The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 585 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.