The Wild Iris
by Louise Glück
The Wild Iris
The word "iris" is everywhere and nowhere in this poem. Appearing only in the title, the word nonetheless triggers a powerful set of symbolic associations that shape the poem as a whole. Do you remember playing that mind game where someone says, "Don't think of an elephant"? Of course, as soon as you hear those words, you can't help thinking of an elephant. It's the same with this poem. As soon as you read the title "The Wild Iris," it's impossible not to think of a flower while you read the poem. And if you happen to be familiar with the Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris, you'll probably find yourself thinking of her, too.
- Title: It all starts here. This is the only point in the poem when the wild iris is actually mentioned. But once that image of a wild iris, with all its natural and mythological associations, is planted in our minds, there's no turning back. At every point in the poem, we must ask ourselves how the wild iris relates to what we're reading, and how a wild iris is like a human being.
- Lines 3-4: If the speaker of the poem is a wild iris, it already demonstrates human attributes, illustrating the poet's use of personification. Personification is a fancy term for a universal human impulse to think of nonhuman things as human in some way. When you're a child, you might look up at the moon and see a kindly human face; when you're an adult, you might write a poem about a flower who meditates on death. Though plants and people both experience death, we don't normally consider plants capable of remembering. (Maybe that's a good thing—at least your grandma's prize petunias can't tattle on you when your misplaced soccer kick accidentally squashes them.)
- Lines 5-7: The natural setting described in these lines is consistent with an environment where a wild iris might grow, though it might be a thirsty iris, given the dryness of the soil. Yet the sensory perceptions (hearing, seeing) described in these lines again imply a human consciousness.
- Lines 8-10: If a flower is the speaker in Glück's poem, the poem may function as an extended metaphor or allegory, comparing the flower's lifecycle to human experience. With these lines, the potential for extended metaphor or allegory gains steam. Both wild iris and human beings can undergo burial. Though burial for human beings signifies an end to life (at least physical life as we know it), burial is a natural part of the continuing lifecycle of a perennial plant. Unlike un-personified flowers, this speaker appears to share the burden of "consciousness" experienced by humans.
- Lines 11-15: Referring to the "soul," the speaker urges us not to be afraid of being buried and voiceless. Easy for you to say, wild iris! You'll be blooming again next spring, but where will we be after we die? Still, if the lifecycle of the wild iris is an extended metaphor or allegory for human existence, maybe there is some hope of rebirth for humans, too, though in spiritual rather than earthly form (see "Immortality" in "Themes").
- Lines 16-20: Based on personal experience, the speaker promises a return from "oblivion," including the ability to speak again. Speech is one way we express emotion; difficult emotions can sometimes overwhelm our ability to speak. From this point of view, the life of the wild iris might offer an emotional allegory instead of (or in addition to) a spiritual one. Finding a voice could suggest recovery from despair or coming out of a depression.
- Lines 21-23: How does the fountain image fit with our theories about the wild iris as a vehicle for spiritual and/or emotional allegory? The title of "The Wild Iris" includes a classical allusion (see "Shout Outs"). In Greek mythology, Iris is the goddess of the rainbow; she links the sky with the sea, and she delivers messages from the gods to human beings. In the context of the poem, what message do you think she is bringing?