(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

“The Far Field” is the fifth poem in “North American Sequence,” which contains six long poems in all and opens Theodore Roethke’s last book, The Far Field (1964). Therefore, although “The Far Field” is a distinct poem, it must be viewed in the larger poetic context to appreciate its significance. The six poems of this sequence are written in free verse. Roethke expands and contracts the lengths of the lines as though on a journey that requires quick turns, frequent pauses, and long and short strides. The central theme of the work—the individual’s quest for spiritual fulfillment—is reflected in the poem’s rhythms and structures. The lines lengthen to coincide with the poet’s desire to flow like water and to move with a flurry of leaves. The natural world the poet explores and whose center he seeks is portrayed in catalogs of images that depict experiences whose “deep center” becomes his ultimate goal. The poet journeys in search of a self that is at one with the natural world.

In “The Longing,” the first poem in the sequence, the poet finds himself in a world that paralyzes the soul and reduces the individual to a creature who stares through empty eyes. This world fills the poet’s soul with disgust, even despair. He longs to escape it at the same time that aspects of nature offer him a felicity that sets his soul in motion. The first of his revelations comes to him: “The rose exceeds, the rose exceeds us all.” His quest commences: He wants to become like the rose, freed from the emptiness in which the spirit is mired. To do so, he must retreat from the stifling miasma of civilization and rediscover the fresh, vigorous joy of childhood and the expansive energy of the natural world, which is symbolized by flowers in bloom.

He does not wish to escape from the world of the senses. Rather, he longs to escape into it, for the senses are the means by which he can be part of the natural world. Nature is both an experience of the senses and a place where the spiritual and the physical intersect. This initial poem ends on the poet’s deliberate commitment to go on a journey. He will take on the nature of the Native American, become an explorer: “Old men should be explorers?/ I’ll be an Indian./ Iroquois.” Ironically, the movement forward begins with an imaginative retreat into the past.

The second poem in the sequence, “Meditation at Oyster River,” finds the poet on a rock by a river. The sounds, the sights of undulant waves, dew, salt-soaked wood, fish, snake, bird—he would be with them all. There, flesh and spirit merge, and he discovers a spiritual repose. His experience is that of one just born, yet he has not lost his fear. In sleep he is afraid, and he sees Death’s face rise. The river, symbol of the birth of experience and of the onward flow of his exploration, envelops him with the rhythms of the newborn. The rhythms of morning and of a world that is the “cradle of all that is” bring him a peace otherwise unattainable. As night comes on and the moon rises, he discovers the pervasive nature of light, how it illuminates all within and without.

The title of the third poem in the sequence, “Journey to the Interior,” tells where the poet is heading both geographically and psychologically. The opening line ironically speaks of that journey as a journey out of oneself. He must leave some aspect of himself behind as he journeys inward.

He remembers racing along a gravel road, stopping at an old bridge, and discovering that the world all around him is filled with debris, death, and decay. The vision blurs into an awareness of a larger journey, that of the spirit that takes him out of time. In the final section of this poem, the soul observes, the world flows, and in the suspended moment, the poet’s senses take on a keenness that enables him to know the heart of the sun and to hear a song in the leaves. He...

(The entire section is 1604 words.)