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.
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.