The Waking Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In simplest terms, the poem’s theme is acceptance of nature’s cyclical and seemingly contradictory plan for the living. Seen in this way, life is a natural, organic process of growth and decay, perhaps recalling for some William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis.” Related to this view of life is the invitation to enjoy life while one has it, to make use of the limited amount of time one has to grow. However, the poem suggests much more about the nature of the actual experience of this life. Human beings “think by feeling”; that is, their lives begin in feelings and senses, and all thought and knowledge naturally follow from and are intertwined with feeling. Armed with this awareness, the human being is free to “dance from ear to ear.” In other poems, Roethke centers on what he suggests here: the divine, mad dance of the person/poet who is in love with this brief, contradictory life.

Life, then, is not a problem to be solved or a process to endure; rather, it is a mystery, a paradox to which people must open their trust, for “What falls away is always. And is near.” In this poem, Roethke speaks from within the idealist American Romantic tradition of Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson and the English Romantic vein of William Blake, William Butler Yeats, and even William Wordsworth. This poem does not spiritualize the poet’s grounded experience; it does not take readers beyond the natural world. Rather, it describes the holiness of the “eternal now” as it teaches readers what Roethke himself declared during a panel talk on the poem “Identity” at Northwestern University in 1963: “‘We think by feeling. What is there to know?’ Thisis a description of the metaphysical poet who thinks with his bodyand it is one of the ways man at least approaches the divinefor there is a God, and He’s here, immediate, accessible.”