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 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...
(The entire section is 3524 words.)