The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 401 words.)