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Poem The Journey by Mary Oliver: Critical Analysis

“The Journey” by Mary Oliver

In the poem “The Journey” we are led through the mental and physical adversities of the subject as well as trauma from the past. As the poem progresses, the subject makes the decision to leave that situation behind and move towards a better life for themselves. The author, Mary Oliver, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended Ohio State University and Vassar College but did not receive a degree from either institution. Oliver was a very private person. Many of her writings are heavily influenced by nature. She has received many awards for her works including the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement. In Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey” she conveys the theme of determination to better one’s life though the use of metaphor, imagery, and mood.

Mary Oliver conveys the theme using multiple metaphors, the title being the first use. “The Journey” is both a literal movement from one place to another but it is also a trip that the subject takes in their mind from believing they need to stay in this situation to a place where they believe in themselves enough to change that situation and make it better. Throughout the poem the narrator refers to elements of nature, a key trait of Oliver’s works, to highlight the difficulties of the old situation and the change that takes place when the subject makes their life better. Some examples of this are: the wind prying and the road full of branches and stones are examples of nature working against the subject while stars burning through the sheets of clouds highlights the positive turn in the subject’s life.

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The poem is filled with imagery that helps us envision the scenes that are taking place throughout the story. The narrator starts by giving you the images of hearing voices shouting out bad advice, a trembling house, and a tug at your ankles being bottled and boxed in grasped at all four corners trying to make sense of your life as well as everyone else’s. The impression that the poem goes on with is full of negative imagery such as “the wind pried with stiff fingers” (Oliver), it being late at night, the road is littered with branches and stones. In the poem the subject is choosing to move on and make their life better, and the images reflect this. The stars begin shining brightly, the clouds go away, the subject is determined to start their new journey in a positive way. The tone of these images is uplifting and lets us know the poem changes from negative to positive.

The poem uses words as well as imagery to help the reader feel several moods, bringing us on the journey, changing our lives. The first two lines speak of determination “you finally knew/what you had to do, and began” (Oliver), determined to break out of the box. These lines are immediately followed up with oppression and negativity of people shouting, wind prying, and people tugging at the subject’s ankles. Then the theme of determination is repeated with another round of the subject knowing what they need to do. This juxtaposition continues with another round of oppression and negativity with blocked roads and it being late at night. Once again, the subject relies on determination, knowing what they must do, and this is where the tone of the poem starts to change. The tone of the poem breathes a fresh start, as well as determination, with the stars shining and clouds burning off; the subject is striding, not just walking. The journey ends with the subject saving their own life.

My of us have gone through bad situations in our life and we can relate to the subject, we know from personal experience that sometimes it can be easy to give into the negativity; as well as reasons to stay where we are. It takes determination that what we’re doing is for the best. Oliver uses the devices of metaphors, imagery, as well as mood to fill in the details of the transformation from the negative to the positive. All the while highlighting the determination the subject needs to make this transformation. Light, dark, difficult challenges, oppression, and positivity are all presented in a way that help us understand the subject and the struggle they are going through. In the end, they wind up in a better place, determined to take the action needed to save their own life.

Works Cited

  1. Oliver, Mary. “The Journey”. CSM MyLearning, College of Southern Maryland, mylearning.csmd.edu/d2l/le/content/61111/Home
  2. Spacey, Andrew. “Analysis of Poem ‘The Journey’ by Mary Oliver.” Owlcation, 25 Jan 2019, owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Poem-The-Journey-by-Mary-Oliver

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