What’s remarkable about “Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem” by Maya Angelou (see previous post) is that it celebrates, not the birth of the Christian “savior,” but “the Birth of Jesus Christ/Into the great religions of the world.”
The poem takes a Christian holiday and uses it to signify a universal human longing for Peace. It speaks as a universal “we,” voicing the hunger for Peace shared by “Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim….Jew…Jainist…the Catholic and the Confucian…Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers.”
In this poem the birth of Christianity does not usher in a superior religion so much as a new iteration of an ancient hope for Peace harbored in the human heart, regardless of what religious belief that heart might be bound to or whether it is bound to any such belief at all. The hope for Peace transcends belief and non-belief. And in that spirit, Christmas, like most religious holidays, can speak to all of us.
A non-Christian might conceivably resent the use of Christmas as a universal symbol, as opposed to a holiday from their own belief system. Likewise an atheist might scoff at the idea of a religious holiday representing a secular value. Yet who can resist the appeal of “lights of joy,” “bells of hope,” “carols of forgiveness,” “absence of war,” “harmony of spirit,” “comfort,” “security,” or “a halting of hate”?
The poem not only seeks to transcend religious differences but also those of color, calling on us “to look beyond complexions and see community.” It is easy to dismiss such grand appeals as sentimental tripe or blind hypocrisy, but that would leave us with nothing but cynicism. Surely we would rather live with ideals to aspire to than total resignation to conflict, strife, hate, and war. It is those ideals of peace on earth and good will to all that gives the Christmas season its universal appeal, whether celebrated as a religious or a secular holiday.
How does the form of the poem reinforce and enhance its message? It uses unrhymed free verse, which conveys a sense of openness, with a combination of parallelism and line breaks to create a rhythmic, poetic effect. While the rhythm is hardly regular, it fits with the irregular pattern of nature evoked in images of thunder, lightning, flood, and avalanche, which the poem uses to represent the “climate of fear and apprehension” into which “Christmas enters.”
With the entry of Christmas the poem turns from images of nature’s destructiveness to more human images of “bells,” “carols,” “faces of children,” “shoulders of our aged,” the “whisper” of a “word,” the word “Peace.” And later it is through “language” that we “translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.” It is through our “voices” that we “jubiliate,” “shout,” and “speak” Peace into being.
The shift from natural to human imagery conveys the idea that it is our human responsibility and capability—not that of a natural or supernatural power--to achieve the human ideals of peace, brotherhood, sisterhood, and atonement.
Though the poem uses images of “light,” which invoke the natural phenomenon of the Winter Solstice, the Peace that it celebrates is a human creation. And while the creative power of the Word has parallels to God’s use of language in the creation story of Genesis, the focus of the poem is on human voices and human speech.
Just as humans created “the great religions of the world,” so we created the dream of Peace, and so we are responsible for making that dream a reality on earth. That would indeed be an “Amazing Peace.”