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Margaret Eleanor Atwood’s Journey to the Interior is a metaphysical poem with the recurring motif of ‘journey’ that Atwood explores in other works like Surfacing. It portrays an inward journey describing the complex landscape of the human psyche. Using extended metaphors, Atwood sketches a wilderness that serves as an analogy for the human mind. It is in form of a monologue, the apt form for introspection. The interior referred to here is the psyche of the poet. She utilizes an extended metaphor here: her inner exploration stretches out to the journeying of the Canadian environment and landscape. It appears to compare and contrast two journeys, one into an exterior landscape and the other into the inner landscape of the individual soul. The use of the words “similarities” (line 1) and “differences” (line 20) exemplifies contrast and allows the reader to make connections between the physical world and internal realm, and bridge the gap between connotation and denotation. The poem suggests that the exploration of the human mind is not a simple,point-to-point journey.

As one delves deeper into the mind, it stretches out into various directions- incomprehensible and inscrutable. A person with a firm faith can embark on the discovery of the self, and survive unscathed in the process. For outsiders, the human mind is as limited as a two-dimensional picture “flat as a wall.” The hills from the distance seem “welded together”. But from near, the opening between them breaks into vast prairies. Furthermore, it does not imply that the interior landscape or mind is uniformly fertile. It has its share of barren swamps that are capable of producing “spindly trees.” The “cliff is not known as rough except by the hand.” The world supposes that only tangible objects exist in this world. The unseen is unfathomable. The poet says that the journey into the soul resembles a journey into a jungle. In a jungle, continuous ranges of the mountain look like one wall open when we get close. Soon an open grazing land is seen. Similarly, one’s soul is initially impenetrable, but soon it presents a huge space. Like the tree which grows in swamps and is spindly, the inner world is also sparse. Even as one cannot go up to the cliff without gripping the rough rock with one’s hands, without effort, the inner world is inaccessible. In a jungle, movement is not easy, as the location is not clear, as in a map. The path is full of darkness or light alternating and there is no clear destination. In the inner world also one has a similar experience.

Margaret Atwood

The travel is not easy going. It is not statistically correct and mathematically discrete. There are no fixed points to connect, dotted lines as in a map to trace the geography of a point. Or further, even to trace connections. It is beyond geometry too, in that it cannot be “plotted on a square surface”.The poet moves in the maze of tangled branches. She moves in dark and light hues and colours that define nothing but themselves, just like the self does. Significantly, there are no destinations at the close of such a journey; for the journey itself is the destination. The poet then lists the differences between the journey to the interior and other typical journeys. This one does not depend on reliable charts as it traverses uncharted territory. In the former journey, there are no charts. Distracting thoughts of a shoe under the chair or mushrooms to be sliced in the kitchen may hamper one’s journey. A sentence may also put one out of one’s mediation like a heavy log of wood. Distracting thoughts, domestic duties or worries or verbal wrongs may distract one in one’s mediation. These may not hinder a journey, into the exterior landscape. All the enlisted entities stand for domestic images that are superficial. The poet signifies that nothing is superficial in the psyche. Nothing is as short-lived as the “lucent white mushrooms.” A sentence crossing one’s path in such an outward existence has a no deeper meaning to one’s self. It rather poses as an obstacle,” sodden as a fallen log.” And it is familiar as it passed him yesterday also. While the truth is that everything produced by the mind is not static regarding distance and time.

While the first two stanzas allow us to investigate the features of the mind, the poet awakens us to a more objective(exterior) view as she suddenly asks us:

(have l been
walking in circles again?)
A compass is useless; also
trying to take directions

Such ventures are fraught with unseen perils as “only some have returned carefully.” A compass is useless here. Neither visual truths (the erratic movements of the sun) nor auditory statements (words)are valid here. What is more important is keeping one’s own, without losing oneself. The journey to the interior is more dangerous. Since the journey is done alone, no communication is possible. Hence, words here are meaningless, as shouting in an empty wilderness. The daring traveller must trudge through several devious routes to make some headway, and there are no destinations at the end of such a journey. Very few people who have entered the inner landscape have returned safely. One easily loses one’s way in the inner landscape. The solution is internal –to stay focused and rational.

One of the significant aspects of Atwood’s work is her adept use of imagery and metaphor. She uses the imagery of real, physical landscapes to convey the mystifying, inner world of the self. Elements like ‘prairies’, ‘cliff’, ‘bush’, and ‘traps’ represent different facets of the unidentified self that the speaker attempts to traverse. The poem is set as a reflection of the poet’s inner self, showcasing the reasons why a journey within is more challenging than any external expedition. Atwood shows how the exploration of our self is full of unexpected turns and dangers by drawing parallels between the outer and inner journey.

The poet smartly uses the first-person narrative to draw readers into her world of thought. Her employment of enjambment throughout the poem mimics the continuous, endless nature of thoughts and actions during self-exploration, symbolizing the inner ‘journey’ that she talks about. While expressing the difficulty of navigating through the landscape of one’s psychology, the poem also argues for the necessity of the same. It suggests that understanding our inner selves is as vital as understanding and navigating the physical world.

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Devika Panikar
δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges under this directorate and is now posted at the Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of lecture notes she prepared by referencing various sources for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.