The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In 1948 Theodore Roethke published The Lost Son and Other Poems, introducing the greenhouse and sequential poems that have come to define his unique style. “The Shape of the Fire” is the last poem in “The Lost Son” sequence. Roethke’s long poems are explorations of psychic states, and they progress cyclically rather than in a logical linear narrative. “The Shape of the Fire” begins by returning psychologically to the awakening of consciousness in the womb. The images follow the sensory world of a child, a primordial, animistic, natural world characteristic of “The Lost Son” poems.

Roethke does not depict a comforting landscape. Images are surreal and incoherent, as shapes in a fire are. Knowledge comes from “a nameless stranger.” The images of receding water and a beached boat symbolize the stagnation of the spirit. The landscape is unpleasant and threatening; even the flowers “are all fangs.” However, it is a time of transition. The speaker envisions the water returning and calls, “spirit, come near.” The hour of ripeness, which can result in his release from this sterile landscape, approaches. He calls for his mother to “stir” and “mother me out of here.” At the end of section 1, he bids farewell to the elemental forms of nature as he is [re]born.

Part 2 begins with the child’s discovery of his body. As in the beginning of part 1, the language is a childlike combination of questions and...

(The entire section is 542 words.)