The poem is a wonderful example of Oliver’s verse. It explores nature in a way that’s quite intimate and moving. She zooms in on something incredibly small, like the movements of an ant, and then expands to inspire readers to spend more time appreciating the same. After reading ‘Peonies,’ readers may find themselves inspired to step outside and love the world, as Oliver suggests.
‘Peonies’ by Mary Oliver is a beautiful and multilayered poem about peonies, and the natural sights one might observe around them.
In the first lines of ‘Peonies,’ the speaker begins by noting how the flowers open in the morning, ready to break the speaker’s heart. The sun touches them, and the ants crawl over them. She uses numerous examples of figurative language and imagery in order to depict their surroundings and what they resemble. As the poem progresses, the speaker transitions to address the reader directly. She asks them if they take the time to go outside and enjoy nature at their fingertips. It’s important that one does so because before they know it, it’s going to be gone. Beauty, just like joy, is fleeting. One has to appreciate it while it’s there.
You can read the full poem here.
Stanzas One and Two
This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
to break my heart
as the sun rises,
white and pink —
and all day the black ants climb over them,
In the first stanza of ‘Peonies,’ Oliver begins by describing a new day, the sun rising, and the way that the peonies move her as she observes them. They are reading to “break” her heart, her speaker notes. The poet uses personification in these lines to depict the sun stroking the flowers with “his old, buttery fingers.” This evokes a very particular feeling that’s enhance and juxtaposed against the “pools of lace, / white and pink” in the second stanza.
The poem is filled with wonderful images of the natural world. They include examples of figurative language like a comparison between the flowers and “pools of lace.” This is juxtaposed against the “blank ants” that climb over the flowers. Rather than turning away from the less beautiful parts of nature, the poet is leaning into them, ensuring that readers get the full picture.
Stanzas Three and Four
boring their deep and mysterious holes
into the curls,
under the shifty wind,
as in a dance to the great wedding,
In the following stanzas, the speaker adds more details to her depiction of the natural world. The ants move interestingly around the flowers, “boring their deep and mysterious holes / into the curls.” She uses alliteration, such as with “sweet sap,” to help the overall rhythm and rhyme as well as other examples of juxtaposition. The ants carry their sap down into their “dark, underground cities.”
There is also a good example of a simile in the fourth line. The speaker compares the movements of the ants and their environment to “a dance.” This is expanded into the following lines.
Stanzas Five and Six
the flowers bend their bright bodies,
and tip their fragrance to the air,
and there it is again —
beauty the brave, the exemplary,
In the fifth and sixth stanzas, the speaker goes on to elaborate on the flowers. They “bend” and move, one more personified. She imbues the peonies with “beauty,” bravery, and recklessness. There is everything that’s beautiful and perfect about the natural world within their image.
Stanzas Seven – Nine
Do you love this world?
Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,
with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
The final three stanzas of ‘Peonies’ are slightly different than the ones that came before them. They’re still written as quatrains, but they contain several questions directed at the reader. These lines tap into themes that are quite common within Oliver’s writing, including humanity’s connection to the natural world and the importance of spending time in nature.
She asks the reader if they love the world and take the time to celebrate their simple life. Do you, she asks, run outside and gather the flowers into your arms and love them in that “wild and perfect” moment. It’s important, she implies, that one does so because everything in nature is fleeting. Soon, those same seemingly lively flowers are going to die and become “nothing, forever.”
Structure and Form
‘Peonies’ by Mary Oliver is a nine-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains are written in free verse. This means that the poem does not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are of very different lengths, with some as short as four words and some as long as eleven or twelve. Oliver’s poems are commonly written in free verse, as are most contemporary pieces of verse.
Throughout ‘Peonies,’ Oliver makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of lines. For example, “as the” in stanza one and “Do you” in stanza seven.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?” This can be done either through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “curls, / craving” in stanza three and “dark” and “day” in stanza four.
The tone is celebratory and reverential. The speaker spends the lines of the poem celebrating the beautiful scenes around her and the movements and habits of the natural world. Traditionally beautiful or not, she appreciates what she sees.
The purpose is to remind the reader of how important it is to spend time appreciating the beautiful things around them. They are all fleeting, and before one knows it, they’re going to be gone. This is the case for the natural world as well as broader concerns in one’s life.
The themes at work in this piece include nature and life’s fleeting beauty. The poet is also concerned with humanity’s connection to nature. These are themes that are commonly found within Oliver’s work and that she’s quite skilled at exploring.
The mood is contemplative and peaceful. Readers might also find themselves inspired to take the time, as Oliver’s speaker suggests, and step outside and appreciate what’s there before it’s all gone.
Readers who enjoy ‘Peonies’ should also consider reading other Mary Oliver poems. For example:
- ‘The Summer Day’ – is characteristic of much of her best writing. It focuses on nature and the purpose of life.
- ‘Sleeping in the Forest’ – a lyric poem that depicts a speaker’s experience in the natural world. She spends the night in the forest and is made better for it.
- ‘The Black Walnut Tree’ – a thoughtful poem about familial history. The poet depicts a discussion between herself and her mother.