How would you analyze the poem "Summer Day" by Mary Oliver?

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missy575 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Mary Oliver's "Summer Day" centers on the thoughts of wonder a speaker has while noticing the natural world of a grasshopper on a summer day.

This poem undergoes a significant shift in tone between lines 10 and 11. From an optimistic wonder about the workings of a grasshopper to a questioning of conscience about injecting another purpose into what she already understands as a certain manner of living; the speaker seems conflicted.

The author employs anaphora, the repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighboring clauses. This could also be parallelism, or repetition. This helps give emphasis and create rhythm.

The central message of the poem is similar to other works of Oliver's that compare to Emily Dickenson. Oliver establishes vivid imagery of a joyful condition of the world, and then inserts a questionable dark element for the purpose of making the reader think or question. In this case, she introduces the idea that she doesn't "know exactly what a prayer is." This demonstrates a longing to know if religion is real or even effective. Ironically she then lists a series of actions under which prayer takes place:

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Interestingly, she suggests many of the actions Jesus Christ and other authors suggested in the bible:

  • pay attention
  • fall prostrate
  • kneel
  • "be still and know that I am God"
  • walk with God

This could be considered an allusion to the bible, but she certainly plays with it enough to make it as if she is blatantly incapable of prayer.

She finishes with her speaker asking deep questions about life. These questions address life and death, but particularly what one should do with the life they are given.

The central message of this poem is to identify one's purpose. This is summed up in her conclusive question:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

This is the only "you" she uses throughout the poem indicating a move from an author who portrays a message, to an author interested in engaging in relationship. She challenges the reader with two important but oxymoronic adjectives when describing life. This diction proves that the power of life is extreme. It is worth experiencing to the fullest and protecting with caution.