Several of the elements of Roethke’s mind, personality, and poetic skill combine to assert themselves in “In a Dark Time,” one of his most personal and most powerful works. The poem begins with a violent description of a psychic breakdown, a comment on Roethke’s own mental illness, and ends by invoking the vocabulary of religious mysticism. Underlying the whole poem is the startling assumption that such a collapse may be necessary in order for a person to reach truth and achieve integration of the personality and unity with the rest of nature. Roethke certainly thought this theory true for himself; the end of the poem is stated in the first line, for in Roethke’s view, it is only “in a [psychically] dark time” that “the [inner] eye begins to see.”
The natural imagery in the poem does not refer to the neat, ordered, and humanly understandable world of the greenhouse, where growth takes place in regular, ordered patterns. Roethke knew that the greenhouse was an artificial place sustained by rational activity; the world outside was a far different place, teeming with wild and threatening life and unexplainable creatures and events. In this poem there are no beautiful roses but instead “beasts of the hill,” “serpents of the den,” and “a ragged moon.” The natural world is not a comforting place but instead is an index of madness, as outer reality reflects the inner turmoil of the poet. The last natural image in the poem, the fly which buzzes at the window sill, seeing the world it desires but unable to reach it, frequently appears in Roethke’s writing as a symbol of mental illness.
Roethke’s presentation of this condition is clinically accurate; it is common; for example, for the psychotic person to think that everything is obviously related to everything else (“a steady...
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