The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

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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 film as lethal as silica. The workers’ passivity, their habitual inaction, allows them to be buried alive—in situ—their premature aging adding the last touch to their lack of individuation. They turn literally and figuratively gray, nondescript, lifeless, and soulless in their supposedly safe chairs.

It is hard to imagine a more critical indictment of the nine-to-five life. It is probably not surprising that Roethke, son of a greenhouse gardener, a man sheltered in the halls of academe, a lover of words and women, a drinker and a man at large, a poet with a romantic and sometimes mystical bent, would have such repugnance for the regimen and the lack of variety that he saw in the institutions around him.

What is surprising is that Roethke could skirt the imitative fallacy and manage to write about boring and mundane things in such a salient and powerful way. It is in poems such as “Dolor” that Roethke’s attention to method and poetic strategies shows most clearly.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613

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 personification, is characteristic of Roethke’s early poetry, although that attention to detail was mostly trained on the organic world in famous poems such as “Root Cellar,” and “Orchids.” Here it is used to explore the malaise and aridity of conventional workaday life.

The repetitions in “Dolor” are also strongly auditory. Roethke uses alliteration both to hold his poem together and to give it a strikingly musical quality. Line after line, Roethke repeats initial consonant sounds: “pad and paperweight,” “misery of manilla,” “public places,” “finer than flour.” Here the form of the poem clearly echoes the sense. However, the repetition of sound elements is also more sophisticated than mere alliteration. In the opening line, “I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,” the s sounds fold back on each other, creating a poignant kind of beauty for the ears out of sorrow for the soul.

The sheer weight of descriptive detail in the poem is another repetitive technique. The first lines are nearly Whitmanesque in their insistent listing of objects. No detail is too insignificant to be savored. The line “Endless duplication of lives and objects” is nearly an unnecessary afterthought by the time the reader has made his or her way through all the concrete details of the opening. One of Roethke’s great poetic gifts is the ability to make things, in all their specific particularity, mean something greater than themselves.

In the final section of the poem, it is metaphor that asserts the meaning of the poem most clearly. The “dust from the walls of institutions” is, after all, “more dangerous than silica.” The office workers are surprisingly in no less peril in their neat, clean offices than miners are in their dirty back-breaking tunnels. There is, it seems, a black-lung disease of the soul, which is both chronic and finally fatal, the symptoms of which can clearly be seen on “the duplicate gray standard faces,” sitting blissfully unaware at their desks. The dolor of the poem is unrelieved. There is no joyful resolution or even a small glimmer of hope for those toiling in conventional jobs, victims of a civilization that gives things the importance of people and treats people like things.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.

Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Kusch, Robert. My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948). Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986.

Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981.

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