A Summary and Analysis of Mary Oliver’s ‘The Journey’

‘The Journey’ is a poem by the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), a poet who has perhaps not received as much attention from critics as she deserves. It’s been estimated that she was the bestselling poet in the United States at the time of her death, so a few words of analysis about some of her best-known poems seem appropriate. ‘The Journey’ is a poem about someone who leaves behind their old life and embarks on a journey towards a new one.

You can read ‘The Journey’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Mary Oliver’s poem below. The poem takes around one minute to read.

‘The Journey’: summary

The poem is about the day when someone (addressed as ‘you’ by the poem’s speaker) realised what they had to do, and started to do it, even though there were many people around them who were trying to dissuade the person from doing it.

It seemed that the whole house shook with the import of this person’s decision. Voices cried throughout their house, demanding that this person fix their lives for them. But that person, the person to whom the poem is addressed, didn’t stop doing what they had decided to do, and carried on nonetheless.

This person knew what they had to do, even though the wind seemed to try to uproot the very foundations of the person’s existence, like someone tearing a house from the ground. Many of the people who had demanded that the person addressed in the poem ‘mend’ their life for them experienced terrible sadness at the person’s decision.

It was already late, so the person knew they couldn’t delay any longer, and the road ahead was already strewn with obstacles. But gradually, as the person left the voices of those people behind them, they began to see the stars shining through the clouds, and a new voice – which they came to realise was their own – spoke reassuringly to the person as they made their way deeper into the world.

This person was determined to do the only thing they could: to save themselves.

‘The Journey’: analysis

How should be analyse, or categorise, ‘The Journey’? We could interpret this symbolic and open-ended poem as about a mid-life crisis (it is ‘already late’, remember: suggesting that the person addressed is not in the first flush of youth), and more specifically, as a poem about a woman, a wife and perhaps even a mother, leaving behind the selfish needs of others and seeking self-determination and, indeed, self-salvation.

We say ‘woman’ not just because the poet, Mary Oliver, was herself female and often wrote about women’s lives, including her own; but Mary Oliver Selected Poems Coverbecause those ‘voices’ which demand that the person in the poem ‘mend’ their lives are immediately interpreted, or decoded, in our minds as children’s voices (and perhaps a husband’s, too).

And yet perhaps it would be a mistake to limit the poem in such a way, and suggest it is about a dissatisfied wife and mother who has lost her sense of identity as she has put others first ahead of herself for many years. ‘Mother’, in particular, brings problems given the actions of the person in the poem (of which more below), but even identifying the person as a woman restricts its broader message.

And in this connection, it is worth noting that Oliver’s mode in this poem – having a genderless speaker address a genderless ‘you’ through use of the second-person mode of address – keeps us in the dark about the identities, and genders, of both speaker and addressee.

What we can say, however, is that there is every reason to think that speaker and addressee, whichever gender they might be, are the same person: the speaker is addressing herself, following her long journey towards self-discovery (or rediscovery). This analysis of the poem makes sense when we bear in mind the moment when the speaker tells us that this journeywoman (or man) stopped hearing the selfish voices of those she’d (or he’d) left behind and instead heard his (or her) own voice. The poem, then, is an extension of this dialogue: the journeyperson speaking to themselves following their journey (back) towards themselves.

In the last analysis, then, ‘The Journey’ is a poem about leaving one’s past behind and rediscovering one’s own self, who one really is. And yet if we assume that the speaker/addressee is an adult (in the middle of their life) and the voices they leave behind include those of their children, are we meant to embrace this, or wonder whether such an act of abnegation of one’s duties in the quest for self-discovery is a step too far? Perhaps this is where assumptions about the figure in the poem turn on whether we see them as a frustrated parent walking out on their family duties or, for instance, someone who has merely quit their job and escaped form an oppressive relationship, breaking out on their own.

Put simply, then, ‘The Journey’ is a poem whose message, whilst clear enough, raises some interesting questions. Is it always right to give up on one’s responsibilities to others when we feel they are holding us back? Does it depend on whether they are literally dependent on us, or merely exploiting us, and refusing to give anything back (that one-way ‘mend my life!’ is revealing, certainly, and perhaps is easier to attribute to a selfish partner than to young children, whose lives don’t need ‘mending’ but rather shaping or directing).

‘The Journey’: form

‘The Journey’ comprises one single stanza composed in free verse. Oliver’s use of free verse – no regular rhyme scheme, rhythm or metre, and irregular line lengths – mirrors the journey undertaken by the person in the poem, who is uncertain where their quest of self-discovery will lead, and whose undertaking of such a journey is beset by initial doubts and obstacles.

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