Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Shadow versus Light

“On the Pulse of Morning” opens and closes by underscoring a tension between shadow and light. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker emphasizes shadow. This motif first appears at the end of the first stanza, where the speaker says: “Any broad alarm of [the dinosaurs’] hastening doom / Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages” (lines 7–8). Here, “the gloom of dust and ages” references the obscurity of forgotten history. In the next two stanzas, the Rock takes over from the main speaker and commands us readers to emerge from “the bruising darkness” (line 16) in which we’ve been living our lives in profound ignorance. Whereas the poem’s opening stanzas emphasize shadow and its negative connotations, the poem’s closing stanzas emphasize the coming light of the new dawn. In the tenth stanza, the speaker addresses the reader: “Lift up your eyes upon / This day breaking for you” (lines 77–78). In the stanzas that follow, the rising sun creates a dramatic scene of illumination and revelation. As the darkness recedes and “the horizon leans forward” (line 92), light sweeps through the world. No longer shrouded in ignorant shadow, we can step knowingly into the light.

Diverse Populations

At several points in the poem, the speaker offers lengthy lists of different groups of people. The different groups listed are all communities of people who have either inhabited what we now call the United States from time immemorial, or else they arrived here through some other means. In the poem’s ninth stanza, for example, the Tree references a series of Indigenous nations, followed by a series of groups that arrived in the United States either by choice or by force:

     You, who gave me my first name, you,
     Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
     Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
     Forced on bloody feet, 
     Left me to the employment of
     Other seekers—desperate for gain,
     Starving for gold.
     You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
     You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
     Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare
     Praying for a dream.

In this long passage (lines 56–66), the Tree gives a condensed account of how the different human populations in the United States are related to one another. Indigenous people were forced off their land by colonizing Europeans who were “desperate for gain, / Starving for gold.” Meanwhile, groups of people from West Africa were “bought, / Sold, stolen,” and brought to the United States against their will. Although these diverse groups came to this land in different ways, the Tree insists that they all belong. The poem’s main speaker echoes this spirit of inclusiveness elsewhere in the poem. For example, lines 43–48 consist of another long list of the diverse inhabitants of America’s multicultural society.