Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” Richard Wilbur’s “Year’s End” and Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain,” all reference the relationship of people with nature. Poetry is an effective tool at taking a deeper look at the truth behind the way in which we all live our lives. The fluid motion of the words can sometimes make us forget about prejudices and appreciate what the poet is saying. I believe this can help provide an objective view of the author’s opinion and insights. All three of these poems accomplish that task, with their literary strategies and elements. In the following essay, I will outline some of the ways in which these poems communicate how people and nature have related throughout history and I will reveal the hidden motivations of these texts.
In “Wild Geese,” Oliver is referring to people’s relationship with religion, and how many dedicate themselves to its service. They attempt to be good, but “You do not have to be good.” People obey what their religion wants them to obey: “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting,” because they only have to be at one with themselves and nature to feel at one with life, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Oliver expresses a refreshing look at religion and its relationship with people. Religion can lead people to do some incredibly drastic things, like crash planes into the World Trade Towers. In Oliver’s example, she references people crawling on their hands and knees through the desert in the name of their religion. But this isn’t how one finds happiness. In order to be complete, one has to rid themselves of thoughts of obeying the rule of what many call “God.” Instead, they need to stop fooling themselves and doing silly things that make life miserable. This type of thinking is comparable to human sacrifices that “appeased” the gods in Mayan times.
“Wild Geese” is essentially about life and what is important in that life. It is obvious in Oliver’s poem that she relates very closely with nature and finds it brings her the most amount of happiness possible. She does not think people who dedicate their lives to religion and doing what they think they are supposed to do, will find happiness. Life doesn’t need to be complicated by these obscure things because people “only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Forcing oneself into loving a God that is often forced upon people from a young age – particularly in the past when secularism was less common – will not allow one to love what they love.
Despite what all of us may be feeling at one time or the other, life goes on. “Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on.” Emphasising “yours” by confining it to its own clause tells me she is requesting the reader to focus on what is bothering them, and not about what is wrong with the world according to their religion. This could be a stretch, but I strongly believe that Oliver is comparing religion and nature, to come to the conclusion that nature is a stronger facilitator of happiness. Ignoring the beauty around oneself to focus on religion, which is very likely made up, will distort one’s attainment of happiness.
All the time people are focusing on religion, the world is doing beautiful things. And the occurrences can’t be noticed if a person is committing themselves to being good and walking on one’s knees, as has already been pointed out. Because people may be despaired by the conformities they have adopted, and the whole time they don’t notice the world around them. “Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes…”
The poem provides the lonely reader with therapy. Oliver is the therapist and she is telling people that they don’t have to be sad and lonely, because nature is there to offer a better way to live: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese…” While religion and other ways of living may not satisfy people, there is the home of nature that welcomes everyone. Naturally, people are a part of nature. We are all in the animal kingdom, and it is the natural place for us to find home, “in the family of things.”
Oliver grew up in a rural suburb of Ohio, which likely made her partial to nature. This could be the catalyst throughout her poem, and explain why she feels so closely tied to nature. She likely found reprieve in the woods and surrounding streams and lakes, and this is where she found most of her peace. Had she lived in the city, I don’t believe she would have felt this connected to nature and this poem would have never been written.
Richard Wilbur in “Year’s End,” conveys the meaning behind nature and change. He depicts an image of a small town that is asleep under a blanket of snow. This atmosphere is like a snapshot of fossilized plants and animals: “A million years. Great mammoths overthrown.” This image brings the reader to a place where they can look objectively at all of time. The immediate occurrences of the world don’t matter as much, as there is so much time that has been locked into the present. I believe Wilbur is conveying his belief that the past is always part of the present, and vice versa. While his poetry discusses the happenings over time, I think the fact that there are elements of the past locked into the present means that he doesn’t see time as being much of a factor in the grander scheme of things. According to Wilbur, there is no time.
Wilbur’s tone makes the piece slightly depressing, as he communicates a wintry setting throughout the poem. This central theme acts as the anchor for Wilbur, as he discusses the various elements of time. And the language used to describe time is quite dark and dreary: “gray and changeless lands of ice.” This “changeless” to which he refers further enforces the idea that time is locked and not capable of change. It is a whole, and the events that take place within it are just a part of the block that is time.
But within this block, there is activity. For most of his descriptions, he discusses the freezing of nature with time: “There was perfection in the death of ferns… Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone.” This activity, however, is confined to the limits of time, which are locked in for eternity. The leaves “fluttered all winter long into the lake,” and “The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.”
Death is also central in the poem. But he doesn’t convey death as necessarily a negative state, but more like a peaceful state. There is no idea of an afterlife, but instead of a calm relaxed state on the physical – not metaphysical (to which he makes no references) – earth for all eternity. “I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake… The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell… And held in ice as dancers in a spell.” Death is a way of preserving life for eternity. In that sense, nothing really dies. Its conscience disappears, but the body is preserved in a peaceful slumber for eternity. In this preservation, all life is joined as one.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wilbur’s piece is that while he provides a gloomy backdrop by using a snowy winter as the central theme, he also doesn’t explicitly convey any dark or negative imagery. He clearly doesn’t provide a pleasant tone, but it is peaceful and gloomy. For this reason, I think he lets the reader decide which death means in its relation to nature.
Because Wilbur continually brings up a wintry still setting, I believe the poem can easily be interpreted as conveying that death is dark and sad, but there is no other way. It is simply the laws of nature. If Wilbur had communicated the poem as taking place in the summer, perhaps the life that has ended would thaw, and the energy would find a new home. But Wilbur didn’t want to convey this message. The wintry setting to which he is referring, almost sounds like the words of a dying man, someone who doesn’t believe in the metaphysical world. This dying man is brooding over the idea of being like an icicle trapped in time. To end the poem, Wilbur uses New Year’s bells to symbolize the passing of time, though it is just an illusion. Everything in time will eventually stand still.
Wilbur fought in World War II, and he likely went through traumatic experiences. This could be the reason for what appears to be his dreary outlook. He may have seen a lot of death in the war, and this could be why he uses it as a central theme. The vivid memories play back in his mind and it is as if they are trapped in time. While he doesn’t make reference to the war, this cold feeling of a depressed and constant state of death lives throughout his poem.
Thomas Hardy in “The Convergence of the Twain” takes a deeper look than the other poems into the personality traits of most people and that interaction with nature. He describes in his poem the result of human pride and with nature. Pride is what led many people to believe that the Titanic couldn’t be sunk. When the ship was navigating the Northern Atlantic Ocean, the crew was aware that there were icebergs in the area. But even by calling the ship unsinkable, there was not enough attention given to safety. And when that ignorance, vanity and pride met nature, people didn’t stand a chance.
This poem tells me that no matter how great mankind thinks it is, how abstract a though it has and how opposable its thumbs are, nature is in charge: “In a solitude of sea… Deep from human vanity, And the Pride of Life that planned her…” The Titanic represents the human pride, which is now deep under the sea. This shows that being full of pride is not the best way to live one’s life. The condition of the Titanic in the poem – “Lie lightless, all their sparkles bleared and black and blind – shows that pride does not lead to great things. In order to be satisfied in life, people need to work with nature. This is very similar to what was discussed with “Wild Geese.”
The reference to the mirrors is an indication that people only see what they want to see: “Over the mirrors meant… To glass the opulent… The sea-worm crawls – grotesque, slimed, dumb, indifferent.” They wanted the Titanic to be a crowning achievement, one that would improve the lives of all people, but it was instead a complete disaster. Human ignorance is clearly not a crowning achievement.
This piece is clearly important to Hardy, a man who lived during the time that the Titanic set sail. His references to human pride gives the reader some perspective of human nature, as not much has changed on that front. Just look at the ridiculously tall building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. While it isn’t likely that the building will crumble, it could be human pride that has me thinking that.
All three poems convey nature in a positive way. However, this is debatable with Wilbur’s piece, because the reader could interpret the poem as defining nature as the destroyer of all life. Others would see it as the preserver. Whatever the authors’ angle, nature is seen as a guiding force in all that people do on earth. Nature is respected in all poems, for its key to life, preserver of all things, and for its immense strength and dominance.