The rhyme scheme throughout ‘Woman Work’ is not constant. The first stanza consists of seven pairs of rhymed lines in the pattern AABB and so on. Since these lines are short and quick in nature, they create an impression of breathlessness in the reader’s mind, as if the woman has no time to pause between her various household chores if she is to complete them within the required space of a single day. The next more stanzas are written in free verse, and create a more calming effect.
There are many clues to the setting of ‘Woman Work’ within the poem itself. For example, the protagonist says that she will prepare fried chicken for the family’s next meal. Now fried chicken is a dish commonly consumed in the southern states of America. While outlining the tasks she must perform outside the household, in the fields, she says she must cut down sugar cane and pick bales of cotton. Both sugar cane and cotton are also grown in the warmer climate of the states of the South.
It is in this setting that we find the protagonist engaged in a long day of tiring work. The tone of the poem during the first stanza is tense, as if the protagonist is constantly reminding herself of how much she has to do in the day, and listing the chores in her head so that she doesn’t forget to do any of them. It seems that she is stressed out by her daily routine. In contrast, the tone in the other four stanzas is more relaxed. The protagonist seems more at peace, and grateful to be done with all her chores.
This change in the tone of the poem from the first to the subsequent stanzas is further emphasized by the diverse use of a rhetorical device known as consonance. The first stanza has hard consonance sounds like the “T” sound in “gotta”, “tots” and “cotton”, the hard “G” sound in “garden”, and the hard “C” sound in “clothes”, “company”, “cane”, and “cotton”. In contrast, the following stanzas have fewer hard consonance sounds and more soft consonances. The recognizable examples are the soft “S” sound in “shine”, “softly”, “storm”, “sky”, and “rest”, and the soft “F” sound in “fall”, “float”, “fiercest”, “snowflakes”, and “leaf”.
What is remarkable about the poem is that it gives us clues about the life of the protagonist without spelling out details about it per se. For example, at the end of a long, hard day, she finds solace in nature. This clearly shows the absence of a husband in her life, thus we can say that the protagonist is a single mother. She does mention her children (thrice) in the poem, but every time, they are mentioned in the context of the work she must do to take care of them. It seems that they live in a world of their own, and do not sympathise with their mother’s plight. Hence she feels isolated from them. Or perhaps they are too young to understand what their mother has to go through to give them the life they have. A clue to this is provided when the protagonist says that she must dress her children, thereby implying that at least some of them are too young to get dressed on their own.
Another clue about the protagonist’s life is given by the last line of the poem, where she says that the elements of nature are all that she can call her own. This proves that she does not have any material comforts in her life, and lives in an impoverished condition. Therefore, she works in the fields picking cotton and cutting cane to provide for her children.
Angelou’s technique of writing in ‘Woman Work’ also tells us something about the protagonist. In this context, Angelou’s use of the poetic device known as personification is of special significance. The protagonist endows the elements of nature (which are non-living objects) with human qualities in an attempt to feel less lonely. In the absence of human company, it is the sun, the rain, the snow, dewdrops, the wind, the sky, mountains, oceans, leaves, stones, “star shine” and “moon glow” that are her friends. This is both tragic, and relatable.
Angelou succeeds in stirring up empathy for the protagonist in her readers through her poetic craft. This is most strongly felt in the third stanza, when the protagonist pleads with the storm to carry her away and let her float in the sky till she can find some rest. Her exhaustion makes her desperately wish for something that is irrational. Such passionate writing is what makes Angelou’s characters human, and therefore, appealing to the readers’ imagination.
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