The work of the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) has perhaps not received as much attention from critics as she deserves, yet it’s been estimated that she was the bestselling poet in the United States at the time of her death. ‘Wild Geese’, the poem focused on in the present analysis, is one of her most widely anthologised poems.
‘Wild Geese’ was published in Mary Oliver’s 1986 collection Dream Works. You can read the poem here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the poem below.
‘Wild Geese’: summary
The poem is a lyric poem, because it has a speaker who offers us her thoughts and feelings (rather than telling a story). In the first few lines of the poem, the speaker addresses us directly as ‘you’, offering advice on how to live our lives, telling us that goodness is not the most important thing, nor is endless contrition or penitence for the odd moral lapse.
Instead, all we have to do is to love whatever we love. The ‘soft animal’ reference is a nod to our kinship with the animal kingdom, while simultaneously reminding us that we are human animals: so we experience emotions such as love, and have the capacity to love things. We can also feel despair, and the natural human impulse is to share our worries and feelings of despair with others, who will in turn tell us theirs.
None of this affects the world, which carries on as before, of course, but it helps us to connect with other human beings and feel part of what the poem will later call ‘the family of things’.
The speaker of the poem now shifts the focus from the ‘soft animal’ of the human onto other animals: the poem takes in the prairies, mountains, and trees, landscapes which are removed from the immediate world of human behaviour and emotion. The wild geese are returning home, a reminder of the cyclical aspect of the natural world and the fact that life goes on, and the world continues to turn, and acknowledgment of this fact can provide comfort and stability when things in our own lives change.
The anaphora of ‘Meanwhile …’, which begins three successive sentences in the middle of the poem, drives home the multiplicity of ‘lives’ that are being lived while we worry over our personal human problems: there is a vast world, the natural world, which continues without our input and which will carry on, regardless of what we do.
The speaker then tells us that no matter how lonely we get, and whoever we might be, the whole world is available to us and our imagination. What makes us human, aside from the ability to feel love and despair, is our imaginative capability, and this human quality can enable us to forge links with the rest of nature and find a place within the ‘family of things’.
‘Wild Geese’: analysis
Mary Oliver often wrote nature poetry, focusing on the area of New England which she called home from the 1960s; she mentioned the Romantics, especially John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as fellow American poets Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson as her influences.
What made Mary Oliver so popular, so that she was at one time the bestselling poet in America? One answer we might venture is that she is an accessible nature poet but also effortlessly and brilliantly relates encounters with nature to those qualities which make us most human, with our flaws and idiosyncrasies.
Here, for instance, we’re over halfway into this short poem before the wild geese which give the poem its title are even mentioned. By that point, we have been encouraged to embrace the ‘soft animal’ of our body, acknowledging the natural instincts within us, and realising that no matter how lonely we may feel, the world offers itself to us for our appreciation.
‘Wild Geese’ reminds us that the natural world continues while we err, sin, love, and despair. This vast world is both a comfort – if we can engage imaginatively with the world of the wild geese and the prairies, as Oliver’s speaker entreats us to, we can find kinship with the natural world and a sense of belonging – and a reminder of our smallness in the grand scheme of things.
But this latter thought can also, oddly, provide a comfort to us, since it reminds that our deep feelings of despair and our worries over whether we are ‘good’ enough don’t matter, in the grand scheme of things.
Indeed, in this connection we might draw a link between Oliver’s poem and the final stanza of W. H. Auden’s 1947 poem, ‘The Fall of Rome’, which places the fall of the Roman Empire in the context of nature, which both preceded the founding of Rome and will outlive its demise.
‘Wild Geese’: form
The poem is written in free verse: it’s unrhymed, with irregular line lengths and without a regular metre or rhythm. It is arranged into eighteen lines of varying lengths. However, the syntactical control of the poem gives it a loose structure: those repeated ‘Meanwhiles’, for instance, which replace the anaphora of those repeated ‘Yous’ which begin the first three sentences of the poem.
In other words, we have three sentences, all beginning with ‘You’, followed by three sentences beginning with ‘Meanwhile’). This means that the world of the personal (‘You’) is mirrored or echoed by the world of nature that is found elsewhere (‘Meanwhile’). ‘Wild Geese’ then concludes with one last sentence which begins with ‘Whoever’: it doesn’t matter which individual reads this poem, because we are all part of the human race – and, beyond that, part of that vast ‘family of things’ which the poem celebrates.