The Son

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver was an American author of poetry and prose.

She won the National Book Award in 1992; and the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.

‘The Son’ explores themes of childhood, male/female, and parenting. The mood is solemn as the speaker reminisces on her inability to please her parents in her youth. It lightens somewhat at the end as it becomes clear that she has come to terms with who she is and who her parents would like her to be. 

The Son by Mary Oliver

Summary of The Son 

The Son’ by Mary Oliver is a simple, moving poem that looks back at a speaker’s youth and her parent’s desire for a son. 

The poem takes the reader through the speaker’s disconnection from her parents. She was born a girl, the only child to parents who really wanted a son. The speaker knew this desire was present and she did what she could to transform herself into the child they wanted. No matter what she did there was still a separation and she eventually had to come to terms with that. 

Structure of The Son 

The Son’ by Mary Oliver is a forty-line poem that is contained within one single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, they are all similar in length, mostly all somewhere between two syllables and six syllables long. A number of the lines only contain one, two or three words. This helps the reader move quickly through the text, analyzing and understanding the speaker’s situation as a cascade of words and images. 

Poetic Techniques in The Son 

Oliver makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Son’. These include alliteration, anaphora, simile, and enjambment. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “too torn” in line nine and  “miracle of myself” in line thirty-eight.

Oliver also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. The best examples come at the end of the poem where multiple lines start with “in” and “their”. 

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. For instance, the transitions between lines one, two, and three. 

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. For example, line fourteen where the speaker describes her ability to shoot a gun. 

Analysis of The Son 

Lines 1-12

The son my father never had
lived with me
fed me,
but the longing was clear.

In the first lines of ‘The Son,’ the speaker begins by outlining a desire her father had that she’s very aware of. That is, to have a son. She, being born a girl, was unable to fulfill this need her father had. It’s something that she lived with. She would think about the boy her father would’ve liked for her to be before she goes to sleep. The speaker would imagine him and his “strong wrists”. 

Providing the reader with some more detail, the speaker adds that having another child was an impossibility for her mother. She was “too torn” from giving birth to the speaker for another birth to be possible. She bore a daughter and that was all there was to be. 

Lines 13-24

I could fight like a boy
Of course I dreamed
a miracle would happen.

In reaction to this need that she sensed from her father, she did what she could to fill the gap in his heart. She wanted to please him, to be the child he wanted to the best of her ability. This meant that she learned how to “fight” and “shoot” a gun like a boy. She could act as a male child would. 

The separation between herself, the son her father wanted, and the person she really was on the inside was harmful to her. She had a hard time coming to understand her own role in the world and was “afraid of” things like her “own body”. It was “cranky and mysterious” as water is. She even dreamed that a “miracle” would happen. That there would be another child or somehow she would transform into another person to make her parents happy. 

Lines 25-40

How they loved him,
his swagger, his long legs!
So, in the end,
the miracle of myself,
their dreams,
their despair.

In the last lines of ‘The Son’, she refers to “they,” her parents, and how they loved the idea of a son. They could imagine and take pleasure in the child they wished they’d had. But, the speaker does not feel anger towards them. In fact, she states that she pities them because of “the sorrow / that hangs in the air”. There was always a distance between then and even now some of that distance remains. She greets her parents as “kindly” as she can. 

The final lines of the poem list out the aspects of the speaker’s body, those she has finally come to understood and accept. She has “long and shining hair” and a softness that the idealized male child would not. The poem ends on a lighter note than it began on. It is clear that she has moved past her parent’s unhappiness and decided to embrace her own life.

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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