Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

As critic Peter Balakian notes in his book Theodore Roethke’s Far Fields (1989), the phrase “To keep open house with one’s heart” is philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s. Balakian explains that maintaining an open house “is fundamental to Roethke’s essential way of knowing reality and measuring truth. The title proclaims the need to search the self for the truth.”

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“Open House” is a poem about the poetic process of self-discovery, a theme common in the Romantic tradition. As the first poem in Roethke’s first volume, it stands as a declaration of Roethke’s allegiance to Romanticism, which stretches back to William Blake. One might even note that the poem’s spare language, simple diction, and strict rhythms are indebted to Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). Furthermore, in its originating metaphor, “Open House” is very similar to Robert Browning’s poem “House,” which begins:

Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself?  Do I live in a house you would like to see?Is it scant of gear, has it store of pelf?  “Unlock my heart with a sonnet-key?”

Like Blake and other Romantics (especially William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and William Butler Yeats), Roethke believed that poetry is a mystic art quite contrary to, and more trustworthy than, reason. As “Open House” shows, however, the pursuit of self-knowledge through poetry can be dangerous and painful.

The poem might be easier to grasp if it were not so violent and oracular. The final stanza is clearly the most troublesome, particularly as the diction is more abstract, imitating the “strict and pure” language of high emotion. As the poem momentarily shifts to the future tense, the anger that “will endure” beyond the poem is as essential to Roethke’s creative imagination as are notions of eternal reverie for other poets. Roethke only approaches rage at the end of the poem, as if pure creativity is like fire—life-enhancing or all-consuming, depending upon one’s distance.

The poet must “stop the lying mouth” when the heat of creative rage “warps” his poetry to “witless agony.” The word “witless” is especially well-chosen. Whereas its common meaning includes “stupid” or “foolish,” to be without “wit” is also to be unable to perceive the metaphoric connections between words and the things, ideas, and feelings they stand for—a state, for any poet, that must indeed be close to “agony.” In other words, the poem asserts the need to explore the open house of the self until that point where the exploration becomes self-defeating.

“Open House,” as a journey to the center, is archetypal. Its theme is not Roethke’s alone, nor is it a theme from which Roethke ever moves away entirely. For example, the first line of the title poem in Roethke’s last volume of poems, The Far Field (1964), reads: “I dream of journeys repeatedly.” Another poem in that book is entitled “Journey to the Interior.”

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