'Lilies' by Mary Oliver
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I have been thinking
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.
They rise and fall
in the edge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of the cattle,
and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as the old idea.
But if I were a lily
I think I would wait all day
for the green face
of the hummingbird
to touch me.
What I mean is,
could I forget myself
even in those feathery fields?
When Van Gogh
preached to the poor
of coarse he wanted to save someone--
most of all himself.
He wasn't a lily,
and wandering through the bright fields
only gave him more ideas
it would take his life to solve.
I think I will always be lonely
in this world, where the cattle
graze like a black and white river--
where the vanishing lilies
melt, without protest, on their tongues--
where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
just rises and floats away.
Editor 1 Interpretation
Lilies by Mary Oliver: A Poem of Beauty and Transience
Mary Oliver is known for her evocative poems that celebrate the beauty of nature while also grappling with the impermanence of life. Her poem "Lilies" is a prime example of her style, a brief yet powerful meditation on the fleeting nature of beauty and the inevitability of death.
At just ten lines long, "Lilies" is a concise and tightly crafted poem that packs a punch. It begins with the speaker observing a field of lilies, their "bodies / holding still." The flowers are described in rich sensory detail, with their "sweetness / gone" and their "silken petals / fallen as if / from angels' shoulders." The speaker acknowledges the transience of this beauty, noting that "nothing / in nature lasts."
But rather than despair at this fact, the speaker finds solace in the knowledge that "all things - / blossom, star, and beast - / die too." This cycle of life and death is presented as a natural and necessary part of existence, and the poem ends with the speaker affirming that "nothing is too small / to be loved."
In this essay, I will explore the various themes and literary devices at play in "Lilies," as well as contextualizing the poem within Oliver's wider body of work.
The Transience of Beauty
One of the most striking features of "Lilies" is its focus on fleeting beauty. The lilies are described as "wonderful and complete," with "silken petals" and a "sweetness" that is now gone. The poem captures the essence of the lilies at their peak, but also acknowledges that this peak is temporary. The flowers' petals have fallen, and their beauty is fading.
This theme of transience is a common thread in Oliver's work. In many of her poems, she celebrates the beauty of the natural world while also recognizing its fragility and impermanence. The title of her book Blue Horses is a nod to this concept, as she explains in the poem "Blue Horses":
It's not the weight of the thing that troubles you: it's how light it is, and how it keeps changing.
This idea of constant change and impermanence is echoed in "Lilies," as the speaker observes that "nothing / in nature lasts." This acknowledgement of the transience of beauty could be seen as a melancholic thought, but Oliver imbues it with a sense of acceptance and even joy. The poem recognizes the inevitability of loss, but also celebrates the beauty that exists in the present moment.
The Cycle of Life and Death
A related theme in "Lilies" is the concept of the cycle of life and death. The speaker notes that "all things - / blossom, star, and beast - / die too." This idea that everything in nature is subject to this cycle is a common one, but Oliver infuses it with a sense of reverence and wonder.
The poem's acknowledgement of the universality of this process serves as a reminder that we are all part of something larger than ourselves. We are born, we live, and we die, but the cycle continues. This can be a comforting thought, as it reminds us that we are not alone in our experience of mortality.
The poem's final lines, "nothing is too small / to be loved," could be seen as an extension of this idea. If everything is subject to the cycle of life and death, then everything is deserving of love and respect. This is a powerful message, and one that resonates strongly with Oliver's overall body of work.
Sensory Detail and Imagery
One of the most striking features of "Lilies" is the vivid sensory detail that Oliver employs. The lilies are described as having "silken petals / fallen as if / from angels' shoulders," and their sweetness is noted as having faded. This attention to detail creates a vivid picture in the reader's mind, and allows us to experience the beauty of the lilies alongside the speaker.
The image of the petals falling "as if / from angels' shoulders" is particularly striking. It evokes a sense of grace and delicacy, as well as a hint of spirituality. This image also serves to highlight the contrast between the lilies at their peak and their current state of decay.
The poem's brevity allows for a tight and controlled use of imagery, with each line contributing to the overall effect. Oliver's use of sensory detail and imagery serves to heighten our emotional response to the poem, and to create a vivid and immersive experience for the reader.
"Lilies" is a powerful and evocative poem that captures the transience of beauty and the cycle of life and death. Through its vivid sensory detail and imagery, the poem creates a vivid picture of the lilies at their peak, while also acknowledging their decay. The poem's final lines affirm the value of all life, no matter how fleeting, and serve as a reminder of the interconnectedness of all things.
Mary Oliver's wider body of work is characterized by a similar focus on the beauty of nature and the inevitability of mortality. Through her poetry, she seeks to celebrate the natural world while also grappling with its complexities and impermanence. "Lilies" is a prime example of this style, and serves as a powerful reminder of the beauty and transience of life.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
Lilies by Mary Oliver: A Celebration of Life and Beauty
Mary Oliver's poem "Lilies" is a beautiful and powerful tribute to the natural world and the beauty of life. In this poem, Oliver uses the image of lilies to explore themes of growth, change, and the interconnectedness of all living things. Through her vivid and evocative language, Oliver invites us to see the world with fresh eyes and to appreciate the wonder and beauty that surrounds us.
The poem begins with a simple and direct statement: "I have been thinking / about living / like the lilies / that blow in the fields." This opening sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is characterized by a sense of wonder and awe at the natural world. Oliver invites us to imagine ourselves as lilies, blowing in the fields, and to consider what it would be like to live in such a way.
As the poem continues, Oliver explores the idea of growth and change. She writes, "They rise and fall / in the edge of the wind, / and the sun and the rain / - and I too, / will soon rise / and be gone." Here, Oliver is reminding us that everything in life is temporary, and that we must embrace the present moment and live fully in the here and now. She also suggests that growth and change are natural and inevitable, and that we should not fear them but rather embrace them as part of the cycle of life.
Oliver's language throughout the poem is rich and evocative, painting vivid pictures of the natural world. She writes of "the soft tongues / of the flowers" and "the delicate tendrils / of the vines." These images are both beautiful and powerful, reminding us of the intricate and delicate balance of life on earth.
One of the most striking aspects of "Lilies" is the way in which Oliver uses the image of lilies to explore the interconnectedness of all living things. She writes, "And I too, / have been touched by the sun, / and moved by the stars, / and carried by the winds, / and shaken by the storms." Here, Oliver is suggesting that we are all part of the same natural world, and that we are all connected to each other and to the larger universe.
This idea of interconnectedness is further explored in the final lines of the poem, where Oliver writes, "What will you do? / What will you say? / Will you be like them, / full of life and beauty? / Will you stand still / and wait for the next season?" Here, Oliver is challenging us to consider our own place in the world and to think about how we can live in harmony with the natural world around us. She is reminding us that we have a choice in how we live our lives, and that we can choose to embrace the beauty and wonder of the world or to ignore it and wait for the next season.
Overall, "Lilies" is a beautiful and powerful poem that celebrates the natural world and the beauty of life. Through her vivid and evocative language, Mary Oliver invites us to see the world with fresh eyes and to appreciate the wonder and beauty that surrounds us. She reminds us that everything in life is temporary, and that we must embrace the present moment and live fully in the here and now. And she challenges us to consider our own place in the world and to think about how we can live in harmony with the natural world around us. In short, "Lilies" is a poem that inspires us to live our lives with passion, purpose, and a deep appreciation for the beauty of the world around us.
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