Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The journey that “The Lost Son” poems represent is the universal experience of individuation. According to psychologist Carl Jung, who formulated this theory, individuation is a process of development arising from the conflict of the conscious and unconscious psychic states. A person can never be whole until both states are given equal attention and exist in equilibrium.

“The Shape of the Fire” illustrates Roethke’s attempt to achieve this psychological balance by exploring both psychic states. The regression to childhood, where the line between the conscious and unconscious is blurred, is Roethke’s starting point in his search for himself. His use of preconscious imagery as signposts for his own identity is what characterizes his poetry.

The dreamlike imagery represents a night journey; an exploration of the interior of the country also represents a descent into his unconscious. The water, the cave, the elemental natural images are indicative of birth, rebirth, and the depths of the mind all at once. Thus, the poem moves between consciousness and unconscious states in order to achieve this archetypal spiritual wholeness.

“The Lost Son” poems often contain initiation rituals. Parts 1-3 of “The Shape of the Fire” use the elements of initiation rites: the natural signposts; the frightening adults who guide him (the witch, the flat-headed man); the sexual rite, during which he becomes an “uneasy man”; and...

(The entire section is 488 words.)