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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

One of the main themes of the poem is sexual attraction. The speaker comments heavily on the alluring physical and spiritual beauty of the object of his attraction and the way her every action and movement allures him and makes him worship her more. She is physically beautiful with "full lips" and is lovely even "in her bones." Her spirit is entrancing as well, for she has a compassion and connection with all of God's creatures. When the birds "sigh," she communicates back with them in understanding. The speaker says his eyes are mesmerized by her body. Whether it be her "flowing knees," the movement of "one hip," or her "several parts" in perfect stillness, he is full of adoration and sexual longing. He finds joy in watching her, describing his wonder when he compares her to a "bright container" whose changing "shapes" hold him awe-struck.

Another theme that this poem reveals is the nature of dominance versus servitude. The speaker's attraction to this woman makes him a willing follower of her instructions. In many ways, she is his teacher. Some speculate that her teachings are on the art of making love. He humbly follows her instructions and, in doing so, finds himself a metaphorical slave to her attentions. He is clearly not in a position of equality with the object of his love, as she teaches him "turn and counter-turn, and stand." He obeys her wishes and accepts whatever attentions and responses she feels inclined to give. This can be seen when the speaker says he "nibbled meekly from her proffered hand." Words such as "nibbled" and "meekly" hint at the speaker's inferior position to his love interest. The subservience of his position in the relationship can also be seen when he describes himself as "poor," meaning he has no power to control himself when it comes to his love. He also mentions that he is "behind her for her pretty sake." This reveals that she prefers to be in a position of power, and the speaker willingly obeys. He sacrifices his own ego and identity to be what she wants him to be. This can be seen when he admits that he is a "martyr" to her will, giving up his own identity to please his love. His only goal is to worship and follow his love, as he says that he "lives[s] to learn her wanton ways." This clearly hints at the power that a woman can have over a lover, changing his very nature and making him abandon any ambitions but his desire to serve the woman who has captured his heart and receive her affections.

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

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 eager acquiescence. In slavishly following behind another person, he sacrifices autonomy but gains a larger freedom. In accepting his mortality, he acquires the power to live more fully.

In his newly enlightened state the speaker measures “time by how a body sways.” Presumably this body is that of the woman he loves rather than a clock pendulum or a planet in orbit. In short, the woman has completely displaced traditional methods of measuring time. All such conventional guides seem trivial compared to his new source of order and direction.

Two more paradoxical statements in the final stanza reinforce the speaker’s bold assertions. In line 25 he affirms that the woman “cast a shadow white as stone.” Ordinarily shadows are dark and insubstantial, but this one is strangely bathed in light and solid as a rock. In line 27 he speaks of “old bones” that are alive to continue learning. Though skeletons usually suggest death, these bones are vital and energetic. Having made his peace with mortality, the speaker is now animated by the energy of love.

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