Get notes, line-by-line explanation, summary, questions and answers, critical analysis, word meanings, extras, and pdf of the poem “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou, which is part of ICSE Class 10 English (Treasure Chest: A Collection of ICSE Poems and Short Stories). However, the notes should only be treated as references, and changes should be made according to the needs of the students.
The poem begins with a metaphor, comparing the death of a great soul to a giant tree falling in the forest. The speaker describes the immense impact, saying even distant rocks shudder and lions and elephants flee for safety when ancient trees come crashing down. Similarly, the passing of a beloved great soul sends shockwaves through the world.
As the poem continues, the speaker turns to directly addressing the actual death of admirable, influential people. Their death leaves small creatures stunned into mournful silence, overwhelmed beyond fear. The atmosphere feels lighter and drained of spirit, sterilised by the loss. Those left behind struggle to breathe and see, agonised by shredded memories of missed opportunities and unsaid words that now can never be taken back.
The speaker articulates the all-consuming pain and disorientation of the loss, saying reality itself disappears for those who remained tethered to the deceased. Our souls shrink and wither without their nurturing light, our minds lose inspiration and fall away, reduced to an ignorant, cave-like darkness.
Yet slowly, through nonlinear healing, a sense of peace blooms as their spirit fills the void. Our restored senses become even more receptive, whispering that they existed and thus so can we, honouring their memory through continued life. Their lasting impact spurs us to live better.
Overall, the poem grapples with the grief, nostalgia, regret, and search for greater meaning after the death of impactful, beloved figures. Through extended metaphors and vivid imagery, Angelou captures the seismic significance and yet intimacies of loss. The poem ultimately argues loss can connect us more profoundly to life. Its cyclical nature implies while death may fell great trees, new growth inevitably follows.
Line-by-line explanation of the poem
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
The speaker uses an evocative extended metaphor here, comparing the monumental impact of a great person’s death to the immense shaking of the earth when massive, ancient trees come crashing down in a forest. The imagery suggests the death sends shockwaves that reverberate through the natural world, with even solid bedrock on distant hills shuddering in response.
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
The speaker vividly envisions powerful lions instinctively hunkering down and concealing themselves in tall grasses out of primal unease and fear, reacting viscerally to the great tree falling. This continues the extended metaphor, emphasising how the death of an influential figure shakes the very foundations of the world around them. The lions’ instinctive terror reveals the true magnitude of the loss.
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
Even elephants, known for their size and stability, are imagined lumbering urgently to safety when the great tree falls. This develops the extended metaphor, showing just how momentous and impactful the death of a great soul is by depicting its ripple effects across the natural world. The elephants’ reaction further highlights the monumental significance of the loss.
When great trees fall
By repeating the opening line, the speaker connects back to the extended metaphor introduced earlier before transitioning to directly discussing the actual death of great people, moving beyond the poetic metaphor.
small things recoil into silence,
The speaker describes small forest creatures becoming utterly silent and still in the wake of the fallen tree, overwhelmed beyond fear or calls. This powerfully conveys the absoluteness of the loss, showing how it stuns even the natural world into shocked, mournful silence.
eroded beyond fear.
The small creatures are imagined so profoundly shaken and disturbed that their very senses are dulled and eroded by the enormity of what has happened, overwhelmed beyond even the ability to feel fear anymore. This emphasises the totality of the loss.
When great souls die,
The speaker now directly addresses the death of great people and beloved leaders, transitioning beyond the extended metaphor used earlier to state the focus openly.
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
In a striking image, the speaker describes the feeling that the very air around us suddenly seems lighter, but in a negative way – no longer rich and vibrant but rare and sterile, drained of spirit. This evokes the sense of isolation in grief.
We breathe, briefly. Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
The diction “briefly” suggests the difficulty getting through each moment in the crushing immediate aftermath of loss. Breathing feels laboured and vision painfully clarified yet obscured by tears, capturing the feeling of barely being able to function initially.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
With vivid language, the speaker reveals how grief can sharpen recollection and lead to agonizing nostalgia. Our memories are suddenly intensified, fixating on missed opportunities – kind words never uttered or walks never taken together. The pain of “what-ifs” and regrets gnaws at us.
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
The speaker articulates how when these central figures die, our very sense of reality that was tethered to them disappears, unmooring us and leaving us untethered in their absence. We feel cast adrift.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
The speaker describes the feeling of our very souls becoming diminished and drained without the spiritual nourishment and care of the beloved we’ve lost. There is a sense of withering within, of shrinking down into weaker, more wizened versions of ourselves.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
Without their presence and inspiration, our ways of thinking that were shaped and developed under their radiant influence now feel diminished, unable to be sustained. Our minds lose their light.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
More than simply driving us mad, the enormity of the loss leaves us reduced to a state of inexpressible, primordial ignorance, like creatures suddenly condemned to the darkness of caves. This powerfully conveys disorientation.
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
With the beautiful phrase “peace blooms,” the speaker indicates that in time, peace and healing can gradually emerge after the initial anguish. But the process is always slow and nonlinear.
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
There is a sense of the void left behind beginning to fill with an uplifting spirit, a comforting electricity and vibration, as if the person’s enduring energy still resonates.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
Our senses are imagined restored but forever changed, now more alert and sensitive as they whisper to us, made more receptive by the loss.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
The simple repetition of “they existed” powerfully overcomes the finality of loss, asserting the enduring evidence of their life. Their existence reminds us to live fuller, with purpose and meaning, better for having known them.
shudder: tremble, quiver
hunker: crouch or squat down
lumber: move in a slow, heavy, awkward way
recoil: draw back in fear or pain
eroded: gradually destroyed or worn away
sterile: unable to produce or incapable of sustaining life; barren
briefly: for a short time
clarity: clearness, lucidity
sharpened: intensified, heightened
examines: inspects closely, scrutinises
gnaws: bites or chews persistently
unsaid: not spoken aloud
wizened: shrivelled, withered
radiance: brilliance, luminosity
maddened: driven insane
unutterable: inexpressible, unspeakable
ignorance: lack of knowledge or education
blooms: flourishes, thrives
irregularly: sporadically, inconsistently
vibration: quiver, oscillation
restored: renewed, rejuvenated
whisper: speak very softly
existed: lived, was real
About the author
Maya Angelou was one of the most influential literary figures and civil rights activists of our time. She was born in St. Louis in 1928 and lived through a traumatic childhood of abuse and displacement, which influenced her profound writing later in life.
Angelou rose to prominence after the publication of her seminal memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969. The book was a brutally honest account of her upbringing as a young black girl growing up in the Deep South. It struck a chord with readers, bringing Angelou critical acclaim. She went on to write six more autobiographies about her illustrious career as a singer, actress, activist, and professor. Angelou’s works focused on family, identity, racism, and overcoming adversity.
Angelou established herself as a poet as well, publishing collections such as Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” was even chosen for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, a significant milestone.
Aside from the arts, Angelou was an outspoken civil rights activist. She collaborated closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, contributing her skills to the movement. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for her artistic contributions and advocacy for justice.
Angelou’s spirit continues to burn brightly decades after her death in 2014.
Additional/Extra questions and answers
1. What is the poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’ about?
Answer: The poem is about grieving the loss of inspirational figures.
2. What does the poet compare the death of great souls to?
Answer: She compares it to the falling of huge, old trees in a forest. This highlights the monumental impact of the death of inspirational personalities on society.
3. What is the central idea of the poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’ written by Maya Angelou?
Answer: The central idea of the poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’ is about the deep sense of loss and grief that is felt when someone great passes away or dies. It talks about how the death of important and inspiring people leaves a void in the lives of those left behind.
4. What does the poet compare the death of great souls to in the poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’? Why has she chosen this comparison?
Answer: In the poem, the poet compares the death of great souls to the falling of huge, old trees in a forest. When massive trees fall, it impacts all the creatures living in the forest. Similarly, when influential personalities who have nurtured society pass away, it affects people deeply. The poet uses this comparison to highlight the monumental impact of the death of inspirational figures on society.
5. Explain the meaning of the line – “When great souls die, the air around us becomes light, rare, sterile.”
Answer: This line symbolises how the world feels different after inspirational figures pass away. The air lacks their presence which energised and enriched the lives of others. There is a void left behind which makes the atmosphere feel empty and meaningless. The inspirational qualities dissipate from the environment when enlightened souls leave.
6. How does the death of inspirational figures impact human senses as per the poem?
Answer: As per the poem, when influential personalities die, people’s senses are impacted. Their vision becomes sharpened and their memory starts examining all the unsaid words. This happens because people start reminiscing about the great individuals and wishing that they had spent more time with them or expressed themselves better. There is an increased sensitivity and sharper perception of loss.
7. What happens to the human soul after the death of inspirational personalities?
Answer: The poem suggests that the human soul becomes very dependent on enlightened personalities for nourishment. When such great souls die, the souls of those left behind feel weakened and experience a sense of shrinking. Their guiding light is gone, so their souls also feel lost and lack purpose. The demise of inspirational figures leaves the souls of others unnurtured.
8. How does the poet describe the state of the human mind after the death of great souls?
Answer: The poet says that the human mind is deeply impacted by the death of inspirational personalities who enlightened it. The radiance of such great souls informed and formed the minds of others. When these enlightened figures die, the minds of people left behind feel like they are falling away into darkness and ignorance. There is a reduction of knowledge and awareness.
9. How does the poem transition from despair to hope?
Answer: In the first few stanzas, the tone is melancholic as the poet describes the deep sense of loss and ignorance that is felt after the death of great souls. However, the tone shifts in the last stanza to reflect slight hope and optimism. The poet conveys that after a period of grief, peace blooms and there is a sense of soothing vibration. The message is that while the inspirational figures are gone, their memories can still enrich our lives.
10. What does the poet mean when she says “spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration”?
Answer: This line signifies that after the initial grieving period, there is a sense of acceptance and peace. While the void left by the great souls cannot be filled entirely, there is a comforting energy that replaces the sadness and turmoil. The poet hints that the inspiring personalities continue to impact us positively in an intangible way even after death. Their aura and vibrations remain.
11. How can human beings change for the better after the death of great souls?
Answer: In the last lines, the poet says “We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.” This conveys that while death takes away inspirational figures, their lives and examples remain to enlighten us. We can honour them by striving to be better – to develop ourselves, help others and contribute meaningfully. Their existence itself motivates us to elevate ourselves.
12. Identify and explain the literary device used in the following line from the poem – “Our memory, suddenly sharpened, examines.”
Answer: The literary device used in this line is personification. The poet personifies memory as if it is a living thing that can be sharpened and can examine things. Giving the abstract concept of memory these animate abilities allows the poet to convey effectively how people start reminiscing and evaluating their interactions with the deceased. Personification makes memory seem more alive.
13. What is the impact of inspirational personalities on the environment?
Answer: The poem suggests that the presence of inspirational personalities enriches the very environment around them. They make the air nourishing and meaningful. When they die, the atmosphere feels devoid of their spirit. There is a void in the environment which feels sterile without their vibrant energy. Inspirational figures uplift the ambience during their lifetime.
14. How does the poet highlight the dependence of human souls on great personalities for nourishment?
Answer: The poet uses words like “dependent”, “nurture” and “shrink” when talking about the impact on the human soul after the death of great figures. This highlights that our souls draw sustenance and nourishment from inspirational personalities when they are alive. We depend on their teachings and wisdom to uplift our souls. When they depart, our souls feel weak and undernourished as the source of enrichment is gone.
15. Explain the phrase – “maddened as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of dark, cold caves.”
Answer: This phrase describes the state of helplessness and lack of awareness that is felt after the death of inspirational figures who enlightened our minds. There is a sense of darkness enveloping our consciousness as their illuminating presence is gone. Just as there is no light or warmth in cold caves, our minds also feel devoid of the life-giving energy from the great souls. We are unable to even express this loss properly.
16. How does the tone shift in the last stanza of the poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’?
Answer: The first few stanzas have a melancholy and grief-filled tone as the poet reflects on the monumental loss of inspirational personalities. Phrases like “air sterile”, “maddened” and “unutterable ignorance” create a gloomy atmosphere. However, the tone becomes more optimistic in the last stanza with words like “peace blooms”, “soothing” and “better”. There is a shift from despair to hope as the poet conveys that we can still be uplifted by the memories of the great souls.
17. Comment on the structure of the poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’.
Answer: The poem is structured into five uneven stanzas without a specific rhyme scheme. The irregular stanza lengths and lack of rhyme contribute to the raw, free-flowing emotions being expressed. The first three stanzas focus on the sense of loss while the last two offer some solace and hope. The transition in tone is mirrored by the structure. The enjambment also allows the sentences to run on, reflecting the stream of consciousness. The lack of rhyme scheme makes it read like heartfelt prose rather than constrained poetry.
18. How does the death of great souls impact the human senses ‘When Great Trees Fall’?
Answer: The poem suggests that the five senses of human beings are deeply affected by the death of inspirational personalities. The vision becomes temporarily more discerning as people reminisce about the great souls. The sense of hearing picks up a strange vibration in the atmosphere. There is a sterile silence that engulfs the environment. The sense of smell finds the air lacking the enriching presence of the great souls. The senses become more alert and aware of the void left behind. There is heightened sensitivity.
19. Why does the poet make animal comparisons in the first stanza of ‘When Great Trees Fall’? What effect does it have?
Answer: By comparing the death of great souls to the falling of huge trees in a forest, the poet draws parallels to the reactions of animals who feel the loss too. This highlights the magnitude of the impact – that when inspirational figures die, it affects not just humans but the entire fabric of the world around them. The animal imagery also reminds us that grief is universal. The comparisons enable the reader to connect with the message and feel the profundity of the loss.
20. How does the poem progress from the feeling of loss towards healing?
Answer: In the initial stanzas, the poet evokes a great sense of grief, confusion and despair at the death of inspirational figures through images like “air sterile”, “dark caves” and so on. However, the tone gradually moves from complete anguish towards some hope in the last lines – “Spaces fill…Our senses restored…We can be. Be and be better.” There is a shift from the pain of loss towards some acceptance and healing, however slow. The poem mirrors the natural human process of grieving.
21. What is the symbolic significance of the “great trees” in the poem?
Answer: The great trees symbolise towering, influential personalities who nourish and shelter society with their work. When these strong, deeply-rooted figures fall, it represents the death of great souls. The poem’s opening lines use this as a metaphor to establish the magnitude of the loss’s impact. Just as forests are damaged when giant trees are uprooted, the world feels the disappearance of inspirational figures who shaped minds.
22. How does the poem convey the intensity of grief experienced at the loss of inspirational personalities?
Answer: Vivid sensory imagery evokes the depth of the grief. Phrases like “air sterile”, “senses eroded beyond fear”, “minds fall away” and “unutterable ignorance” convey utter devastation and incomprehension at the loss. The poem expresses that the pain runs so deep that there is even a loss of vocabulary to articulate the grief. Words fail to capture the intensity. The immense void left behind is successfully conveyed through impactful words and grief-filled tone.
23. Comment on the poet’s use of figures of speech in ‘When Great Trees Fall’.
Answer: Maya Angelou uses several figures of speech effectively in the poem. The central metaphor compares deaths of great souls to falling trees. Personification is used to give human attributes to abstract concepts like memory and air. Repetition of “when great trees/souls fall” reinforces the core idea. Alliteration like “sterile silence” stresses the desolation. These devices allow the poet to creatively communicate deep emotions and complex ideas related to grief and bereavement through artistic language.
24. How does the poet portray the dependence of human souls on inspirational personalities?
Answer: Words like “dependent”, “nurture” and “shrink” paint human souls as drawing sustenance from great figures when they live. Souls “shrink” and feel “wizened” when the enlightened beings die, like plants deprived of nourishment. The lyrical language highlights the profound spiritual connection. Souls don’t just admire great personalities, but actually depend on them for direction. Their demise leaves souls unanchored and undernourished due to severed attachment.
25. What picture of the human mind does the poet paint after the passing of inspirational figures?
Answer: The poem depicts the human mind as being enveloped by darkness and ignorance after inspirational luminaries meet their demise. There is a vivid image of minds “falling away” from the enlightened state that great souls inspired, into a void of unawareness. The reference to “unutterable ignorance” conveys the magnitude of the knowledge lost, suggesting minds regress and lose their spirit of enquiry without the illuminating presence. It paints a grim view of stunned, disoriented minds unable to cope.
26. How does the poem reflect on unrealized regrets about inspirational figures after they die?
Answer: Lines like “memory gnaws on kind words unsaid” and “promised walks never taken” capture the remorse people feel about failing to fully express appreciation when inspirational figures were alive. There is regret about lost chances to connect. The sharpened memory highlights unresolved emotions. The poignant focus on unfulfilled intent reflects how people are left grappling for closure about relationships cut short by death.
27. Critically analyse the significance of the title ‘When Great Trees Fall’ based on the poem.
Answer: The title ‘When Great Trees Fall’ is deeply significant as it encapsulates the core motif of the poem – uprooting of towering personalities who nourished the landscape of ideas. It foregrounds the enormous impact of the death of inspirational figures, while the poetic device of personification adds gravitas. The visual imagery of falling trees evokes loss of lives that provided stability, meaning and enrichment. The title effectively foregrounds the grief while also highlighting continuity of legacy, as fallen trees become nourishment.
28. How does the poem reflect on the permanence of loss against the temporariness of life?
Answer: By mourning the acute pain of bereavement, the poem examines the permanence of loss against the fleetingness of life. Evocative phrases like “spaces fill”, “air becomes sterile”, “minds fall away” highlight the enduring void left by the departed. Their inspirational aura dissipates permanently. The poem reflects on how even legendary lives are temporary, but the sorrow of their loss stays permanently etched in collective consciousness. It muses philosophically about impermanence in a poignant manner.
29. Comment on the significance of the visual imagery used in the poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’.
Answer: Visual imagery in the poem powerfully conveys the emotions around losing inspirational figures. The central motif of falling trees paints a dramatic scene that stirs the imagination. Phrases like “dark, cold caves” evoke desolation, while “soothing electric vibration” hints at solace. The vivid portrayal of animals hunkering down captures the wider impact. The visuals allow the reader to vividly picture and empathise with the loss. They make the sentiments more accessible through relatable scenes.
30. How does the poem reflect on the dependence of human souls and minds on inspirational figures?
Answer: The poem explores the deep reliance of the human soul and mind on enlightened personalities for meaning and direction. Souls are depicted as drawing “nurture” from them, while minds are “informed and formed” by their “radiance”. Their demise leaves souls “wizened” and minds in “unutterable ignorance”, like plants suddenly deprived of sunlight. This conceptualization reflects how inspirational figures profoundly shape psyche and worldview. Their loss leaves us unanchored.
31. What is the central message about the human experience conveyed in ‘When Great Trees Fall’?
Answer: The poem conveys that loss of meaningful relationships is an inevitable part of the human experience that causes deep grief. However, it also reflects on the impermanence of life itself. The central message is that while the death of inspirational figures leaves an enduring void, their legacy and life lessons can continue nourishing our lives if we honour them appropriately. We experience the permanence of loss but their temporary lives can still enlighten us eternally.
1. What happens when great trees fall?
A. Birds start chirping louder B. Lions start feeling scared C. Rocks on distant hills shudder D. Elephants start running faster
Answer: C. Rocks on distant hills shudder
2. What happens after great souls die, as per the poem?
A. The air becomes heavier B. The air becomes sterile C. The air becomes toxic D. The air becomes humid
Answer: B. The air becomes sterile
3. How does the poem say great souls impact our reality?
A. They tie us down to ideals B. They make our reality joyful C. Our reality is bound to them D. They help us transcend reality
Answer: C. Our reality is bound to them
4. What does the poet say happens to our memory after the death of great souls?
A. It becomes weaker B. It starts decaying C. It examines unsaid words D. It becomes short-term
Answer: C. It examines unsaid words
5. How does the poem describe the human soul after the death of inspirational figures?
A. As strengthened and uplifted B. As withered and dependent C. As nourished and satiated D. As tiny and insignificant
Answer: B. As withered and dependent
6. What does the poet compare the death of great souls to?
A. An earthquake B. A raging fire C. A blooming flower D. Falling trees
Answer: D. Falling trees
7. How does the poem convey the intensity of grief after the loss of inspirational personalities?
A. Through descriptions of loud wailing B. Through silence and numbness C. Through foreign, dramatic vocabulary D. Through vivid sensory imagery
Answer: D. Through vivid sensory imagery
8. What feeling about inspirational figures does the poem capture after their demise?
A. Annoyance about their preaching B. Relief at their absence C. Remorse about failing to appreciate them enough D. Happiness for their achievements
Answer: C. Remorse about failing to appreciate them enough
9. How does the poem progress from grief to hope?
A. Through phrases related to light and dark B. Through references to cold and heat C. Through metaphors about trees and flowers D. Through symbols of vibration and silence
Answer: A. Through phrases related to light and dark
10. What does the poet say about the impact of great souls on the environment around them?
A. They make the air toxic B. They create a lot of noise C. They make the air enriching D. They cause a lot of pollution
Answer: C. They make the air enriching
11. What happens after great souls pass away?
A. People feel energized B. People feel suicidal C. People feel relieved D. People feel unmoored
Answer: D. People feel unmoored
12. How does the poem describe the human mind after the death of inspirational figures?
A. As sharpened and uplifted B. As enlightened and hopeful C. As terrified and paranoid D. As darkened and ignorant
Answer: D. As darkened and ignorant
13. What does the poet compare the death of great souls to?
A. An earthquake B. A wildfire C. A blooming flower D. Falling trees
Answer: D. Falling trees
14. How does the poem capture regret about great souls after they pass away?
A. Through criticism of their works B. Through excitement to move on C. Through references to unsaid words D. Through eagerness to forget them
Answer: C. Through references to unsaid words
15. What happens after the initial period of grieving great souls?
A. People feel energized B. People feel suicidal C. People feel relieved D. People find some peace
Answer: D. People find some peace
16. How does the poet say we can honor great souls who have passed away?
A. By celebrating their life annually B. By critiquing their bad deeds C. By striving to be better D. By reminiscing about them forever
Answer: C. By striving to be better
17. What does the poet say about the aura of inspirational figures after they die?
A. It becomes stronger B. It fades away slowly C. It disappears rapidly D. It lingers resonantly
Answer: D. It lingers resonantly
18. What aspect of humanity does the poem mainly explore?
A. Jealousy about fame B. Grief over mortality C. Celebrity culture D. Quest for innovation
Answer: B. Grief over mortality
19. How does the poem progress through its stanzas?
A. From joy to sorrow B. From denial to anger C. From questions to answers D. From loss to healing
Answer: D. From loss to healing
20. What is the central message of the poem ‘When Great Trees Fall’?
A. Appreciate nature’s beauty B. Make the most of opportunities C. Stay rooted in one place D. Cherish inspirational souls
Answer: D. Cherish inspirational souls
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