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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