Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780
"The Room" begins with the speaker telling of a past struggle, which took place in a particular but unidentified room. As if pointing, he says, "Through that window … I saw the struggle"—a "struggle / Of darkness against darkness" in which the darkness "turned and turned" and "dived...
(The entire section contains 780 words.)
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"The Room" begins with the speaker telling of a past struggle, which took place in a particular but unidentified room. As if pointing, he says, "Through that window … I saw the struggle"—a "struggle / Of darkness against darkness" in which the darkness "turned and turned" and "dived down-ward." Everything besides the speaker and the window now is gone, "all else being extinct / Except itself [the window] and me." No reason is given for the struggle or its origin, history, or circumstances.
The insight the speaker gains from seeing the struggle is that he "saw / How order might—if chaos wished—become"—that is, how order can come into being out of chaos. Chaos is depicted as having potential: order might come into existence "if chaos wished."
In this section, the speaker traces the way chaos is transformed into order. He "saw the darkness crush upon itself, / Contracting powerfully." The energy that had been diffuse in struggle draws in upon itself and by contraction becomes concentrated. Contraction is a kind of suicide filled with pain: "It was as if / It killed itself, slowly: and with much pain. / Pain. The scene was pain, and nothing but pain." Only pain is left to the speaker from the struggle. Then comes the insight and a miraculous gift: "What else" can there be but pain "when chaos draws all forces inward / To shape a single leaf?" The leaf appears as abruptly and surprisingly in the poem as it does in the room.
Destruction is a dynamic struggle of dark forces spiraling downward and imploding; creation is presented as an image resulting from that struggle: a leaf. The potential energy of the struggle, concentrated by contraction, is converted to kinetic energy, to energy in motion, by the will of the speaker, exercised in pain, and bursts into something structured: "a single leaf."
Beginning with the image of the single, unattached leaf, the speaker presents the creative process as deriving a structure from an idea or a vision. Destruction is represented by implosion; creation is described as a process of uniting parts until an encompassing and order-giving whole is achieved. The leaf does not grow on a tree rising from a seed. It appears as a free-floating vision that the speaker has to work from to create a complete structure. "After a while," from that leaf, "the twig" that connects the leaf to the bough "shot downward from it." And then "from the twig a bough; and then the trunk, / Massive and coarse; and last the one black root." Anchoring comes last: creation, the process of opening outward after implosion, is delicate and tentative. Reversing the contraction, this process of expansion breaks the boundaries of the room, goes beyond the speaker's boundaries: "The black root cracked the walls. Boughs burst the window / The great tree took possession."
The final section of the poem confronts the new chaos. "Tree of trees!" the speaker cries in triumph, as if it were the very tree of life he has created. But, he continues, warning, "Remember (when time comes) how chaos died / To shape the shining leaf." As Aiken wrote later in a letter to a friend, "death and birth [are] inseparably interlocked." Life and death, order and chaos are embedded in each other and change into each other. After order, chaos returns.
With restored life comes time and, thus, memory. Memory forces the speaker beyond the bounds of the newly ordered present back to the chaos of the struggle. Memory renews the pain of grief. Earlier, in line 9, the speaker had avoided experiencing grief by attributing pain to "the scene" rather than experiencing it as his own response. Now he accepts it. Addressing the tree, which he describes in a humanized form and, therefore, as an embodiment of himself, he says, "Then turn, have courage, / Wrap arms and roots together, be convulsed / With grief, and bring back chaos out of shape." Let order, he is saying, show as much of a will in confronting chaos as he had earlier attributed to chaos when he wrote that "order might … become" "if chaos wished" it. The cycle continues.
The speaker ends with a vow that he will keep an awareness of the partiality of each phase, chaos and order, for neither by itself is the unity. The whole is composed of both. "I will be watching then," when chaos returns, he says, "as I watch now. / I will praise darkness now," at a time of brightness, not forgetting darkness. "But then," when chaos is come again, remembering the role of chaos in creation, he will praise "the leaf" and thereby not succumb to chaos.