Theodore Roethke Biography


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...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Roethke provides a link with the poetic tradition of the past while remaining very much a poet of the twentieth century and one with his own unique vision. He demonstrates that the Romantic philosophy of imaginative, transcendent, and fulfilling unity with nature is not a relic of the dead past but an approach to life that is still valid today. His invocation of more recent poetic tradition shows that he was aware of the problems of his own time, and his use of poetry to grapple with his emotional and psychic distress reaffirms the role of poetry as a regenerative and healing agent.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Theodore Huebner Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on May 25, 1908, to Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner Roethke. With his brother Charles, Otto Roethke owned an enormous greenhouse consisting of several buildings enclosing 250,000 square feet under glass. The young Roethke was fascinated by his father’s gigantic plant kingdom, and the greenhouse world would later become a literary storehouse of poetic images for the adult poet. In his fifteenth year, however, his ordered life was shattered. After his father and Charles quarreled, the greenhouse was sold. Charles committed suicide several months later, and shortly after that, Otto died of cancer, suffering greatly before his death. Otto’s strong influence on his son can be seen in the poetry.

The first member of his family to attend college, Theodore Roethke graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1929. He spent one term at the University of Michigan Law School and then in 1930 transferred to the graduate school, where he studied English for two terms. Then he did graduate work at Harvard and decided to abandon career possibilities in law and advertising to become a poet.

In 1931, The New Republic and Sewanee Review published Roethke’s poems. After teaching English at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, from 1931 to 1935, he accepted a position at Michigan State College in East Lansing. During the 1935 fall term, he suffered his first attack of a...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Theodore Roethke (REHT-kee) was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on May 25, 1908. Much of his childhood was spent in and around the greenhouse owned jointly by his father and his uncle. It is not surprising, then, that his poetry shows a familiarity with and knowledge of growing things and a reverence for life in all forms, large and small.

Roethke attended the University of Michigan, where he earned distinction as an athlete, and later did graduate work at Harvard University. His livelihood for many years was teaching. He held positions at Lafayette, Penn State, and Bennington and was professor of English and poet-in-residence at the University of Washington. While at Bennington, he met and married Beatrice Heath O’Connell, who was a student there and whom Roethke celebrated in moving love poems.

Roethke’s first book of poems, Open House, received little critical acclaim. Twelve years later, however, his fourth book, The Waking, received the Pulitzer Prize, the first of a series of major honors and awards culminating in the National Book Award, given posthumously to The Far Field.

Roethke’s physical appearance and demeanor defied the stereotype of the conventional poet. While he read much as a child, he endeavored to be accepted by peer groups that believed intelligence and bookish sensibilities were signs of effeminacy. Even at the University of Michigan, Roethke’s drunkenness was part of his tough, big-bear persona (he was a large man, weighing in excess of 200 pounds). However, his apparent strength was modified by a surprising gentleness and fascination for nature which led to his decision to become a teacher and poet.

Nonetheless, the rigors of teaching often forced Roethke into periods of absolute exhaustion as he tried to balance his vocation and advocation. He suffered mental breakdowns. While the University of Michigan terminated his contract because of his manic depression, the University of Washington accepted it as an unfortunate illness belonging to a talented man.

In his last years Roethke gave readings at many colleges and was extremely popular with his student audiences. He died suddenly of a heart attack while swimming in August, 1963, his creative powers at a peak and his reputation at its highest. Roethke was survived by his wife, Beatrice, to whom the literary world owes its gratitude for assembling the last poems that make up The Far Field.