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

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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…