Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


The speaker opens the poem by gesturing to the broad sweep of geological time, making special note of the fossils left behind by “species long since departed” (line 2):

     The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
     Of their sojourn here
     On our planet floor,
     Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
     Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

The “dried tokens” mentioned in the first line of this quotation (lines 4–8) refer to the fossilized remains of creatures that once lived “here / On our planet floor.” Fossils like this can be understood as historical traces left by the dinosaurs. It is only by reading and interpreting these traces that we humans learned about the creatures that left them behind. In this sense, the fossils referenced by the speaker don’t just symbolize the past, but they also symbolize the marks that a species can leave on the planet. The speaker’s opening discussion of fossils becomes important later in the poem, when the River draws attention to the environmental effects of human activity (lines 29–31):

     Your armed struggles for profit
     Have left collars of waste upon
     My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.

Whereas the dinosaurs simply left traces of their bodies, humans will leave traces of our aggression and greed. The environmental damage we cause will effectively become “fossilized” in the planet’s geological record.

The Rock, the River, and the Tree

“On the Pulse of Morning” features the voices of three nonhuman entities, which the speaker refers to as the Rock, the River, and the Tree. Each of these nonhumans addresses the reader directly, and each in their own way invites us to imagine a better future. The Rock, for instance, “cries out to us, clearly, forcefully” (line 9), telling us to rise out of the “bruising darkness” (line 16) of our longstanding ignorance. Likewise, the River calls for us to relinquish our greed and the violence of competition that comes with it. Finally, the Tree invites us to the riverside, telling us that no matter the circumstances that brought us here, “[our] passages have been paid” (line 71), and we should root ourselves in the land. Taken together, these three nonhumans symbolize the landmass currently known as the United States. The speaker points out in the opening lines that these entities have stewarded the land since time immemorial, acting as “hosts to species long since departed” (line 2). The invitations these entities extend to the reader are also symbolically significant, reminding us how important it is to actively “root” ourselves in this land and so develop a meaningful connection to it.

The New Dawn

As the poem nears its conclusion, the speaker directs us readers to lift our eyes to the horizon and watch for the new dawn. The speaker indicates that we stand on the cusp of a new day, symbolically poised between the darkness of a brutal past and the brightness of a better future. The distant horizon line provides a visual metaphor for this cusp. The sun still lingers just out of sight, and though we can’t yet see it directly, we can perceive the faintest halo of its light beginning to crest over the horizon. This hint of illumination enables us to anticipate the sun itself, which will bring new light to the world. Symbolically, this light will enable us humans to emerge from the brutal, “bruising darkness” (line 16) that we have long inhabited in our ignorance. As the sun rises, “the horizon leans forward” (line 92) and gradually illuminates the world. Eventually, our own bodies emerge from shadow and, finally able to see each other, we cast aside our differences and greet each other: “Good morning” (line 107). We then enter a brighter future, together.