You do not have to be good.

These words, which open the poem, establish the speaker’s direct address to the reader. Though compact and seemingly straightforward, this opening line carries a complex message. In saying that we readers “do not have to be good,” the speaker seeks to liberate us from the struggle we may feel to be morally upstanding people. The speaker implicitly recognizes that there is no single definition of goodness. The lack of clear definition makes it difficult to judge whether we are, in fact, good. And the more we question our own goodness, the more we tend to feel like we aren’t and can never be good enough. In this brief sentence, then, the speaker acknowledges how easily our desire to be good can send us down an existential spiral. This acknowledgement leads neatly to the following lines, where the speaker tells us readers that we needn’t repent for the sense of shame that results from never feeling good enough.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

These lines (lines 4–5) appear after the speaker has outlined what it is the reader doesn’t have to do. That is, we readers don’t need to obsess about how to be better people, nor should we needlessly punish ourselves for our faults. On the contrary, these lines inform us that all we must do to find our way is listen to our deepest selves. If we pay attention to our most genuine desires, then we can’t go wrong. The speaker’s message here is important, and so is the imagery they use to communicate that message. Consider the phrase, “the soft animal of your body.” On the one hand, this phrase sets up a contrast between the rigidity of social ideas about good and evil, and the pliability of flesh. On the other hand, the speaker’s phrasing creates an opposition between the illusory obsessions of the mind and the authentic needs of the body. In the broadest sense, these lines remind us readers that we are animals, a fact that prepares us to accept the speaker’s concluding claim that we have our own “place / in the family of things” (lines 17–18).

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

These lines (lines 8–11) form part of the transition from the poem’s first section, which focuses on the confinement of emotional hardship, to its second section, which evokes the expansiveness of the natural world. The key word in this transition is “meanwhile,” an adverb whose grammatical function is to redirect attention from one area of focus to another. In this case, the speaker aims to redirect our focus from our own internal struggles to the grandeur of the world outside ourselves. In these lines particularly, the speaker describes prairie and mountain landscapes that, in their lushness, should inspire us deeply. Note the speaker’s elemental emphasis on sun and rain, the two natural phenomena that most directly sustain life on earth. In contrast to the mind, which the speaker likens to a barren “desert” (line 3), it is the verdant world of rivers and trees that gives life its vibrancy and its deepest meaning.