‘I Worried’ by Mary Oliver explores anxiety, overthinking, and worrying about everything, even though this never helps the situation. Oliver is showing how worrying can take over someone’s life, and cause endless circles of over-thinking.
From the world stopping turning, to the rivers flowing in the right direction, even if she is going blind. All these concerns plague her consciousness each day, until she finally learns in the final stanza to step outside, despite her anxiety, and sing to the world. Yet, Oliver understands this is not an easy thing to do, only achieving this when she has reached old age. Some argue that the poet is being slightly naive when writing that she just ‘gave [anxiety] up’, people suggesting that it is not simply that easy.
You can read the full poem here.
‘I Worried’ is split by Mary Oliver into five stanzas, each ranging in line length. The shortest stanza measures two lines, while the longest is four. There is no rhyme scheme, and the meter of the poem is frequently interrupted by caesura. This fractured rhythm the poem takes on represents Oliver’s own state of mind, her anxiety about the world being symbolized through the structure of the poem.
Alongside the structural ideas that Oliver is using, she also employs rhetorical questions throughout the poem. These questions reaffirm her sense of uncertainty, with the poet questioning herself at almost every point in the poem. To an outsider, these questions may seem strange and uncalled for, such as how could she keep the world spinning if it decided to stop. Yet, from the mind of Oliver, this anxiety induced questions make sense, the overthinking the poet is engaging with being typified by these seemingly strange ideas. The sheer exoticism of some of the things she is worrying about depicts the true horror of anxiety, seemingly almost anything could trigger it.
Another technique that Oliver uses throughout the poem is engaging with the conditional tense. When writing things in conditional, they have not happened, it is just a possibility. It is exactly these uncertain possibilities which give rise of Oliver’s worries, with her reliance on the conditional tense reflecting her innate connection with the anxiety that things in the future could go wrong.
Analysis of I Worried
I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
I correct it?
The poem begins with a short statement which serves to exemplify the whole poem. ‘I worried a lot’, both echoing the title and also instantly engaging the reader with the central problem addressed within ‘I Worried’. The key verb here also typifies Oliver’s state of anxiety, worries and anxiety going hand in hand.
The first stanza explores different things that could possibly go wrong. Oliver is unsure, ‘will the garden grow’, beginning with a more domestic issue that is close to Oliver. Next, she progresses to larger ideas, ‘will the rivers flow in the right direction’, a strange take on the movements of water, something that has popped into her head seemingly out of nowhere and is now worrying her. Oliver’s worries get even more serious, ‘will the earth turn’, her anxiety-inducing her into a panic about the state of the earth’s rotation.
Following these ideas, Oliver singles herself out, all these problems falling upon the ‘I’ pronoun. She believes that if things do go wrong, she will have to figure out how to fix them herself. This is a lonely image and one that again induces anxiety as Oliver struggles to plan for these disaster situations. The conditionality of ‘if not’ further suggests the possibility of these scenarios, with Oliver planning for an ‘if’, inducing anxiety for something that probably will never happen.
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
The use of the pronoun is repeated throughout this stanza, all Oliver’s problems falling upon ‘I’. The quadruple repetition of close phrases ‘Was I’, ‘ will I’, ‘Can I’, ‘Was I’, all compound the sense of this conditionality enforcing Oliver’s anxiety. She is worrying about things that are not actually happening, subjecting herself to panic for (as she realizes by the end of the poem) essentially nothing. The lack of connectives, instead of Oliver relying on asyndeton within this stanza, furthers the sense of chaos, the rhythm of the stanza speeding up and feeling overwhelming to the reader. Oliver is trying to capture a sense of panic.
Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
The idea of ’sing[ing]’ is introduced as a symbol of suggesting freedom from anxiety. Only when Oliver has passed through her worries will she ‘ever be able to sing’, doubting her abilities while she must deal with all the conditional terrors which might occur.
There is a moment of self-doubt, with Oliver saying that she is ‘hopeless’, for ‘even the sparrows can do it’. Oliver is comparing herself to other things, which produces another sense of anxiety and worry. Comparing oneself to another is pointless, a million seemingly insubstantial circumstances have happened to other people, you are never the same as someone else, and therefore why compare yourself. Oliver is pointing out that all comparing does is make you feel worse about yourself. Especially as we see these comparisons, here a human to a bird, are totally ridiculous and uncalled for.
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
This stanza focuses on possible diseases and illnesses that could suddenly strike Oliver down. She could go blind, her ‘eyesight fading’, or ‘get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia’. The use of asyndeton here further elevates the sense of Oliver’s panic, the seemingly endless list of possible medical inflictions plaguing Oliver’s mind.
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
The final stanza focuses on overcoming anxiety. Oliver uses ‘finally’ to begin the stanza, showing that this feat of overcoming is not something simple, it is something that must be worked at and will not be easy to achieve. It is only in her ‘old body’ the age of the voice being the key focus, that she has learned to escape anxiety. It has taken a whole life of worry to come out the other side.
Now she understands that all that time ‘worrying had come to nothing’, she has come outside ‘into the morning’. The image of ‘morning’ insinuates a new beginning, this moment being the first in which Oliver feels she is in control of her life. The final line ‘and sang’, shows the complete overcoming of worrying, she is able to sing, one of her earlier fears from stanza three. The action of singing is again used as a symbol of joy and freedom, Oliver pointing out how much happier she is now she ‘gave it [worrying] up’.