It’s important to take care of yourself on this journey called life. With work and social obligations eating up a lot of time, self-care and growth can fall to the wayside. When looking for inspiration to go in a different direction, poetry is an excellent place to turn.
Mary Oliver’s ‘The Journey’ is a poem that makes you think. Known for writing about nature, this poem strays from the poet’s usual path. Most importantly, it makes you think about yourself. If you’re starting introspective journey for a new path, you have come to the right place.
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.
“The Journey” tells the story of someone on, well, a journey. They start at a turning point, where they know it is time to leave things behind to move forward on a new life path. The reader is not given a straight answer on where they are going, but they are led through the things that brought them to this decision.
There is bad advice being given, and the person is being pressured to help those around them without any time for themselves. They have gotten to a point of no return, no going back. They know they need to move on and let go of the things in their life holding them back. Starting during the day, the story transitions into nightfall as they move further in the direction of their chosen path.
Addressing the reader, the poem encourages them to be put into the shoes of the person in the poem. Going from day to night shows the progression of the decision they are making to remove the bad parts of their life to continue living without them.
The poem ends on the note that they realize that they must take care of themselves first and foremost. Taking advice from others was not working, and the only way to move forward is to stop giving in to requests from others to fix their lives. An important story is being told here in a small amount of words.
Running through the poem is a theme of darkness. This is seen with word choices such as ‘bad advice,’ ‘melancholy,’ etc. These are not words chosen to be light and fun. They show how weighed down the person is by those around them and that the feelings they are having are not great.
While the entire poem is a metaphor for life being a journey and the end is positive, even the language of “save the only life that you could,” indicates a darkness in the world around them. Are everyone’s lives in danger? These metaphors can be applied to life now amid a pandemic with uncertainty at every turn. The perspective one may have had probably changed drastically as the world did.
Instead of being completely general, this poem also focuses on one individual person, and the reader can put themselves in their shoes. The person is struggling with a relatable issue that many people face, which is bad relationships and memories. At the risk of sounding hokey, the theme of this poem is a journey.
Mary Oliver’s poems usually focus on the world of nature and spirituality. While this one addresses the reader and brings attention to the human component, she still incorporates nature with the wind and other symbolism.
Upon reading the first lines, you know this is going to be good. Just like you, the person being written about knows it is time to make changes. A turning point is here, and a new path will be formed. The people around them are giving them advice that just won’t do, and they need to break free and move forward.
The house mentioned in line 6 symbolizes the person in question trembling beneath the words of others telling them what to do, and how that advice isn’t necessarily good. The relationships people have can be draining at times, and the weight of others asking for help with their own lives can deter people from working on themselves. The voices in the poem are yelling “Mend my life!” which is a common request in other words from others. When you care about someone, it can be difficult to deny them the emotional energy they demand.
The line “you knew what you had to do,” cements that they know it is time to leave all of the badness behind and take control of their own life again. Cutting ties and leaving those behind who aren’t good for you is an incredibly hard task. Once the decision is made, sticking with it is the part that people struggle with the most. Another interpretation here is letting go not of people and relationships, but of a bad past memory that has been holding you back.
One of the hardest things to do in relationships of any kind is to say the dreaded word, “no.” The person in this poem is making the tough decision to deny the requests of those around them, and push the bad advice back. The wind mentioned in line 14 symbolizes the pressure and stress caused by the nagging words of others that is holding them back. Working to get through it, they escape the grips to continue working to get rid of the weight.
The symbolism continues with the stars breaking through the clouds, where the person is reaching clarity. By the end of the poem, it is nightfall, symbolizing the change getting further away from the issues they are escaping. The road is full of branches and stones that they are leaving behind, as well. The stones and branches could symbolize the people and memories they are trying to forget, left behind on the road to blow away and not return. When letting go of people and memories, getting rid of physical memories is one of the first steps in release.
As the cloud disappear and clarity is reached, they are seeing their new life in front of them. The night and day symbolism is a clear way to distinguish the progression in their choices. Without being drowned out by the sound of other voices, they are able to hear their own voice and think. The line “as you left their voice behind, the stars began to burn,” symbolizes clarity coming as they stop listening to the voices.
While it may not be actual physical distance between them and the memories, the visual of a road leading away from them shows the growth and change. It isn’t always possible to get that physical distance, but the imagery is something you can see in your head to help you move on. Latching onto the past can hinder any forward movement, so letting go in some regard will help, and this poem shows that.
The ending line of being determined to do the only thing that you could do, is save the only life that you could, implying their own life. This is a very important moment as the poem ends. They have finished their realization period and have gotten to the point of leaving it behind to start new.
The reader is left to hope they work on themselves and reach the goals they have set. It is open for interpretation how they do this, but the why is made clear throughout. The story can be applied to any aspect of life, and be inspiration for someone to do the same.
‘The Journey’ is a free verse poem that does not have your standard rhyme scheme. While rhyming does occur in some lines, it isn’t consistent throughout. One standout rhyme is the first line: “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voice around you,” do and you rhyme, but again it is not consistent in the entire poem. Being written with the word “you,” addresses the reader to help them read the poem as it it’s about themselves.
As far as time goes, the poem follows the line of one day, but a day after much consideration. Earlier the term ‘turning point’ was used, and that’s where this poem begins. The person has been thinking about letting go for a while, and it is finally time. The reader is joining them right as they have made the final decision and it is time for them to move on with their life. Where were they before? The reader doesn’t have to know. This decision is so relatable in so many ways.
The structure and “you” approach make this a relatable poem and easy to read. The words used are simple and get the point across without being too wordy. The quotation of “mend my life!” is something everyone has heard at least once in some form. The writing makes this an accessible poem for those who may find the entire world of poetry to be daunting.
Overall, ‘The Journey’ is a poem that almost anyone can relate to. Who hasn’t been in a position where they had to cut someone out, or knew it was time to change their lifestyle? There are no specifics tied to the reasons why this person is choosing to take the journey, so the reader can fill in the blanks with people or situations from their own lives.
For the world’s current timeline, many people are choosing to make changes in their life. The time of isolation experienced globally was a time for introspect. This poem does an excellent job of encompassing that feeling of wanting to decide, getting to the point where you know it’s the right one, and needing to do it at that exact moment. If you wait too long, you may not follow through, and that’s why you must act at that second.
Poetry is a place to seek inspiration and enjoyment. A poem like this can inspire you to think about yourself and what you have going on in your life. Through symbolism and interpretation, the reader can take the good out of the poem to apply to their own situation. That makes it a great poem.
A simple takeaway from this poem is to make time for yourself. It is perfectly fine to say no to someone, and if something isn’t good for you, get it out of your life. Now is as good a time as any to make changes to redirect the course of your life. Whether that be leaving memories behind, or people that just aren’t good for you.
Bringing yourself to the turning point is a journey in itself, and once you get there crossing the bridge is even harder. Hopefully this poem inspires you to pinpoint what it is holding you back, and let it go. Life is all about journeys and changes, and the important part is coming to terms with this.
To sum it up, there’s nothing like a poem involving the reader to get your mind moving. Whether this poem encourages you to make major life changes, or think about things a little differently, it has something for everyone.