Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “In a Dark Time,” Theodore Roethke uses one of his own major themes—the renewal of the human spirit through contact with the natural world (a theme which unites him with the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century)—in company with a major theme of modern literature—the theory that it is necessary not merely to test limits but also to break past limits in order to become fully oneself.

In many of his other poems, Roethke comes to the creatures and the milieu of the physical world to renew himself and give his life meaning during a time of crisis. Roethke is primarily a poet of small nature, reveling in the existence of little creatures such as sparrows, snails (as in “Elegy for Jane”), tiny fish, and even amoeba (“The Minimal”), and feeling a sense of kinship and brotherhood with them. In “In a Dark Time,” however, the representatives of the natural world are threatening beasts and serpents, and the poet is unsure of his place in the scheme of things, as he lives “between” the various living things that he mentions. Furthermore, the natural world is no longer an ordered, understandable place: The moon is “ragged,” and midnight descends during day. The creature with which the poet finally chooses to identify “my soul” is the not only despised but also wretched “heat-maddened summer fly” which, “buzzing at the sill,” can see the world that it wants to enter but is unable to do so.

One of the...

(The entire section is 567 words.)