Literature

A Summary and Analysis of Mary Oliver’s ‘Morning Poem’

‘Morning Poem’ 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.

‘Morning Poem’ is a poem which celebrates the spiritual power of nature during the morning.

‘Morning Poem’: summary

The poem is divided into ten short stanzas. The speaker of the poem tells us that the world is created every morning. Under the orange rays of the sunrise, the remains of the previous night become leaves once more, and attach themselves to the branches of the trees. The ponds reappear with lilies floating on them, and this sight resembles a black cloth onto which little islands have been painted.

The speaker now addresses the reader directly, telling us that if it is our natural way to be happy about things, we will swim away on the trails of the morning for hours, our imagination stopping to enjoy everything we encounter.

But even if our personality is less sunny and our outlook less upbeat, and we cannot manage to do anything more in the mornings than simply put one foot in the other and keep going, we will still find that the beauty of nature in the morning will speak to some deep-buried part of our souls. This ‘beast’ within us is awakened by the sights of the natural world, and knows that we crave the natural earth and everything within it.

So every pond containing those floating lilies – which glint in the morning sunlight as though they are on fire – is like a prayer which nature has heard us speak and has answered, giving us this sight to please us and lift our spirits. And even if we have never dared to be happy, or to pray to anyone or anything, this ‘prayer’ for happiness is nevertheless heard and answered by nature.

‘Morning Poem’: analysis

Mary Oliver’s poetry can be categorised in a number of ways: she is discussed, variously, as a ‘nature poet’ as a ‘Romantic poet’, whose work follows William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and other poets whose work can similarly be grouped (however loosely, or broadly) under the umbrella term ‘Romantic’.

Romanticism is not just a synonym for ‘nature poetry’: it is about the communion between nature and the individual, the delicate intersections, the mutual dependence even, between the natural world and the world of the human. And like much Romantic poetry Mary Oliver Selected Poems Coverwritten before Mary Oliver, ‘Morning Poem’ is about the spiritual power that nature possesses. It can transform our moods and even entirely recalibrate our approach to the world around us.

And the key issue is that the individual’s temperament or ‘spirit’ before they come into contact with the joys of nature in the morning doesn’t make any practical difference one way or the other. If they are naturally of a sunny disposition, the morning sights of leaves on the branches and lilies in the ponds will reinforce their joy. If they are more saturnine in their outlook, they will nevertheless find that nature provides a tonic to lift their gloomy spirits and inspire them to face the day.

Oliver cleverly uses nature here to fuse human emotion and ‘spirit’ with the features of the natural landscape. For example, there appears to be a buried pun on ‘rosy’ in the reference to the ‘thorn’ which is ‘heavier than lead’: every rose has its thorn, the old phrase has it, and a rosy outlook is one which is sunny and optimistic. If our view of the world is more thorny than rosy, though, we will still find value in the world of nature as everything comes is restored to life and light with the morning.

And note also how ‘Morning Poem’ shrinks the universal or cosmic into the narrow span of an individual day: every morning, the opening stanza proudly declaims, the world is created. This sounds like hyperbole (the world was surely ‘created’ but once, whether we attribute that event to a deity or to the natural processes of planetary formation four-and-a-half billion years ago: so how can it be created every day?), but is another deft piece of wordplay, riffing on – and inviting us to muse upon – the subtly different meanings to which we put the words ‘world’ and ‘created’.

For although the globe known as Earth is not created from scratch every single morning (how could it be?), the individual components of the world are being reawakened and realigned to ‘create’ the world we see when we wake up and head out into it for work or school.

A similar trick is at work in the phrase ‘your nature’ (‘If it is your nature …’), where the phrase ostensibly and primarily refers to our individual temperament or disposition, but given the context in which it appears, a nature poem, this phrase cannot help glimmering with a secondary sense of ‘your nature’ – that is, our individual conception of nature or the natural world.

‘Morning Poem’: form

Like much of Mary Oliver’s poetry, ‘Morning Poem’ lacks any formal regularity in terms of rhyme, metre, or line lengths. This means we can classify the poem as written in free verse. It is also an example of a lyric poem, because it deals with the thoughts and feelings of an individual speaker (rather than, say, telling a story).

The poem deftly uses enjambment or run-on lines, whereby a particular clause or sentence continues over the end of one line and into the next. This is integral to the poem’s structure, and allows Oliver to spring some surprises on her reader: for example, in the fourth line, will ‘orange’ turn out to be a noun (e.g., ‘under the orange that is the sun in the sky’) or an adjective? (It turns out to be the latter, of course, but we have to read on over the line and into the second stanza of the poem to discover this.)

Such moments of uncertainty successfully convey the joyous sense of surprise which we can find within nature on any given morning.

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