'Egrets' by Mary Oliver

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Where the path closed
down and over,
through the scumbled leaves,
fallen branches,
through the knotted catbrier,
I kept going. Finally
I could not
save my arms
from thorns; soon
the mosquitoes
smelled me, hot
and wounded, and came
wheeling and whining.
And that's how I came
to the edge of the pond:
black and empty
except for a spindle
of bleached reeds
at the far shore
which, as I looked,
wrinkled suddenly
into three egrets - - -
a shower
of white fire!
Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them - - -
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws
of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings
softly and stepped
over every dark thing.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Egrets by Mary Oliver: A Poem of Nature and Life

Mary Oliver is renowned for her ability to capture the beauty and complexity of the natural world in her poetry. "Egrets" is no exception. In this poem, she describes a flock of egrets in flight, and in doing so, she not only captures the majesty of these birds but also reflects on life, death, and the transience of existence.

The Beauty of Egrets in Flight

Oliver's description of the egrets in flight is breathtaking. She writes, "A congregation of egrets / In the quicksilver of a winter morning / Flying over the green pines / And the frozen marshes / One alone / A great gray shadow / Coursing across the sky / Setting the others free / Into the light." The imagery here is stunning. The congregation of egrets, their quicksilver wings glinting in the winter sun, is an unforgettable sight. The frozen marshes and green pines provide a stark contrast to the soft, ethereal beauty of the birds.

But it is the lone egret that truly captures Oliver's attention. This "great gray shadow" is a powerful symbol of individuality and freedom. By coursing across the sky, it sets the others free, allowing them to fly into the light. This image is both beautiful and profound. It speaks to the power of individuality and the importance of breaking free from the constraints of conformity.

Reflections on Life and Death

As the poem progresses, Oliver's focus shifts from the egrets themselves to their significance in the larger scheme of things. She writes, "What does it mean, say the words, / That the earth is so beautiful? / And what shall I do about it? / What is the gift that I should bring / To the world?" These lines are a powerful reflection on the meaning of life. Oliver is asking us to consider what it means to be alive, to experience the beauty of the world, and to have the opportunity to make a difference.

She goes on to write, "But what I feel is not / The numbness of disbelief, / It's a song in the dark, / A shout of joy." Here, Oliver is reminding us that life is not just about contemplating its meaning. It is also about experiencing its joys and celebrating its beauty. The image of a "song in the dark" is particularly poignant. It suggests that even in the darkest moments, there is always something to celebrate and be grateful for.

But Oliver's musings on life and death are not all joyous. She also writes, "Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do, / With this abundance of life?" This line is a powerful reminder that life is fleeting, and we must make the most of it while we can. The abundance of life is a gift, but it is also a responsibility. We must use it wisely and make every moment count.

The Transience of Existence

Perhaps the most powerful theme of "Egrets" is the transience of existence. The egrets themselves are a symbol of this transience. They are here for a moment, beautiful and free, and then they are gone. Oliver writes, "And what shall I do? Not much, / And also nothing. / The egret's white and / Slow descent into the water / Is a church / Where any prayer is answered." This image is both beautiful and haunting. The egret's descent into the water is a reminder that everything must come to an end, and yet, there is beauty in that ending.

Oliver goes on to write, "And the pond, / Who knows what we will see / Who knows what will happen next?" This line is a powerful reminder that life is full of uncertainty. We do not know what will happen next, and we must be prepared for whatever comes our way. The pond is a symbol of this uncertainty, a reminder that life is always in flux and that the only constant is change.


In "Egrets," Mary Oliver has created a beautiful and complex meditation on life, death, and the transience of existence. Her descriptions of the egrets in flight are breathtaking, and her reflections on the meaning of life are both profound and joyous. But it is her reminder that life is fleeting and that we must make the most of it while we can that truly resonates. "Egrets" is a poem that will stay with you long after you have finished reading it, a reminder to appreciate the beauty of the world and to make every moment count.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Egrets: A Poem of Beauty and Wonder

Mary Oliver's poem "Egrets" is a beautiful and evocative piece of writing that captures the essence of these majestic birds. In just a few short stanzas, Oliver manages to convey a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of nature, while also exploring deeper themes of life and death, and the interconnectedness of all things.

The poem begins with a simple observation: "A congregation of egrets / has gathered in the trees." This opening line sets the scene for the rest of the poem, and immediately draws the reader into the world of these graceful birds. The use of the word "congregation" is particularly effective, as it suggests a sense of community and togetherness, as well as a religious or spiritual aspect to the gathering.

As the poem continues, Oliver describes the egrets in more detail, using vivid and evocative language to bring them to life. She notes their "long white necks" and "yellow eyes," and describes how they "preen themselves / on the branches." These descriptions are not only beautiful in themselves, but also serve to highlight the unique qualities of these birds, and their place in the natural world.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is the way in which Oliver uses the egrets as a metaphor for life and death. She notes how they "rise up / from the black water," and how they "fly over / the green and blue world." These images suggest a sense of transcendence, of rising above the mundane and the everyday, and of reaching for something greater.

At the same time, however, there is a sense of fragility and vulnerability to the egrets. Oliver notes how they "fall back, / heavy and white," and how they "settle / on the branches." These images suggest a sense of mortality, of the inevitability of death, and of the need to appreciate the beauty of life while we can.

Throughout the poem, Oliver also explores the interconnectedness of all things. She notes how the egrets "feed on the fish," and how the fish "feed on what falls / from the trees." This image suggests a sense of balance and harmony in the natural world, and highlights the importance of each individual element in the ecosystem.

Overall, "Egrets" is a beautiful and thought-provoking poem that captures the essence of these majestic birds, while also exploring deeper themes of life and death, and the interconnectedness of all things. Oliver's use of vivid and evocative language, combined with her skillful use of metaphor and imagery, make this poem a true masterpiece of modern poetry. Whether you are a lover of nature, or simply appreciate great writing, "Egrets" is a poem that is sure to inspire and delight.

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