Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Need to Reckon with History

Perhaps the most central theme of “On the Pulse of Morning” relates to the need to reckon with history. The speaker opens the poem by gesturing to the broad sweep of geological time, specifically referencing long-extinct creatures that once walked the earth. As the poem continues and the Rock, the River, and the Tree each address the reader in turn, the emphasis shifts to the more recent past. The Rock speaks first and instructs us readers to leave behind the ignorance that has long kept us in a “bruising darkness” (line 16), with our “mouths spilling words / Armed for slaughter” (lines 19–20). Whereas the Rock addresses the deeper history of human evolution, the River addresses more recent histories of human war and greed. The Tree gets even more detailed about the violence of U.S. history, speaking specifically about the genocide of Indigenous nations as well as the enslavement of African peoples. The poem’s main speaker then reflects on these three speeches and underscores the importance of reckoning with the past so that we don’t needlessly repeat it. As they put it: “History, despite its wrenching pain / Cannot be unlived, but if faced / With courage, need not be lived again” (lines 74–76).

The Importance of Welcoming Change

Whereas much of the poem focuses on what has happened in the past, the final stanzas turn toward the future and emphasize the importance of welcoming change. After the Rock, the River, and the Tree have each spoken, the poem’s main speaker returns and gives the following instructions to the reader (lines 77–80):

     Lift up your eyes upon
     This day breaking for you.
     Give birth again
     To the dream.

With these lines, the speaker turns away from the past and toward the future. The speaker anticipates the arrival of a new day, which symbolizes the coming of a new era. However, this new era will not come of its own accord. Even though the speaker says the new day is “breaking for you,” they go on to give an additional instruction: “Give birth again / To the dream.” This instruction implies that we need to participate actively in the creation of a better future. Furthermore, the participation will be ongoing. We don’t just give birth to the dream once; we must always be ready to “give birth again.” For this ongoing rebirth to be possible, we readers must be willing not just to accept change, but to actively welcome it. The dawning of a new day symbolizes the beginning of a better and brighter future. 

The Value of Inclusiveness

One of the poem’s central messages relates to the value of embracing social inclusion. This message emerges most clearly in the speech the Tree gives in the ninth stanza. Much of the Tree’s speech discusses how the different groups of people who currently inhabit the United States arrived there. The Native Americans have lived there since time immemorial, but everyone else arrived by other means. Whereas Europeans and other migrants came of their own volition, Africans were brought against their will and subjected to slavery. But regardless of where these groups came from or how difficult their journey was, the Tree insists that “your passages have been paid” (line 71). In other words, all those who currently live in the United States belong there. With this in mind, the Tree invites us readers to “root” ourselves in this land. The poem’s main speaker echoes the Tree’s gesture toward inclusion in the final stanzas, where they instruct us to lift our eyes to the rising sun. As light illuminates the world, we readers come out of shadow and see each other, as if for the first time. The poem closes with a moving scene of mutual recognition and inclusiveness (lines 100–107):

     Here, on the pulse of this new day
     You may have the grace to look up and out
     And into your sister’s eyes, and into
     Your brother’s face, your country
     And say simply
     Very simply
     With hope—
     Good morning.