Within ‘The Journey’ Mary Oliver delves into themes of struggle and strength/determination. These are represented through various symbols relating to a house, natural elements like the wind, and the landscape.
In the first lines of this piece the speaker addresses “you”. The second person narration means that the reader is included in the poem. They are part of the story and are therefore asked to consider themselves within the same situation as the intended listener.
The speaker describes how this person reached a point in their life when they knew “what they had to do”. Voices follow this person, trying to get them to return to the past and focus on them instead. But, this listener does not give in. They continue to move forward and brave the uneven path that is set out before them.
The speaker states that it was “already late enough”. The listener had wasted enough of their life paying attention to the voices. Now there is no time to spare in moving into the new world. Once the old voice has dissipated, “you” were able to hear a new voice. It took a moment to realize that this voice was “your own”. The listener moves away from the world they knew, and “deeper and deeper” into a new one. The only thing they have on their mind at this point is to save their own life.
You can read the full poem here.
Due to the deeply metaphorical nature of ‘The Journey,’ there are several themes a reader can investigate within Oliver’s poem. The text includes themes related to the progression of time/life, strength, and renewal. The latter is one of the most poignant as it only makes itself known in the concluding lines of ‘The Journey’.
When the poem begins the reader is introduced to “One day” in “your life”. It is chaotic, with various symbols representing struggle, discontent, anger, and strife. But, towards the end of the poem the mood and tone lighten, and the second person subject “you” strides “deeper and deeper / into the world” with determination. There is light ahead, and the ability to save “the only life you could save”. This is a true showing of strength that ends the poem on a very optimistic note.
‘The Journey’ by Mary Oliver is a thirty-six-line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines do not follow one specific rhyme scheme, but there are moments of half or slant rhyme, as well as full rhyme at the end of, and in the middle of lines. Oliver chose to make use of these scattered instances of rhyme in order to provide the text with some rhythmic unity, but not get bogged down by a particular structure. This technique also ensures that the focus remains on the images and their meanings.
For example, the endings of lines one and three rhyme perfectly, with the words “knew” and “you”. The word “you” is used so many times in the text that it works as a connecting element from the beginning to the end. This makes sense as the entire poem is about re-centering oneself in one’s own life.
There are a number of examples of half or slant rhyme in the text as well. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “life” and “cried” in lines ten and eleven. They are connected due to their similar long “i” sound. There is an example of consonance in line twenty-one with “full” and “fallen” and the repetition of the double “l”.
Oliver makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Journey’. These include metaphor, enjambment, and alliteration. The first, metaphor, is the most important technique in the poem. The entire piece is one long extended metaphor for life itself.
A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. The “journey” that’s referred to in the title is that of life itself. Through the image of a house, a reader is taken through the ups and downs of existence. There are challenges, represented through the elements, the roads, and nighttime.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “fingers” and “foundations” in lines fifteen and sixteen and “full of fallen” in line twenty-one.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout the poem because of Oliver’s sporadic use of punctuation. For instance, the transition between lines one and two as well as four and five.
Analysis of The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
In the first lines of ‘The Journey,’ the speaker begins by addressing a specific listener. This is less a single person than it is a type of person going through an intense emotional and mental transformation. The speaker describes how this person reached a point in their life when they knew “what they had to do”. Once they knew it, they began to make positive changes.
It was as if they reached a mark and finally stepped over it. Once they were on the other side they were able to ignore the voices, even though they “kept shouting”. They gave the listener bad advice and tried tactics that had worked in the past. The voices, which could be representative of people known to the listener, or alternative mental voices that have too much control, shook the world around them.
Just as this person had experienced many times over, they felt their old life and their old choices tugging at their ankles. They were moving away from a certain way of living, and into a new world. The fact that the speaker does not give any great detail about who this kind of person is, or the life they’re leaving behind, or even the life they are entering, allows the reader to project their own experiences onto “you”.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
though their melancholy
In the next lines of ‘The Journey,’ the voices cry out to “you”. They ask this person to stop what they’re doing and go back to mending their lives. The voices want “you” not to focus on yourself, but to focus on them. From these lines, it is clear that the person, or people this poem is about, had in the past dedicated themselves to the care of others. But now, this person knows what they have to do.
This is made clear by the fact that they are able to resist the wind which pried at them with its fingers. This is a haunting use of personification made even more impactful by the circumstances. The listener is able to ignore the melancholic voices, even though their sound and emotional quality were terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
Continuing on in ‘The Journey,’ the speaker states that it was “already late enough”. Enough time has already passed, the listener does not want to waste any more of their life living as they used to. And, they have a hard road ahead. It is full of fallen branches and stones. The path is a difficult one to walk, but, little by little, this person is able to leave their past, and all the greedy voices behind. As this person transitions from one life to the next, the sky begins to clear. They have their own renewed sense of purpose and direction.
Once the old voice has dissipated, “you” were able to hear a new voice. It took a moment to realize that this voice was “your own”. The fact that it took a period of time to recognize the sound of the voice, speaks to the fact that it had been a long time since this person took heed of their own thoughts and desires.
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Now, it is that voice that keeps “you” company as a very different journey begins. The listener moves away from the world they knew, and “deeper and deeper” into a new one. The only thing they have on their mind at this point is to save their own life. It is now the only thing “you could do”.
This alludes to the dangerous spot the listener was in. It was now or never, they had to get out and move on. The repetition in these final lines, through the use and reuse of end words, gives the phrases greater importance when considered with the rest of the poem.