Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 488

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.

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“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 finally, the mysterious wisdom he receives in part 3. Initiation is an important part of the individuation process for Roethke, whose poetry is obsessed with finding himself and his place in the world.

The last two parts of “The Shape of the Fire” begin Roethke’s quest for mature mystical illumination, which comes to fruition with “The Rose” in “The North American Sequence.” Here he looks for a sacred time of origins, a time out of time, “further back” when he was part of nature, “mov[ing] through a dream of wakening blossoms.” This part of the poem harkens back to another of Roethke’s mentors, William Wordsworth, who sees the child as coming from the universal truth of God into the corrupt world of civilization. Roethke is very much a Romantic poet in his association of mystical truths with nature and his fear of the frantic pace and despoiling aspects of urban life.

Thus, for all his personal imagery and subjectivity, Roethke is primarily a poet of archetypal themes. He said of his poems, “I can feel very impersonal about them for they seem to come from a tapping of an older memory—something that dribbled out of the unconscious, as it were, the racial memory” (The Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke, 1968). The evocative power of a poem such as “The Shape of the Fire” resides in the transformation of personal experience through images and symbols into universal experience. If originality marks these poems, it is the originality of the great poet who can see through his experience to the collective memory of all.

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