The Poem

Theodore Roethke’s “Dolor” is a thirteen-line lyric poem that explores the persona’s response to a life constrained in a grindingly repetitive institutional environment. The title of the poem sets the mood of sorrow, grief, and pain, which is totally unrelieved, as the accumulated details of office life bear down on the speaker of the poem.

The first eight lines of “Dolor” form a brutally graphic picture of a typical 1940’s office. The persona is buried under the detritus of office life: pencils, pads, folders, paper clips. The sheer weight of inanimate objects is felt as unbearable. The proliferation of these objects—their omnipresence, their replication, their ability to smother—is both claustrophobic and quietly stultifying. Nothing breaks the sterility of this environment. No plant or family photo enlivens a desk. No untidiness testifies to the presence of messy, complicated, disorderly human beings. This is a place where the things are in control, and even the things themselves are filled with dolor.

In the final five lines, the despair of the poem deepens. The institutional environment becomes more than just boring, sad, and oppressive; it becomes a menace to life and soul. White-collar work, usually thought of as innocuous, or irritating at best, is likened to a more obviously life threatening occupation: mining. The narrator of the poem imagines the very dust on the walls of the institution burying the workers under a...

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Forms and Devices

At first glance, “Dolor” appears to be an Italian sonnet, but it lacks that important fourteenth line. Although the argument of the poem begins with a descriptive octave, it finishes with only a five-line analytical resolution. Roethke has chosen to both unify and give music to this poem in ways that are distinctively his own and that suit the theme of this poem perfectly. If repetition in life is the thematic enemy in this poem, it is also Roethke’s major poetic strategy. Roethke follows the famous dictum of the architect Louis Sullivan, who asserted pithily, “Form follows function,” just as he takes his cue from Alexander Pope, who made clear in the eighteenth century that in poetry, “The sound must seem an echo to the sense.” Repetitions of all kinds drive the poetics of “Dolor.”

In the first descriptive octave, personification, the giving of human attributes to inanimate objects, is used to drive home the pervasive mood of the poem. The reader is told of the “sadness of pencils,” the “dolor of pad and paper-weight,” “the misery of manilla folders,” and the “pathos of basin and pitcher.” The repeated attribution of negative emotions to the paraphernalia of office life highlights the persona’s ability to strongly empathize, to achieve John Keats’s “Negative Capability,” as well as to set up the irony of objects full of feeling in a place where humans are increasingly objectified. The concreteness of these first images, and the persistent use of...

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