Wild Geese Themes
by Mary Oliver

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Wild Geese Themes

(Poetry for Students)

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Nature and Humankind
The reader does not have to know that Mary Oliver is a nature poet to know that “Wild Geese” is a nature poem. That fact resonates throughout the work, as it compares nature’s condition to the human condition. As with most poems that make this comparison, nature comes out on top. One should not dismiss the work as another tirade on how bad people are and how good animals, plants, mountains, and so forth are. The person addressed here is lonely but not necessarily bad. Although the speaker declares up front that “You do not have to be good,” there is no indication that “you” are anything other than despairing and lonely. That description, of course, evokes more pity for the human condition than anger or animosity.

“Wild Geese” is also different from many other natural world vs. human world poems in its portrayal of nature’s response to humanity. Sometimes poets describe nature as indifferent or superior to people, essentially ignoring human suffering and rebuffing any attempt by an individual to be more compassionate about it. But in Oliver’s poem, nature—“ the world”—is both sympathetic and welcoming to human beings. It uses the voices of wild geese to call out to individuals in despair and to let them know that there is a place for them in nature’s family. The overall theme, then, is not that nature is superior to humankind, but that humans could be just as content, just as carefree as nature if they wanted to. This sentiment, obviously, oversimplifies the poem’s main premise, but the bottom line is that the troubled human condition could be eased somewhat by letting “your imagination” be more creative and natural.

Hedonism is defined as the pursuit of things that bring pleasure, especially pleasure to the senses. The first five lines of “Wild Geese” suggest a favorable response to this philosophy. Although the first line may appear ambiguous, at least one of its meanings is clear: you do not have to be “good” in the religious or moral sense of showing humility, contrition, and repentance as exemplified throughout religious teachings. In other words, you do not have to be like Jesus of the New Testament who proved allegiance to God by spending forty days in the desert refusing temptations by Satan. Lines 4 and 5 capture the essence of the hedonistic belief that seeking personal, physical pleasure should outweigh any spiritual endeavors. The speaker implies that the surest avenue to happiness is “to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” Animals, after all, do not think in terms of morality or of good and evil. They simply follow their natural instincts, which are comprised of built-in survival tactics. Staying alive is the goal of wild geese, cows, elephants, oak trees, petunias, and so on, but human beings must contend with something more—something called a conscience. It is unlikely that the intent of this theme is to promote abandoning the checks and balances that the human conscience places on behavior in favor of total self-indulgence and physical pleasure. It seems apparent, however, that an occasional delve into hedonism is recommended, at least for the sake of relieving a bit of despair and loneliness.