Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1076
The circumstances of Theodore Roethke’s birth and childhood were very important for his development as a poet. Roethke was born in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, to a family of gardeners and florists. His father and uncle built and maintained a huge greenhouse complex, considered one of the best in the United States and used primarily to grow roses, orchids, and other ornamental plants. Roethke grew up in the midst of this fecundity, and in later years he returned to it in memory and spirit as the source of inspiration and power in his poetry.
Although Roethke’s father loved his son, and that love was returned, there was conflict between them. Otto Roethke was an outdoorsman and wanted his son to be a “man’s man” and a lawyer. Young Ted was clumsy at sports and outdoor activities, and he preferred books and the life of the mind and imagination. The Roethke brothers sold the greenhouse in 1922, and the next year, when Theodore was only fourteen, his father died, dealing his son a wound and a sense of unfulfillment that the poet was able to relieve only near the end of his life. Subconsciously, Roethke felt that his father had betrayed and abandoned him by dying; consciously, he believed that he had a debt to his father which he had to repay.
After Roethke graduated from high school in Saginaw, he attended the University of Michigan, receiving a bachelor of arts degree in 1929. He then attended graduate school at Harvard University but did not take a degree, returning to the University of Michigan for a master of arts diploma in 1936. Although Roethke had always been interested in literature (he subscribed to The Dial when he was in the seventh grade), at Harvard he began to write poetry seriously and was encouraged to publish it. From that time on, it was clear to him that it was his destiny to be a poet, and he devoted as much of his time as possible to studying the poets of the past, writing notes and lines, and trying to improve his craft. He published in journals and magazines throughout the 1930’s and produced his first volume of poems, Open House, in 1941.
Meanwhile, Roethke earned a living through a series of teaching jobs, which was the way he was to sustain himself for the rest of his life. His first appointment was at what was then Michigan State College in 1935, and there began another feature of Roethke’s life which was both disturbing and, finally, transforming. Roethke lost his job at Michigan State after only one semester because of a mental breakdown which required hospitalization. The nature and cause of his illness were never determined; he was diagnosed with familiar catch-all designations—paranoid schizophrenia and manic depression—and several times again he became unable to deal with everyday life and had to be institutionalized.
It is unknown whether Roethke’s mental problems were based on something in his upbringing (perhaps his strained relationship with his father) or were congenital. Whatever their cause, Roethke was quite insecure, demanding the constant approval of those around him and finding it difficult even to maintain a public personality. This affliction caused great pain and humiliation for Roethke and much sorrow and discomfort for his friends. He was refused service in World War II because of his condition, and when courting his future wife, he did not tell her of his mental problems. Later in life Roethke began to see his illness as a gateway to new imaginative and spiritual realms, and he allied himself proudly with other “mad” poets such as Christopher Smart and William Blake.
In spite of his inner turmoil, Roethke found his life as a poet and academician continuing to grow. In 1936 he obtained a position at Pennsylvania State University, where he also coached the tennis team, and he remained there until 1943, when he moved to Bennington College. There he had the good fortune to meet a brilliant group of faculty members, including literary critic and semanticist Kenneth Burke, who admired Roethke’s poetry and urged him to continue to develop his own style and outlook. The result of this stimulation from Burke and others, along with Roethke’s hard work, was the breakthrough volume The Lost Son, and Other Poems (1948). In this volume Roethke produced the emotionally strongest poems he had yet written in a manner that was his alone. He was now a significant poet with a message and voice of his own.
After his appointment at Bennington ended in 1946, he returned to Pennsylvania State for one semester in 1947 and then moved to the University of Washington the same year. He would remain in Seattle, except for occasional trips abroad (such as when he won two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Ford Foundation Fellowship), for the rest of his life. Poems and collections continued to come, and with them increasing critical recognition. Praise to the End! appeared in 1951; The Waking, Poems, 1933-1953, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1953; and Words for the Wind, a collection of previous work and new material for which he won both the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award, in 1958. Roethke also wrote two books for children, I Am! Says the Lamb (1961) and Party at the Zoo (1963). While on a visit to New York in 1952, he happened to meet one of his former students at Bennington, Beatrice O’Connell, and the two were married early in 1953. She was both an inspiration and a helpmate to him for the rest of his life.
In 1962, Roethke was awarded the title Poet in Residence at the University of Washington, but his physical health had begun to decline. On August 1, 1963, while he was swimming, he was stricken with a massive heart attack and died. The volume of poems he had been preparing, The Far Field, was published posthumously in 1964; it, too, won the National Book Award. Some critics have said that many of the poems in that book suggest that their author knew that his days were short. The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, containing most of his published work, appeared in 1966. Roethke’s reputation has continued to grow since his death. He is recognized as one of the major American poets of the twentieth century, influencing not only a younger group of poets who were his students, such as James Wright and David Wagoner, but also previously established writers such as Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath.