better times, toward freedom. The light is a metaphor for freedom and an easier life.
These lines also evoke the metaphor of the "road," which appears earlier in the poem (11). God is leading the speakers along a "way." This "way," or "path," is a metaphor for the progress toward liberty. A bit how like we're all on the "road" to better understanding this poem, the speakers of the poem are on the "road" to freedom.
Line 25 ("Keep us forever in the path, we pray") is also an important line because it highlights the importance of religion and prayer in this poem. The speakers suggest that we can't make it without prayer and without God's help.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest our heart, drunk with the wind of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand
These lines build on the lines that have come before. Here, the speakers elaborate on how they wish for God to guide them.
The speakers want God to guide them so that their "feet" don't stray from the right path. Here again we can see the speakers using metaphor and synecdoche. The path that they're walking is a metaphor for the "way" to freedom.
These lines also set up a contrast between the worldly life and the spiritual life. The speakers' words in line 29 suggest that it isn't good for us to indulge too much in the "world," or in all the things that we associate with living in the world, like wealth and status. Instead, we should keep our sights focused on the spiritual realm and should always remember God.
In line 30, the speakers use another metaphor: they imagine themselves "shadowed" by God's hand. This is a strong visual image: we see a "hand" shadowing someone. But it works as a metaphor to convey God's presence in the speakers' lives as a protective presence.
Not only is God's presence protective, it gives the speakers strength. This is suggested in line 31, in which the speakers say "May we forever stand." Given that this line follows the speakers' praise of God, it suggests that we can't stand, and we can't find the strength to stand, without God's protection. Are we ready for church yet?
True to our God True to our native land.
These two final lines of the poem emphasize the importance of religion. According to the speakers, we must always remain loyal to God.
In fact, God is so important that being "true" to him is more important than being "true" to our native land.
After all, the speakers mention God before they mention their "native land."
But in stating that we must also be true to "our native land," the speakers suggest that, despite the fact that their native land (America) hasn't been true to them (you know, because it's enslaved them, oppressed them, and violated them in all kinds of terrible ways), they still have a sense of love and loyalty toward it. That's what you call ending on a high note.