This poem, one of the most frequently reprinted of the “greenhouse” series, shows Roethke’s close attention to the plant world and his identification with it. His sense of unity with the rest of life transcends the ordinary and becomes a spiritual experience, while at the same time remaining grounded in everyday reality. The highly emotional poem is also written using a style and themes that could only be Roethke’s.
As in “Root Cellar,” the discarded cuttings from the greenhouse refuse to die, putting forth new shoots and roots although they are only the mutilated parts of other plants. When Roethke compares the “struggling” plants to tortured saints trying to return to their religious battles, the spiritual connection between the human and vegetable world is established. It is made more definite in the second verse paragraph, in which the poet himself identifies with the chopped up, but still living, plants. He implies that his growth also comes as a result of a long struggle, for it has come “at last.” The last two lines introduce a familiar motif, fish, with which Roethke was fascinated for a number of reasons (one of which was their ability to thrive in a mysterious other world which humans can only visit), and a familiar theme, birth (“sheath-wet”) combined with fear (“I quail”). Birth, the inevitable result of the struggle for life, must happen, but it is terrifying for the new creature to be thrust into the living world.