Theodore Roethke

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Discuss Theodore Roethke's poem "Root Cellar".

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Roethke's time in his family's greenhouse gave him many opportunities to observe nature in its most glorious beauty and in its murkiest decay. One way a reader can appreciate the power of the poem "Root Cellar" is to begin by thinking carefully about a greenhouse and its contents, as well as its purpose, and to place the function of a greenhouse in a sort of plant-life timeline, which parallels closely the timeline of human life. In a greenhouse, plants start their lives from seed, protected from the elements and nourished by hand; in contrast, a root cellar is where plants finish their existence, approaching disintegration and decay.

With this idea in mind, the reader can place the plants in "Root Cellar" at the far end of the plant-life timeline, opposite to the birth and early growth of seedlings and baby plants in a greenhouse. In a root cellar, plants have already been harvested and stored, perhaps forgotten and neglected, which explains the negative tone in words that describe the roots and their behaviors, like "mildewed," "rank," even "evil." The tone of the speaker of the poem is slightly disgusted, as if he or she is smelling the organic rot while speaking the poem out loud; this tone may contrast with the imagined wonderment of a poem about baby plants just emerging in clean, soft earth.

Roethke uses personification in this poem to emphasize the life experiences humans share with plants. Even the first line of the poem connects the roots to people: "Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch," which implies that if the cellar was more hospitable, the roots might rest peacefully, like people would. This comparison between people and plants, as well as others in the poem, suggests that, like the roots in this cellar, we become unappealing in old age. People, like the roots, often insist on making our presence known somehow, even when we are past our prime; after all, "Nothing would give up life: / Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath."

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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.

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Discuss the "Root Cellar" by Theodore Roethke and its images.

Survival goes to whoever is the fittest and those that will never give up. This is the theme of “Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke. Amazing spirited plants that want to survive in a hostile environment can be found in Roethke’s cellar.  No one would want to go down into the cellar, but the poet admires the efforts of the plants to live.

 The narration is third person with an upbeat tone.  As the speaker observes this rather dismal little room, he is amazed and awed by the struggling plants.

This is a lyrical poem written in free verse.  There is no rhyme scheme.  However, there are stark and interesting images with appeal both to the sight and smell senses. The poet champions anything that has to struggle to survive, particularly in a harsh environment. It makes no difference how small, ugly, or useless; each should have a chance to survive and live freely.

A root cellar is a structure built underground or partially underground and used to store vegetables, fruits, and nuts or other foods. Root cellars are for keeping food supplies at a low temperature and steady humidity.


This is a fun poem that also repulses as it describes the weird images of the roots.  It is one interesting image after another specifically in praise of plants that do not die but search for ways to propagate and find the much needed sun to survive.

The poem begins by stating that nothing sleeps in the dark cellar. It looks like it is alive.  The bulbs have taken root everywhere pushing out of boxes searching for the precious sunlight.

The roots hang on everything, coming out of cranes almost indecently.  Hanging down from the ceiling with the long necks of the roots, they look like serpents,

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

The community of smells is disgusting.

Ripe roots like fish bait and stems that are mushy, moldy—all are piled up against old boards.

No plants died because all willed themselves to live.  It almost seemed like the dirt shows signs of life. This is no place for man, but the perfect place for these strong-willed plants.

Literary Devices

The poet also uses several types of literary devices to paint the picture of the root cellar.

Alliteration is used to add to the visual and auditory aspect of the poem. The rhythm of the poem is enhanced by his alliterative uses of the “d,” “b,”and “l.”

  • …dank as a ditch…
  • …dark shoots dangled and drooped
  • Bulbs broke out of boxes…
  • Roots ripe…
  • Leaf-mold, manure, lime, life…

Another device which adds to the flavor of the poem is personification:

  • The plants sleep
  • Bulbs break out and hunt
  • Dirt breathes


  • Cellar dank as a ditch
  • Roots have long evil necks like tropical snakes
  • Roots ripe as old bait…
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Discuss the figurative language and the poet's attitude toward "Root Cellar" by Theodore Roethke.

Root cellars were often found in homes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The purpose was to keep vegetables, fruits, and bulbs in a stable, cool temperature which would prevent them from rotting.  Often, these dark rooms were placed beneath the houses in an area that stayed cool year round. Other things might also be stored in these out of the way places. This is the subject of the poem “Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke.

The poem is a lyric poem that eagerly exposes this unusual environment that hosts a variety of  plants trying to survive. The narrator presents the scene as both exalting and disgusting as the plants attempt to propagate in this hostile setting. Upbeat, awe-struck, and admiring---this is the tone of the poem.  The author wants to share this bracing experience with the reader.

Nothing would sleep in that cellar,dank as a ditch...

Thematically, the author celebrates anything that wants to live so much that it is willing to do whatever it takes to survive.  These plants, though struggling, are filled with the desire to find the sun and drink it in to be able to replenish.


The narrator goes into this strange place and is surprised by what he sees.  Nobody would be able to sleep in there.  The atmosphere is too chilly and moist.  Everywhere that one looks roots are breaking out of their containers.  These roots have one purpose: find the light to survive.

The vista is almost offensive.  The roots are dangling from everywhere.  Hanging down from the high places wooden boxes, some of the roots are yellow and curved, looking like reptiles. 

Worst of all are the odors! The mixture is surprising.  Overripe roots stinking like rotten fish food; mushy and rotten stems, putrid; fungus, feces—all piled up on slimy wood. 

Everything is striving for life.  Even the dirt wants to breathe.

Figurative Language

Imagery is a type of figurative language that appeals to the senses.

“Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,”

“And what a congress of stinks!


Roethke relies on alliteration in “Root Cellar” to give the poem rhythm and energy. The consonants that are repeated, particularly in the beginning of the poem, include the “d,” “b,”and “r,” sounds emphasizing the roots as they shoot out from everywhere.

“...dank as a ditch,”

“Shoots dangled and drooped,”

“Bulbs broke out of boxes…”


There are two similes in the poem. The most visual        comparison in the poem finds the long necked roots that hang like snakes from the ceiling.

The second simile is the rotting roots smelling like old fish bait.


The bulbs become hunters for the light.

The roots loll about the crates.


The dirt has come alive and is breathing small breaths.

All of the author’s adjectives and verbs stimulate the reader to experience the root cellar. The reader is drawn into this dark, enlivened place through the author’s clever approach to a place that has almost become an endangered species.


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