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“Woman Work” was written by the American poet Maya Angelou and first published in her 1978 collection And Still I Rise. The speaker, implied to be a Black woman, talks about all the “work” she has to do—everything from cooking, cleaning, and caring for children to picking cotton and cutting sugar cane.
In referencing both domestic duties and the history of enslavement, the speaker implies that Black women have long been thanklessly expected to devote their time and energy to others without taking anything for themselves. Ultimately, the speaker can only find rest and a sense of freedom by taking in the beauty of the natural world—the one thing that she can “call [her] own.”
About the poet
Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights, activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. “Woman Work” was first published in the 1978 collection of Angelou’s poem entitled “And Still I Rise”. The poem itself consists of five stanzas. The first stanza is the longest one with fourteen lines. All the subsequent stanzas are shorter and made up of four lines.
The poem analyses the themes of the strength of women in the face of adversity and danger, the sacrifices women make, and the hopes of mothers for their children. “Woman Work” is a very domestic poem depicting the typical routine life of a woman who performs her daily chores effectively and then yearns for a fantastic break amidst the elements of nature to give her strength and comfort.
I’ve got the children to tend The clothes to mend The floor to mop The food to shop Then the chicken to fry The baby to dry I got company to feed The garden to weed I’ve got shirts to press The tots* to dress The can* to be cut I gotta* clean up this hut Then see about the sick And the cotton to pick.
In the first stanza, the poetess gives vent to her feelings about her dull and busy life. She is tired of her routine work of being a working woman. She says that she has to look after her children at home, and clothes to stitch. She has to go grocery shopping and then clean the floor. She has to weed out her garden and shirts to iron.
She also has to take care of the sick. She has to dress her children and also cut bamboo. She has to clean her whole house. All these chores are pretty tough and require courage and tolerance on the part of a domestic woman. The poetess is swamped with work and has no time for herself. She needs to make sure that everyone in the house is fed and fulfills every need.
The first stanza of the poem is the longest in the entire poem by Maya Angelou. It describes in detail the everyday household duties that the poetess has to take care of. A taste of slavery is depicted in the first stanza. The woman is confined to her daily hardships dealing with everyday difficulties.
Shine on me, sunshine Rain on me, rain Fall softly, dewdrops And cool my brow again.
In the second stanza, the poetess wants to enjoy natural objects and relax on nature’s lap. Her demands are straightforward, compared to the hard work that she goes through every day. She wants the sun to shine and the rain to fall. The simple element of nature gives her comfort and a sense of calm. She has got tired of domestic work and wants to go close to nature. She wants the sunlight to shine on her and the raindrops to fall on her.
The dew drops should gently fall upon her. All these things can cool her brow and take her away from reality for a while. All these natural objects can give her the peace and satisfaction she craves while doing her everyday chores.
Storm, blow me from here With your fiercest wind Let me float across the sky ‘Till I can rest again.
The third stanza denotes an expression of her escapism from the busy life of a working woman. The domestic woman in the poem remains busy and dreams of an ideal life amidst nature. In this stanza, she asks the storms to blow her from the busy world across the sky, with its stormy and gushing wind. As a result of which, she will be able to get relief from the hurly-burly of life. She asks the storm to take her to an imaginary world for the rest.
Only her imagination can give her peace, solace, and a taste of freedom. In reality, this freedom and satisfaction that she desires are not possible.
Fall gently, snowflakes Cover me with white Cold icy kisses and Let me rest tonight.
This stanza is also an expression of her taking relief and refuge in the natural elements of nature. She asks the snowflakes to fall gently on her body and completely cover her up and make it all white. When the woman will be completely covered up, and under the charm and burden of the white snow, she will get solace. She further asks the snow to touch her and give her cold icy kisses, which will help her to rest the entire night. Her reality seems to deny her of all the solace and peace, so she yearns for a sense of calm in the lap of Mother Nature.
Sun, rain, curving sky Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone Star shine, moon glow You’re all that I can call my own.
In the last stanza, the poetess addresses all the elements of nature that can relieve her from the busy life of a working woman. She wants to lose herself among the natural objects. Thus she asks the sun, rain, the curving sky, the mountains, the ocean, the leaves, and stones to give her relief. She craves relief and joy from all the natural things and wants to run away from the dark and dull life at home and serve others.
For this reason, she asks the moon to glow, and the shining stars to give her shelter along with them. She wants to be close to nature and calls these things her own because she wants some leisure and satisfaction. Nature can give her delight and can transport her to a world of peace and tranquillity. The protagonist ends the poem invoking the presence of nature that refreshes both her body and her soul.