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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

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Roethke begins his poem with a declaration of a "dark time," where he meets his "shadow in the deepening shade." The narrator is in a morose mood; perhaps he is in the throes of a depressive state. He hears his "echo," his alter ego asserting its presence. He even claims to be a "lord of nature" but beauty is not all he sees. Instead, he weeps and his world is juxtaposed between two extremes. The heron and wren symbolize innocence, life, hope, enthusiasm, and regeneration. However, they also share space with "beasts of the hill and serpents of the den."

In the second stanza, Roethke continues the metaphor of the mind's dual nature. He calls "madness" a "nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance." In the moment, however, the dark side of his mind prevails. He imagines that the "day's on fire" and he is experiencing the "purity of pure despair." He likens this experience to his "shadow pinned against a sweating wall." In this state, he is blinded to reality; he can't distinguish between a "cave" and a "winding path." In the last line of the second stanza, he claims that the "edge" is all he has. He is on the precipice of madness, and all he knows is heightened anxiety and despair.

In the third stanza, the narrator proclaims that his madness permeates every part of his life. His experience of a "steady storm of correspondences" is relentless. His madness haunts him day and night. The "ragged moon" reigns over his nights while "midnight" cleaves unto his days. In such a state, the narrator imagines that a man has to go "far to find out what he is." However, his efforts to do so will almost certainly drain him of his humanity; he will experience a "death of the self in a long, tearless night" while being tormented by "natural shapes blazing unnatural light."

In the beginning of the fourth stanza, the narrator is consumed with dark desires, and his madness takes firm hold of him. He likens the current state of his soul to that of a "heat-maddened fly" which keeps "buzzing at the sill." He questions his identity and admits that he is a "fallen man." However, in his darkest hour, he finds a way out, managing to "climb" out of his fear. He becomes one with the "One." In God, he achieves peace and becomes "free in the tearing wind."


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747

Several of the elements of Roethke’s mind, personality, and poetic skill combine to assert themselves in “In a Dark Time,” one of his most personal and most powerful works. The poem begins with a violent description of a psychic breakdown, a comment on Roethke’s own mental illness, and ends by invoking the vocabulary of religious mysticism. Underlying the whole poem is the startling assumption that such a collapse may be necessary in order for a person to reach truth and achieve integration of the personality and unity with the rest of nature. Roethke certainly thought this theory true for himself; the end of the poem is stated in the first line, for in Roethke’s view, it is only “in a [psychically] dark time” that “the [inner] eye begins to see.”

The natural imagery in the poem does not refer to the neat, ordered, and humanly understandable world of the greenhouse, where growth takes place in regular, ordered patterns. Roethke knew that the greenhouse was an artificial place sustained by rational activity; the world outside was a far different place, teeming with wild and threatening life and unexplainable creatures and events. In this poem there are no beautiful roses but instead “beasts of the hill,” “serpents of the den,” and “a ragged moon.” The natural world is not a comforting place but instead is an index of madness, as outer reality reflects the inner turmoil of the poet. The last natural image in the poem, the fly which buzzes at the window sill, seeing the world it desires but unable to reach it, frequently appears in Roethke’s writing as a symbol of mental illness.

Roethke’s presentation of this condition is clinically accurate; it is common; for example, for the psychotic person to think that everything is obviously related to everything else (“a steady storm of correspondences”) but also to think that knowledge of these relationships is useless or uncommunicable: “The edge is what I have.” At the same time that thoughts and ideas may occur with unusual clarity, sense impressions may mirror the lack of a frame of reference for these ideas or may defy common sense: “I meet my shadow in the deepening shade,” “all natural shapes blazing unnatural light.” Another such discordant image, “in broad day the midnight come again,” may be a description of a sudden dislocation of the senses, but it may also describe how the sufferer is plunged without warning into meaningless confusion. The poetic images shift back and forth from the physical to the mental, both indicating the welter within the mind of the poet and perplexing the reader and thus forcing him or her to join and endure the poet’s wild ride.

In the last stanza, there is a resolution of these contradictions, but not a peaceful resolution. After touching bottom, plumbing the depths of disaster, the poet is finally free of his fear, presumably because he has experienced what he was afraid of and survived, and therefore need fear no longer, but that is only a presumption. Roethke does not offer a logical explanation for the change, nor did he feel that one was necessary, for he thought that human life was based on much more than cogitation. As he had written in “The Waking:” “We think by feeling. What is there to know?” Whatever the reason, the poet finds himself united with God but still in the midst of a maelstrom: “free in the tearing wind.”

The most pregnant lines in the poem are “What’s madness but nobility of soul/ at odds with circumstance?,” Roethke’s answer to those who would dismiss his more difficult poetry as mere babble. The “mentally ill” person may very well be the one who can see life more clearly than others precisely because he or she has not abandoned his or her personal vision for a utilitarian view. That is a large and perhaps unfair claim, but at the end of the poem, Roethke is clearly a twentieth century Romantic, for unlike his fellow “mad” poet and mentor, William Blake, Roethke did not insist that the vision of mystic union with God should be true for all people. He merely described it happening to himself, recognizing the twentieth century belief that there are many paths to truth. In so doing, he also reaffirmed the Romantic principle that each person must find his or her own role in life and that salvation is finally an individual matter.