“The Journey” by Mary Oliver


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
recognised 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.

Mary Oliver

April is ‘National Poetry Month’ in the United States. For me every month is poetry month and every day is poetry day. I would still like to honor the month-long celebration by sharing and examining a beautiful poem by Mary Oliver that resonates with me deeply. In fact, I cannot imagine it not striking a chord with anyone who reads it. We have all at some point experienced the moment when we have to break free from what our family or community members expect of us to follow our own path and leave our own mark in the world. You have to ignore “the old tug at your ankles”, be it of a controlling relative, a needy friend or a difficult co-worker and continue with your journey to discover who you truly are. The voices of opposition can be loud and overbearing. They can do anything in their power to jeopardize your journey. They can give bad advice or drain your energy by asking you to fix their lives.

It is interesting that the speaker employs the second person ‘you’ in the poem and uses it repeatedly. It is a direct conversation with the reader, informal in tone. The use of the second person also establishes the universality of the poem. It is something everyone can relate to. It also emphasizes in an unequivocal manner that ‘you’ and ‘you’ alone are in charge of your destiny.

The personification of the wind that “pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations” is a powerful device to show what you have to contend with. Inflexible in their views, the people around you may try relentlessly to demoralize you or dissuade you from following your path through manipulation and guilt trips. But you ignore their terrible “melancholy” and do what is right for you. You realize that you do not have to conform to the constraints imposed by society.

The journey is a powerful metaphor. It is a wild night and the road is “full of fallen branches and stones”. It is not going to be a smooth journey. There will be obstacles and dangers on the path but despite what is thrown your way, you have to proceed with determination, courage and confidence to listen to your own inner voice. The poem is written in free verse with no stanza breaks. Many of the lines are short and the sentences are cut off and continued in subsequent lines. The lack of stanzas makes the reader move through the poem at a quick pace. The urgency of the task at hand is reinforced with the continuous flow in the structure. Life moves on without stopping and time waits for no one.

It is only when you leave the old voices behind that the stars reveal themselves to you and a new voice becomes audible. You slowly recognize this voice as your own and embrace it. The use of figurative language is striking and effective. The image of stars burning “through the sheets of clouds” conveys the idea that you were predestined to go on this journey. It was written in the stars that you will find your true calling. Repetitions abound towards the end of the poem to show the commitment to the journey. There is no looking back now. From a confining house you move to the wide universe outside and find your authentic voice.

This poem is a wonderful example of how poetry can be a catalyst for healing and for personal growth. Who needs therapy when poetry is free?



One thought on ““The Journey” by Mary Oliver

  1. A great read, as always! The poem resonates with me at the current juncture in my life and so does your writing 😊


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