Crossing the Swamp

Have you ever gone through something difficult that made you stronger? Often, facing fears and weakness is the route to reigning victorious over them. In the poem 'Crossing the Swamp,' Mary Oliver illustrates a treacherous journey through an eerie, encompassing swamp to reflect how triumph can come out of facing struggles and hardships. 

Crossing the Swamp Crossing the Swamp

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Contents
Table of contents

    Crossing the Swamp, Picture of a swamp, StudySmarter

    The swamp represents a place of fear and creates a foreboding atmosphere.

    ’Crossing the Swamp’ poem information overview
    Poet:Mary Oliver (1935‐2019)
    Year Published:1983
    Type of Poem:Nature poem written in free verse
    Literary and poetic devices:Word choice/ connotation, atmosphere, tone, imagery, enjambment, alliteration, sibilance, personification, metaphors
    Themes: Personal struggle, triumph, and growth, the duality of nature, perspective
    Meaning:Growth and triumph come out of facing struggles and hardships

    ‘Crossing the Swamp’ by Mary Oliver: Background Information and Meaning

    'Crossing the Swamp' (1983) is a nature poem written by the American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver. 'Crossing the Swamp' was originally published in American Primitive (1983), a collection of Oliver's poems about nature, love, and the American wilderness. Mary Oliver was greatly influenced by long walks through the varied landscapes of the United States. She had a troubled childhood and turned to nature and poetry for consolation.

    In the poem 'Crossing the Swamp,' Oliver describes a physical swamp that reflects the speaker's personal troubles and mental state. This physical and mental swamp is difficult to navigate but the speaker emerges victoriously after falling into the water. The meaning of 'Crossing the Swamp' is that growth and triumph come out of facing struggles and hardships. Although the poem creates an initially unpleasant atmosphere, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the poem ultimately presents a message of hope.

    Crossing the Swamp, someone jumping into the air, StudySmarter

    At the end of the poem, the speaker is joyous and renewed with life as she has gained victory over her fears.

    ‘Crossing the Swamp’: Full Poem

    While reading the poem, think about how Mary Oliver uses particular word choices to emphasize how the speaker feels about the swamp.

    Line’Crossing the Swamp’ by Mary Oliver Notes
    1.2.3.4.5.6.7.8.9.10.11.12.13.14.15.16.17.18.19.20.21.22.23.24.25.26.27.28.29.30.31.32.33.34.35.36.Here is the endless wet thick cosmos, the center of everything—the nuggetof dense sap, branching vines, the dark burred faintly belching bogs. Hereis swamp, here is struggle, closure— pathless, seamless,peerless mud. My bones knock together at the pale joints, trying for foothold, fingerhold,mindhold over such slick crossings, deep hipholes, hummocks that sink silentlyinto the black, slack earthsoup. I feel not wet so much as painted and glitteredwith the fat grassy mires, the rich and succulent marrows of earth— a poordry stick given one more chance by the whims of swamp water— a bough that still, after all these years,could take root, sprout, branch out, bud— make of its life a breathing palace of leaves.cosmos: universe, spaceburred: barbed, thorny; made a droning, humming sound belching: burping, expelling peerless: unparalleled, unrivaled, supreme hipholes: Oliver's invented term for a shallow holehummocks: small hills, or mounds of moss rising above a swamp floorearthsoup: Oliver's invented term for the muddy water of a swampmires: a stretch of swampy land; an unpleasant, stuck situationssucculent: tender, juicy; a plant with thick leaves that store watermarrows: core; the inner substance of boneswhims: sudden, unexplained changes, impulses bough: a branch or limb of a treepalace of leaves: a metaphor for a tree

    ‘Crossing the Swamp’: Summary and Analysis

    Mary Oliver opens the poem by describing an "endless," 1 "dense," 1 and "dark" 1 place filled with sap and reaching vines (Lines 1, 5, and 6). Oliver clarifies that this place is a swamp—a place of "struggle" 1 and "closure" 1 (Lines 10). Mary Oliver creates the feelings of becoming enclosed in a crowded, dark, foreboding place to suggest the speaker's consuming fears and anxieties. The swamp represents both a physical place that is eerie and unsettling, and also the speaker's mental fog. The speaker in the poem is trying to escape the swamp as she is trying to escape her dark, crowded, anxious mind.

    The speaker trudges through the swamp, trying to grab hold of her surroundings and avoid sinking into the mud. The speaker says she is "trying for foothold, fingerhold, / mindhold over / such slick crossings." 1 This emphasizes how her journey is both a physical and mental feat (Lines 16‐17).

    The speaker keeps slipping and eventually falls into swampy waters, but rather than completely sinking or panicking, she feels renewed by the water. She emerges from her struggles feeling like nature has given her a second chance. She can finally take hold of her life in both mind and body. She compares herself to a tree dry branch that has been given water and unexpectedly grows roots.

    ‘Crossing the Swamp’: Analysis of Form

    'Crossing the Swamp' is a 36‐line nature poem written in free verse. Mary Oliver uses free verse to reflect the wild, natural, and untamed swamp described in the poem.

    Free verse is an open form of poetry that does not adhere to a particular rhyme scheme or meter.

    The poem is written in jagged short lines that are offset to create a wavy, hazy-shaped block of text. Mary Oliver uses the shape of the text to suggest the swamp's eerie, hazy atmosphere, as well as the speaker's lack of mental clarity. The way the poetry is visually presented reflects the seemingly unending, impenetrable force of the swamp.

    Although 'Crossing the Swamp' does not have a consistent meter, the reading of the poem is guided by the repetition of certain sounds. Read the poem aloud. Can you identify any sound-related literary devices Oliver uses in the poem?

    ‘Crossing the Swamp’: Analysis of Literary and Poetic Devices

    Crossing the swamp uses an abundance of literary and poetic devices, which is why it is a commonly chosen poem to study for exams or essay writing.

    Word Choice/Connotation and Atmosphere

    In 'Crossing the Swamp,' Mary Oliver uses intentional word choice to guide the reader's understanding of the swamp and the speaker's feelings.

    Oliver emphasizes that the swamp is an expansive, encompassing, seemingly unending place, by using words such as "endless," 1 "cosmos," 1 "branching," 1 "pathless," 1 and "seamless" 1 (Lines 1, 3, 5, and 12). Using these words helps the reader understand the speaker's feelings of lostness and confusion.

    Mary Oliver also chooses words that evoke the speaker's sense of fear and anxiety, such as "dense," 1 "dark," 1 "burred," 1 "struggle," 1 "pale joints," 1 and "black" 1 (Lines 5, 6, 10, 14 and 15). The speaker writes that "My bones knock together at the pale joints" to suggest that the speaker feels scared and weak, struggling and trembling in fear (Lines 13‐15).

    Mary Oliver's word choice in 'Crossing the Swamp' helps create a dark, hazy, and foreboding atmosphere. The atmosphere of the swamp also reflects the speaker's clouded mental state.

    In the first half of the poem, Oliver also occasionally uses words that have a positive connotation to describe the swamp. These words help foreshadow the ending of the poem, in which the swamp is not menacing but nurturing. Can you identify a few of these words?

    Tone and Imagery

    The tone of the poem shifts alongside the imagery of the swamp. Initially, the swamp is depicted as "the nugget / of dense sap, branching / vines, the dark burred / faintly belching bogs." 1 Mary Oliver uses this imagery to make the reader picture the dark, dense swamp with prickly plants and a foul smell. This imagery evokes fear and unease. The initial tone of the poem is fearful and anxious, as the speaker feels trapped by her unpleasant, swampy surroundings.

    The tone shifts towards the end of the poem as the speaker says, "I feel / not wet so much as / painted and glittered / with the fat grassy / mires, the rich / and succulent marrows / of earth" 1 (Lines 22‐28). Now, Mary Oliver uses imagery to depict how the speaker feels nourished and renewed by what she previously feared. The swamp is now seen as a shining place filled with life and nutrients for plants, as well as the human soul. The tone of the poem is now joyful and triumphant. Nature has not defeated the speaker, but renews her in a life free from hopelessness and fear.

    Notice how to tone shifts alongside the speaker's feelings about nature and her surroundings. Initially, she fears the swamp, but ultimately, she sees how nature can nourish and renew her.

    Enjambment, Alliteration, and Sibilance

    Mary Oliver uses enjambment, alliteration, and sibilance throughout the poem to suggest the seemingly endless expanse of nature.

    "trying for foothold, fingerhold,mindhold over such slick crossings, deep hipholes, hummocks that sink silentlyinto the black, slack earthsoup." 1

    (Lines 15‐22)

    As one line continues into the next with the use of enjambment, the speaker's experience is presented in a blur of vivid imagery. The short lines of the poem represent the speaker's fragmented experience, which is emphasized by the breaking up of lines of a single sentence. The image Oliver paints is a singular experience of struggling to cross the swamp, but it is presented in many small fragmented lines tied together with enjambment.

    Enjambment is the continuation of a sentence from one line of poetry into the next without any pause or punctuation.

    The alliteration of the "F," "S," and "H" sounds in the example above establish a rhythm by guiding stresses to fall heavily upon the first syllables of the alliterated words. The pairs of alliterated words establish two beats in each line, mimicking the trudging of the speaker.

    The sibilance creates a continuous hissing and whispering sound when the poem is read aloud. This use of sibilance emphasizes the sinister and secretive nature of the swamp, as it "silently" 1 sucks the speaker back into its muddy waters.

    Sibilance is the repetition of "S" sounds in a section of text to create a hissing effect.

    Can you spot an example of internal rhyme used in the example above? What effect do you think it has on the reading of the poem? (*note: internal rhyme is rhyme used within a single line of poetry)

    Personification and Metaphors

    Mary Oliver uses personification throughout the poem to present nature as a living, "breathing," 1 force.

    "a poordry stick given one more chance by the whims of swamp water— a bough that still, after all these years,could take root, sprout, branch out, bud— make of its life a breathing palace of leaves." 1

    (Lines 28‐36)

    Initially, the use of personification is used to portray the swamp as a living force that is trying to entrap and sink the speaker. However, by the end of the poem, personification is used to portray the speaker's positive feelings of growth and freedom.

    The speaker compares herself to a branch that could "make of its life a breathing / palace of leaves." 1 This comparison of herself to a dry tree branch that was still able to root after being renewed by the water is a metaphor. This metaphor suggests that the speaker felt lifeless and incapable of growth, until she fell and faced her fears to find that nature was not trying to entrap her, but to nourish her. The "palace of leaves" 1 is a metaphor for the grand tree the speaker has blossomed into upon this realization. All along, the swamp, which represents the speaker's fears, was not out to destroy her, but to help her to grow.

    Crossing the Swamp, Tree in a Field, StudySmarter

    The poem uses the metaphor of a tree to represent the beauty of unexpected growth.

    ‘Crossing the Swamp’: Themes

    'Crossing the Swamp' explores many themes, including personal struggle, triumph, growth, the duality of nature, and perspective.

    Personal struggle, triumph, and growth

    'Crossing the Swamp' is a poetic tale of triumph over personal struggles, which leads to personal growth. In the poem, the speaker is initially filled with fear and anxieties. She views the world as a swamp that is full of fear and is closing in on her. However, when she finally falls into the water, she feels renewed and realizes that by facing her fears she can have victory over them. She realizes that the water is there to revitalize her and help her grow, which represents how challenges and struggles facilitate human growth.

    The duality of nature, and perspective

    In the poem 'Crossing the Swamp,' Mary Oliver presents the same swamp in opposite terms. Initially, the swamp is eerie and frightening, but towards the end of the poem, it is depicted as a rich source of life and energy. Mary Oliver uses the duality of nature to suggest its power and versatility, but also to introduce the theme of perspective. When the speaker is describing the swamp out of a place of fear, she sees it as trying to entrap and consume her. However, when the speaker is no longer afraid, she has a fresh, positive perspective. She sees the swamp's beauty in its ability to renew and give life to its surroundings.

    Crossing the Swamp - Key takeaways

    • 'Crossing the Swamp' (1983) is a nature poem written in free verse by Mary Oliver.
    • 'Crossing the Swamp,' illustrates a treacherous journey through an eerie, encompassing swamp that leads to personal freedom.
    • The poem's meaning is that growth and triumph come out of facing struggles and hardships.
    • The poem uses many literary devices such as word choice/ connotation, atmosphere, tone, imagery, enjambment, alliteration, sibilance, personification, and metaphors.
    • The poem's key themes are personal struggle, triumph, and growth, the duality of nature, and perspective.

    1 Mary Oliver, 'Crossing the Swamp,' American Primitive, 1983.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Crossing the Swamp

    What is the poem 'Crossing the Swamp' by Mary Oliver about?

    The poem 'Crossing the Swamp' by Mary Oliver is about a treacherous journey through an eerie, encompassing swamp that leads to personal freedom. 

    What is the relationship between the speaker and the swamp?

    The relationship between the speaker and the swamp is that the swamp represents the speaker's personal fears and struggles. 

    Who is the speaker in the poem 'Crossing the Swamp?

    The speaker in the poem 'Crossing the Swamp' is someone facing difficulties and fears in their life.

    What is the tone of 'Crossing the Swamp'?

    The tone of 'Crossing the Swamp' is initially fearful and anxious but later shifts to joyous and triumphant, as the speaker gains victory over her fears. 

    What poetic techniques are used in crossing the swamp?

    Poetic techniques used in 'Crossing the Swamp' include: word choice/ connotation, atmosphere, tone, imagery, enjambment, alliteration, sibilance, personification, and metaphors.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following words is not used to describe the swamp at the beginning of the poem?

    The tone of the poem shifts from fearful and anxious to which of the following?

    Which sound related literary devices are used throughout the poem?

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