Mary Oliver

The Waterfall by Mary Oliver

The Waterfall describes the narrator’s views of a waterfall. It uses images that create a picture of the beauty of this waterfall. Clearly seeing this waterfall was impactful on the narrator. Oliver is well known for writing based on her experiences growing up and therefore this poem is likely to be at least partially autobiographical. It is laden with comparisons of the different facets of the waterfall, this helps to herald the waterfall as a geographical feature of great significance. The narrator points several times to the fact that they wouldn’t be able to imagine something as beautiful as a waterfall. The underlying hint that only nature could create something so wonderful.

The Waterfall by Mary Oliver


Form and Tone

This poem is a beautiful piece filled with sweet imagery drawn from nature. This was very much a hallmark of poetry by Oliver. The poem is divided into nine stanzas all containing four lines. There is no pattern to the line length and no rhyming pattern is used. So the poem can be classed as free verse. The poem is light-hearted and uplifting as you would expect from a piece with so many references to nature.


The Waterfall Analysis

First stanza

For all the said,
its lace legs and its womanly arms sheeting down,

This first stanza of the poem, which can be read in full here, asks more questions than it answers. There is an ambiguity here in spades. The narrator says that they couldn’t see the waterfall until they came and saw the water falling. This is seemingly stating the obvious. There is an alternative meaning here but it is unclear what it is. The narrator’s description of the waterfall is majestic. Note the alliteration “lace legs” the narrator is attributing the waterfall with femininity. The use of the word “sheeting” is interesting as well. This gives the image of the water pouring in large “sheets”.


Second stanza

while something howled like thunder,

In the first stanza, the narrator describes the visible appearance of the waterfall and in the first line of this stanza, they focus instead on the sound that it makes. It is described as being like Thunder. The use of the verb unspooling is interesting here as it gives the impression that the waterfall is unwinding itself. This is another example of how Oliver manages to compare the natural world to seemingly unrelated objects or actions.


Third stanza

like ribbons made of snow,
it fell without a break or seam, and slowly, a simple

In any other medium aside from poetry, this expanded description would probably seem melodramatic. The narrator is seemingly describing the long, stretching nature of the water from a waterfall and likens it to ribbons made of snow, perhaps the reason that they are likened to snow is that the spray from a waterfall is white. The fact that this is evident at any distance suggests that the waterfall is a large one. This explains the use of “gods hair” god is used to signify grandeur and impress upon the reader a sense of scale. The final line of this stanza runs on into the next stanza.


Fourth stanza

preponderance –
light-hearted to be

The use of preponderance is significant here. It is placed in a line by itself in order to emphasize its importance. It suggests that the narrator feels the waterfall is a greater force than themselves. Once again this gives the falls a sense of majesty. Then the beauty of the falls is highlighted by likening it to flowers falling. I think this is meant to be descriptive. It could be taken literally but it doesn’t appear to be the case. In the third line of this stanza, the narrator personifies the air. Allocating it the emotion of kindness. This is probably used to describe the crisp, fresh air that you often get near large bodies of water. It is also described as being light-hearted. The use of light is almost a double entendre as there is a phrase saying something is “lighter than air”.


Fifth stanza

flying at last.
It is always underfoot,

It is notable that the narrator has chosen to describe the air as flying. This of course had run on from the previous stanza. Quite a few of these enjambment lines appear in the poem and have the words flowing from one stanza into the next much in the way water flows. The narrator then seemingly attributes the flow of the waterfall to gravity (which is scientifically accurate!) they then make a playful quip by saying that gravity is underfoot. This could be taken literally.


Sixth stanza

like a summons,
and imagination –

When the narrator says “like a summons” it is unclear if they are still referencing gravity or if they are now once again referring to the waterfall itself, suggesting that people are drawn to it. It really does seem like the narrator has a limitless combination of ways of describing the waterfall. This time the focus seems to be on the rocks behind the “sheets” of water. The narrator’s use of imagination in the last line suggests that this is an area that causes people’s imaginations to flourish.


Seventh stanza

that striver,
hardly everything. The white, scrolled

Here we begin to understand what it is the narrator is referencing in regards to the imagination. In this stanza, the narrator talks about the qualities of the imagination but points to its limitations. They emphasize that it can’t do everything. The suggestion then is that the imagination couldn’t concoct anything like a waterfall.


Eighth stanza

wings of the tumbling water
after all,

There is a lovely description of the waterfall in this first line. It is described as having wings. The image it is trying to evoke is of the water flying through the air. The narrator reiterates that they couldn’t have imagined a waterfall. A sense of mystery is created with the enjambment line at the end as we are left temporarily not knowing what there “will be”.


Ninth stanza

some slack and perfectly balanced

In the second line of this stanza, the narrator uses a stunning oxymoron. Mentioning the rough peace. This is being used to describe the stillness of the water at the base of the waterfall and draws a nice comparison between the dynamic nature of the fall itself in comparison to the still water below.


About Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver is an American poet. She was born in Ohio. Her father was a teacher and this resulted in Oliver excelling at school. She started writing poetry at the age of fourteen. She published her first poetry collection in 1963 it was called “No Voyage and Other Poems” her poetry is like classical romantic poets and she uses nature a lot, both symbolically and as a subject matter. Her poetry is often centered around her experiences growing up.

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Lee-James Bovey Poetry Expert
Lee-James, a.k.a. LJ, has been a Poem Analysis team member ever since Novemer 2015, providing critical analysis of poems from the past and present. Nowadays, he helps manage the team and the website.
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