Theodore Roethke

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Discuss the poem "Root Cellar" by Theodore Roethke.

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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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Lynn Ramsson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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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