Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The paradox of the primum mobile prepares for a more solemn consideration of the poem’s themes in stanza 4. The speaker’s union with a remarkable woman is both the means to and a symbol of a higher union. Ultimately carnal knowledge becomes elevated to philosophic insight.

Several of Roethke’s love poems portray women as instruments of illumination and salvation. For example, in “The Voice” (placed immediately after “I Knew a Woman” in the Words for the Wind collection) the woman is not even present physically. Nevertheless, simply hearing her voice lifts the poet above the level of awareness afforded to most mortals. In “Light Listened” the female character is again a teacher, and when she sings, even the light pays careful attention. In this exaggerated claim that the woman controls light, Roethke implies that she is a crucial source of illumination.

In “I Knew a Woman,” just as the act of love fuses the physical and the spiritual, it leads the speaker on to other important harmonies. Well taught by the woman, he is now able to reconcile the temporal and the eternal, tyranny and freedom. By referring to seed, grass, and hay in line 22, the speaker acknowledges the inevitable cycle of birth, life, and death. He is a slave to this grand movement through time just as he is a “martyr” to the alluring motion of the woman who acts as a sickle. In this realization his mood is not mere resignation but...

(The entire section is 421 words.)