The Journey by Mary Oliver

The Symbolical Meaning of the Poem “The Journey” by Mary Oliver

“The Journey” is a famous poem by the contemporary American poet Mary Oliver, who has won two notable awards: the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The New York Times called Oliver “far away, [America’s] best-selling poet” (The New York Times, 2007).

“The Journey” is an inspiring and thought-provoking poem. Its main idea is to show us how it is significant to listen to our inner voice. From the very beginning of the verse, the speaker induces us to realize that we should choose our personal path and follow it. “The voices around us”, as we read in the poem, is the society and we have to “shout their bad advice”. It tells about how we are trying to move forward with our life. To do this, we need to free ourselves from the burdens of people who ask us to “Mend my life” and leave them behind our back. If we have our ultimate goal, we have to be eager to accomplish it, despite all the voices around us.

The poem has a symbolical meaning which is expressed in the opinion that our life is a kind of journey that we must undergo. We have to struggle to find ourselves despite endless obstacles in our way.

If we look closer at the verse-form, we will notice that the poem is not divided into stanzas, it is ongoing. We can assume that this can illustrate the concept that life is flowing without breaks. Oliver explains that the road to success is to continue our journey as we read it in a line, “But you didn`t stop”. Because of lack of stanzas, we move faster through the poem.

Also, many sentences in the poem are cut off. They continue in the next line. In this way, Oliver tries to evoke the feeling of urgency in the reader and the desire to reach the final goal of life’s journey. The idea of necessity to move fast can be seen in the first four lines, “One day you finally knew/What you had to do, and began,/Though the voices around you/Kept shouting”. These words are closely related to the idea of quickness of life. To keep up with its speed, we should realize what the goal of our life is and try to reach it. In “Dialogues between History and Dream” we read: “Oliver is quickly pulling the reader toward the end of the poem because that is where we find the reason or goal for this “journey” (Michigan Quarterly Review, 1987).

Throughout the verse, long lines interchange with short ones. This can symbolize the ups and downs in our searching for ourselves. In general, “The Journey” is focused on the self. It raises the question of our place in the world.

Melanie Lawder notes that being a private person by nature, Oliver achieved a wide popularity among readers (Lawder, 2012). Probably, it is because she writes about events and concepts that are close to everyone of us.

The climax of the verse can be the lines “The stars began to burn/Through the sheets of clouds,/And there was a new voice/Which you slowly/Recognized as your own”. Perhaps, the clouds are the uncertain thoughts that we had earlier. The stars symbolize the sudden realization of where we should go and what we need to do to get to our destination. It is our inner voice that will lead us forward. Such an optimistic ending means that it is never too late to start searching our personal path and finally find it.

The poem “Journey” is definitely worth reading, especially for those who stand at the crossroads and cannot figure out what to do with their life. This verse motivates readers to listen to their hearts and move forward toward their dreams.


1. Garner, Dwight: “Inside the List”. The New York Times, February 18, 2007.
2. “Dialogues between History and Dream”, Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 428-438.
3. Duenwald, Mary: “The Land and Words of Mary Oliver, the Bard of Provincetown”. The New York Times, July 5, 2009.
4. Lawder, Melanie: “Poet Mary Oliver Receives Honorary Degree”. The Marquette Tribune, November 14, 2012.

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