Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1604
“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 joins the birds, and the spirit of wrath is transformed into the spirit of blessing: “And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep.” His journey to the interior has brought him a measure of peace, even bliss.
Where he would be, dreams would no longer bring frightful figures out of the past. One can see how far the poet has come if one recalls what the poet said in the poem’s opening lines, that sleep brings no balm. Even now, he feels the weight of his sensual self. In “The Long Waters,” the fourth poem in the sequence, the poet returns to the sea. All he sees enriches his spirit, and the place, filled with life forms, continues to refine his powers of sensuous understanding. His body “shimmers with a light flame,” and he is transported out of time and place, becoming “another thing.” He loses himself and finds himself. In his newly found largeness, he can embrace the world. Throughout the journey, the poet’s relation to the world expands and contracts. At one moment, he is among the stones and leaves; in another moment, he is a river that circles the world or a spirit that embraces it.
Contraction, expansion, ebb and flow, retreating and advancing, going forward and back, finding light in the darkness, a wakeful dream out of a dreaming sleep—these are the rhythms that the poet’s journey brings. These elements all come together in “The Far Field,” which begins with the poet dreaming of journeys. These journeys, however, are those of the physical man, the untransformed mortal whose car stalls at the end of a road, its wheels spinning futilely. Mired in this physical universe, the poet has reached the end of his journey. His attention turns to the birds, emblems of nature’s capacity to rise above the slag-heaps and the effluvia of the degraded city. Throughout his journey, he has admired and felt a spiritual kinship with the birds. They represent nature’s ability to confer flight, and the poet wants to be one of them. He imagines himself returned to earth as a bird. Birds are the voices of the land, incarnations of nature’s prolific diversity.
The poet’s journey to the edge of the city and of his own spiritual perimeters has brought him a triumph over the darkness and has taught him not to fear what lies beyond—death, eternity. He envisions how natural objects rejuvenate themselves and triumph over time and change: “The river turns on itself,/ The tree retreats into its own shadow.” The journey inward and outward is a circle that brings the poet back to where he began, only now his discoveries have taken him out of time. He has gained a new insight, a peace with the natural process. Death no longer frightens him. In fact, he is renewed by it, and though he may not yet have found the “deep center,” he has come to realize that all he loves is around him, in the earth and air. He has not retreated into a spiritual world. Rather, he has found a spiritual kinship with the world by letting it engulf him and by experiencing it with all of his senses. He sees confluence throughout the natural world and feels a part of it.
The final poem in the sequence, “The Rose,” continues the metaphor of the poet’s blending with natural objects and events, going beyond himself. The white and red roses the poet remembers seeing in his father’s greenhouse beckoned him out of himself even then. They may have been early intimations of his spiritual mission, for he has become something other. He has come out of the whale and into the world, has journeyed to the edge of the field; he has seen the far field and has learned to accept death, not to fear infinity, and to realize that all he desires is here and now, within and without. He has become like the rose, which “Stays in its true place,/ Flowering out of the dark.”
The poet, like the rose, has discovered his true place, among the rocks, the places where nature surrounds him and infuses his spirit. In a grove of madronas and half-dead trees, near the rose, the poet finds a culmination of his journey, and an acceptance:
I came upon a true ease of myself,As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,And I stood outside myself,Beyond becoming and perishing,A something wholly other,As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,And yet was still.And I rejoiced in being what I was.
In that revelation—and elevation—the lost man and the final man discover each other, see that they are separate yet of the same spirit. He realizes the spirit unites what before was viewed as irreconcilable opposites. Finally, the poet sees that the lost, wandering man is not lost if he is in his true place, and the final man is not finite man or the last man. Rather, the final man is the culmination of man, even as “the far field” is the culmination of his earthly journey. Language grounds the poet in what he feels and sees; it blends the abstract with the concrete and in that way symbolizes the poet himself. The final man is the final word.