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Reading Mary Oliver through Ecocritical Lens


Reading Mary Oliver through Ecocritical Lens

Prastuti Dutta


Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva Vishwavidyalaya,

Nagaon, Assam, India


Presenting environmental issues, information on environment, encourage people to take necessary steps as well as to adopt environmentally sensitive attitudes towards balancing the ecological system is one of the most concurrent topics that are being portrayed by various literary scholars, writers throughout ages. Environmental advocacy is known as a prime and basic concept of the great contemporary American poet Mary Oliver. This research will try to demonstrate Oliver’s constant communication with nature through an ecocritical lens and also the how Oliver advocated through nature. Ecofeminism is a part and parcel of ecocrticism. An ecofeminist approach in Oliver’s poetry will also be projected in this research. Oliver is known for exploring intense relationship between women and nature.  A transcendental attitude will also be illustrated throughout.

Keywords: Ecocriticism, ecofeminism, transcendentalism, environmental advocacy, deep ecology


Relationship between nature or non-human environment and human being is a matter of concern to literary adherents since ages. But environmentally oriented literary and cultural studies began to emerge as a legitimate critical field during 1990s. Glotfelty is one of the first to bring in an ecological consciousness to examine literature and also to examine the relationship between literature and the natural world as a legitimate critical field of study by introducing her eco critical text The Eco Criticism Reader. However, Mary Oliver is known for her strong association with nature and creating literary works that draw a parallel between human and nature.  Oliver’s poems investigate how one can merge with nature, experience the wonders of nature and discover it again and again. Oliver carries nature back to her poetry. A harmony between men and nature is very obvious in her poetry. Her close observation of nature also gives an insight into human life that portrays her ecological consciousness which is being reflected throughout her poems. Her engagement with nature and also her encouragement to engage with nature brings behavioural change. Her lyrics bear that capacity to reform a person and immediately making him/her conscious towards non-human being. When scholarly attention is paid to Oliver some argues her as different to that of canonical English Romantics. Critics give contradictory opinions about Oliver’s poetry. Though Oliver is not listed among renowned feminists, her poetry focuses on women’s relation with nature through giving a new light. Contradictory opinions are evident in this context as some argues that women are also subjugated in some of her poems. While some argues about her devotion towards nature other argues about the sensuality in her poetry.

However, human being in her poetry can be seen as ‘other’ to the whole eco-system. Her poetry does not showcase human being as mere users of natural resources or nature only as a backdrop of a story of mankind rather presenting nature with its original beauty which is beautiful even not getting any preferences from human being. Human being and nature has intrinsic connections. Both share the experience and existence. The only reality that exists in this world is nature and it is felt and experienced by Oliver and is employed in every aspect of her poetry. Her attachment with nature seems to be the original tendency of Romanticism to reunite ‘self’ with nature. But this reunion is much more different from those canonical Romantic writers such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelly. As for those writers their approach to nature is in search for unity, self-consciousness and imagination. They often romanticized nature through poetry. Oliver’s approach is completely differs from that of Romanticized attitudes to nature; rather she seems to be willing to merge with nature. Her attitude is to gain that of the pure happiness and joy of this experience in itself. She creates the intrinsic bond that connects the ‘self’ with all other non-living human being. She differs from that of male canonical Romantic figures as she employs the relationship between women and nature throughout her poetry. Though she does not belong to the feminist figures yet there is always a feminist outlook as well as a bond between nature and women are obvious in her poetry. However, Oliver transcends ordinary things and moments and explores more meaningful ways of looking at the world.

About the author:

Mary Oliver, a great contemporary literary figure is born in Maple Hills Heights, Ohio. In her younger age she is enormously influenced by Edna St. Vincent Millay and the surroundings of Cape Cod landscape has a great influence on Oliver’s work. Oliver’s works are known for its firm rootedness of nature, minute observation of natural elements. Though her poems are rooted in Romantic nature tradition, yet she differs from that of canonical Romantic writers. She won numerous awards among them National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize and Lannan Literary Award is remarkable. Oliver was regarded as “visionary as Emerson” and it is tagged by critic Alicia Ostriker by reviewing Oliver’s poetry collection Dream Work. Dream Work search to “understand both the wonder and pain of nature”. She won the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive (1983), her fifth book. For the New and Selected Poems (1992) she won the National Book Award. The celebration of natural world and elements is evident in her other collections Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems (1999), Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (2010), Why I Wake Early (2004).

Objectives of the Research:

a)      This study attempts to project an ecological aspect of criticism.

b)      To analyse the ecological concerns in Mary Oliver’s poetry.

c)      To give an ecofeminist overview of Mary Oliver’s poetry.

d)     Exploring the human/nature dynamics through Ecocriticism.

Research Gap:

Ecological study of a text or poetry is not a new concept which will be projected in this research proposal. As many critics critique Oliver as very similar to those canonical Romantic writers and influenced by that of transcendental philosophy. But very few works have yet been done in demonstrating the environmental advocacy, the intense relationship between ‘self ‘and nature and the bond between nature and women in Oliver’s poetry. This study is just an attempt to examine Oliver through these aspects.


Eco critical approach is obvious in most of nature poetry. Ecocriticism basically is to show how the relationship between nature and human world is presented in literature. Mary Oliver is known for creating strong bond between nature and human world and her poetry can be seen through ecocritical lens.

Research Methodology:

This study focuses explicitly on the relationship between human self and nature, women and nature and exhibits the depth of nature that is being demonstrated by the poetry of Oliver through eclectic methodology. A descriptive, analytical research method is employed throughout the study to examine the poetry of Mary Oliver through ecocritical perspective.

Literature Review:

Choudhury, Lopamudra in “A Study of Ecofeminism” talks about the combination of feminism and ecology and highlights the oppression of women by men and talks about social discrimination, social injustice to women.

Nolan, Sarah in “Depictions of Environmental Crisis in William Carlos William’s Paterson” presents environmental concerns highlighting the losses of the globe in ignoring environmental threats.

Shah, Sadaf in “An Eco Critical Appraisal of the Selected Novels of Amitav Ghosh” highlights relationship between nature and literature and also gives a brief survey of Ecocriticism in India.

Sharma, Ashutosh in “Eco Criticism in the Writings of Ruskin Bond” talks about environmental ethics found for mindfulness, environmental concerns and issues over the globe.

Upadhyay, Ami in “Ecofeminism an Ambivalent Relationship between Women and Nature in Selected Novels of Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai and Sarah Joseph” talks about women and environment which are inseparable part of culture and civilization.


Cheryll Glotfelty in her introduction to the foundational ecocritical text The Ecocriticism Reader defines ecocriticism as “the study of the relation between literature and the physical environment”. Ecocriticism takes an art centered approach to literary criticism. It is Lawrence Buell who identifies many phases of ecocriticism: firstly, ecocriticism mainly dealt with nature writing, wilderness and women’s special affinity with nature. The second wave of ecocriticism turns its attention to other literary genres and media, environment justice and urban ecology. The third wave ecocriticism is seen as a new form of ecocritical writings which transcends ecocritical boundaries and compares human experiences across culture.

The dominant ideology of anthropocentricism often denies the harmonious bond between men and nature. Denial of holistic existence of nature results in the exploitation of nature. Critics often blame industrial revolution as the reason of creating environmental degradation. Critiques give birth to ecocritical awareness and this awareness of ecological crises has given rise to the discourse of ecocriticism. Eco critics work for eco centric egalitarianism.

Ecocriticism gained a new height with the emergence of the deep ecology movement. The founder of deep ecology movement Arne Naess calls human centric ecology movement as ‘shallow’ for it denies the intrinsic worth of nature. He differentiates between ‘shallow’ and deep ecology and laid down eight principles of deep ecology movement. Arne Naess through the movement aimed at ‘self-realization’ and ‘bio centric equality’. Deep ecologists emphasize nature’s living, autonomous existence.

Eco critics viewed nature not as other rather they see as “environing home of homosapiens”. Eco critics criticized what anthropocentric philosophy regards human being as separate and superior to nature and ultimately suggests the control of nature.


The effectiveness of Oliver’s poetry in drawing attention to ecological interconnectivity and her use of ecocriticism as a means of ethical concern and effective concern of environmental advocacy will try depicting through her selected poems. This is just an observation how nature writing can inspire to the reconnection between living and non-human world and foster a sense of responsibility and care for home as habitat. Highly derived from the ideologies of Whitman and Thoreau her poems are deeply rooted around birds, mountains, sun, moon and also the relationship between human and nature, women and nature.

Oliver’s poem “The Kingfisher” is grounded in and growing from local ecology, one of her genius creation where a minute observation of nature is being portrayed. It takes part of understanding of its ecosystem and humanity is just one of the inhabitant species. Nature elements are extensively used throughout the poem. In the very beginning of the poem she describes “like a blue flower, in his beak he carries a silver leaf”. She compares the shape of a leaf with its beak. When she says “I think this is the prettiest world” it demonstrates her intense attachment with nature. The poem somehow links human sensibility with nature. “Hunger is the only story” that the kingfisher knows. He does perfectly what he does, to just be in the natural world naturally with no worries, regrets, disappointment. The speaker here tends to say that she/he longs for the same simple and easy living as the kingfisher does, doing what he does.

            “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver is also one of her significant contribution where she depicted a graceful bonding between human and natural world. Nature as a savior to the lost and depressed soul is being reflected throughout the poem. It talks about the new beginning after a night of gloom and sadness. The poem has its setting in nature, an omniscient narrator with a highly optimistic approach describes the blissful morning. The phrase “sticks of the sun” visualizes the sun rays that are directly fall on earth. With the sunlight coming, the “ashes of the night turn into leaves again”, here she is may be talking about death and rebirth. Every elements of nature is being beautifully depicted in the poem when she presents images of ponds as “black cloth”, the summer lilies that are bloom on the “painted island”. Each and every expression in the poem is expressed through natural elements. Throughout the poem her intention to say is that the bliss in nature remains constant.

            Some critics have argued that Oliver’s poetry presents a feminine subject merging with nature. Eco feminism aims at eliminating dualistic hierarchies of male/female, nature/culture, human/non-human.  Oliver does not only portray nature as something very optimistic or something very pessimistic. Oliver does not feel restricted by traditional dichotomies. She wants to defy patriarchal boundaries by ignoring their defining powers. Oliver usually feminizes nature as a caring mother. The image of Mother Nature who spread her passion over growing beings prevails in her poetry. Her poems often question patriarchal structures, which destroy nature and severely harm the human kind. In “White Flowers”, Oliver describes her experience in this aspect. She presents two possibilities what really happened to her: either “my body went diving/ under the sugary vines/ in some sleep-sharpened affinity” or “that green energy/rose likes a wave/ and curled over me, claiming me”. One thing she certainly knows is that,

            Never in my life

            had I felt so plush,

            or so slippery,

            or so resplendently empty.( New and Selected Poems)

The poet’s connection with nature causes her to completely explore her true self. Her other poems such as in “Sleeping in the Forest”, “The Sea” and also in “White Night”, Oliver attempts to understand the world by getting outside into nature and making herself as an outsider to the whole ecology.


Mary Oliver’s poetry develops a bridge between self/nature, women/nature, body/soul and nature/culture. Her poems bear witness in to the natural world and attempt to construct an ecocentric perspective and also an ecofeminist perspective. Though she is not the first to explore this concept, but her expressions, motifs are differ from those canonical writers. To understand the existence of living and non-living being as interdependent on ecological whole Oliver’s poetry plays a great role in this regard. Maxine Kumin in the Women’s Review of Books writes that she was an “indefatigable guide to the natural world”. Oliver gives a subtle way of looking at the world through her poetry and it is clearly evident in selection of the title of her poems. She does not give any pessimistic or optimistic view of perceiving the nature simply but choses a middle way between these and gives an insignificant way of looking at nature throughout her poetry.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., Harpham, Galt, Geoffrey. A Handbook of Literary Terms. India ed. Cengage Learning India Private Limited. Print.

Barry, Peter.Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 4thed. Manchester University Press, 1995. Print.

Kumin, Maxine. Women’s Review of Books. Volume 10, April, 1993.

Glotfelty, Cheryll, Fromm, Harold. The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. University of Georgia Press, 1996.

Mead, Rachael. “The Sixth Creek Exegesis: The home as habitat-writing and protecting the local”. Volume 2, May 2016. https://digital.library.adelaide.edu.au/dspace/bitstream/2440/101791/4/04whole.pdf

Oliver, Mary. Dream Work. Atlantic Monthly Press,1994.Print.

---. House Of Light. Reprinted. Beacon Press,1992.Print.

---. New And Selected Poems. Reprinted. Beacon Press,2004.Print.