Discuss the poem "Root Cellar" by Theodore Roethke.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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“Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke was one of his greenhouse poems.  His father owned a large greenhouse and much of his childhood was spent inside it.  His poetry is characterized by strong rhythm and natural imagery—these are the traits of this poem.

This poem is a lyric poem that focuses on plant roots that are able to survive in an unfavorable setting in preparation for making a new generation of their species. The atmosphere is optimistic. The narrator exhibits wonder at the plants that have lived and even sprouted roots with the resolve to survive.

The theme of the poem celebrates the determination of these bulbs or plants that want to survive so desperately that search for any means to live in an inhospitable environment. In a larger sense, the sprouts would speak to anything that wants to live so badly that it would not give up because it searches desperately for the means to survive.


A root cellar is an underground storage area [sometimes it is nothing more than a pit] to encourage roots to sprout. It is damp and chilled.  The bulbs never sleep. Instead, they are actively struggling to issue forth a new generation of life.

Because of the dampness, roots, stems, shoots come out of every crack or hole that can be found. These shoots search for any area that admits light which supports the new life. Each new growth searches for an escape route to the outside. 

The area has an eerie feel and look as the  shoots stick out and sag over the sides of the boxes; they even hang down looking like snakes.

Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life…

The smell is horrendous. The manure, mold, and mushy stems occupy every inch of the area;  in addition, there is a buildup of mold, fodder, and mushy roots in the area. This promotes the stench that has conquered the room.  These new sprouts refuse to die and even the dirt holds the promise of new life.

Figurative Language

The poet uses visual, concrete imagery.  Roethke uses no rhyming; however, he relies on the rhythm of his words and phrases.

The poet uses alliteration to enhance the rhythm and emphasis.  “Bulbs broke out of boxes…”

Every line has one or two exquisite images that draws the reader into that scary cellar to see these strange shoots everywhere.

An interesting metaphor compares the bulbs breaking out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark…

He also uses a simile to describe the long shoots that hang from the ceiling: Hung down long yellow evil neck, like tropical snakes.  

The poem creates an outstanding image of the root cellar, a desolate and weird environment usually overlooked, but deserving of attention and careful consideration.