What feeling is created by the repetition of the refrains in Theodore Roethke's villanelle, "The Waking?"

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The villanelle is a literary form defined by a regular repetition of not just one, but two, refrains. In the villanelle pattern, the two refrain lines are introduced as the first (R1) and last (R2) lines of the first stanza. The second through fourth stanzas each use a single one of the refrains as their last lines, alternating in the pattern: R1 R2 R1 R2. The two refrains both appear together again as the third (R1) and fourth (R2) lines of a sixth, four-line stanza concluding the poem. 

In this and many of his other poems, Roethke was strongly influenced by Evelyn Underhill’s book Mysticism, which describes the spiritual journey as beginning with a sense of unworthiness or self-doubt, moving through various forms of purification (often involving some form of deprivation or self-sacrifice), and leading to illumination or visionary joy. The poem uses its refrain structure to describe the progression of the narrator through these stages, with the refrains, while using the identical words, shifting in connotation as they are contextualized in different phases of the journey. 

The first feeling that is created by the refrain structure in the poem is one of an almost ritualistic sense of significance that echoes the semantic sense of the lines. This liturgical sense is created in part by the use of slow, heavy monosyllables with open vowels. 

Next, the structure does give a sense of awakening. When we encounter the first refrain, "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow," we have the feeling of a drowsy beginning, on the border between being awake and asleep, or on a deeper level, sleepwalking through our everyday ordinary lives without perceiving a deeper spiritual world around us. With each repetition of the refrain, the feeling and emphasis of the line shifts from sleep to waking. 

The experiential learning of the second refrain, "I learn by going where I have to go" also has a progressive sense. As the line moves in context from future to present, we get a sense that at the start of the poem the narrator is just beginning the process of waking and learning, but by the end of the poem, the narrator sees this process of illumination not as a distant future task, but as a current part of his life, not as a need to move from sleep to waking and ignorance to illumination, but rather seeing his immersion in his life as its own illuminatory process, being both path and destination and knowledge and learning:

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.  

What falls away is always. And is near.   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
 
I learn by going where I have to go.
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