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

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."

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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...

(The entire section contains 1152 words.)

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