Exploring Gratitude Through Mary Oliver’s “Oxygen”

Dalton Parker Blackwell

Personal Statement

As someone familiar with caregiving, I have found it particularly difficult to explain the emotions that come with such work. I believe that poet Mary Oliver was able to achieve such a task though, and through this explication, I’m hoping I can share why I have so much fondness for “Oxygen.”


When used correctly, a poem’s vivid and contrasting imagery can bring to the surface hard-to-label emotions that paradoxically both conflict and blend with each other. One such poem that manages to provide such an experience is “Oxygen,” by Mary Oliver. In the poem, Oliver casts a display of warm flames that illuminate the melancholic scenario of a fading loved one being sustained by a “…merciful noisy machine” (Oliver, Line 3). When closely examining the poem, it becomes clear how Oliver uses concise diction to provide a warm tone that parallels the emotion of the speaker.  The result is a love poem that not only warrants contentment with the temporary but also an appreciation for the oxygen that allows it.

The poem cleverly establishes the reliance on oxygen by making the title itself needed for a clearer understanding of the poem upon first read-through. Without the title “Oxygen,” the reader may be left to wonder what the beginning of the poem is referring to. The first two lines of the poem start the theme of thankfulness for oxygen, after all, “Everything needs it: bone, muscles, and even / while it calls the earth its home, the soul.” (1-2). Depending on the definition of the soul, by making the claim that the soul is reliant on oxygen, Oliver implies that oxygen is essentially life itself. Therefore, the simple act of breathing “…is a / beautiful sound” (12-13). But as we know, breathing eventually comes to a permanent exhale. That’s where the contrast of the natural beauty of life comes into play with the “…noisy machine” that provides oxygen to the narrator’s loved one (3).

Despite the state of the loved one’s physical condition, the loud artificial sound of breathing means that the poet still has them. It is important to note that the poem is seen through the words of the poet, though, leaving only a partial look into the situation. One may safely assume that they are both content due to their love, but the state of happiness for the ill one is really left up to the interpretation of the reader. While they are technically alive, they are in fact living a sedentary and uncomfortable life, spending it “in [their] usual position, leaning on [their] // shoulder which aches” (9-10).  Regardless though, the nature of the close relationship no doubt provides some comfort to the sick one. This desire for the narrator to keep their loved one is made all the more palpable when they profess: “your life, which is so close / to my own that I would not know // where to drop the knife of / separation…” (14-17). For the narrator, their lives are so close to each other, that they are one and the same. It seems that this ever-so-evident love towards the ailed one is what grew this appreciation for life, and thus an appreciation of oxygen.

When hearing the noise of the machine, the narrator “…[kneels] / before the fire, stirring…” it around, letting the logs burn, thanks to the air that makes it possible (5-6). Such imagery not only creates a warm atmosphere in the reading but also provides a parallel to life. The logs are prodded to keep the flame burning bright, using oxygen, much like how the machine works to keep the loved one breathing. The burning logs also provide an allusion to the narrator’s love with how the “…fire rises / and offers a dozen, singing, deep red / roses of flame…” (19-21). In this case, comparing the flames to the conventional symbol of roses demonstrates a connection between life and the love that can manifest from it – all thanks to air.

But eventually, the comforting flames will start to die down. Those bright fiery logs will transition into glowing embers, and then into ash leaving behind only memories of warmth. Yet, the fire still shows appreciation for the needed oxygen “as it feeds…/…upon the invisible gift: / our purest, sweet necessity: the air” (22-24). Mimicking the grateful attitude of the flames, the narrator shows an appreciation for life and the gift of air that allows it. The narrator seems content, simply glad to have had someone in their life, while also appreciating the remainder of their time on the earth with the person.

Something that may not initially be appreciated is how Oliver uses subtle rhythm and structure to keep the tone of the poem unified. For instance, with the subject of breathing being prominent, it makes sense that the loud and artificial sound of the sick one’s breathing would be reflected in the stanzas themself. Every stanza is 3 lines long, breaking off at parts that serve as almost interruptions. This symmetry among stanzas doesn’t mean the poem comes off as robotic though. There are four lines in the first two stanzas that use nine syllables each. This helps establish an easier transition to the more sporadic rhythms that follow. The arrhythmic nature of the lines that follow is consistently interrupted with those stanza breaks which lend to a dynamic of natural and artificial. The poem also subtly makes use of internal half-rhymes to keep it whole, without it suffering from predictably strong rhyming conventions. Some instances of this at play are seen with “…bone…” and “…home…” (1-2). “…fire…” and “…iron…” (6-7). As well as a few other instances, such as with the title itself rhyming with “even” in the first line. So, while the nature of the poem isn’t forcibly catchy, it does have that needed support for the stanzas to remain upright. There is an exception to this subtle rhyming scheme though. Oliver ties off the poem with the only stanza that contains a true rhyme, the internal feminine rhyme of “quietude” and “gratitude,” both of which reflect the appreciation of the air that supports both the flames as well as the life that brings warmth to the caretaker.

One of the reasons why I find this poem so touching is because it tackles the challenge of conveying a mood that is difficult to express, even when you know it so well. It’s a feeling brought on by a situation where you have someone you care about who can no longer easily be themselves. A give and take of happiness punctuated with loss that cannot possibly be fully grieved over until they stop feeding on that “…invisible gift” of oxygen (23). Instead of painting this as a cold and dreary environment in the poem though, the poet seemingly teeters on the verge of being thankful for the opportunity to have such circumstances – since the process of losing something great means that you have something great to lose.

Works Cited

Oliver, Mary. “Oxygen.” https://thissimple.wordpress.com/2019/10/09/oxygen/


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The Lion's Pride, Vol. 16 Copyright © 2022 by Dalton Parker Blackwell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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