The poem uses simple language throughout, allowing readers to explore the poet’s meaning without getting caught up in her syntax or diction. Readers should walk away from this piece considering how their lives relate to the crickets in ‘Song of the Builders.’
Explore Song of the Builders
‘Song of the Builders’ by Mary Oliver is a beautiful poem in which the speaker contemplates the nature of life and God.
In the first lines, the speaker describes how she decided to sit down and think about God. It was a great way to spend some time and it allowed her to observe a cricket moving grain from the hillside, one piece at a time. This monumental task captures her attention and inspires her to compare it to the best way human beings can live their own lives, working on small tasks, one at a time to build the universe.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
On a summer morning
to think about God –
In the first stanza of ‘Song of the Builders,’ the speaker begins by narrating a morning choice. She chose to sit down and think about “God” on a hillside. The fact that this poem is set outside in nature is not a surprise. Mary Oliver usually uses nature in her work, something that is once again successfully applied in the following stanzas. The language is quite simple here, something that is reflected in her other poems as well.
a worthy pastime.
it was moving the grains of the hillside
She refers to thinking about God as a “worthy pastime.” She doesn’t say how she’s thinking about him or what her opinion is but, thinking is itself a pleasure to her.
Taking the reader outside her mind, she describes a “single cricket” near to her. It was “moving the grains of the hillside.” The cricket, a very small creature, was engaged in a monumental and impossible task, moving the hillside one grain at a time. This is a great metaphor for the way that the poet is going to approach life a the end of the poem, with “humble… effort.”
this way and that way.
Let us hope
The cricket moved here and there, getting his work down with “great….energy.” It’s clear that the speaker admires the cricket’s movements and the way he continues to work, without knowing he has an audience. He is small and his task is unknown, conveying a humble attitude in his movements.
The speaker starts a line, addressing all of humankind, at the end of the third stanza. She says “Let us hope” before using an example of enjambment to cut the line off. This requires the reader to move down to the next line to find out what it is she’s hoping for. But, it should be clear by this point that it has something to do with the cricket’s attitude toward life.
it will always be like this,
building the universe.
The final quatrain presents the meaning of the poem. She hopes that it will “always be like this.” That all people, throughout time, go on with their lives, building up the world around them, “in…inexplicable ways.” We are, she says, “building the universe.” By acting humbly and with a clarity of purpose, one can live a good life, she concludes. Despite the smallness of these tasks, they are part of something larger.
‘Song of the Builders’ by Mary Oliver is a four-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. The stanzas are written in free verse. This means that the lines do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. End words like “morning,” “down,” “hillside,” and “God” (which are found in the first stanza) do not rhyme. The lines are also of different lengths and contain different numbers of syllables.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “sat” and “summer” in the first stanza and “way” used twice in the third stanza.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines two and three of the second stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. These should evoke an image in the reader’s mind and inspire them to use their senses. For example, “a single cricket; / it was moving the grains of the hillside.”
The tone of this poem is clear and reverential. The speaker uses direct language to describe the task the cricket is engaged in. She’s also appreciative of his actions and the way she represents humankind.
The purpose is to celebrate small and humble takes and elevate them to a higher level. This should inspire readers to continue on their paths and with their own work, as the cricket moves the grains of the hillside.
The speaker is someone who appreciates nature, thinks about god, and has an optimistic view of humankind. It may be the poet herself but without a clear reference to Oliver’s own experience, it’s impossible to say for certain this is the case.
The meaning is that small tasks in one’s life are of the utmost importance. Moving one grain of a hillside at a time may seem futile but if one continues working, they can accomplish great things. Having a humble attitude is part of this as well.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Song of the Builders’ should also consider reading some other Mary Oliver poems. For example:
- ‘I Worried’ – explores anxiety, overthinking, and worrying about everything, even though this never helps the situation.
- ‘Peonies’ – uses imagery to depict peonies. She also explores the importance of relishing in humanity’s connection to the natural world.
- ‘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.