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Where is one of the best places for humans to learn about the natural cycle of life and death? American poet Louise Glück (1943-present) might argue that the best place to start is in one's garden. Glück's sixth poetry collection, The Wild Iris (1992), gives voice to various species of flowers as they contemplate their mortality and understanding of life. The Wild Iris is effectively a conversation between flowers, the poet-gardener, and a god-figure, as the varied speakers contemplate life, individuality, pain, beauty, and death.
The Wild Iris is Glück's sixth book, published in 1992. It is a collection of 54 poems set in a garden. There are three distinct speakers throughout the collection: an omniscient deity, a gardener-poet, and various flowers. The Wild Iris won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and William Carlos Williams Award.
In many of her poetry collections, Glück's primary focus is on the natural world and the myths/spirituality that arise from it. This is especially apparent in The Wild Iris, where the god-figure is intricately tied to the natural world and speaks in the changing weather patterns. The poems in this collection are intimate, emotive, and often fanciful. They speak to themes of mortality, individuality, and spirituality, examining the root of what it means to be alive.
Below are a few of the most famous poems from The Wild Iris collection.
"The Wild Iris" is told from the viewpoint of an iris. It states that it has known suffering and remembers its own death. It remembers hearing noises above the soil until every sound faded out and all it knew was the sun shining dimly. The iris states that being alone and conscious underground was "terrible" (8). The flower tells its presumably human audience that it eventually escaped humanity's worse fear and was reborn. Poking through the earth, the iris "returns from oblivion" (19) and begins life again as it blooms into a fountain of blue petals.
Irises are perennial plants, meaning they come back every year.
The speaker in "Vespers" is the gardener-poet of the collection. The speaker is addressing an absent deity who has given her permission to use the earth for her garden. The gardener is upset because her tomato plants are rotting and dying. She tells the deity that if she is expected to grow tomatoes, it needs to take better care of the natural world instead of allowing it to be burdened by heavy rain and bitter cold. The gardener is the one who put all of the work into growing the plants, and she must bare the burden of loss alone. She criticizes the deity for not having a heart or being empathetic to the loss of life.
To the god-figure, the individual loss of a few tomato plants (which stands as a symbol for the speaker's own inevitable death as well) means nothing. Because the deity will never die, it is indifferent to the loss of life. But the gardener, who is deeply aware of her own mortality, views death as final and inevitable.
Vespers are an evening prayer. Its purposes are to sanctify the day and praise God.
"The Red Poppy" is spoken from the perspective of a poppy, opening its petals to the sun as it blooms. The flower speaks as though it is addressing a human. It declares that it doesn't have a mind (which, it implies, is a burden), but it does have feelings. The sun is the poppy's lord: the basis of its spirituality and religion. The flower is happy to open up to it, becoming vulnerable and glorious. The poppy states that it has a heart, and then it asks its human "brothers and sisters" (12) if they allowed themselves to be vulnerable and open before their logical human minds got in the way. The flower realizes that it is able to speak because it knows it is "shattered" (20) and that it will soon lose the life it loves.
The main themes in The Wild Iris collection center around mortality, beauty, and suffering.
Both the flower and gardener speakers of the collection are deeply concerned with the mortality of living things. They know that life is fragile and death is inevitable. In "Vespers," the speaker grieves the loss of her tomatoes, which were once healthy but quickly became burdened with disease and death:
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows." (12-15).
The tomatoes' death represents more than the loss of a beloved plant. On a deeper level, it forces the human speaker to confront her own mortality and inevitable demise. She rails against an indifferent, immortal god who has never had to fear death:
...You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness" (17-22)
For the gardener, the changing seasons are an ever-present reminder that death awaits all living things. In the Autumn of her life, she will wither and die like her plants.
The flower-speaker of "The Red Poppy" is also aware that living things share the bond of a fragile life. As it is blooming at the height of its life and beauty, the poppy is devastated by the understanding that life is ephemeral:
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered." (18-20)
In the garden, flowers and humans alike are reminded that life is beautiful, but it will not last forever.
In addition to death, the living things in the collection experience suffering and pain. This suffering helps them develop a deeper understanding of life, and it forces them to become more self-aware. The iris begins its poem with the acknowledgement of its pain:
At the end of my suffering
there was a door." (1-2).
It proceeds to discuss the death it experienced and the horror of consciousness while being buried deep within the ground. At the end of this suffering, however, the iris returns with a new voice and a better understanding of life and death that it shares with the gardener.
The pain that the gardener-speaker feels in "Vespers" is also linked to a more nuanced understanding of life. After the loss of her tomatoes, she redefines her relationship to her deity, who she now believes is so removed from its subjects that it has become unjustly indifferent to their pain. She expresses her frustration to her god, saying
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term..." (15-17)
The emotional pain that the gardener experiences enables her to connect more deeply with her plants and reposition her worldview. She realizes the connection between all living things, which the deity will never experience.
Unsurprisingly for a collection about blooming flowers, The Wild Iris also examines the beauty of the natural world. The flowers experience their fair share of suffering and death, but their lives are underscored by their beauty. The iris, for example, says
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater." (21-23)
The red poppy, too, is aware of the beauty of its life:
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire
like his presence." (5-10)
While life in the garden is short, it is full of beauty, glory, and vitality. The flowers are a vibrant reminder that even amidst pain and uncertainty, life is beautiful.
The Wild Iris collection can be read as a free-verse dialogue between flowers, a human gardener, and a deity. The main literary device in the poem is anthropomorphism, as the flowers are able to talk, reason, and feel things in much the same way people do. The Wild Iris is also a highly symbolic collection. The beautiful but fragile flowers are symbols of human mortality, bound by the inescapable cycle of life.
Anthropomorphism is when nonhuman things display human traits, emotions, and behaviors. This is different from personification because the flowers are literally talking in the collection, not just given human qualities.
The natural world addresses humanity through the flower-speakers. They are emotional, self-aware, and limited. They see humans as being very different than them, but they acknowledge that they share the same bounds of life and death. The flowers often mock human reason and the human desire to understand and control the natural world. The flowers remind humanity that humans are just as much subject to the natural world as they are. For all their logic and reason, humans cannot escape natural death.
The gardener addresses the Divine in her morning and evening prayers (matins and vespers, respectively). She is frustrated by her lack of understanding and insight as well as her inability to control death. The gardener learns acceptance of the unexpected and patience while caring for her plants. At times she feels disconnected and abandoned by her deity, but she works to find her way back to the Divine. The poet-gardener depicts how humans can find meaning in life even when things are out of their control.
Finally, the Divine addresses humankind (and sometimes the gardener specifically) in several of its own poems. The deity is tender and nurturing, but it is also acutely disappointed in humanity. Instead of honoring the life it has given them, humans take their time for granted. The Divine is saddened by humanity's inability to grow and earn their independence as it intended them to. It resents that instead of looking to their spirituality for answers, humans search for unachievable eternity in vain.
The Wild Iris examines what it means to be alive and connected to other living things. It is not a gentle, feel-good collection of nature poetry. It is also not light, peaceful, or romantic. Instead, it speaks to the complexity of life and the anxiety of death.
The natural world in The Wild Iris is beautiful and lively. Plants sprout, bloom in the sun, and burn like fire. Flowers shine in hues of red, blue, silver, gold, white, and yellow. But amidst all of this beauty is the ever-imposing threat of death. Life is still beautiful, but it is not at all innocent, safe, or tender.
The Wild Iris collection ultimately depicts the complexity of human life: the ambivalence of being aware of our own mortality, the effect spirituality has on our understanding of life and death, and the way we relate to the rest of the world, especially other living things. Being alive is often complicated, sometimes painful, and always leads to death. But beauty exists even in times of immense pain. And the spiritual realm of the collection hints that maybe death isn't really the end for flowers—or for people.
The Wild Iris is about the relationship between people, plants, and a deity.
There are 54 poems in this collection.
The Wild Iris was written by Louise Glück.
The Wild Iris is important for its depiction of life and death.
The Wild Iris won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Who wrote The Wild Iris collection?
Louise Glück wrote The Wild Iris
When was The Wild Iris collection published?
It was published in 1992.
What award did The Wild Iris win?
Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
Who are the three speakers in The Wild Iris?
Flowers, gardener-poet, the Divine
What does the iris say about death in "The Wild Iris"?
It states that it remembers death and has been reborn.
Why is the speaker upset with her deity in "Vespers"?
She is upset because her tomato plants have died and reminded her of the mortality she shares with plants. She believes the Divine should take better care of its subjects instead of being indifferent to death.
What does the poppy reveal at the end of "The Red Poppy"?
It reveals that it is "shattered" by the understanding that it will die soon.
How many poems are in The Wild Iris?
What are the main themes in The Wild Iris?
The fragility of life, suffering and pain, and the beauty of the natural world
What is the message behind The Wild Iris?
The message is that life is complex and complicated. It is burdened by the bounds of death. But it is also beautiful despite its brevity.
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