Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As critic Peter Balakian notes in his book Theodore Roethke’s Far Fields (1989), the phrase “To keep open house with one’s heart” is philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s. Balakian explains that maintaining an open house “is fundamental to Roethke’s essential way of knowing reality and measuring truth. The title proclaims the need to search the self for the truth.”

“Open House” is a poem about the poetic process of self-discovery, a theme common in the Romantic tradition. As the first poem in Roethke’s first volume, it stands as a declaration of Roethke’s allegiance to Romanticism, which stretches back to William Blake. One might even note that the poem’s spare language, simple diction, and strict rhythms are indebted to Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). Furthermore, in its originating metaphor, “Open House” is very similar to Robert Browning’s poem “House,” which begins:

Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself? Do I live in a house you would like to see?Is it scant of gear, has it store of pelf? “Unlock my heart with a sonnet-key?”

Like Blake and other Romantics (especially William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and William Butler Yeats), Roethke believed that poetry is a mystic art quite...

(The entire section is 485 words.)