Study Guide

The Wild Iris Themes

  • Suffering

    In some ways, "The Wild Iris" is a painful poem. Suffering is front-and-center from the get-go, even though the speaker keeps predicting an end to it. It reminds us of those nurses who always assure you, "This will only hurt for a minute." (Does anybody really believe that?) Still, as we work our way through the poem, the theme of suffering expands in surprising directions, shedding unexpected light on the physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges of being human.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Do you think the suffering of the poem's speaker is more physical or emotional? How can you tell? Do you remember that morbid "would-you-rather" game we all played as kids ("Would you rather eat worms or touch a tarantula?")? Well, if you were given the choice between physical and emotional suffering, which would you choose? Why?
    2. Why do you think the speaker of the poem wants to tell the story of his or her suffering? After you have a painful experience, do you feel like telling someone about it? Why or why not? Do you think it's possible for painful experiences to have positive effects? Why or why not?
    3. Why does the suffering of the poem's speaker come to an end? Why do you think there's a door at the end of the suffering?

    Chew on This

    Fear is the root cause of much suffering. In the poem, the speaker argues that the fear associated with helplessness (being unable to speak) is a special kind of torture.

    Creativity is not possible without suffering (hence the expression "suffering artist"). In the poem, the speaker must suffer in order to find a new voice, which symbolizes creativity.

  • Immortality

    Answers don't come easily in Louise Glück's poems, and "The Wild Iris" is no exception. The poet makes us work for our meanings. So we probably shouldn't be surprised that the poem refuses to come right out and say where it stands on the issue of life after death. Still, there are some tantalizing clues. What looks like death for a wild iris just leads to new life. So maybe what looks like death for human beings is not the end either.

    Questions About Immortality

    1. Do you think the image of buried consciousness in "The Wild Iris" supports traditional ideas of life after death? Why or why not? Have you ever thought about the possibility of life after death? If so, how do you picture it?
    2. Immortality is an important concept in many religious traditions. Do you consider "The Wild Iris" a religious poem? Why or why not?
    3. The word "soul" has a variety of possible meanings. In your opinion, which definition best matches the meaning of "soul" in the context of the fifth stanza? And what's the word doing there in the first place? Why talk about the soul in a poem that seems to be about a flower?

    Chew on This

    "The Wild Iris" makes a strong case for the immortality of the human soul.

    "The Wild Iris" expresses a desire for immortality but ultimately rejects the idea as wishful thinking.

  • Language and Communication

    Why is the speaker in "The Wild Iris" so concerned about "voice"? Well, speaking is a creative act, a way to express our innermost thoughts and feelings. Speaking is also a social act that allows us to form relationships. Some people even speak to deities, through prayer. For these reasons, it makes sense to think of speech as emanating from a source of inner power. Like a great fountain, our thoughts and feelings well up from this deep source and rise into an outpouring of spoken words. Or at least they do in this poem.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. Why do you think the speaker of the poem lost the ability to speak? And why is the speaker's ability to speak restored? How do you know?
    2. Does the poem suggest that people fear being unable to speak? How so? Can you think of a time when you really wanted to say something but couldn't? How did that make you feel?
    3. Why do you think the speaker's voice comes from "the center" of the speaker's life? What does the phrase "center of my life" mean to you personally? Do you associate it with a specific place or particular relationships or a favorite activity? Is there a particular area of your body that you identify with the center of your life (such as brain, eyes, heart, or gut)?

    Chew on This

    In "The Wild Iris," the ability to speak represents an individual's personal identity. So if you take away a person's voice, you take away their very self.

    "The Wild Iris" suggests that the inability to express one's true thoughts and feelings can cause psychological damage, leading to a kind of emotional death. Yikes.

  • Transformation

    Like it or not, life is change. You are no longer the same person you were one minute ago. By default, we are changed by time and by the world. We are also changed by the choices we make (which is why Shmoop is feeling remorseful about that second hot fudge sundae). "The Wild Iris" lends itself to many interpretations, but the poem seems particularly interested in two types of transformation: emotional and spiritual. Both involve suffering, but both arguably lead to freedom.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Do you think the speaker in "The Wild Iris" had any control over the process described in the poem? Why or why not? Have you ever felt like you were at the mercy of circumstances beyond your control? If so, how did you react, and what did you learn from the experience?
    2. Why do you think the speaker in "The Wild Iris" is so eager to talk about death? Do you consider it morbid to think or talk about death? Why or why not? In some traditions, reflecting on death is a recommended technique for promoting spiritual growth. Do you think this practice could be beneficial? Why or why not?
    3. Imagine that you are interviewing the speaker of "The Wild Iris" about the experiences described in the poem. You ask the speaker, "How did those experiences affect you? Did they change how you feel about yourself or the world? Do you live your life differently now?" How do you think the speaker would respond?

    Chew on This

    "The Wild Iris" suggests that suffering can lead to emotional growth because painful experiences sometimes strengthen a person's character by breaking old habits and revealing new possibilities.

    "The Wild Iris" suggests death is not an end. It's just yet another change we undergo.