When Death Comes Sum Mary Oliver When Death Comes Meaning, Mary Oliver


Mary Oliver is a contemporary poet from Maple Heights, Ohio. She has won the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and was described by The New York Times as “far and away, America’s best-selling poet.” Her early influence came from visiting the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay at the age of 17. Soon after, she moved in to live with Millay’s sister and spent the next 6-7 years there. Her first collection of poetry, entitled No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963. Writing in the vein of Whitman and Thoreau, Oliver is known for her vivid and powerful depictions of nature. Some consider her to be a regionalist, as many of her poems draw inspiration from her childhood homes in both Ohio and New England. Oliver has been known to keep to herself and prefers her poetry to speak for her; in this regard, many have compared her to Emily Dickinson. Her works have been described as an ”indefatigable guide to the natural world” and “ on the primacy of the physical” by various critics. Some in the feminist movement have criticized her works, however, as they feel as though women cannot empower themselves through identifying with nature. Nevertheless, Mary Oliver is widely regarded as one of the greatest female poets in American history.

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“The Journey” Text

One day you finally knewwhat you had to do, and began,though the voices around youkept shoutingtheir bad advice –though the whole housebegan to trembleand you felt the old tugat your ankles.“Mend my life!”each voice cried.But you didn’t stop.You knew what you had to do,though the wind priedwith its stiff fingersat the very foundations,though their melancholywas terrible.It was already lateenough, and a wild night,and the road full of fallenbranches and stones.But little by little,as you left their voices behind,the stars began to burnthrough the sheets of clouds,and there was a new voicewhich you slowlyrecognized as your own,that kept you companyas you strode deeper and deeperinto the world,determined to dothe only thing you could do –determined to savethe only life you could save.

“The Journey” Analysis – Nicholas Gupta

“The Journey” by Mary Oliver is a poem about the journey one takes through life in order to become an individual. From the beginning of the poem the speaker introduces us to the sudden realization that we can listen to our own self-conscious and still excel through life. ”The voices around us” the voices of society, do nothing but “shout their bad advice”. We live in a world where in order to be considered “normal” we must conform to society. The speaker leaves us with the daunting task to find our own voice, in a world where society seems to speak for everyone.

We begin our expedition with a feeling of being lost in an environment so large, but as soon as we understand that our heart, the natural road map we are all instilled with, is the key to our success, that feeling of being lost quickly transitions to the feeling of Transcendental bliss. As we depart on our journey that Mary Oliver invites us to take, it is not to long into it when we hear voices. However these voices are not the ones that we want to hear. “Mend my life! each voice cried”.  As with any society, there are always people asking for help. There are always people in need of care, but this journey requires us to continue despite “their melancholy” calls for help.

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As we learn to step away from a world where society controls our every move, it is only then that we are able to make the leap into the new world. The world led by our own voice. Nevertheless that jump is not easy because along the way we will be walking along a “road full of branches and stones.” These branches and stones are Oliver’s way of representing the many hardships and problems that we will encounter along the way. “Little by little” one step at a time it will become easier to leave the past behind and continue down the path. The next five lines are what I believe to be the changing point or climax of the poem. “The stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own”. The sudden realization or light bulbs which are represented by the stars started to emerge in our brain and burn through the sheets of clouds that represent the previously uncertain thoughts we may have had about breaking from society. It is at this point that we recognize our own voice, a voice that has actually kept us company and guided us throughout our journey. This is our conscious, the voice of our hearts. This was the voice that saved us.

Link to a critical analysis of “The Journey”Link to a video poem for “The Journey”

“What I Have Learned So Far” Text

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should Inot sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,looking into the shining world? Because, properlyattended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.Can one be passionate about the just, theideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet committo no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has astory, all kindness begins with the sown seed.Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel oflight is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

“What I Have Learned So Far” Analysis – Daniel Nazzaro

In “What I Have learned so Far”, one of Mary Oliver’s finest works, she states that meditation is “honorable” and believes that she should in fact partake in this ancient practice. She sees, as many transcendentalists did, that a certain peace can be found in nature that can’t be found anywhere else. Oliver even goes so far as to say that she should meditate on a hillside “every morning of life”. When she says she will meditate every morning she is showing her dedication to something that she really believes in.

Political correctness was not in Mary Oliver’s dictionary. This was a most formidable trait, because Mary was purely a realist and she had no problem saying what she thought about the world and society, this poem being a prime example. Mary takes on a belief many American’s have, namely college and high school students, that just claiming to be passionate about a cause but not take action shows that you are not indeed genuinely passionate. One of the most modern day examples of this “false passion” would be the so-called “Kony 2012 movement”. High school and College students were “up in arms” when the news of this evil Warlord in Africa, who used child soldiers, gained media attention via YouTube. These students felt by watching a 30 minute video they were transformed into social activists. Unbeknownst to them Warlords had been waging wars, using child soldiers and even committing genocide before Joseph Kony was even born.

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The last sentence of the poem “Be ignited, or be gone,” cuts deep into the reader. This is Mary Oliver’s wake up call to the world, her way to tell everyone to take a look in the mirror and figure out what their priorities are. If you are going to do something you must be fully dedicated, and motivated enough to go out and, at least try, to fight for what you believe in.

Link to video poem for “What I Have Learned So Far” on the internet

“When Death Comes” Text

When death comeslike the hungry bear in autumn;when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;when death comeslike the measle-pox

when death comeslike an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everythingas a brotherhood and a sisterhood,and I look upon time as no more than an idea,and I considr eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as commonas a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and somethingprecious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my lifeI was a bride married to amazement.I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonderif I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightenedor full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

“When Death Comes” Analysis – Jake Brady

Of all the intangible topics humans have tackled since the dawn of time, death has possibly caused the most controversy. Some prefer to take a more spiritual approach, claiming that we will all be judged by an omniscient being when the time comes, while others state that there is no way of knowing the true answer. In her poem “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver tackles this difficult subject and provides somewhat of an avant-garde solution through the use of simile, metaphor and imagery.

Oliver begins the poem by comparing death to an animal when she states, “When death comes / like the hungry bear in autumn.” From the start, this greatly simplifies things for the reader, as visual comparisons are generally simple to grasp. The bear touches on the greater theme of nature that is present in many of Oliver’s poems. It is possible that, rather than describing death through the use of complicated devices, the author feels as if the natural world gives us the best explanations for our questions. From this point, Oliver utilizes figure of speech multiple times in equating death with someone that “takes all the bright coins from his purse / to buy me,” “the measle-pox,” and “an iceberg between the shoulder blades.” These descriptions seem to argue that death can manifest itself in a myriad forms and any attempt at creating a singular description is most likely futile.

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In the following lines, Oliver seems to present the viewpoint that her mere meditations on death are pushing her to reimagine the world. For example, after proposing that death is similar to a “cottage of darkness,” she quickly states that she will now “look upon everything / as a brotherhood and a sisterhood.” To her, time is “no more than an idea,” as all of us share this common point at which things drastically change. In Oliver’s opinion, life is a fluid thing and doesn’t necessarily have an ending point; therefore, this world should be viewed as a community, “each life as a flower, as common / as a field daisy.” This collective mindset is also compared to “a comfortable music in the mouth,” which eventually, “as all music does, toward silence.”

Oliver continues her metaphorical speech with the statement, “each body a lion of courage, and something / precious to the earth.” Here, the author is making the claim that, as beings who share a common mission, we are all unique and important to this planet. Again, the theme of nature is present, as an animal is used for comparison purposes. In the next stanza, Oliver turns inward to offer her thoughts on what she wants to ultimately get out of death. She states that, as her life is ending, she wants to be able to view it retrospectively and say, “I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.” To Oliver, the awe that this topic inspires is the driving force behind living a life full of wonder and joy. It’s not about, as she puts it, “having visited this world.” It is about understanding that we are all objects on a continuum that extends an unimaginable distance in both directions. Simply put, when this thing called “death” comes along, Mary Oliver wants to know that she questioned, lived to the fullest and loved all.

In my opinion, this poem combines transcendentalist and existentialist viewpoints to offer a potential solution to the “problem” we call death. For Oliver, “When Death Comes” isn’t as much about explaining death as it is redefining it. According to her, we must search within ourselves and the environment around us to assign meaning to this world. Death is not something to be feared; rather, it is a stop along a journey that provides us with perspective. Ironically, death may never “come,” as the title suggests. Perhaps it is always there, forever a part of this unfolding experience we call life.

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Link to a critical analysis of “When Death Comes”

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a noted poet and feminist during the early 20th century. Mary Oliver derived great inspiration from her work after deciding to move in with Milay’s sister, Norma, a few years after her death. Once there, Oliver assisted in organizing Edna’s paperwork from her life.


Relevant Links

Mary Oliver biography/bibliographyMary Oliver poetry listingInterview #1 with Mary OliverInterview #2 with Mary Oliver

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