Theodore Roethke

Start Free Trial

Theodore Roethke American Literature Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

As Roethke used the world of nature as his primary source of inspiration and imagery, one can easily use an organic metaphor to describe the nature and growth of his poetry. Roethke believed, like the Romantics, that ultimate meaning grew from the encounter of the sensitive individual with nature in an attempt to determine personally the relationship between humankind and all existence. In his first volume, Open House, the seeds of Roethke’s poetic thought have taken hold and are beginning to poke above the soil. They burst into full flower in the next volume, The Lost Son, and Other Poems; and in the succeeding volumes, Praise to the End!, The Waking, and Words for the Wind, the reader discovers not only blossoms and fruit but also the root system and nutrients (the subconscious mind) from which the poems spring. Finally, in the last volume, The Far Field, the poet’s mind and his creation are seen not only close up but also in panorama as they assume their place in the entire biosphere—that is, the world wider than the life of one individual.

Open House, despite its expansive title, contains poems that are rather guarded in their expression. This was Roethke’s first collection, and rather than hosting a party he is really knocking at the door, asking to be admitted to the company of poets. Roethke shows that he can manage traditional forms such as the sonnet and the Spenserian stanza, so that the emphasis is more on pleasing the assumed academic audience rather than saying what he himself wants to say in a manner that is unmistakably his. Nevertheless, a great artist finds his themes early, and the reader familiar with Roethke’s career can easily recognize the preoccupations of his later work appearing like tendrils in a garden in early spring.

In the first and title poem, Roethke states that he will tell all his secrets and withhold nothing from the reader, but the poem remains on a general level, and the secrets are not named. The last two lines, however, produce a shudder: “Rage warps my clearest cry/ To witless agony.” Roethke’s mental illness had already asserted itself, and here the poet recognizes that this “secret” will be both a barrier to communication and a source of emotion for the rest of his life.

In “The Premonition,” Roethke remembers trying to keep up with the wide strides of his father as they walked through the fields and the older man’s dipping his hand into a stream so that his reflection was shattered. The poem suggests simultaneously the importance of nature in Roethke’s life and poetry, Roethke’s difficult relationship with his father, and Otto Roethke’s death, which was to trouble the poet until late in his career. In “The Signals,” Roethke maintains, “Sometimes the blood is privileged to guess/ The things the eye or hand cannot possess,” indicating that he relies on intuition and nonrational knowledge more than most poets. In “For an Amorous Lady,” he compares his lover to the snake, which enjoys giving as well as receiving caresses, in a poem which combines sensuality and humor in the manner of his best later love poems.

Roethke abandoned his attempt to please an audience of older, accepted poets in the poems collected in his next book, The Lost Son, and Other Poems . This volume contains the “greenhouse poems,” which, his critics agree, mark the beginning of his career as an independent craftsman and which some think are his best work. In this series, Roethke returns in his imagination to the world...

(This entire section contains 3524 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

of his childhood, finding there not only pleasant memories (such as in “Big Wind,” which describes how everyone worked to save the roses in the greenhouse during a bitterly cold and stormy night), but also scenes of horror and fright. “Root Cellar” tells of how the discarded bulbs, manure, and other greenhouse trash continued to put out roots and stems, stinking up the area but refusing to die: “Nothing would give up life:/ Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.”

In “Weed Puller,” young Roethke is himself plunged into this dirty womb. As a child, he was small enough to get under the benches where the roses and other flowers grew in order to cut and pull away the roots and undergrowth that were not wanted. “Tugging all day at perverse life,” young Roethke considered this work an “indignity,” and describes it in such terms that it is almost revolting: “Me down in that fetor of weeds,/ Crawling on all fours,/ Alive, in a slippery grave.” The word “fetor” suggests “fetus,” combining both birth and death images. Although the emphasis in this poem is on the horror and fright of the young boy thrust into the grimy scene, later Roethke would use the union of life and death as a central theme of his poetry. Life both feeds upon death and arises from death; it is impossible to separate the two, which are part of the same process.

In this volume, Roethke sees nature not only as overwhelmingly powerful but also as a comforting friend. Here he comes closest to his Romantic predecessors, such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but there is a difference. While Wordsworth drew comfort from the quiet splendor of the English lake country and Coleridge admired the grandeur of the vale of Chamouni, in “The Minimal,” Roethke examines the barely visible insects on a leaf, little beetles and lice. He finally comments on bacteria, which can be seen only with a microscope; each organism has its role to play in the cycle of life. Roethke is the poet of small nature: Toads, slugs, sparrows, and minnows are the heroes of his poems. They are the inspirers of his life, with their reminders that the nameless and the small are no less important than the large and famous, that—as another of Roethke’s Romantic poetic models, William Blake, said—“Everything that lives is Holy.”

Another theme with which Roethke grapples appears in the title poem of the volume, “The Lost Son.” In this long, multipart, and multistyle poem, Roethke attempts to come to terms with his grief and guilt over the loss of his father and with his own mental illness. He dips into his unconscious to find a way out of his depression and confusion and regresses to childhood, using the meter and subject of nursery rhymes and childish taunts to gain some understanding of the roots of his problem. At the end of the poem, he has not attained understanding but at least finds solace.

The psychological investigation continues through the major poems in Roethke’s next collection, Praise to the End!, the title of which is a quotation from Wordsworth. This volume contains more poems in the manner of “The Lost Son,” poems in which Roethke dives into the subconscious, a psychic adventure expressed in the form of extremely short lines reminiscent of the thoughts and sensations of a child. These poems include the title poem, the remarkable “Where Knock Is Open Wide,” “I Need, I Need,” “Sensibility! O La!,” and “Unfold! Unfold!” In some of these poems Roethke may be trying to hit a high note that no one else can hear, for many critics think that they plumb the subconscious so deeply that their meaning becomes lost in obscurity or in purely personal reference. To others, these poems present Roethke as most himself and provide a deep well from which interpretations and insights may be continually drawn.

In The Waking, Roethke continues the long confessional and personal poems but also begins to write poems of a more traditional form and content in which he acknowledges his kinship with and debt to other poets, chief among them W. B. Yeats (mentioned in “Four for Sir John Davies”) and T. S. Eliot. From Yeats, Roethke borrowed the metaphor of the dance as a symbol for the totality and interaction of all life, as well as certain stylistic approaches to poetry: “I take this cadence from a man named Yeats;/ I take it, and I give it back again.” (Roethke later said that it was not really the meter but the manner of writing poetry that he took from Yeats.) From Eliot, he took the bitter, almost conversational line reflecting the staleness and disappointment of modern life (as seen in “Old Lady’s Winter Words”). The two earlier poets had also reacted to modern life by finding comfort in religion, and in this area Roethke shied away from Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism and favored the mysticism of Yeats.

In his earlier collections, Roethke had firmly established his own style and approach; now he could move back to the world of traditional poetry and not feel as if he were intruding. This new nimbleness produced poems that both pleased more traditional readers with their mastery of familiar and difficult poetic forms and satisfied Roethke’s established audience with their presentation of his particular themes, such as the villanelle which provides the title of the book, “The Waking:” “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow./ I learn by going where I have to go.” This volume contains Roethke’s most famous and frequently anthologized poem, “Elegy for Jane,” a tribute to one of his students who died young.

Words for the Wind collected much of the previous work and also added some beautiful love poems which Roethke wrote after his marriage, such as “I Knew a Woman.” The collection also contains another tribute to Yeats, “The Dying Man,” and another multipart poem in which Roethke considers death by separating himself from the event by adopting the persona of his mother, “Meditations of an Old Woman.” In his last book, the posthumous The Far Field, Roethke presents his most powerful expression of the mystic union with all life that sometimes resulted from his struggles with insanity, “In a Dark Time.” The volume also includes a more conventional poem (in the manner of “Meditations of an Old Woman”), “North American Sequence,” in which he describes his whole life as a journey across the northern United States from east to west, ending with a vision of a rose growing from the rocks on the Pacific Coast. The flower reminds him of his own childhood and life with his father, whose life and death he can now accept, as his own death approaches.

“Cuttings (Later)”

First published: 1948 (collected in The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, 1966)

Type of work: Poem

The poet identifies with vegetable life reasserting itself in the face of death.

This poem, one of the most frequently reprinted of the “greenhouse” series, shows Roethke’s close attention to the plant world and his identification with it. His sense of unity with the rest of life transcends the ordinary and becomes a spiritual experience, while at the same time remaining grounded in everyday reality. The highly emotional poem is also written using a style and themes that could only be Roethke’s.

As in “Root Cellar,” the discarded cuttings from the greenhouse refuse to die, putting forth new shoots and roots although they are only the mutilated parts of other plants. When Roethke compares the “struggling” plants to tortured saints trying to return to their religious battles, the spiritual connection between the human and vegetable world is established. It is made more definite in the second verse paragraph, in which the poet himself identifies with the chopped up, but still living, plants. He implies that his growth also comes as a result of a long struggle, for it has come “at last.” The last two lines introduce a familiar motif, fish, with which Roethke was fascinated for a number of reasons (one of which was their ability to thrive in a mysterious other world which humans can only visit), and a familiar theme, birth (“sheath-wet”) combined with fear (“I quail”). Birth, the inevitable result of the struggle for life, must happen, but it is terrifying for the new creature to be thrust into the living world.

“The Lost Son”

First published: 1948 (collected in The Lost Son, and Other Poems, 1948)

Type of work: Poem

A son, grieving for his father, returns to the world of his childhood in an attempt to comprehend and assuage his loss.

“The Lost Son” has five parts—“The Flight,” “The Pit,” “The Gibber,” “The Return,” and “’It Was Beginning Winter’”—each of which describes a stage in the grief of the poetic persona (in this case, surely Roethke himself). The poet works through the various stages of his feelings of sorrow and desolation to reach a conclusion which is not really a relief of his feelings but a hope for future solace.

Part 1, “The Flight,” begins with a reference to a cemetery (“Woodlawn”), and it is from this place and the fact of death that the flight occurs. From other references later in the poem, one can deduce that the death which has so shocked the poet is that of his father. Although the poet hopes to find some comfort in the little creatures of nature and specifically asks them to help him, he receives no such comfort: “Nothing nibbled my line,/ Not even the minnows came.”

He feels alone and isolated and specifically asks for help, praying not to God but to the creatures of nature to tell him something and give him some sign. They only answer him in riddles (“The moon said, back of an eel”) and in negatives: “You will find no comfort here,/ In the kingdom of bang and blab.” As if in response to this comment, the section ends with a riddle posed by the poet which describes a strange creature, part land animal and part amphibian. Critics have suggested that the creature is an unborn child, and this answer compels the poet to delve deeper into his unconscious mind, back even further than childhood, to find the relief for his fear and depression.

Accordingly, the next section, “The Pit,” which is the shortest, describes a literal hole in the ground filled with roots, moss, and small animals such as moles. This section contains a warning that the unconscious may be a dangerous place, a trap wherein waits the death that must finally take all: “Beware Mother Mildew.” Thus, in trying to understand the death of his father, the poet finds an even more terrifying truth: The death which has touched another will also come for him.

“The Gibber” is an aptly named segment of apparently disconnected lines and elements through which the poet appears to be wandering without plan, merely in the hope of finding some help. His old friends in nature are not only unhelpful but also actively hostile: “The cows and briars/ Said to me: Die.” The poet also examines his own life in society and finds it empty of spiritual and emotional value: “I run, I run to the whistle of money.”

The poet begins to find his way back to order and stability in “The Return,” which is a memory of his childhood and his life with his father. He sees and describes the life of the greenhouse, describing in particular the morning coming, the steam knocking its way through the radiator pipes, and frost slowly melting from the panes of glass, suggesting the return of order, meaning, clarity, and peace: “Ordnung! ordnung!! Papa is coming!”

The last section, “’It Was Beginning Winter,’” reveals that although a kind of peace has been reached, there is still no understanding; after such emotional turmoil, however, mere rest is a great comfort. The poet first describes a quiet winter scene, then tries to evaluate it, without success. The lines “Was it light within light?/ Stillness becoming alive,/ Yet still?” suggest that the speaker is searching for a unity that would resolve opposites by containing and transcending them. Significantly, this analysis is not an answer but another question. The poem ends with a kind of emotional blessing, its origin unclear:

A lively understandable spiritOnce entertained you.It will come again.Be still.Wait.

This section, with each line becoming shorter and simpler than the previous one until the last, which is only one syllable, reminds the poet (and the reader) that life is a cycle and that—even if there are no final answers to one’s problems—happiness and joy will come again. One needs the intelligence and the courage not to act, but to wait.

“In a Dark Time”

First published: 1960 (collected in The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, 1966)

Type of work: Poem

The poet confronts his own fear and triumphs over it in a mystic vision.

Several of the elements of Roethke’s mind, personality, and poetic skill combine to assert themselves in “In a Dark Time,” one of his most personal and most powerful works. The poem begins with a violent description of a psychic breakdown, a comment on Roethke’s own mental illness, and ends by invoking the vocabulary of religious mysticism. Underlying the whole poem is the startling assumption that such a collapse may be necessary in order for a person to reach truth and achieve integration of the personality and unity with the rest of nature. Roethke certainly thought this theory true for himself; the end of the poem is stated in the first line, for in Roethke’s view, it is only “in a [psychically] dark time” that “the [inner] eye begins to see.”

The natural imagery in the poem does not refer to the neat, ordered, and humanly understandable world of the greenhouse, where growth takes place in regular, ordered patterns. Roethke knew that the greenhouse was an artificial place sustained by rational activity; the world outside was a far different place, teeming with wild and threatening life and unexplainable creatures and events. In this poem there are no beautiful roses but instead “beasts of the hill,” “serpents of the den,” and “a ragged moon.” The natural world is not a comforting place but instead is an index of madness, as outer reality reflects the inner turmoil of the poet. The last natural image in the poem, the fly which buzzes at the window sill, seeing the world it desires but unable to reach it, frequently appears in Roethke’s writing as a symbol of mental illness.

Roethke’s presentation of this condition is clinically accurate; it is common; for example, for the psychotic person to think that everything is obviously related to everything else (“a steady storm of correspondences”) but also to think that knowledge of these relationships is useless or uncommunicable: “The edge is what I have.” At the same time that thoughts and ideas may occur with unusual clarity, sense impressions may mirror the lack of a frame of reference for these ideas or may defy common sense: “I meet my shadow in the deepening shade,” “all natural shapes blazing unnatural light.” Another such discordant image, “in broad day the midnight come again,” may be a description of a sudden dislocation of the senses, but it may also describe how the sufferer is plunged without warning into meaningless confusion. The poetic images shift back and forth from the physical to the mental, both indicating the welter within the mind of the poet and perplexing the reader and thus forcing him or her to join and endure the poet’s wild ride.

In the last stanza, there is a resolution of these contradictions, but not a peaceful resolution. After touching bottom, plumbing the depths of disaster, the poet is finally free of his fear, presumably because he has experienced what he was afraid of and survived, and therefore need fear no longer, but that is only a presumption. Roethke does not offer a logical explanation for the change, nor did he feel that one was necessary, for he thought that human life was based on much more than cogitation. As he had written in “The Waking:” “We think by feeling. What is there to know?” Whatever the reason, the poet finds himself united with God but still in the midst of a maelstrom: “free in the tearing wind.”

The most pregnant lines in the poem are “What’s madness but nobility of soul/ at odds with circumstance?,” Roethke’s answer to those who would dismiss his more difficult poetry as mere babble. The “mentally ill” person may very well be the one who can see life more clearly than others precisely because he or she has not abandoned his or her personal vision for a utilitarian view. That is a large and perhaps unfair claim, but at the end of the poem, Roethke is clearly a twentieth century Romantic, for unlike his fellow “mad” poet and mentor, William Blake, Roethke did not insist that the vision of mystic union with God should be true for all people. He merely described it happening to himself, recognizing the twentieth century belief that there are many paths to truth. In so doing, he also reaffirmed the Romantic principle that each person must find his or her own role in life and that salvation is finally an individual matter.


Theodore Roethke Poetry: American Poets Analysis