Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 324

Roethke's poem is rife with double meaning. On the surface, it seems to be about a graceful woman, "lovely in her bones," but on closer reader, the relationship Roethke describes is perhaps not as idyllic as one might think. The poem can also be read as a commentary on the nature of poetry itself, and its ability to capture the woman's "bright shapes."

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The poem consists of four seven line stanzas with an ABABCCC regular rhyme scheme. This regularity of form is contrasted with an irregular meter, and lines are often interrupted in the middle with commas that function like ceasuras ("Love likes a gander, and adores a goose: / Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;"). This gives the poem a kind of halting, or swinging sound, suggesting both the studied appreciation of the woman, and her graceful movement ("Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one").

This back-and-forth quality also mimics the back-and-forth nature of the poet's attitude towards the woman: the poet is clearly infatuated by this woman, but also recognizes that she is the dominant partner in their relationship, intellectually and sexually. The poem leaves little doubt about the double meaning of the "prodigious mowing" the poet and the woman "made," and the entire third stanza can be read as an account of their lovemaking, in which, as the "sickle," she instructs the poet (as the "rake"), who is "a martyr" to the woman's "motion."

The woman's lessons in lovemaking can also be seen as a lessons in poetry, in that she teaches "Turn, Counter-turn, and Stand" another double meaning that could refer to sexual positions but also the rhetorical tricks Roethke is using in this very poem—a "counter turn," for instance, is a term referring to the repeating of words in inverse order, a figure Roethke uses himself in the poem to mimic the woman's undulating movements ("she moved in circles, and those circles moved").

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

“I Knew a Woman” (along with fifteen other short lyrics) appeared in a section of Words for the Wind entitled “Love Poems.” This poem was apparently written about the time of Theodore Roethke’s marriage to Beatrice O’Connell (a former student of his), and its speaker is a man very much in love and awed by the beauty of the woman he admires so profoundly. The poem concentrates on the erotic and physical but deals also with larger philosophical issues. Its tone is a subtle mix of the comic and the serious.

The poem’s metrical pattern is consistently iambic pentameter, but its stanza form is somewhat unusual. Each of the four stanzas consists of seven lines, and the typical rhyme scheme is ababccc. Actually the first four lines contain no rhyme at all, but later lines (except for line 21) follow this scheme precisely. This movement from complete lack of rhyme to a very regular rhyme scheme parallels the growing harmony between the two lovers.

Since the poem’s first line uses a past-tense verb and refers to bones, some readers have assumed that the central female character is now dead. Such a conclusion is questionable. In this case the verb “knew” surely alludes (in the biblical sense) to specific episodes of sexual intimacy and not necessarily to a relationship that has ended completely. Furthermore, the assertion that the woman was “lovely in her bones” may actually be extravagant praise of her enduring beauty. Such beauty is not only skin deep, and it will abide even if she is, in due time, reduced to a skeleton. Thus the poem is a grand eulogy rather than an elegy.

In its high praise of a beloved woman, the poem recalls numerous English sonnets in the Petrarchan tradition by such authors as Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard (the earl of Surrey), and Sir Philip Sidney. (In fact, according to lines 5-6 these “English poets who grew up on Greek” might be worthy of singing the “choice virtues” of Roethke’s lady.) Just as those poems cataloged the physical traits attributed to the ideal woman (eyes bright as the sun, lips red as rubies, hair shining like gold, cheeks like roses, and so on), Roethke’s speaker lists comparable qualities in the one he loves. In stanza 1, for example, this woman’s voice is as harmonious as the song of birds, and she moves about with dazzling grace.

Even so, the woman’s beauty and erotic allure are not the only subjects of the poem. In stanzas 2 and 3 she becomes also a skilled teacher, schooling the speaker in the ways of love. These lessons in worldly love lead, in stanza 4, to cosmic insights. Through his relationship with this remarkable woman, who lives in total harmony with the natural world, he acquires more profound knowledge about the cycles of life and his own role in a mysterious universe.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

Roethke’s metaphors are rapidly changing and, in some cases, subject to diverse interpretations. In their complexity and extravagance they are akin to the conceits of John Donne and other metaphysical poets. In stanza 2, for example, several capitalized terms (“Turn,” “Counter-turn,” “Stand,” and “Touch”) establish a sustained comparison. These terms describe the content of the speaker’s lessons in love, and figuratively they suggest movements or positions in a carefully choreographed dance. Dancing is a recurring image in many of Roethke’s poems (see, for example, “Four for Sir John Davies”). Here the various stages of the dance imply a graceful movement through seduction to lovemaking.

While Roethke compares lovemaking to dancing, he simultaneously suggests another conceit. The capitalized words denoting dance positions are also technical terms from the sport of coursing, or hunting with hounds. In Roethke’s complex metaphor the seductive woman is both the dog trainer and the object of the hunt. She strokes the speaker’s chin as the keeper of the hounds might pet a favorite dog. She coyly orchestrates the chase by indicating changes in the direction (“Turn” and “Counter-turn”) taken by the hound. In hunting, the term “Stand” denotes the rigid posture of the hound as it locates and points out the quarry, and here the term is also a humorous indication of the speaker’s readiness for lovemaking. The term “Touch” denotes the initial contact between hound and quarry, and Roethke uses it to suggest the imminent union of the two lovers. Finally, the speaker nibbles meekly from the woman’s hand. Just as a faithful dog might gain a treat from its trainer, the man receives the rewards of love. At several points Roethke’s hunting metaphor is sexually suggestive, but its ingenuity prevents it from becoming especially bawdy.

To describe the actual lovemaking, Roethke abandons the hunting conceit and shifts abruptly to an earthy agricultural metaphor. Figuratively the two lovers are now engaged in making hay. The sickle is frequently a grim image associated with death, but here it suggests exuberant life—the woman’s erotic power over everything in her path and also perhaps the enticing curves of her body. “Coming behind,” the speaker enthusiastically rakes the mown grass. Here the term “rake” is a triple pun—agricultural implement, dissolute male, and (recalling the earlier coursing metaphor) a dog’s action of following a trail by keeping its nose to the ground. Mowing, especially in Scottish dialect, is a slang term for sexual intercourse, and Roethke slyly reinforces this double meaning in a later poem entitled “Reply to a Lady Editor.” That poem is a comic response to the literary editor of Harper’s Bazaar who had liked “I Knew a Woman” but apparently failed to comprehend its sexual implications. In the later poem Roethke incorporates more Scottish dialect by calling Cupid a “braw laddie-buck.”

Along with extravagant metaphors Roethke uses a number of paradoxical statements. Amid energetic sexual activity he observes in the “several parts” of his partner “a pure repose.” Indeed, in line 21 (“She moved in circles, and those circles moved”) he suggests that she is like the primum mobile. In the old Ptolemaic astronomy the primum mobile was the outermost sphere of the universe, which contained all lesser orbits of heavenly bodies and whose revolution was the source of all other celestial movement. By implication then, the woman in the poem is the powerful cause of dramatic action but at the same time she remains the basis of order and stability.

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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