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Analysis of Poem 'The Journey' by Mary Oliver

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver and a Summary of 'The Journey'

'The Journey' is a poem that focuses on the need to leave behind what is bad and wrong and harmful and start out on a new path.

It has become a popular poem for those seeking guidance and strength in their lives.

'Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?'

Mary Oliver is best known for her poems on nature. She is considered one of the foremost modern romantics of her time, appealing to those who are sensitive to environmental issues and those looking for a spiritual awakening.

Nature for her is a constant revelation, she gets inside the skin and whispers back in intimate style to her readers.

  • 'The Journey' is a little different in that it is more involved with the life of a person who is struggling to find meaning in a relationship and with themselves. The references to the natural world are few and distant - this poem is about the necessity for change, leaving one dark situation and finding another that is more positive.
  • This person who, one day, finally knew what they had to do, is someone who is coming in from the cold, into the light from the dark, re-joining the world of the whole, finding their own voice, no longer a broken individual.

'The Journey'

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Line By Line Analysis of the Poem

Lines 1 - 11

The opening eleven lines suggest that here is a person who has waited a long time for this day to arrive. Now at last they're about to start on a journey out of the dark past and into a brighter future.

Despite those voices from any number of people trying to drag you back, giving their 'bad advice' as loudly as they could, you had made up your mind out of necessity.

  • Note the use of the house which is a symbol of the self, how it was made to tremble, that is, how close this person came to completely collapsing. It's not a home but an empty person.
  • And the voices are powerful because they represent negative energy, old patterns that this person had to break out of. There were huge demands made on 'you' but you just had to escape.

Lines 12 - 22

In a repeat of the opening line, the speaker clearly declares determinedly that 'you know what you had to do'. There is no looking back, no stopping, no chance of holding onto that past life. However, the wind is still at you, trying to destroy and undermine you.

This is threshold time. This person set off in the day but now it is night and chaos still might rule. This is the chaotic energy of the past still attempting to stop the new progress, end this journey - sticks and stones may break the bones - but voices are not enough to cause a halt.

You cannot cling to the past, you cannot afford to dwell on what has gone. Continue those first few steps. Time will start to heal.

Lines 23 - 36

The transition is nearly complete, ready for the next phase. Stars are visible once again, the cloud cover is not strong enough to diminish their light. Stars, what the old navigators used, now you can use. The voice which had been drowned out by those negative false calls for help is renewed. And it is strong, and it is yours alone.

  • The emphasis is on coming back into the world following what has been a challenging and chaotic and terrifying experience.
  • To be able to listen again to that inner voice of wisdom and truth, a sort of companion throughout the ordeal.
  • At the last moment, in the nick of time, before it was too late, the speaker (the person, 'you') began the journey and overcame the obstacles both real and imagined.

Poetic Devices in Analysis of 'The Journey'

'The Journey' is a free verse poem, it doesn't have a set rhyme scheme or a steady dominant metre. On the page, it is a thin poem of thirty-six short lines, one stanza, written in an informal yet wise manner.

Some lines do rhyme but not frequently enough to suggest a definite scheme. They provide a weak bond, for example: knew/you (lines 1 and 3) and do/do, save/save (end four lines).

It is a poem with metaphor - the title itself being one, life as a journey - where a house becomes the self. And there are symbols: the wind, the night, the road with branches and stones, the stars and clouds; all could be seen as representing something else in the challenging life of this person.

Note the interesting approach to time in this poem and the fact that the first two words 'One day' suggest that this person has gone through a kind of hell for a long time, for many, many days. The reader meets the poem at a crucial point in this person's life: this is the day when everything is about to change, for the good.

Diction (Language)

In the opening twenty two lines, there are several words that suggest negativity in the life of this person. These create a dark and slightly sinister background: shouting their bad advice....tremble...old tug....melancholy...terrible...wild night...fallen branches and stones.

It is only when the voices are left behind that the language changes to a more positive vibe: stars began to burn...a new voice....kept you save the only life.

  • And note lines three and six:

though the voices around you...though the whole house

and lines fourteen and seventeen:

though the wind pried....though their melancholy

This is a near repeat which reflects the person's life - repeating mistakes perhaps, unable to let go of the old voices.


Being Alive, ed Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, 2004

© 2017 Andrew Spacey