Crossing the Swamp

Mary Oliver

Amidst the swamp’s trials, bones knock for foothold, revealing resilience, transformation, and growth through struggle.

Mary Oliver

Nationality: American

Mary Oliver was an American author of poetry and prose.

She won the National Book Award in 1992; and the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Embrace struggle, for within life's swamp-like challenges, transformation and growth emerge as resilient companions.

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Bravery, Confidence, Empathy, Grief

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Oliver's poem delves into the visceral journey through a metaphorical swamp, echoing life's challenges and personal evolution.

‘Crossing the Swamp’ by Mary Oliver depicts a metaphorical journey through a treacherous landscape, symbolizing life’s challenges. The speaker faces physical and metaphorical obstacles, demonstrating resilience and determination. Vivid imagery portrays the swamp’s complexity and the struggle for stability.

As the speaker transforms from feeling wet to “painted and glittered,” the poem suggests a shift in perspective. This journey reflects the universal human experience of confronting adversity, finding growth, and renewal. Oliver’s use of enjambment and metaphors emphasizes the continuous nature of struggle and personal evolution. The poem invites contemplation on interconnectedness, the potential for transformation, and the beauty that can emerge from facing life’s difficulties.


The poem ‘Crossing the Swamp‘ by Mary Oliver encapsulates the experience of traversing a challenging and treacherous environment, symbolized by a swamp.

The swamp, depicted as a wet and dense cosmos, represents the core of existence, characterized by its intricate and tangled nature. The speaker describes the swamp’s various elements, including thick sap, branching vines, and belching bogs, which collectively contribute to its formidable essence.

The swamp becomes a metaphor for life’s struggles and obstacles, emphasizing its lack of clear paths and the ceaseless effort required to navigate it. The speaker’s bones knock together as they seek stability in the midst of the swamp’s uncertain terrain. Every step becomes a battle for a foothold, fingerhold, and mind hold, as the speaker grapples with the slippery and challenging crossings, submerged holes, and hidden hummocks that threaten to engulf them.

Despite the challenges, the speaker acknowledges a transformation taking place. They describe feeling not just wet but adorned with the swamp’s features – painted and glittered with the essence of the environment. The vivid imagery of “fat grassy mires” and “rich and succulent marrows of earth” conveys a sense of interconnectedness with the swamp’s vitality.

The speaker’s personal growth and resilience are evident as they compare themselves to a “poor dry stick” that is given a renewed chance for life by the swamp water’s capriciousness. The imagery of a bough taking root, sprouting, branching out, and budding evokes a powerful sense of rejuvenation and potential, despite the passage of time.

In essence, ‘Crossing the Swamp‘ is a metaphorical exploration of life’s challenges and the transformative journey of overcoming adversity. The swamp serves as a symbol of the complexities and uncertainties inherent in existence, while the speaker’s experience within it reflects the indomitable human spirit’s capacity for growth, adaptation, and renewal.

Structure and Form

Crossing the Swamp‘by Mary Oliver is a single-stanza poem consisting of thirty-six lines, demonstrating a deliberate structural choice that mirrors the tangled and intricate nature of the swamp being depicted. The absence of stanza breaks underscores the continuous and unrelenting struggle conveyed in the poem, emphasizing the relentless journey through the challenging environment.

The poem’s form is characterized by its free verse structure, devoid of a traditional rhyming scheme. Instead, it relies on the rhythmic and syntactic patterns within the lines themselves to create a sense of movement and tension. The lines vary in length, ranging from a single word to a few words, contributing to the visual representation of the swamp’s uneven and unpredictable landscape.

Mary Oliver employs enjambment extensively throughout the poem, allowing thoughts and images to flow seamlessly from one line to the next. This technique mirrors the idea of navigating the swamp’s obstacles and uncertainties as each line propels the reader forward, mirroring the relentless progression through the challenging environment.

The lack of rhyme scheme and the use of enjambment contribute to the poem’s natural and conversational tone. This tone allows the reader to engage directly with the speaker’s experience, sharing in the visceral sensations of struggle, uncertainty, and transformation.

The single-stanza structure and free verse form also reinforce the thematic elements of unity and interconnectedness. By encapsulating the entire journey within a single unbroken stanza, the poem reflects the idea that the challenges faced are part of a cohesive and continuous whole, much like the ecosystem of the swamp itself.

Crossing the Swamp‘ adopts a single-stanza free verse structure with no specific rhyme scheme. This form, characterized by enjambment and varying line lengths, serves to mirror the complexities of the swamp and the unceasing struggle within it. The absence of stanza breaks and rhyme scheme contributes to a natural, conversational tone while reinforcing themes of unity and interconnectedness.


Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Crossing the Swamp‘ delves into several interconnected themes, each captured vividly through her evocative imagery and introspective exploration. One central theme is the struggle and adversity inherent in life’s journey, symbolized by the challenging swamp terrain. The speaker’s bones “knock together” as they seek a foothold and stability, exemplifying the relentless battle against obstacles.

Another theme is the transformation and resilience that arise from confronting challenges. The swamp’s “wet” and “glittered” essence paints a picture of the speaker’s metamorphosis, akin to a “poor dry stick” revived by swamp water’s whims. This theme underscores the capacity for growth amidst adversity.

The poem also delves into the theme of interconnectedness with nature. The vivid depiction of the swamp’s elements—such as “dense sap,” “branching vines,” and “marrows of earth”—links the speaker to the environment. This reinforces the idea that humans are an integral part of the natural world.

Uncertainty and transformation form another significant theme. The swamp, described as “pathless” and “seamless,” reflects life’s ambiguity. The speaker’s navigation through “slick crossings” and “deep hipoles” mirrors the process of adapting and evolving amid uncertainty.

Furthermore, the poem touches upon the theme of time and renewal. The enduring image of a “bough” that can still “branch out, bud” after years signifies the potential for rejuvenation even after prolonged challenges.

An underlying theme is perseverance and determination. The speaker’s continuous effort to find footholds amidst the swamp’s difficulties highlights the human spirit’s resolve in the face of adversity.

Lastly, the poem explores the theme of identity and self-discovery. The speaker’s transformation within the swamp reflects an inner journey, suggesting that facing external challenges can lead to a deeper understanding of oneself.

Through vivid imagery and introspection, Mary Oliver invites readers to contemplate the multifaceted nature of human existence and the profound insights gained from navigating life’s challenges.

Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language

Mary Oliver employs a range of poetic techniques and figurative language in ‘Crossing the Swamp‘ to vividly convey her message of struggle, transformation, and interconnectedness.

  • Imagery: One such technique is imagery, evident in her description of the swamp as the “wet thick cosmos,” creating a sensory-rich portrayal of the challenging environment.
  • Metaphor: This is used extensively, with the swamp symbolizing life’s trials and uncertainties. Lines like “pathless, seamless, peerless mud” metaphorically depict the challenges as an uncharted and relentless journey.
  • Enjambment: It enhances the sense of movement and reflects the speaker’s ongoing struggle. The phrase “knock together at the pale joints” flows across lines, mirroring the physical impact of navigating the swamp.
  • Anaphora: Oliver employs anaphora, repeating “here is” to emphasize the swamp’s omnipresence. This technique reinforces the notion of an all-encompassing struggle.
  • Symbolism: This technique is evident in the image of the “poor dry stick” given “one more chance by the whims of swamp water,” which symbolizes resilience and renewal amid adversity.
  • Contrast: The use of contrast between “wet” and “painted and glittered” highlights the speaker’s evolving relationship with the swamp, capturing both discomfort and transformation.
  • Personification: The device is subtly employed when the swamp is described as “dark burred faintly belching bogs,” attributing human-like qualities to the landscape.
  • Alliteration: Oliver employs alliteration, such as “slick crossings” and “deep hipoles,” to create a rhythmic quality that mimics the challenges of navigating the swamp.
  • Metaphor: The extended metaphor of the “bough” that can “take root, sprout, branch out, bud” serves as a powerful symbol of personal growth and potential.
  • Simile: This one appears in the line “not wet so much as painted and glittered,” comparing the speaker’s state to that of being adorned by the swamp’s elements.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-13

Here is the endless
wet thick
cosmos, the center
of everything—the nugget
of dense sap, branching
vines, the dark burred
faintly belching
bogs. Here
is swamp, here
is struggle,
pathless, seamless,
peerless mud. My bones

In the opening lines of Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Crossing the Swamp,’ the poet presents readers with a vivid and immersive depiction of the natural environment. Through carefully crafted imagery and metaphors, Oliver conveys a profound message about the interconnectedness of life and the inherent challenges that accompany it.

The phrase “endless wet thick cosmos” sets the tone for the poem, immediately enveloping the reader in the vastness and complexity of the swamp. The use of “cosmos” here suggests that the swamp is not just a physical location, but a microcosm representing the larger universe. This notion aligns with the theme of interconnectedness, suggesting that the swamp is an essential part of the grand scheme of existence.

Oliver continues to paint a detailed picture of the swamp, employing strong sensory imagery. Words like “nugget,” “dense sap,” and “branching vines” evoke a sense of abundance and fertility, emphasizing the swamp’s role as a source of life and growth. The image of “dark burred faintly belching bogs” adds a touch of foreboding and mystery, hinting at the hidden depths and complexities of the environment.

The declaration “Here is swamp, here is struggle” provides a direct and powerful connection between the physical landscape and the metaphorical struggle of life. By equating the swamp with struggle, Oliver highlights the universality of the challenges that individuals face. This linkage reinforces the theme of interconnectedness, suggesting that struggles are inherent in the fabric of existence.

The phrase “pathless, seamless, peerless mud” employs alliteration to emphasize the difficulty and ambiguity of the journey. The swamp’s mud becomes a symbol of the obstacles and uncertainties that individuals encounter, with “pathless” and “seamless” underlining the lack of clear direction and the continuous nature of struggles.

Through these opening lines, Mary Oliver conveys a message that transcends the physical landscape of the swamp. She invites readers to contemplate the interconnectedness of all living beings, the challenges that unite humanity, and the transformative power of embracing those struggles. The imagery and metaphors used in these lines serve as a gateway to a deeper exploration of life’s complexities, hinting at the poem’s overarching themes of resilience, personal growth, and the delicate balance between humans and nature.

Lines 14-26

knock together at the pale    


mires, the rich  

In lines 14-26 of Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Crossing the Swamp,’ the poet delves deeper into the theme of struggle and the transformative journey of overcoming adversity. Through her skillful use of imagery, figurative language, and sensory details, Oliver conveys a message about the resilience of the human spirit and the profound changes that occur when facing life’s challenges.

The phrase “knock together at the pale joints” employs tactile and auditory imagery, evoking the physical impact of the speaker’s movement through the swamp. The use of “pale joints” emphasizes the vulnerability of the human body, underscoring the harshness of the environment and the strain of the struggle.

The verbs “trying” and “knock” emphasize the continuous and determined effort required to navigate the treacherous terrain. The repetition of “hold” in “foothold, fingerhold, mindhold” highlights the various ways the speaker attempts to secure stability, not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well.

Oliver’s use of enjambment, such as “over / such slick crossings, deep,” propels the reader forward, mirroring the speaker’s unrelenting journey through the swamp’s obstacles. This technique effectively conveys the ceaseless nature of the struggle.

The imagery of “slick crossings, deep hipoles, hummocks” vividly portrays the hazardous nature of the swamp, where even the ground itself can be treacherous. The word “sink silently” emphasizes the stealthy and unpredictable nature of these hazards.

The phrase “black, slack earthsoup” creates a visceral image of the swamp’s murky and viscous composition. This imagery not only appeals to the senses but also conveys a sense of entrapment and challenge.

The shift from “wet so much as / painted and glittered” marks a pivotal moment in the poem. The transformation from merely being wet to being “painted and glittered” suggests a shift in perspective. The speaker begins to see their experience not just as discomfort but as an opportunity for growth and change.

The sensory description of being “painted and glittered / with the fat grassy mires, the rich” paints a vivid picture of the speaker’s transformation. The words “fat” and “rich” imply nourishment and vitality, symbolizing the personal growth that arises from confronting challenges.

In these lines, Mary Oliver’s message revolves around the idea that struggle and adversity lead to profound transformation. Through vivid imagery and sensory details, the poem illustrates the resilience of the human spirit and the potential for personal growth when faced with daunting obstacles. The shift from physical discomfort to a sense of being “painted and glittered” underscores the transformative power of embracing challenges and finding beauty in the midst of adversity.

Lines 27-36

and succulent marrows      


palace of leaves.

In the final lines (27-36) of Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Crossing the Swamp,’ the poet culminates her exploration of struggle, resilience, and transformation with a message of profound hope and potential for personal growth. Through the use of metaphor, symbolism, and vivid imagery, Oliver conveys the idea that even in the face of adversity, there is an opportunity for renewal and the creation of a vibrant and meaningful existence.

The phrase “succulent marrows / of earth” employs tactile and sensory imagery to describe the fertile and nourishing qualities of the environment. The choice of “succulent” suggests richness and vitality, contrasting with the harshness of the swamp.

The metaphor of the “poor dry stick” given “one more chance by the whims / of swamp water” is a powerful symbol of resilience and renewal. The “dry stick” represents a life that may seem devoid of potential, but the transformative power of the swamp water’s “whims” implies unexpected opportunities for growth.

The image of the “bough” that can “take root, / sprout, branch out, bud” serves as an extended metaphor for personal development. This imagery is particularly potent as it suggests not only physical growth but also the expansion of one’s capabilities and potential.

The phrase “make of its life a breathing / palace of leaves” captures the essence of the poem’s message. The transformation of the once-dry stick into a “palace of leaves” emphasizes the idea of thriving, flourishing, and embracing life to its fullest extent.

Oliver’s use of the word “breathing” adds a dynamic dimension to the image, suggesting vitality and the interplay between the individual and the environment. The idea of the leaves forming a “palace” implies a sense of abundance, beauty, and the creation of something magnificent from humble beginnings.

The repetition of the “b” sound in “bough,” “branch,” and “bud” creates a rhythmic quality, underscoring the gradual progression of growth and transformation. This rhythmic repetition mirrors the gradual process of personal development.

In these final lines, Mary Oliver’s message resonates with the notion that individuals possess an innate capacity for renewal and transformation, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Through the metaphor of the “poor dry stick” and the imagery of the thriving “palace of leaves,” Oliver inspires readers to embrace life’s difficulties as opportunities for growth, to root themselves in resilience, to branch out into new possibilities, and to bud into a life that is vibrant, meaningful, and full of potential.


What is the tone in ‘Crossing the Swamp?’

The tone in ‘Crossing the Swamp’ is one of determined resilience and introspection as the speaker navigates through challenges while reflecting on their own transformation and growth.

Why is the poem titled ‘Crossing the Swamp?’

The poem is titled ‘Crossing the Swamp’ to metaphorically depict the speaker’s journey through life’s hardships and uncertainties, using the swamp as a symbol for the trials and transformations encountered along the way.

What feelings are triggered by the poem?

The poem triggers feelings of struggle, perseverance, and, ultimately, a sense of hopeful renewal as the speaker faces adversity and discovers the potential for personal growth.

What is the mood of ‘Crossing the Swamp?’

The mood oscillates between tension and introspection, ultimately leading to a mood of hopeful triumph as the speaker’s resilience and transformative journey are highlighted through vivid imagery and contemplative exploration.

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Crossing the Swamp

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Mary Oliver (poems)

Mary Oliver

This poem is a representative example of Mary Oliver's poetry. Her works often explore themes of nature, human connection with the natural world, introspection, and the human experience. This poem encapsulates these themes through its vivid imagery, metaphorical exploration of life's challenges, and the transformative journey of the speaker. Oliver's distinctive style of using nature as a lens to delve into deeper philosophical and emotional insights is evident in this poem. The use of sensory details, enjambment, and metaphor align with her typical poetic techniques.
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20th Century

This poem is a notable representation of 20th-century poetry, showcasing a blend of vivid imagery, metaphor, and introspection. While it captures the era's themes of nature and self-discovery, it stands out with its unique focus on resilience and transformation. This sets it apart from many other poems of the time, highlighting Oliver's distinct voice and thematic exploration.
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This poem by Mary Oliver stands out among American poems for its exceptional fusion of vivid imagery, introspection, and metaphor. Oliver's significance in contemporary American poetry amplifies the poem's impact. Its portrayal of struggle, transformation, and interconnectedness sets it apart, reflecting her signature themes. The poem's intense sensory details and enjambment provide a distinctive rhythm that captures the reader's attention. Through a unique lens, it explores the human experience, elevating it to a level of greatness alongside other remarkable American literary works.
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While this poem primarily explores struggle, growth, and transformation, the mention of "bones knock together" and the image of sinking hummocks silently into the "black, slack earthsoup" could allude to the theme of mortality and decay. These elements subtly evoke a sense of impermanence and the cycle of life and death.
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This poem indirectly addresses the theme of desire through the speaker's determination to find stability and progress. The struggle for "foothold, fingerhold, mindhold" suggests an underlying desire for control and advancement, reflecting the human instinct to overcome challenges and attain goals even in the midst of adversity.
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This poem doesn't directly address disappointment, focusing more on struggle and growth. However, the challenging terrain and the phrase "knock together" in the context of the speaker's bones could subtly imply the potential for disappointment or setbacks in the face of difficulties, which are integral to the theme of overcoming adversity.
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This poem portrays a metaphorical journey through life's challenges. The swamp serves as a symbolic path of struggle and growth. The speaker's efforts to navigate the treacherous terrain mirror the unpredictable journey of human existence, emphasizing the importance of resilience and transformation along the way.
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This poem evokes bravery by depicting the speaker's resolute determination to navigate a challenging environment. The imagery of bones knocking, the struggle for a foothold, and the confrontational journey through obstacles highlight the speaker's unwavering resolve. This portrayal of facing adversity head-on elicits a sense of admiration for their courage.
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This poem evokes confidence through the speaker's tenacious efforts to overcome obstacles. The repeated attempts for a foothold, fingerhold, and mind hold convey a resolute spirit, exuding self-assuredness. The metaphor of the bough taking root, sprouting, and branching out reflects a confident anticipation of growth and transformation despite challenges.
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This poem evokes empathy through its vivid portrayal of the speaker's physical and emotional struggle. The description of bones knocking together and the constant effort for stability invite readers to share in the experience of adversity. This intimate glimpse into the speaker's challenges and transformation foster a sense of empathy for their journey.
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This poem doesn't overtly elicit grief, focusing more on struggle and transformation. However, the imagery of sinking hummocks and the allusion to mortality in "bones knock together" could evoke a subtle sense of sorrow, hinting at the transitory nature of life and the challenges that come with it.
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The poem vividly explores adversity as the speaker navigates a challenging environment. The struggle for stability, portrayed through bones knocking and the constant effort to find footholds, parallels the hardships of life. The swamp symbolizes the complexities of existence, highlighting the theme of enduring and overcoming adversity with resilience and determination.
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Breaking Up

This poem doesn't directly address breaking up. Instead, it focuses on struggle and growth. However, the image of a "poor dry stick" given another chance by swamp water's whims could symbolize renewal, suggesting a possible connection to overcoming challenges akin to the process of moving forward after a breakup.
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This poem doesn't explicitly address devotion. However, the speaker's persistent efforts to find stability and progress through challenging terrain reflect a form of devotion to overcoming adversity. The repeated attempts for foothold and the metaphor of a "poor dry stick" given renewed chances could symbolize a dedicated commitment to growth and transformation despite obstacles.
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Giving Up

This poem indirectly addresses giving up through the speaker's unwavering determination to navigate challenges. The struggle for a foothold and mind hold portrays resilience in the face of difficulties, suggesting a refusal to give up. The metaphor of the "poor dry stick" given another chance echoes the theme of perseverance and the choice to keep striving despite setbacks.
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This poem implicitly addresses longing through the speaker's persistent efforts to navigate challenges. The repeated attempts for foothold, fingerhold, and mindhold signify an underlying yearning for stability and progress. The metaphor of the "poor dry stick" given another chance reflects a desire for renewal and growth, echoing the theme of longing for transformation.
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Free Verse

This poem adopts a free-verse form, characterized by unstructured lines and a lack of rhyme scheme. Enjambment propels the reader through its continuous flow, mirroring the relentless struggle within the swamp. This form allows for natural expression, capturing the organic complexity of the speaker's journey. The absence of formal constraints enhances the poem's raw emotional impact.
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Hilary Benard Poetry Expert
Hilary has an MA in Comparative Literature & Critical Theories and BA in Comparative History. Courtesy of his expertise in literature and poetry, he has a depth of experience in a wide range of literary texts and movements: this includes the historical, cultural, and social contexts that produced them.

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