Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Importance of Self-Forgiveness

“Wild Geese” opens with two sentences that center the theme of self-forgiveness. The speaker introduces this theme most explicitly in lines 2–3, where they say, “You do not have to walk on your knees / for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” With these lines, the speaker wants us readers to recognize how much of our own suffering is self-imposed. That is, our challenges arise not because we’re bad people, but because we subscribe to a problematic belief that we should be better than we actually are. The gap between our sense of who we are versus who we should be leads to suffering and despair. It is precisely this condition that also leads us, metaphorically, to crawl through lifeless deserts in self-debasing acts of repentance. In contrast to the poem’s initial images of suffering and self-torture, the speaker offers a healing alternative. This alternative involves, first, letting go of an overly simplistic binary between “good” and “bad,” which can help us learn to be more forgiving of our own faults. Once we learn self-forgiveness, we can rejoin the great “family of things” (line 18) in the natural world.

Nature’s Healing Grandeur

Whereas the poem’s first section focuses on emotional struggles that take place in the human mind, the second section presents the natural world as a healing refuge. The speaker makes the turn from the first part to the second part in line 7, where they declare: “Meanwhile the world goes on.” This line directs the reader’s attention away from their own internal drama, and toward the spectacle of external world, which goes on unfolding regardless of what’s happening inside the individual’s mind. In the lines that follow, the speaker offers a more expansive depiction of this world:

     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. 

Here in lines 8–11, the speaker envisions a series of spectacular landscapes that are more vibrant, vital, and indeed more real than the metaphorical “desert” of repentance that appears in line 3. The speaker directly invokes the grandeur of nature through this catalog of landscapes. However, the speaker also evokes nature’s vastness more subtly in these lines by introducing the poem’s longest sentence yet. None of the sentences in the first part of the poem extends beyond two lines. Here, however, the speaker offers a four-line sentence whose length conjures the feeling of grandeur that the sentence itself expresses. It is this grandeur that can set us readers free and heal our emotional turmoil.

The Animal Nature of Human Beings

The structure of “Wild Geese” progresses from internal landscapes of the mind to external landscapes of nature. This thematic progression seems to establish an opposition between human nature and the natural world. However, the speaker indicates the falseness of this apparent opposition in lines 4–5. There, the speaker draws attention to the fact that human beings have bodies: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves.” The speaker makes two connected points in these lines. Firstly, the phrase “the soft animal of your body” reminds us readers that the flesh of our bodies connects us to the animal kingdom. The speaker reiterates this point in the poem’s final lines, which insist that we readers have “[our] place / in the family of things” (lines 17–18). Secondly, when the speaker describes the flesh of the body as having the agency to “love what it loves,” they’re suggesting a fundamental connection between body and mind. The lesson is that we readers should not get lost in our thoughts. When we recall the fact that we have bodies, and the vitality of the flesh can free us from the prison of the mind.