Sleeping in the Forest

Mary Oliver

‘Sleeping in the Forest’ by Mary Oliver is 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.


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.

Sleeping in the Forest‘ uses a variety of beautiful images and literary devices in order to describe what the speaker saw and felt. She abandoned herself to the movements of nature in order to experience a new way of life. In the morning, she described herself as having vanished:

at least a dozen times

into something better.

Sleeping in the Forest by Mary Oliver


Sleeping in the Forest’ by Mary Oliver is a beautiful poem about one speaker’s connection to nature.

The poet’s speaker describes going out into the forest to spend the night in the darkness. She depicts the sounds of the various small kingdoms and creatures going about their nightly tasks. She sees sights and hears sounds that she wouldn’t normally during the day. This experience is one that elevates her beyond her everyday life and her humanity. She spends the night in luminous darkness and loses herself several times.

You can read the full poem here.


Throughout ‘Sleeping in the Forest,’ Oliver engages with the themes of nature. The speaker spends the entirety of the poem out in the natural world, sleeping in the darkness of the night. Despite the darkness, she was provided with a luminous experience. She felt connected to the natural world in a way that she hadn’t before. It’s clear from the lines of this piece that the speaker values this connection highly. It made her feel alive in a new way.

Structure and Form

Sleeping in the Forest’ by Mary Oliver is a seventeen-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, the majority of the lines are between six and ten syllables in length. This helps create a feeling of unity without a singular structure. Oliver also makes use of literary devices with this same end goal in mind.

Literary Devices

Throughout ‘Sleeping in the Forest,’ Mary Oliver makes use of several literary devices. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “seeds” and “slept” in line four and “breathing” and “birds” in lines eleven and twelve.
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines one, two, and three.
  • Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line of text. For example, “on the riverbed, nothing” and “I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling.” These can be created either through the use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter.
  • Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly effective descriptions. For example, “the white fire of the stars” and “luminous doom.” These are meant to trigger the reader’s senses, making them feel something.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-7

I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars

In the first lines of ‘Sleeping in the Forest,’ the speaker begins by describing what it was like to sleep in the forest. She “thought” that the earth had taken her back “tenderly,” remembering her from the times she’d been there before. (This is an example of personification. The poet gives the earth the capacity to feel.) There was a feeling of peace and oneness with the earth. The poet’s speaker describes herself as “a stone / on the riverbed.” This is a great example of a simile. She’s not saying she was a stone, but that she felt like one.

Her position in the forest left her exposed to the world. There were no boundaries between her and the “white fire of the stars.” This is a beautiful image, one that evokes a feeling of aliveness and peace. The speaker is clearly happy there in the wood.

Lines 8-17

but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

In the next lines, she adds that the only thing that separated her from the stars was her “thoughts.” This element of her existence separates her from the rest of the natural world. But, despite their presence, they didn’t do much to restrict her ability to draw close to nature. They drifted peacefully, like “light as moths among the branches.” This simile helps the reader envisions not only where the speaker is but what the atmosphere is like. There is an almost mystical quality to this experience.

In the next lines, she describes how she heard the “small kingdoms” of various creatures living and breathing around her. They “do their work in the darkness.” These small sounds are ones that one wouldn’t notice if they stayed home or even if they were walking through the woods during the day.

Another simile follows in the next section of lines when the speaker describes her experience overnight. She drifted up and down “as if in water,” contending with the “luminous doom.” The last two words are an example of an oxymoron. They suggest that the darkness, despite its lack of light, illuminated the world for the speaker. She learned something about herself and the rest of her existence.

The final lines of the poem are metaphorical and quite moving. The speaker describes how she’d “vanished at least a dozen times / into something better” by morning. She lost track of her own humanity during the night, experiencing the world from a series of new perspectives. These, she asserts, were better than how she looks at the world normally.


What is the tone of ‘Sleeping in the Forest?’

The tone is peaceful and celebratory. The speaker spends the lines relishing her experience in the natural world and using clear, tranquil-sounding lines to celebrate everything she saw and experienced.

What is the mood of ‘Sleeping in the Forest?’

The mood is contemplative, and hopefully, inspiring. The lines are likely meant to inspire readers to seek out a similar experience or at least appreciate the experience that the speaker had.

Why did Mary Oliver write ‘Sleeping in the Forest?’

Oliver likely wrote this poem, as she did many of her others, in order to share her love of the natural world. It might inspire readers to go out and try to have the same kind of transcendent experience her speaker had in the lines of this poem.

What is the meaning of ‘Sleeping in the Forest?’

The meaning of ‘Sleeping in the Forest’ is that spending time in nature is often a good way to forget about one’s existence and tap into something deeper and more meaningful. One can connect to nature and leave behind their humanity for a brief period of time.

Who is the speaker in ‘Sleeping in the Forest?’

It’s unknown who the speaker in ‘Sleeping in the Forest’ is. But, it could be Mary Oliver herself, considering the relationship this poem has to others she wrote throughout her life. Perhaps, she had a similar experience to the one described here or was seeking one out.

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘Sleeping in the Forest’ should also consider reading other Mary Oliver poems. For example:

  • Wild Geese’ – expresses what one must do in order to lead a good life. One should be true to nature and the beauty found in it.
  • The Journey’ – describes the emotional and mental turmoil of someone wanting to end one unhealthy life and begin anew in a different world.
  • Flare’ – encourages the reader to “rise up” from their “stump of sorrow” and realize the joy of the present.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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