The Poem

In this confessional poem, Theodore Roethke describes a passage through a “dark time” in his life and his emergence from this episode, not into peace and quietude, but at least into wholeness. The journey to and out of the psychic pit described in the poem may be a metaphor for personal tragedy, spiritual emptiness, or, more likely, because it is known that Roethke suffered from periods of psychosis, a poetic attempt to deal with a mental breakdown.

The poet insists that a plunge to the bottom of the abyss of psychological disorientation and dislocation of identity is necessary to achieve clarity: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” There must be painful struggle, though, before this end is reached. In the first stanza, the poet has glimpses of his personality, but he finds only fragments and pieces, meeting not himself but his shadow, hearing not his voice but his echo. As he says later in the poem, “The edge is what I have.” He also finds that he is not sure of his place in the larger scheme of life because he “live[s] between the heron” (a stately, beautiful creature) “and the wren” (an ordinary bird), between “beasts of the hill” (highly placed, but brutal animals) “and serpents of the den” (associated with evil and danger, but also with knowledge).

In the second stanza, the poet specifically identifies his problem as mental illness but implies that it is not he but the world which is out of joint:...

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Forms and Devices

Although, at first glance, “In a Dark Time” seems to be a collection of outbursts and slapped-together images which is less a description of madness than an example of it, the poem is really a carefully crafted work in which its conclusion is implicit in all of its elements, beginning with the rhyme pattern of the poem. Roethke uses a six-line stanza, the rhyme scheme of which is abcadd. This pattern, which appears at first glance to be no rhyme scheme at all until the stanza’s last three lines, reinforces the point of the poem, which is that disintegration may be necessary to achieve unity. There appears to be no rhyme after the first three lines, but with the end of the fourth comes a resonance of the first—the suggestion that there is order where there had appeared to be none. The last two lines of the stanza, a strongly rhymed couplet, imply that the poet is drawing his world together again into a type of order.

The a rhyme of the first stanza (“see” and “tree”) is strong and definite, but the same element of the second stanza (“soul” and “wall”) is only a near rhyme, as is that of the third (“correspondences” and “what he is—”) and fourth (“desire” and “fear”). These near rhymes reinforce the idea that the poet is only barely in control of himself and the poem, but the strongly rhyming last couplet of each stanza pulls the poem and the reader away from formlessness. As a final seal on the...

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