Study Guide

The Wild Iris Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Louise Glück is a sly poet. And her use of sound is just as subtle as her manipulation of meaning. When you conduct a preliminary sound check of "The Wild Iris," you won't find a lot of honks of the horn. There's no end-rhyme, for example.

    Still, if you take a closer look, you'll discover several incredibly cool uses of sound to enhance meaning.

    Check out the repetition of the word "returns" in line 19: the word shows up at the beginning of the line and then it returns (get it? get it?) at the end of the line. And consider the phrase "You who do" in line 16: all three words rhyme. Shmoop thinks that the rhyming words emphasize the urgency of the speaker's desire to communicate (yoo-hoo!) and create an echo effect that spookily reverberates from the "other world."

    The poet also uses consonance (repetition of identical or similar consonants) to emphasize connections among key concepts. Consider, for example, how the repeated v sound links the ideas of "oblivion" and "voice" in lines 19 and 20. In the final line of the poem, the sh sound in "shadows," joined to the zh sound in "azure," alerts us to a mysterious transformation of darkness into blue light.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    It's a good thing that Louise Glück entitled this poem "The Wild Iris." Without the title, readers would really be up the creek without a paddle, since the poem itself contains no recognizable references to a flower. But once you connect the title to the lines that follow, you can start unraveling the riddle of the poem.

    On a literal level, the title refers to a plant that has tall slender stalks, long pointed leaves, and brightly colored blooms One of the most common types of wild iris is the blue flag. The plant prefers full sun and moist soil.

    The wild iris is a perennial plant, which means that it reseeds itself, blooming spring after spring without being replanted. This fact relates to the poem by creating associations of spiritual as well as physical rebirth.

    The word "wild" adds another ingredient to the poetic pot. The fact that the wild iris is uncultivated (that means it's not planted or harvested by humans) lends it a certain independent authority as being in Nature with a capital N. Other meanings of the word "wild"—rough, desolate, stormy, violent—convey whiffs of mystery and danger that foreshadow the poem's exploration of suffering and death.

  • Setting

    Time and place in "The Wild Iris" are kind of tricky. We know that the speaker is talking to us, in the present, about something that happened in the past. That much is clear, based on the speaker's use of present tense and past tense verbs ("I remember […] then it was over"). But how long these events lasted or how long ago they happened is left for us to guess.

    It's certainly a challenge to figure out where the events occurred. There's a door at the beginning of the poem but no description of a structure to which the door is attached. So instead of picturing a room of some sort, we might be better off imagining a more abstract kind of door. To get in the mood, sneak a peek at "L'embeillie," a painting by the Belgian Surrealist artist Rene Magritte.

    By the third stanza, we're on more solid ground ("dry surface") in a recognizable outdoor setting with at least one pine tree and some weak sunlight. The stanza that follows plunges us into darkness, as the speaker recalls being buried alive. Though the idea is fantastical, the setting in stanza 5 remains natural, with references to the "earth" as well as "birds" and "low shrubs."

    In stanza 6, the speaker refers to "the other world" and "oblivion" but provides no descriptive details about that world. How would you describe nothingness? While we're still scratching our heads over that one, a "great fountain" suddenly appears. The reference to "seawater" may make us think of the beach, but this time the setting is clearly abstract rather than naturalistic, as the fountain is located in "the center of my life."

  • Speaker

    "The Wild Iris" is narrated in the first person, using the pronouns I, me, and my. The speaker addresses us, the readers, as you. But that's about all we get.

    Readers should never assume that the writer of a poem is also the speaker in the poem. In every single English class Shmoop ever took, the teacher tried to hammer this lesson into our thick skull. But you have to admit, it's still tempting to assume that Louise Glück is the speaker of the poem. If you want to make this assumption in the privacy of your own home, you're free to do so. The SWAT team isn't going to break down your door and arrest you (or dock your grade).

    But there are a few factors you might want to consider. For example, the poem itself contains no evidence that the speaker is a poet named Louise Glück. Moreover, the poem has no hallmarks of the confessional poetry genre—you know, that type of poem where the poet lets it all hang out, providing lots of information about his or her personal life. TMI, much?

    Plus, Louise Glück has a history of getting cranky when people identify her too closely with the speaker in her poems, saying things like, "I am endlessly irritated by the reading of my poems as autobiography" (source). Ouch! Maybe we should look for a different speaker after all.

    Flower Child

    So what are the options? Well, there's the wild iris itself. Like many people, you may enjoy talking to your flowers, but presumably the flowers don't talk back (unless, of course, your name is Alice, and you hang out with a guy in a top-hat who looks suspiciously like Johnny Depp). In poetry, however, anything is possible.

    We've said it before, and we'll say it again: there's a convincing argument to be made that the wild iris, the flower in the title, is the speaker of the poem. For example, all that talk about being buried makes sense when you consider that a perennial flower, such as the wild iris, dies each season, only to be reborn the following spring.

    But that's not the only option. Even though the title refers to a flower, a human could still be the one doing the talking, either in this world or the next. Maybe a human speaker is contemplating a wild iris: the life cycle of the flower is relevant to the speaker's concerns, so the speaker imaginatively identifies with the flower. The concepts of "consciousness" and "voice" certainly make sense in reference to a human speaker.

    Maybe you subscribe to the flower speaker theory, while your friend is sure it's a human. Which interpretation is best? Don't look at us: Shmoop refuses to referee this one (we haven't made up our own mind!), so have fun hashing it out among yourselves.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    "The Wild Iris" draws you in with its simple vocabulary and conversational tone, but the speaker, setting, and message are pretty mysterious. So you'll probably enjoy hiking this trail more than once.

    Shmoop thinks of "The Wild Iris" as the gift that keeps on giving. The more we read it, the more we're into it. Don't worry if you feel like you never quite connect all the dots. In the end, "The Wild Iris" is a poem that may speak more to your heart than your head.

  • Calling Card

    Simple Words, Deep Thoughts

    "The Wild Iris" uses a lot of simple words, including many that contain just one syllable ("there was a door […] Hear me out […] I tell you I could speak"). These are the types of words used in ordinary speech, and they make for a conversational style in the poem. Louise Glück's poetic style is often called "spare," meaning plain. Turns out she doesn't like fussy clothes either. According to the Yale Daily News that she is often seen wearing a no-nonsense baseball cap and her trademark leather jacket—how cool is that? (source).

    Still, Glück's poems are not easy just because they tend to use simple words. And she doesn't rely completely on simple vocabulary. When she does introduce a fancier word ("oblivion … azure"), it packs a wallop, contrasting with the unremarkable words that surround it.

    Plus, the ideas in her poems are often deep and complex. "From the beginning I preferred the simplest vocabulary," she explains. "What fascinated me were the possibilities of context […] I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind" (source).

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    All poets want to fly and be free. Some poets find it freeing to exercise their creativity within the secure boundaries of a formal metrical structure or rhyme scheme. But other poets—and Louise Glück is one of them—prefer to reinvent the wheel, using free verse to make up the poem's structure as they go along.

    A Part of a Whole

    "The Wild Iris" is actually one poem in a book-length collection that forms a narrative sequence. We're analyzing this poem separately from the sequence, but you're in for an additional treat if you read the whole collection. While some of the poems focus specifically on flowers, other poems seem to reveal the thoughts of a human gardener on the one hand, and a kind of Divine Gardener on the other.

    Stanzas and White Space

    "The Wild Iris" has seven stanzas of varying lengths. The logical connections between stanzas are often mysterious, so during the white spaces, you have to give some thought to the meanings that are emerging. "I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem," says Glück. "I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power" (source). Yep, those frequent white spaces aren't just there to ease the eye. They're meant to give you a chance to ponder in silence, to connect the poem's ideas.

    The poetic technique of enjambment—continuing one line of poetry into the next without punctuation—is another way that Glück draws attention to what she's not saying.

    Consider, for example, the way that lines 3 and 17 end with white space after the word "death" and the phrase "the other world," dropping you off a cliff into the Great Beyond without even the safety harness of a single period or comma.

    Though the poem has no set meter, Glück uses rhythm to enhance the simple vocabulary and conversational quality of the poem (see "Calling Card"). Repeated accents on single-syllable words hammer home important points. This technique is evident in lines such as, "Hear me out: that which you call death" and "I tell you I could speak again." In formal meter, two accents in a row are called a spondee. If "The Wild Iris" used a formal metrical structure, each of the two lines just quoted would contain triple spondees. That's one way to get our attention, that's for sure.

  • 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?
  • Movement Versus Stillness

    In the second line of the poem, the speaker mentions a door but won't tell us where it leads. Talk about a teaser. Doors make us curious because they represent change, movement from one place (or state) to another. Depending on how you interpret the poem, you might view the image of the door as a symbol of positive change, of movement from death to life. To explore this idea further, think about other images in the poem that suggest a tension between movement and stasis, or stillness. 

    • Lines 1-4: Here's that mysterious door in line 2. "Death" appears in the next line. We're not told whether the door leads toward, or away from, death. But the door is situated "at the end of my suffering." If you were the one facing that door, would you choose change? Would you open the door and walk through?
    • Lines 5-7: In this stanza, we find another image associated with motion, but the movements are small, just the shifting of pine branches. The phrase "Then nothing" may mean that even those small movements stop. A-ha, an image of stasis!
    • Lines 8-10: The only movement in this stanza is mental movement, or "consciousness." Being "buried in the dark earth" intensifies stillness to the point of paralysis. It makes Shmoop squirm just thinking about it.
    • Lines 11-15: Thank goodness, we can move again. Though the "stiff" earth resists movement, it still bends a little. And there are birds "darting." In the Christian tradition, birds are often symbols of the soul, and the word "soul" appears in line 12.
    • Lines 16–20: The motion suggested by the word "passage" again seems to have positive connotations of freedom, as the speaker returns from "oblivion," a state of nothingness that recalls the ominous stasis in line 6 and the death-like paralysis in line 10.
  • Up Versus Down

    One of the most intense moments in "The Wild Iris" comes when the speaker recalls the horror of being buried alive. Yep, that sounds a lot like death to Shmoop. Luckily, we've got other imagery to compensate for this awfulness, including images of being above ground, and even in the air. 

    • Lines 5-7: So far so good—we're not buried yet. We notice the sunlight flickering over the "surface" of the ground. And we're even looking up toward the sky, observing the pine branches "overhead." Still, this setting is a little ominous. If we were getting on an elevator right now, there's no way we'd press the "down" button. Up, please!
    • Lines 8-10: But here we are anyway, underground. What a downer.
    • Lines 13-15: The reference to the earth "bending a little" sounds hopeful, as if we're working our way upward through the "stiff" soil of our underground tomb. Even better, we're able to visualize birds in the shrubs overhead. Though our perspective is shifting upward, it's not too high yet; the birds are darting in and out of "low" shrubs.
    • Lines 21-23: The concluding image of a "great fountain" conveys a powerful sense of emotional release. The power of the image comes from spatial contrast: the fountain rises high into the air, far from the underground realm of death. And the water is blue as the sky.
  • Sound Versus Silence

    The world can be a pretty noisy place, so we're often grateful for a little peace and quiet. But there's quiet, and there's quiet: sometimes silence can be unwelcome or even creepy. In "The Wild Iris," sound tends to be a good thing because it shows you're alive. Sound is also closely linked to speech. Some of us are chattier by nature than others, but everyone is entitled to a voice, so being deprived of the ability to speak is a pretty scary thought. 

    • Line 3: The phrase "Hear me out" emphasizes the conversational tone of the poem, encouraging us to imagine the voice of the speaker who is telling the story.
    • Line 5: At first, the "noises" we hear are not clearly identified, which is a little unnerving, but then we realize that tree branches are moving in the wind, so the noises probably consist of creaking or rustling. Okay, that seems normal enough.
    • Line 6: The sense of relief is momentary, as line 6 plunges us into "nothing." In context, the phrase "Then nothing" means that the noises have stopped. This world seems to have gone silent. Since our ears don't have anything to listen to, our eyes note flickers of "weak" sunlight. We don't have a good feeling about this…
    • Lines 8-10: Buried alive in the "dark earth," we lose all sensory perception, unable to move, hear, see, or (as the next stanza explains) speak. You know those nightmares where you know a monster is coming, but your legs don't seem to work, so you can't run away, and your voice doesn't work, so you can't cry for help? Like that.
    • Lines 14-15: How does the speaker know that birds are overhead? Maybe the speaker's sense of hearing has returned. Maybe the speaker can now hear the faint sounds of the birds above ground.
    • Lines 16-20: After hearing is restored, the ability to speak also returns. That's good news for Shmoop, since we're on the chattier end of the spectrum ourselves and hate the idea of being muzzled. So to summarize: burial and silence bad, hearing and talking good. For a more nuanced discussion, see our section in the "Language and Communication" theme.
  • Light Versus Darkness

    Images of light and darkness are everywhere in poetry. In fact, if you went to shop at the poetic devices store, the most crowded aisle would probably be the one where all the light and dark images are stocked. But, as we've noted elsewhere, Louise Glück is kind of a minimalist, and she doesn't appear to have hoarded many images of light/darkness, at least for this poem. Still, she takes full advantage of their potential as poetic symbols. Though the word "dark" appears only once, that's all it takes. The darkness of burial and death overshadows much of the poem. 

    • Title: As we've seen, there's some wordplay in the title, as the word "iris" can refer to a Greek goddess as well as a flower. But there's yet another meaning for iris: the colored part of the eye. That means that this image is connected to light, because we perceive light through our eyes. And sometimes the iris of the eye is blue.
    • Lines 6-7: Here's some sunlight, and it's associated with signs of life (at least there's a pine tree growing nearby). Still, the light is "weak" and intermittent—not too cheery.
    • Line 10: As promised, here's your one explicit image of darkness, and it's connected to a burial. Even though the speaker doesn't mention darkness again, we don't really get out from under that shadow of death until the last stanza of the poem.
    • Lines 21–23: The visual image of the fountain seems to banish all the darkness that preceded it: "azure seawater" drenches the scene in beautiful blue light.
  • Water Versus Dryness

    Speaking of fountains, that water imagery in the last stanza seems to come out of nowhere. Still, Glück has prepared us for it by including a single contrasting reference to dryness early in the poem. Rich with symbolism, the image of the great fountain is connected to life, while absence of water is associated with death. 

    • Line 7: Here's that "dry surface." Irises prefer full sun and moist soil. Yet this setting supplies only weak sunlight and precious little water. A wild iris could die in conditions like that. Quick, grab the watering can!
    • Lines 18-22: We find no further mention of water (or lack thereof) until the image of the fountain in the final stanza, but we need to back up a few lines to understand what the fountain is all about. The colon at the end of line 20 equates the fountain with "voice," the ability to "speak again."
    • Line 23: Why is the fountain composed of "seawater"? There's no right answer to that question, so feel free to free-associate. The ocean is often viewed as the universal source of life, and our own bodies contain both water and salts. The poem's few details of setting (pine tree, low shrubs) seem unrelated to the ocean, but Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow, links the sea and sky. She also connects humans with the gods. So the image of the fountain suggests spiritual, as well as emotional, power.
    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      "The Wild Iris" is approved for general audiences, so feel free to read it aloud to your younger brothers and sisters (if you can persuade them to sit still and listen). The poem includes plenty of references to nature but no mention of the birds and the bees.

    • Allusions

      Greek Goddess Iris (title)

      Louise Glück is gaga for Greek mythology. She even based her poetic sequence Meadowlands on the Odyssey—a long poem by the ancient Greek poet Homer—borrowing the characters Odysseus and Penelope to comment on contemporary marriage.

      So it's probably not too much of a stretch to see a mythological allusion in the title of "The Wild Iris." In Greek mythology, Iris is the goddess of the rainbow, connecting the sea and sky (hmmm, there's seawater in this poem… ). And Homer refers to Iris as a messenger who links the gods to humanity.

      Images of the goddess Iris appear on Greek vases. She is portrayed as a young woman with wings who carries a staff and a container of water.

      Greek Goddess Persephone (8-10, 16-18)

      Some commentators go even further, suggesting that Glück's poem also alludes to the Greek myth of Persephone. Kidnapped by Hades, who is god of the dead and ruler of the underworld, Persephone must live underground with him during the winter (talk about a nightmare!) but is allowed to rejoin her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest, for the rest of the year so that the crops (and wild iris?) will grow.

      Granted, this kind of cyclical descent and ascent seems relevant to the themes of the poem, but we're not sure Persephone really qualifies as a shout-out, since Glück doesn't refer to the goddess by name. What do you think?