The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

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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 nursery-rhyme cadences. After this short, playful section, however, comes another nightmare vision, first of an adult figure, “a varicose horror,” and then of another wintery landscape characterized by snakes, sticks, sharp winds, and howls. These images represent the problematic time of adolescence, with the primeval ooze and slime of sexuality. Now “the uneasy man” “must pull off clothes/ To jerk like a frog/ On belly and nose/ From the sucking bog.” “Words writhe,” and the light speaks in a “lewd whisper.” He seems betrayed by his own body as he observes, “My meat eats me.”

Part 3 provides a short hiatus in the form of enigmatic aphorisms. It provides a transition from “the journey from flesh,” which “is longest,” to the image of the rose, which “sways least.” For Roethke, the movement and journeys that make up the events of life are difficult and frightening. The end he seeks is stasis; the rose, which is a mystical symbol of finished perfection, serves as a guide.

In part 4, when the protagonist again regresses to a primordial natural landscape, full spiritual progress begins. This landscape is supportive and lifegiving. “Death was not” in this environment. Now the cave is not sorrowful, but sweetened with fertile rain and the sustenance of apples. Flowers are everywhere, moving into fullness, “buds at their first trembling,” “wakening blossoms,” a profusion of flowers, associated with love. The last section of “The Shape of the Fire” is replete with images and symbols of spiritual wholeness and fulfillment: the flowers, “the whole air!/ The light, the full sun” of illumination, and the boat, the symbol of his spirit, which is drifting effortlessly now. The final image compares the light, which enriches the spirit, with the water in a vase, filled to surfeit so that it holds the flower in an invisible yet nourishing and supportive embrace.

Forms and Devices

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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).

Yet however personally conceived, Roethke’s symbols are also universal, from the dreamlike landscapes, which are night journeys of self-discovery, to the roses, which are symbols of mystical wholeness. No matter how personal or egocentric a poet, Roethke also insisted that his poems represent a racial memory, and his imagery bears this out.

In addition, the startling language of the first segments of the poem attempts to capture the nonsense rhymes and associational, nonlinear narrative of a young child. Roethke says that “rhythmically, it’s the spring and rush of the child I’m afterif necessary, without relying on the obvious connectives: to speak in a kind of psychic shorthand when his protagonist is under great stress” (from “Open Letter”).

Roethke presents landscape as emotion, perception, memory, and dream in direct, almost abrupt, statements that give his poetry the power of immediate perception and thought. His catalogs of proverbs in section 3, like those of his mentor, William Blake, bombard one with strong images that imply a mystical knowing, which becomes more clearly delineated in the final passage. The long, descriptive lines of spiritual illumination one finds here are developed more fully in Roethke’s later “North American Sequence.”

The cumulative result of this poem, with its experimental childlike rhythms interspersed with adult reflection, its varying line lengths of free verse, and its enigmatic, often disconnected narrative, is to approximate a spiritual journey. The overall form of this stream-of-consciousness technique re-creates his “history of the psyche (or allegorical journey)a succession of experiences, similar yet dissimilar. There is a perpetual slipping-back, then a going-forward; but there is some progress” (“Open Letter”).


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