“Wild Geese,” which first appeared in Mary Oliver’s Dream Work, published in 1986, is one of the poet’s most anthologized poems. It is also one of her most arresting. In it, she explores the connection between the human mind, nature in general, and wild geese in particular. Oliver is well noted for her poetry of the natural world, and she often relates animals and varieties of plant life to the human condition. Typical themes involve the beauty and wonders of nature and how much better the world would be if people were more in tune with it. In “Wild Geese,” she encourages the reader to be more imaginative and to shed loneliness by discovering his or her place “in the family of things”—namely, the family of sun and rain, prairies and trees, mountains, rivers, and, ultimately, wild geese flying home.
Although the premise of this poem may seem simple, or even trite, the real gut of its message is quite provocative. From its first line—rife with intriguing ambiguity—the poem draws the reader in with a sense of immediacy and a keen awareness of how “you” may be feeling and what “you” may be thinking. This is a brief poem written in casual language, but it still manages to be stimulating and powerful. Not all poets can pull that off, but Oliver is one of the noted few who can.
The first line of “Wild Geese” is one that many readers recall long after putting the poem aside. The use of the second person “you” may seem generic at first, but later in the poem, the reader understands that he or she is the one directly addressed. This line is ambiguous in meaning because one is not sure if the speaker is saying that “You do not have to be good” in the moral sense of good versus evil, or whether one does not have to be good at doing something. The first meaning is probably the one most people believe is intended, and the next two lines of the poem appear to verify it.
The religious connotation in lines 2 and 3 supports the notion that you do not have to be a “good” person if you do not want to be. The “walk on your knees” phrase implies someone praying or displaying worship, and the addition of “for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting” implies suffering and a willingness to be punished for sinful behavior. In general, the idea of crawling through a desert on one’s knees infers humility and an acceptance that one must “pay” for future comfort and happiness with present pain and sacrifice. More specifically, the notion refers to the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert without food or water, being tempted by Satan.
Lines 4 and 5 contain the first comparison of the human being to the natural world. The speaker claims that “your body” has a “soft animal” within it, and that you need to let it “love what it loves.” This idea of self-indulgence and personal pleasure is directly opposed to the previous description of self-abasement and repentance. Therefore, while the first three lines tell you what you “do not have to do,” these two lines explain what you “only” have to do.
Line 6 now brings the reader specifically into the poem. If the “you” seemed generic before, here the direct address is unmistakable. Note how the placement of the words in this line emphasizes the address: “Tell me about despair, yours.” If the line read, “Tell me about your despair,” think of how much weaker, and perhaps still generic, the second person would seem. As is, however, the speaker makes a very poignant request, calling attention to human despair and showing a strong willingness to share stories of it with the reader in particular.
These five lines imply that despair is a strictly human quality. While human beings may sit around and bemoan their misfortunes and hopeless states, “the world goes on.” The “world” here, however, belongs to nature. It is the world of sun and rain “moving across” earth’s various landscapes, “the prairies and the deep trees, / the mountains and the rivers.”
So far, the poem has addressed nature in somewhat general terms, but in these lines, a specific animal is identified. Like the sun, rain, and landscapes, however, the wild geese are going about their business, oblivious to human despair. The portrayal of a flock of geese flying “high in the clean blue air” is a pleasant scene, one that humankind could benefit from if people would pay more attention to the events in nature happening all around them.
Line 14 is another direct address to the reader, and it is clear that at least one form of despair the speaker fears “you” may be feeling is loneliness. Although the speaker may not know the reader personally, she says that “whoever you are,” if “you” are lonely and despairing, this poem is for “you.”
In these lines, the speaker reveals the method by which humans can relate to nature. The “world” here may be either the natural world or the human world, for both are available for whatever “your imagination” would like to make of them. This does not necessarily mean that people should live in imaginary worlds instead of trying to cope in the real one. Instead, by being creative and thoughtful, individuals can start to appreciate things they may have previously ignored and to see the beauty in nature to which they used to be blind. Line 16 compares the world that awaits your imagination to the calls of the wild geese, “harsh and exciting.” Although, the word “harsh” typically has a negative connotation, here it seems to imply only loud and determined.
The final two lines of “Wild Geese” are an assurance to readers that they are not alone in their loneliness. The speaker implies that the world is adamant about welcoming everyone into it, for it calls out “over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.” Here the “family” consists of all of nature—the sun and rain, rivers and mountains, and every member of the animal kingdom, including wild geese and human beings. One needs only to have a receptive imagination to find a place to belong.