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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Roethke’s poetry is most innovative in its use of animistic natural imagery and symbolism, its use of the tone and language of childhood, and its intense psychological explorations. Poems such as “The Shape of the Fire” move convincingly from preconscious lack of self-awareness to mature mystical spirituality. The Lost Son and Other Poems volume was critically acclaimed for the poet’s immediate identification with nature. Nature is anthropomorphized: the cracked pod “calls”; the worm is “fond”; the spiders “cry.” It also reflects the protagonist’s moods, being frightening and menacing or loving and beckoning as he progresses and regresses on his spiritual journey.

Certain images become symbols, either universal ones, such as light, which brings spiritual illumination, and water, which brings fertility and birth, or personal symbols, such as flowers, which are identified with Roethke’s childhood in his father’s greenhouse and represent the instinctive urge to struggle into life. Roethke’s poems are intensely subjective; few critics separate the protagonist or speaker from the poet himself. The landscape of “The Shape of the Fire” is drawn from his childhood in Michigan, “the marsh, the mire, the Void.” It is “a splendid place for schooling the spirit. It is America,” he wrote to Louise Bogan in an “Open Letter” (printed in Mid-Century American Poets, edited by John Ciardi, 1950).


(The entire section is 490 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.

Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Kusch, Robert. My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948). Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986.

Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981.