Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 693
“The Lost Son” has five parts—“The Flight,” “The Pit,” “The Gibber,” “The Return,” and “’It Was Beginning Winter’”—each of which describes a stage in the grief of the poetic persona (in this case, surely Roethke himself). The poet works through the various stages of his feelings of sorrow and desolation to reach a conclusion which is not really a relief of his feelings but a hope for future solace.
Part 1, “The Flight,” begins with a reference to a cemetery (“Woodlawn”), and it is from this place and the fact of death that the flight occurs. From other references later in the poem, one can deduce that the death which has so shocked the poet is that of his father. Although the poet hopes to find some comfort in the little creatures of nature and specifically asks them to help him, he receives no such comfort: “Nothing nibbled my line,/ Not even the minnows came.”
He feels alone and isolated and specifically asks for help, praying not to God but to the creatures of nature to tell him something and give him some sign. They only answer him in riddles (“The moon said, back of an eel”) and in negatives: “You will find no comfort here,/ In the kingdom of bang and blab.” As if in response to this comment, the section ends with a riddle posed by the poet which describes a strange creature, part land animal and part amphibian. Critics have suggested that the creature is an unborn child, and this answer compels the poet to delve deeper into his unconscious mind, back even further than childhood, to find the relief for his fear and depression.
Accordingly, the next section, “The Pit,” which is the shortest, describes a literal hole in the ground filled with roots, moss, and small animals such as moles. This section contains a warning that the unconscious may be a dangerous place, a trap wherein waits the death that must finally take all: “Beware Mother Mildew.” Thus, in trying to understand the death of his father, the poet finds an even more terrifying truth: The death which has touched another will also come for him.
“The Gibber” is an aptly named segment of apparently disconnected lines and elements through which the poet appears to be wandering without plan, merely in the hope of finding some help. His old friends in nature are not only unhelpful but also actively hostile: “The cows and briars/ Said to me: Die.” The poet also examines his own life in society and finds it empty of spiritual and emotional value: “I run, I run to the whistle of money.”
The poet begins to find his way back to order and stability in “The Return,” which is a memory of his childhood and his life with his father. He sees and describes the life of the greenhouse, describing in particular the morning coming, the steam knocking its way through the radiator pipes, and frost slowly melting from the panes of glass, suggesting the return of order, meaning, clarity, and peace: “Ordnung! ordnung!! Papa is coming!”
The last section, “’It Was Beginning Winter,’” reveals that although a kind of peace has been reached, there is still no understanding; after such emotional turmoil, however, mere rest is a great comfort. The poet first describes a quiet winter scene, then tries to evaluate it, without success. The lines “Was it light within light?/ Stillness becoming alive,/ Yet still?” suggest that the speaker is searching for a unity that would resolve opposites by containing and transcending them. Significantly, this analysis is not an answer but another question. The poem ends with a kind of emotional blessing, its origin unclear:
A lively understandable spiritOnce entertained you.It will come again.Be still.Wait.
This section, with each line becoming shorter and simpler than the previous one until the last, which is only one syllable, reminds the poet (and the reader) that life is a cycle and that—even if there are no final answers to one’s problems—happiness and joy will come again. One needs the intelligence and the courage not to act, but to wait.
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