Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Roethke, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for his 1953 book of poetry The Waking: Poems, 1933-1953, is universally regarded as one of the major poets of the twentieth century. His canon is rich and varied. He began his career consciously imitating such great poets as T. S. Eliot, Keats, William Wordsworth, William Blake, William Butler Yeats, and W. H. Auden. Later he acknowledged his debt to his contemporaries Louise Bogan and William Carlos Williams. At the end of his career, he was firmly in the camp of the American mystic poets such as Robert Bly and James Dickey. Yet his great achievement was the ability to synthesize all these influences and remain quintessentially Roethke, a poet of nature, love, and the omnipresent dread of death.

“Dolor” is quite an anomaly in the midst of his greenhouse poems in his second book of poetry, The Lost Son and Other Poems. While well-known poems such as “Root Cellar” sing the praises of fecundity and the tenaciousness of life in this volume, “Dolor” looks forward to Roethke’s later concerns with the debilitating effects of aging and the inevitability of death. “Dolor” does not, however, reach the sometimes forced transcendence of his much later poetry, in which mysticism alleviates some of the pain of mortality. “Dolor” is caught somewhere between the poems like “Cuttings,” inspired by Roethke’s father’s greenhouses, where the struggle and muck of life are crowned with the glory of new life, and one of his last cycle of poems, “Meditations of an Old Woman,” which ends, with surprising optimism, “In such times, lacking a god,/ I am still happy.” In “Dolor” there is only the recognition of the sadness, the uniform repetitiveness of life. It presents a locked room with no avenues of escape. It is a straightforward description of the problem of midcentury American institutional life as understood by one of its most observant and trenchant poets.