In case you somehow missed it, please watch National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman deliver “The Hill We Climb” as the inaugural poem for Joe Biden.
[ETA March 2021: My page statistics suggest that a lot of readers may be finding this article through searches they’re doing for school. Wonderful! I’m so glad you’re here. If you’re in search of other rhetorical resources, I’ve recommended some of my favorites down in the comments. I do want to caution all students, however, that this blog post is exactly the sort of thing that will turn up on your teacher’s plagiarism checker! I’m happy to be a source, but be sure to use good citation practices.]
[And if you’re a teacher sharing this with your students, please leave a comment and let me know! I’d love to hear how it’s been useful for you and your pedagogy. You can also leave me a tip on Ko-Fi!]
First things first: This poem is so good that when I finished the initial rhetorical markup, I felt buzzed. As much as I love rhetoric, that dopamine/endorphin/adrenaline rush doesn’t happen every time. Julius Caesar‘s “Friends, Romans, countrymen”. Richard II‘s deposition. Hamilton’s “Satisfied” and “Burn”. Every once in a while, the language is just so gorgeous that I swoon.
I will not have found every device worth noting in this poem. I imagine that for decades to come, I will be able to return to it and unfold a little more of its intricate beauty. Amanda Gorman has a delightful grasp of rhythm and imagery and the awesome power of our language’s flexibility and potential complexities. And she’s only twenty-two. Mercy sweet heavens, I cannot wait to see what else she gives us.
The dominant devices in “The Hill We Climb” are consonance and paromoiosis, both figures of repetition. Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds; paromoiosis is a little more complex, the repetition of sounds between words of adjacent or parallel clauses or lines. It is partly rhyme, partly slant rhyme, but importantly the combination of rhyme and some level of isocolon, parallel structure. I usually look at isocolon as a grammatical device, but in this sense, we might also consider it a metrical device, where the parallelism lives in cadence in addition to or instead of in grammar alone. Paromoiosis is, broadly, that not-quite-rhyme sense, highlighted by parallel structure. It’s the crash of waves within the larger motion of the tide.
Paromoiosis is what makes the poem feel “lyrical”, but it isn’t only aurally pleasing. Like many devices of parallelism, it will help you hear the equations as Gorman builds them and will call your attention to the ideas she is linking together. I won’t point out every instance of consonance and paromoiosis, because there are so very many of them, but I will draw attention to the uses that have a particular impact.
One more note before I dive in: I’ve seen a few different transcriptions of “The Hill We Climb” out there on the internet, and there are some slight variations between them. I’m using this one, but it may well not be definitive, so forgive me any minor deviations between this and the official, finalized version, which I suspect we will see in Gorman’s upcoming book. (Have you pre-ordered? I have!)
Gorman opens with aporia, a question which asks the audience the best way to go about something. In this, she presents her central concern: how do we move forward now, at this moment in time, from a past that has often been so dark? The antithesis (arrangement of contrast) between light/shade and the metaphor of the day breaking are important to a rhetorical concept known as kairos: the idea of the moment in which a text occurs. Kairos takes into account the occasion, the needs of the moment, and the greater social/cultural/political context. Here, the day/light imagery places “The Hill We Climb” squarely within the canon of the Biden administration: consider Biden’s inauguration morning tweet or some of the music played during the evening’s “Celebrating America” event (Jon Bon Jovi’s rendition of “Here Comes the Sun” and John Legend’s performance of “Feeling Good” were my favorites). Certainly Biden is not the first president to wield this particular metaphor, nor does it guarantee a sunnier period of time to follow — consider Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign — but it is nonetheless both powerful in its own right and a thread that links much of the art surrounding this political moment.
The next two lines branch into other metaphors: there’s something interesting about “a loss we carry”, something that has weight and proves a burden through absence rather than presence. “A sea we must wade” also has conceptual curiosity inside it. A sea, after all, is not something you wade across. You might wade in the shallows, perhaps, but that’s not quite the force that the verb takes here. “Wade”, then, becomes meiosis, a reference to something with a name disproportionately lesser than its nature. Gorman does not say “a sea we must sail” or “navigate” or even “swim” — but “wade”, suggesting that the problem is perhaps both greater and lesser than we imagine. Wading is something done slowly, your leg muscles pumping against the water and perhaps the undertow — but it is not something you can do if you are, say, drowning.
The next two lines introduce some of the figures of repetition we’ll see throughout the poem, notably the consonance I’ve mentioned already and the devices of anaphora, repetition at the beginning of lines or phrases, and isocolon, parallel structure, typically a device of syntax. Anaphora and isocolon often work together, as they do in “We’ve braved”/”We’ve learned”. The metaphor of “the belly of the beast” following the imagery of the sea made me think of the trial of Jonah and the whale; I’m not sure if Gorman intended that particular connection or not, but if so, it becomes anamnesis, a reference which calls to mind past matters or another author.
The next few lines contain a particularly gorgeous arrangement. “What just is isn’t always justice” has a few different things going on. The repetition of “isn’t always” from the prior line is ploce, unstructured repetition of words. We see conceptual chiasmus, one of my favorite devices, in “what-is-isn’t-justice”. Chiasmus is, as I’ve noted elsewhere, a device which ties a knot, repeating either ideas or grammatical construction in A-B-B-A order. Sometimes that reflects a thorny issue, a character tangled up in a problem; sometimes it ties things off neatly, putting a bow on the issue. Here, I think we see a bit of both. America is a thorny problem, all over, but reducing the arrangement to its key words, “what is isn’t justice”, well, that does sum the problem up succinctly. It’s also very nearly antimetabole, which is a specific form of chiasmus repeating exact words in A-B-B-A order — and that takes us to the other clever wordplay that Gorman works into this arrangement.
“Just is” and “justice” are nearly sound-alikes, and Gorman links them by placing them in parallel position to each other (at the end of the lines and as balancing figures within the chiasmus) as well as through antisthecon, a device which substitutes a sound within a word. The harder “z” in “is” transforms to the softer “s” sound in “justice”. I would also argue that this transformation gives us an aural antanaclasis. Antanaclasis is a device which repeats the same word with a different meaning. A famous example is in Othello: “Put out the light, and then put out the light”, where the first “light” is literal, the candle or lantern he carries, and the second is metaphorical, Desdemona’s life. “Just is” and “justice” are obviously not exactly the same word, but the auditory effect is, I feel, the same. We are meant to hear them as equal, but not.
With “and yet the dawn is ours”, Gorman signals a move into the next phase of the poem, both recalling the imagery from earlier and stepping forward to acknowledge the present and future. “Before we knew it. / Somehow we do it” gives us the first paromoiosis, and I like that this one also shows us a progression from the past tense verb “knew” to the present tense “do”. The anaphora on “Somehow” carries us to the next thought, which similarly acknowledges that past/present/future tension in the comparison between “broken” and “unfinished” (syncrisis rather than antithesis, for the two items are not really in opposition to each other).
You may notice that I mark a lot of small omissions as either ellipsis or zeugma, and often I won’t comment on them. Ellipsis is a simple omission of a word or phrase easily understood in context. Zeugma is a device with multiple and sometimes competing definitions. The one I use is grammatical: one part of speech governs two or more others. From Cicero: “Lust conquered shame; audacity, fear; madness, reason.” The verb “conquered” is omitted from the subsequent occurrences. (This is why I consider it a device of Omission under my ROADS system, though you could certainly make an argument for Direction).
Another definition of zeugma, though, conflates it with syllepsis, which I consider to be a form of zeugma. In syllepsis, the governing word must be understood differently with regard to each thing it governs. From Alanis Morissette: “You held your breath and the door for me.” The verb “held” has a slightly different context as applied to “breath” or “the door”. It’s like antanaclasis, only you don’t actually repeat the word.
Anyway — here, “a nation” is the object attached to both the verbs “weathered” and “witnessed”. That I’ve marked it hypozeugma refers to the position of the governing word (here, at the end). Is it syllepsis? My instinct is yes, though I can’t quite unpack why I feel that we “weather” and “witness” a nation in different senses. Complicating the matter is that “nation” is synecdoche. Typical use of synecdoche is where a part stands in for a whole; here, the whole stands in for its parts. We cannot, really, witness a nation. A nation isn’t really a thing. It is always a sum of parts. What we both weather and witness, then, are the actions of the people who comprise the nation.
We see a form of zeugma again in the next line, “successors of a country and a time”, before Gorman moves into a short self-identification. She does this through enallage, a device which substitutes semantically equivalent but grammatically different constructions. Here, the use of the third person rather than the first. That substitution broadens her message: she is not only telling her own story, but a story in which other skinny Black girls might see themselves, too. The descriptions are short but powerful: “skinny Black” is simple enargia, a generic term for description; “descended from slaves and raised by a single mother” is appositio, the addition of a corollary, explanatory, or descriptive element. What makes it so rhetorically elegant, though, is the antithesis of “descended/raised” within that line, particularly since the contrast rests on secondary meanings of the words rather than only their strict function in the sentence. A small flourish, but the sort that I go absolutely giddy for.
The next stanza (of sorts; no transcription I’ve seen actually breaks the poem into stanzas, but I’m going to apply the term to where there are conceptual and lyrical breaks or shifts) echoes the prior, as the opening “And yes” forms paromoiosis with “and yet”. “Far from polished/far from pristine” has nice isocolon and consonance, but also strikes me as epanorthosis, an addition that amends to correct or make more vehement. “Pristine” is a more intense descriptor than “polished”.
The anamnesis to the Preamble of the Constitution inherent in “form a union that is perfect” is lovely. Gorman invites the listeners to think of the phrase she’s not-quite-quoting, but by leaving out “more”, she leaves herself room to explore the act of that striving —
–so that we get more nice repetitions echoing in the next line. Again, it’s syncrisis, ideas not precisely in opposition, but compared. We can never form a perfect union, between human foibles and the idea of what’s “perfect” always changing. But we can put in the work (and “forge” is such a great word there, invoking a craft that is so physical a labor) to create a society that has been purposefully constructed.
Gorman really lets the consonance off the leash in the next couple of lines, such that it becomes paroemion, where the consonance involves nearly every word in the sentence. The items in the series are taxis, a device which divides a subject (the country) up into its constituting parts (culture, colors, characters, conditions — all those things implied by the synecdoche of “nation” we saw before).
“And so” doesn’t quite pick up the “And yet/and yes” aural echo, but it’s still launching us into this next stanza. “What stands between us/what stands before us” is a lovely pairing of antithesis and isocolon, again hitting that idea of the present as compared to the potential of the future — a theme Gorman will open up more in the next few lines.
The conceptual chiasmus of “close the divide (action on a breach) – our future first (communal noun and primacy) – we must first (communal noun and primacy) – put differences aside (action on a breach)” is augmented by the consonance of f-sounds and the unstructured repetition of “first”, as well as the paromoiosis in “close the divide” and “differences aside”.
The next two lines give as fine an example of antanaclasis as you could ask for: “arms” as in “weapons” and “arms” as in brachial limbs. That balance is augmented by the isocolon of the phrases, the antithesis between “lay down” and “reach out”, as well as epistrophe, repetition at the end of the line (which I mis-wrote as epizeuxis in the markup there; ignore that). “Harm to none and harmony to all” has a similar balance to it, and again Gorman is playing with words. Rather than substituting a sound as in “just is/justice”, here she adds to the word to make “harm” into “harmony”; adding that sound is a device known as paragoge.
Notice, too, the anaphora/isocolon in the way each of these sentences begin: “We close”, “We lay”, “We seek”. This “we [verb]” pattern is one that Gorman returns to throughout the poem, stressing both the communal nature of what’s important here and the active quality.
Again we see synecdoche of a whole standing in for its parts: now the “globe” rather than only the “nation”. Then Gorman launches into a beautiful auxesis, a series which builds to a climax, augmented by isocolon, anaphora (“That even as”), and consonance throughout (grieved/grew, hurt/hoped, tired/tried). The last of those pairs is also another sound-shifting device, this time metathesis, transposition of letters within a word.
After three lines of parallel structure, the fourth is unlike the others, but connected through the “That” anaphora — and this is the line that gives us the climactic point, bringing us from the past to the future. We get a little bit of hyperbaton, syntactical disorder, a device common in Shakespeare but less so in modern English, as the usual phrase would be “we’ll be tied together forever”, but Gorman moves “forever” up, which better balances the aural quality of the line, I think. “Tied” transmutes the “tired/tried” pairing yet again, this time through syncope, the omission of a sound. “Victorious” is a small appositio, describing the condition of being tied together, and then Gorman follows up that addition with another, longer qualification.
Those next two lines are aetiologia, a figure of reasoning that explicates a cause for a given effect. If the effect is that “we’ll forever be tied together, victorious”, the cause is in the difference between defeat and division. Again, Gorman stresses that difference between a perfect union and a purposeful one. The lines are balanced through isocolon and antithesis, as well as mesodiplosis, the repetition of the same words in the middle of a line (“we will never again”).
The next section begins a new thought, but it’s tied to what came before through homoioteleuton, a device I am guaranteed to never spell correctly on the first try. Homoioteleuton is much simpler than it sounds: the similarity of endings in adjacent or parallel words: here, “division/envision”.
The “vine and fig tree” allusion is anamnesis on multiple levels. Gorman has acknowledged it as an easter egg for “One Last Time” from Hamilton; through that, it is also an allusion to George Washington, who used the phrase in his letters often, and to Washington’s original source, the Bible. Gorman thus positions herself in this literary heritage and positions this poem’s kairos as part of the ongoing American and human experiences.
“Own time” forms paromoiosis with “own vine”, which is a marvelously subtle way of transitioning to her next thought: “victory” picks up from “victorious” several lines earlier, through polyptoton, the repetition of a word in a different grammatical form.
Gorman echoes her “arms” dichotomy with the antithesis of “blade/bridges”. I absolutely love the phrase “promise to glade”. She elides a bit: “the promise we make to the glade” would likely be the full expression, but in condensing it, she’s given us something delicate and beautiful, like a seed to nourish. Too, she has personified the glade, that idea of the place of the vine and fig tree, as something you can make a promise to. Personification is known as prosopopoeia; Gorman endows the dual idea of the land itself and the vision of the future with human qualities.
Then, the poem’s title, “the hill we climb”, comes in through exergasia, the repetition of the same idea in new words. Much of this poem, really, is exergasia in a broader sense, but here Gorman immediately augments the “glade” with the “hill”.
The past/present/future progression continues in the next stanza, as Gorman imagines us not only receiving the past (“a pride we inherit”) but also participating in it (“the past we step into”). “Repair it/inherit” gives us another nice paromoioisis, underscoring that weaving together of history and modernity, which then brings Gorman to the immediate past.
Again, kairos is important. Though Gorman never names the insurrection or those who participated in it or prompted it, everyone watching knew exactly what she meant by “a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it”. That awareness was heightened by her physical location at the time she delivered this poem: on the very west front of the Capitol, which two weeks earlier had been stormed by terrorists. Both verbally and visually, Gorman participated in a reclamation of that space for the America she describes as being possible, the forged union of purpose.
Zeugma carries the “force” down from the antithesis of shatter/share into the next line, “would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy”. The following line, “and this effort very nearly succeeded”, is almost jarring in its simplicity, lack of rhetoricity, and lack of lyrical connection to what precedes. That feels deliberate. It is a line meant to shock recognition into us, to remind us that the reclamation was by no means certain.
But, Gorman reminds us, “while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated”. Apart from the ploce of certain words, the consonance of th e”d” sound, and the paromoiosis, I feel like there might be a bit of anamnesis in here, too. The “delayed/defeated” phrasing and the general cadence reminded me of the legal maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied”.
I ought to have marked “in this faith” as exergasia on “in this truth”; together, they are part of a hyperbaton as well as a hypozeugma. There may be anamnesis there, too, as the form “in [blank] we trust” recalls the nation’s motto “in God we trust”.
(As a sidebar, could we as a nation please ditch the Red Scare era religiosity and go back to e pluribus unum? Such a better aspiration — and something which speaks to communal effort, not fatalism)
Another Hamilton easter egg follows in the anamnesis of “history has its eyes on us” (“on you” in the musical). This line personifies history (prosopopoeia again) and also gives us another chiasmus: “eyes – future (temporal state) – history (temporal state) – eyes”.
Gorman now start threading together many of her themes: the idea of what is just or justice returns through ploce; the common responsibility rises in “on us”, “we feared”, “we did not”; the past-future connection shows in “heirs”. We get homoioteleuton in “redemption/inception”, polyptoton of “inherit” from several lines back into “heirs”, and meiosis of “hour” to describe not only the very long day of the insurrection but this whole era of American history we must confront.
I really love the line “we did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour”. That fear, I think, is a feeling many of us have had, whatever our age, when we have to confront the idea that this nation is not guaranteed. Democracy is not safe if left unattended. It is a fragile and delicate thing which requires so much hard work — but Gorman is optimistic about our ability to keep it going. Paromoiosis links “power” to “hour”, and she does one of my favorite things for a writer to do when she makes a metaphor about writing in “author a new chapter”.
These lines form a nice little capsule all on their own. We get antithesis of “once we asked” and “now we assert”, contrasting not only the past with the present, but question with declaration, and thus uncertainty with certainty. Then, antimetabole: “prevail-catastrophe-catastrophe-prevail”.
The “we [verb]” structure continues, as it has throughout the poem, in “we will not march”, and we have more antithesis between “march back/move to” and “what was/what shall be”. Gorman then describes for us what, exactly, shall be, in an act of chorographia, the description of a nation. (The whole poem, in a sense, is that, too, but here we have it in miniature). “Bruised but whole” and “benevolent but bold” I ought to have marked as syncrisis, since they are comparative but not necessarily contrasting terms. I love that she puts two “but”s in a row and then caps it off with an “and”; it makes a nice progression within the description.
The next few lines have neat little anaphora, this time not of a full word or phrase, but of the prefix “in-”. Gorman returns to the idea of “inheritance” again, this time thinking not about what we have been heir to but what we will leave for others. “Blunders/burdens” is another syncrisis, and once with a sense of escalation in it. A blunder is a mistake, a slip, an error, something that arises not through ill intent but through incaution; but it can create misery down the line, growing exponentially as it gets passed down if it isn’t (as Gorman noted earlier) repaired.
Her cadence is really starting to gallop here. It starts in the chorographia, and as we charge into the four lines beginning “If we merge”, the pace becomes relentless, and Gorman drives that home through the rest of the work. We have lots of little devices of repetition throughout these lines, as you can see: we also get a neat new one, anadiplosis, the repetition of the same word at the end of one line and the beginning of the next. Anadiplosis has a laddering effect, an apt device for a poem with much imagery of building and climbing. I think all the intertwined consonance augments that effect, too, one idea building upon the previous and laying the ground for the next.
“Legacy/birthright” hearkens to the past/future dichotomy again, as does the chiasmus of “leave behind-country-one-left with”. I know I go on about this a lot, but chiastic structure is so beautiful. I love what it does to cadence; I love how it ties ideas together. Chiasmus is satisfying; that bobbing in-and-out sensation feels secure, somehow. It lands in a way that echoes the confident optimism that courses through this whole poem. Because so many of these things aren’t certain or secure, of course — but if we “author the next chapter”, if we write them into the future, then they can become so.
“Bronze-pounded chest” is just a hell of a phrase. Turning the noun-verb pair of “bronze-pounded” into an adjective is anthimeria, another favorite device of mine, which transmutes a word from one part of speech to another. It recalls, too, the language of the “forge” from earlier in the poem — something that is a labor, that takes time and effort to construct. It calls up imagery of armor, a bronze cuirass protecting the heart. It calls up imagery of statues. And yet it has breath; it’s not something metal, it’s something that lives.
And then she kicks off an absolutely astonishing sequence that’s doing so many things at once. This is one of the places where I just about swooned. So many of the devices Gorman has shown us so far, she showcases simultaneously in this sequence.
So. She returns to chorographia, this time describing the nation in more detail, region by region.
There is syncope and paraomoiosis when “we will raise” turns into “we will rise”; there is anaphora in the repetition of “we will rise” at the beginning of successive lines, driving the point home.
There is auxesis, in that it will build to the climactic idea of “every known nook of our nation and every corner called country”; there is taxis in that it considers each region as a component of the whole.
There is prosopopoeia in “gold-limbed hills”, giving the west a body; there is enargia in the descriptions of the northeast as “windswept” and the south as “sunbaked”; there is appositio in further describing the northeast as “where our forefathers first realized revolution”; there is epitheton (a pithy descriptor, as in “rosy-fingered dawn”) in “lake-rimmed cities”.
Those descriptors then form a grammatical synchysis stretching across the lines, which is A-B-A-B structure (as opposed to the A-B-B-A of chiasmus). Gorman alternates the hyphenated descriptors with the single-word ones: “gold-limbed – windswept – lake-rimmed – sunbaked”. (Note that this is one definition of synchysis; another is less organized, taking hyperbaton to extreme disorder. In this use, however, the device is purposeful).
And then, not quite content with that big auxesis of the regions, Gorman embeds another one in “rebuild-reconcile-recover”, with the series augmented by anaphora/consonance.
She gives us no time to breathe, charging onward: the consonance in “known nook of our nation” and “corner called our country” recall phrases from earlier in the poem. Hyperbaton places “people” ahead of its descriptors “diverse and beautiful”, and then she adds through appositio/epanorthosis: “battered and beautiful”. One does not negate the other.
In the last part of the poem, Gorman returns to her opening metaphor and opening day/shade antithesis. It is not a question now, but an assertion, just as in the “once we asked/now we assert” lines. We will step out of the shade. In appositio, Gorman tells us that it is not just light but “aflame”, drawing even stronger contrast between the light and the dark. That also indicates that we are the source of the light — which I feel is a pretty big message! And she’s gonna hammer that home in her final lines.
The idea that the “dawn blooms” is catachresis, a misapplication of words that nonetheless makes a certain degree of sense. Dawn breaks; flowers bloom; yet somehow the words feel right together. It’s the sun, after all, that encourages the flowers to bloom. Notice that we are active here, too! Day comes “as we free it” — and that “free it” sets up the paromoioisis that makes her final couplet so strong and memorable.
The last three lines are epitasis, her summary of the message of the whole poem, neatly encapsulated. The last two lines rely on repetition, with only one word different. That difference feels like epanorthosis: a correction that makes the message more vehement and reminds us of our duty. It’s not enough to see the light; we must be it.
So! That is my initial analysis of this truly dazzling poem. As I said at the top, I imagine I will look on this again and see different bits of excellent wordcraft as I return to it with fresh eyes in the future. “The Hill We Climb” is a magnificent work, and I very much hope teachers are already making adjustments to place it in their curricula.
If you’ve enjoyed this rhetorical analysis, it’s the sort of thing I do every week over on Patreon! Pledging at $1/month gets you immediate access to the full Hamilblog, a breakdown of every song in Hamilton, as well as the ongoing Shakesblog, where I’m working my way through Romeo and Juliet, and any other works that I do in-between the primary projects.