Theodore Roethke

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Theodore Roethke Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Theodore Roethke can be best understood as a poet in the tradition of nineteenth century English and American Romanticism. His early poetry of the 1940’s and 1950’s has some significant similarities to that of the English Romantic poets, especiallyWilliam Wordsworth andJohn Keats, while his later poetry, especially “North American Sequence,” owes a large debt toWalt Whitman. In general, one can see a number of essential Romantic characteristics in his poetry. Although he often objectifies his feelings in concrete images, he also directly expresses emotion. A preference for feeling over analytical reason, spontaneity over logic, and exuberance over calculated thinking can be seen throughout his verse; dancing, singing, and jubilant exclaiming are ubiquitous.

Roethke’s subject is that of the Romantics—the exploration of the mind or “imagination.” While his voyage into the depths of his own mind is, at times, terrifying, it has positive consequences. The imagination’s repeated attempts to affirm itself in the face of threatening reality is a constant ritual and a source of tension in Roethke’s work. Often the imagination can transform the external world, at least momentarily, and the poet feels redeemed.

Nature functions in Roethke’s poetry in a particularly Romantic fashion. He writes of nature not to achieve an objective perception of it or a lyrical description of its beauty, but as a way to attain a more profound awareness, a “vernal wisdom.” Nature takes a variety of forms in his poetry; it mirrors the emotional vicissitudes of the poet. It may be vindictive or affirmative to the point that the poet merges momentarily with it. He does make clear, however, that dissolving one’s identity and merging with nature is an uncommon experience, for humans have a keen awareness of their separateness that is very difficult to ignore. In “Moss Gathering,” the poet as a young boy sorrowfully realizes his separateness from the primordial order of nature when he digs up a loose carpet of green moss.

While Roethke is an affirmative poet who sees the process of becoming as ultimately joyful, there is a Keatsian ambivalence in his work. The beautiful and the grotesque, the joyful and the painful are inextricably related. Even “Dinky,” one of his “Poems for Children,” has a macabre quality fused with its lightheartedness.

Finally, not only Roethke’s sensibility but also his style is Romantic. While his style displays a number of Romantic characteristics, such as spontaneity, direct expression of emotion, and intuitive perceptions, the most important characteristic is its meditative quality. Like the important works of Wordsworth and Keats, Roethke’s poetry progresses associatively, according to the discursive movement of the mind, not according to the dictates of logic. In short, his best work mirrors the meanderings of the imagination, or to paraphrase him, the goal is to capture the movement of the mind itself.

Influence of Wordsworth

Roethke has many attributes in common with Wordsworth, who wrote meditative poetry in which the interaction between the mind and the natural world is the central preoccupation. Both poets reveal an aspiring quality in their work; both use simple language; both rely on recollections of childhood as a source of their poetry and a key to their perception of the mystery of the human condition. In The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (1850), Wordsworth similarly explains his strange experiences—“that calm delight/ Which, if I err not, surely must belong/ To those first born affinities that fit/ Our new existence to existing things” (book 1, 11, lines 543-557). Sometimes both poets seem to be expressing animism: “Every flower/ Enjoys the air it breathes” (Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring,” 11, lines 10-11)....

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This Wordsworthian image of natural phenomenon “breathing” appears often in Roethke’s poetry. In fact, Roethke takes the idea to its logical conclusion—stones breathing. Yet it is unlikely that either poet really believed that nature and inanimate objects were endowed with sentient life. Both were realistic poets who depended heavily on precise observation. Significantly, Roethke seems to have borrowed Wordsworth’s notion of the importance of the “eye close on the object,” or as Wordsworth wrote in the Preface toLyrical Ballads (1798), “I have at all times endeavored to look steadily at my subjects.”

The mind enmeshed in nature can be seen in the poetry of Keats and Roethke, and both poets describe the mind in similar metaphoric fashion. Roethke writes of “The leafy mind, that long was tightly furled,/ Will turn its private substance into green,/ And young shoots spread upon our inner world” (Collected Poems, p. 11); Keats of “some untrodden region of my mind/ Where branchéd thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain . . .”(“Ode to Psyche,” 11, lines 51-52). Keats’s oxymoronic last phrase suggests the contraries of existence that both Roethke and Keats wrestle with throughout their work. Mutability is a painful reality that is finally accepted and affirmed. Life is viewed as process.

“The Visitant”

“The Visitant” (Collected Poems) is Roethke’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” although here the awakened speaker is not so “alone and palely loitering” as Keats’s knight; he is also more easily reconciled to his situation than Keats’s knight, and the evanescent tone and the delicate evocation of the landscape is in direct contrast to the stark images of Keats’s poem. Nevertheless, despite the difference in style in these two poems, there are significant stylistic affinities between the authors. Both use sensuous, suggestive imagery that conveys the complex vicissitudes of the emotions. In their works, one sees subtle shifts of feeling and emotionally charged language that works toward a strong identification with external reality.

Influence of Whitman

In Roethke’s later poetry, Whitman is a strong influence, and he acknowledges this fact in both his poetry and his letters. He borrows Whitman’s techniques, especially his cataloging and his free-verse style, his “loose line,” in Roethke’s phrase. In his long poems, such as “North American Sequence,” one finds Whitman’s playfulness, irony, and comic relief; like Whitman, Roethke realized that these qualities are necessary in a long work in which it is impossible to maintain a single tone.

Roethke was also influenced by Whitman’s mysticism. In “North American Sequence,” there is the Whitmanesque desire to achieve a becoming that is not self-conscious—in which the poet tries to dissolve his self, to merge with the landscape. Both poets try to absorb and absolve the self and provide the necessary harmony that the world can never provide. There is the need in both poets to be free from the body by extending it throughout the landscape.

One must be careful, however, not to overstate Whitman’s influence. While Whitman’s catalogs are often mundane lists, Roethke’s are not; rather, he seems to be borrowing nature’s rhythm and applying it to the human realm. In general, Roethke does not have that tone of massive innocence that dominates Whitman’s poetry. Roethke harmonizes the landscape, makes it part of him, but there is the feeling that it can be done for him alone.

Open House

Roethke’s poetry developed from his early conventional verse with its regular meter and rhyme to the later innovative poetry with its associative, free-verse style. In his first collection, Open House, there are abstract, rhetorical poems as well as sensuous, pictorial ones. The poems of this volume are traditional in form and content, and Roethke does not speak with a unique voice, as he does in his subsequent work. “The Prayer” is a typical early poem with its closed couplets, regular rhythm, and slightly ribald humor. “The Premonition” has lucid images that take on symbolic power: “Hair on a narrow wrist bone” suggests a father’s mortality. Minute observation of detail in “Interlude” also takes on symbolic significance. “Mid-Country Blow” shows the power of the imagination that can so dominate the senses that the poet still hears the “sound of the sea” even after his eye has proved his vision false. The poem is reminiscent of many of William Carlos Williams’s poems, in which a banal scene is transformed into a vivid experience of near revelation. “The Bat” portrays a deliberate correspondence between the human and the animal realms; “When mice with wings can wear a human face” suggests a mysterious horror in which humans participate. In contrast, D. H. Lawrence’s poem by the same name emphasizes a human being’s separateness from the demonic bat’s universe.

“Idyll” can be taken as the representative poem of the first volume. The gulf between complacency and minatory reality is evoked by the contrast of the sleeping town and the encroaching unnamed “terror.” The poem is divided into three stanzas with a rhyme scheme that creates a sense of regularity broken only in the final line. The “we” of the poem is meant to draw the reader into the work, while the present tense emphasizes the immediacy of the poem’s situation. The slow rhythm conveys the sense of the inexorable encroaching darkness.

The first stanza depicts a scene in which something is “amiss.” A child’s tricycle inexplicably “runs crazily,” evoking a mood of innocence being menaced. The second line describes the representative man of the sleeping town. He is completely self-absorbed, a stumbling drunk who talks to himself. In stanza 2, the darkness envelops the “well-groomed suburban town.” “Creeps” suggests a bestial presence that the town, “indifferent to dog howls” and “the nestling’s last peep,” refuses to acknowledge. Like the drunk of the first stanza, the people of the town exist in a self-satisfied state. The final stanza evokes a surrealistic scene—the world is dissolving in “the black revolving shadow” as a far-off train “blows its echoing whistle once.” The “unmindful” people go to sleep in their houses precariously located at the “edge of a meadow.” The failure of rhyme and the monosyllabic finality of “guns” in the last line emphasize the disconcerting contrast between the complacent town and threatening external reality.

Greenhouse poems

The Lost Son, and Other Poems breaks new ground with the “greenhouse poems” and the longer associative poems that form the last section of the volume. These longer associative poems become part of a sequence in the next volume, Praise to the End! The title of this later volume is taken from an obscure passage of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (book 1, lines 340-350) and provides an important clue to Roethke’s basic intent in his volumes of poetry of 1948 and 1951. Wordsworth suggests in this passage of The Prelude that the mind can order disparate, painful experiences of the past into a meaningful whole. Like Wordsworth, Roethke believes that one can create an identity only after one has plumbed the depths of one’s psyche, even though this interior journey might be terrifying and could at times lead one perilously close to madness. In this sequence, which focuses on the psychological development of the child and the spiritual regeneration of the adult, Roethke uses a unique style similar to that of the shorter greenhouse poems.

“Root Cellar” is a representative greenhouse poem and clearly reveals Roethke’s method. The “poem” evokes the paradoxical situation in which the remarkable vitality of natural life seems threatening to the self. The fecund realm of this strange plant life is not a human one; no human could exist in this thriving subterranean world. The cellar represents both womb and tomb, fecundity and destruction. The alliteration in the first three lines stresses the contrary pulls of the life force (evoked by the vitality of the bulbs breaking out of their boxes) and the death wish (evoked by the darkness). The ambivalent nature of the scene is further emphasized by the description of the growing plants in sexual imagery that has negative connotations: “Hunting for chinks in the dark” and “lolling obscenely.” As the poet closely observes the procreative forces of nature, he becomes keenly aware of the noxious odor that accompanies vital growth. The sixth line—“And what a congress of stinks!—” divides the poem. Next follows an accumulation of details, stressing the richness and rankness of the plants. Life is seen as an irreversible bursting forth; even the dirt appears to be breathing at the end.

In short, the self feels attracted to and threatened by this subterranean world. The greenhouse poems remind one of some of D. H. Lawrence’s poems in which he is seeking his primeval self, his deepest being that remains submerged in the primitive regions of nature. The problem for both Roethke and Lawrence is that while humans want to recapture the primal mystery, they feel alienated from their spiritual and physical origins.

The Waking

The Waking contains a selection from Roethke’s previous volumes as well as new poems, some of which owe a large debt to Yeats, as Roethke himself admits. The title poem, however, does not reveal Yeats’s influence; with its series of paradoxes and its Wordsworthian exuberance, it might be considered a metaphysical-romantic hybrid. This much-anthologized poem is not only one of the most difficult in Roethke’s canon but also one of his best.

The Waking is a villanelle and thus is divided into five tercets and a concluding quatrain; it systematically repeats lines one and three of the first tercet throughout the work. The lines are end-stopped, and the intricate rhyme scheme links the stanzas together. The rhyme scheme and the steady, lofty rhythm create a sense of inexorable movement.

The structure and rhythm of the poem perfectly fit the content. The first four stanzas alternate two paradoxical truths that the work expresses: “I learn by going where I have to go” and “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” In the final stanza, these two paradoxes are repeated in the last two lines. Though seemingly the opposites of each other, both suggest an acceptance of the inevitable—more specifically, they suggest an acceptance of mortality amid the flux of everyday existence.

Roethke suggests that a fundamental unity underlies the chaos of existence. The series of oppositions, paradoxes, and seemingly unrelated statements in the poem are deliberately utilized by the poet to demonstrate an underlying unity. The interwoven rhythm and the repetition link the dissimilar elements. The intricate form of the poem itself, with its wide-ranging content, suggests that there is coherence in the flux of existence—if one would only allow oneself to become aware of it.

In this poem, the self has come to terms with the human condition. In addition to conveying the tone of jubilant resignation, the repetition in the work emphasizes the poet’s intense awareness and acceptance of identity. “I wake,” “I feel,” “I learn,” “I hear” are the beginnings of lines. In the middle line of each of the first five stanzas, the poet unfailingly expresses acceptance. Although he feels the presence of death, he can affirm his situation.

Stanza 4, the most obscure section of the poem, takes this feeling of affirmation to a mystical point. “Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?” The evocation of transcendence is followed by doubts about whether a human can attain it, and the answer to the question is as enigmatic as the original question that prompted it: “The lowly worm climbs up the winding stair.” This response is ambiguous, suggesting procreative power as well as mutability, affirmation as well as negation. While the lowest creature ascends to the heights (a spiral tree is a common image of the transcendent in Roethke), humans paradoxically become aware of their transitory nature.

At the end of the work, the poet exhorts his reader to “take the lively air.” The concluding rhyme (slow/go) breaks the rhythm and creates a sense of finality. The poet has accepted the fact that he will die, but he realizes that his awareness of his imminent death has made him alive to the possibilities of existence and allowed him a glimpse of the eternal. The final note is one of celebration.

Words for the Wind

Words for the Wind is Roethke’s best single volume. The best parts of the work are the largest section titled “Love Poems” and the final section, the sequence of five poems titled “Meditations of an Old Woman.” These two sections reveal a new development in Roethke’s poetry. “Meditations of an Old Woman” represents the poet’s most impressive achievement in capturing the labyrinthine movement of the mind, but the length and complexity of the sequence allows only a few brief comments on Roethke’s remarkable innovations in this mode. The powerful, tormented sensibility evident in the sequence is expressed in a vivid and complex style characterized by subtle tonal changes, comparisons of past and present, recurring symbols, patterns of imagery, and repetition of key words, to name only the most important elements. The compression of imagery and the intense lyrical quality of the work resemble Keats’s odes, while the meditative sequence as a whole has the expansiveness of Wallace Stevens’s variations on a motif.

There are a number of different kinds of love poems in Words for the Wind, and they represent an achievement in style of nearly the magnitude of “Meditations of an Old Woman.” “The Dream” presents an odd mixture of the sensual and the ethereal. In “Words for the Wind,” the poet sings of his communion with his lover. In fact, this title poem evokes an evanescent sensual love similar to that in Denise Levertov’s “Our Bodies,” although Roethke is much more ethereal than Levertov. In “The Sententious Man,” the attitude toward the self and the world is ambivalent. Spiritual emptiness is a formidable threat in these poems, and much of the time there is no separation of the “kiss” and the “abyss.” Feeling alienated, the self strives for communion and love.

Roethke vividly expresses the awareness of existential nothingness in “The Renewal”: “I paw the dark, the shifting midnight air.” Yet the lost self may be found again, for there is the possibility of rebirth in the morning when the poet experiences a mystical identification with the inanimate world: “I touched the stones, and they had my own skin.” The constriction of the self is being overcome. “The whole motion of the soul lay bare,” the poet says, after he sees the “rubblestones begin to stretch.”

The Far Field and Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical

In Roethke’s final volume, The Far Field, he becomes very mystical. Total dissolution of the self is often the goal; this trend can be seen in the abstract poems of Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical, in the love poems, in the “Mixed Sequence” poems, and in the “North American Sequence.” In The Far Field, Whitman’s influence is particularly evident. Whitman sees death as rejuvenating, and sometimes he describes it erotically or maternally. Like Whitman, Roethke continually, almost ritualistically, discovers death and the beneficent quality inherent in nature. One loses his identity to the point that he is consumed—death is the final culmination of all growth.

Despite its power, the “North American Sequence” does not break new ground, for it is very similar in technique to “Meditations of an Old Woman.” Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical is a more original work. First published in 1963 in a limited edition of 330 copies by the Stone Wall Press (Iowa City, Iowa), it came to form the concluding section of The Far Field, Roethke’s final work. It is an appropriate culmination of the poet’s career, examining in an innovative style the recurring themes in his canon—the relationship of the imagination to reality; the possibility of transcendence and the mystical annihilation of consciousness; and the search for identity. “In a Dark Time,” the most difficult and probably the best poem of the sequence, focuses on these themes.

“In a Dark Time”

“In a Dark Time” bluntly asks Roethke’s obsessive question: “Which I is I?” There is no simple answer. Stanza 1 suggests that the inner “eye” of the imagination paradoxically begins to see “in a dark time,” as the despairing poet probes the primordial depths of the psyche. A series of metaphors of the poet’s spiritual journey follows. He meets his “shadow,” his other self, in the “deepening shade,” the ever-darkening journey into the night regions of the soul. The poet exists in an in-between time—he exists between the extremes of the heron, a bird associated with the earth and the sea, and the wren, a bird of the air, as well as between the beasts of the hill and the serpents of the den.

Stanza 2 suggests that “madness” can be regarded as the spirit’s visionary perception as well as the ultimate fragmentation of the psyche. The illogical events of an intrinsically meaningless world are at odds with the spirit’s quest, and consequently the poet has known “the purity of pure despair.” Here “pure” suggests completeness as well as visionary intensity. “Pinned against a sweating wall” stresses the acuteness of the poet’s spiritual torment. Yet this torment, which is both visionary perception and disintegration of the imaginative mind, leaves the poet in confusion: Is he ascending to the ethereal heights or descending to the ignorant depths? He cannot be certain whether he is heading toward constriction in the depths or freedom on the heights, and thus he is left on the threshold.

In stanza 3, Roethke states the method by which he works—“A steady storm of correspondences!” Connections between inner and outer worlds occur. “Storm” and“A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon” suggest the difficult obstacles that the poet must overcome on his spiritual journey in which he hopes to create a new identity—it is a hope that can become a reality only by the eradication of the conscious ego. After the painful “Death of the self in a long tearless night,” the supernatural emerges out of the everyday. The imagination has transformed mundane reality; in the light of the common day, midnight has come “again.” Midnight is a magical time for Roethke, the brink of visionary transcendence; “again” suggests that this visionary state has occurred before—perhaps it refers to that time of spiritual unity in childhood when one does not feel estranged from nature.

In stanza 4, Roethke suggests that it is necessary to descend into the darkness to attain inner illumination. On the brink of transcendence as well as insanity, he cannot reach a transcendent realm and thus remains pondering his identity on the threshold, looking upward. Finally, the soul does complete its journey. Although the poet has fallen to the depths of despair, he now “climbs” out. The poet eradicates his excessively self-conscious ego and attains a heightened awareness in which his sense of estrangement from the external world is overcome.

Seeking the self amid chaos

In the poetry of Roethke, the Romantic problem of the relationship of the self to external reality becomes an obsessive concern. The attempt to overcome the age-old Romantic dichotomy between the self and the world can be seen throughout his work, from the earliest poetry to the posthumous volume, The Far Field. Roethke searches for his true identity amid the chaos of modern life. The supposition behind this quest is that the mundane world is intrinsically meaningless, and therefore the poet must affirm reality by his imagination. The mind must endow the external world with meaning or the poet walks a never-ending tightrope over the abyss, always a step away from despair and madness.

For Roethke, the mind is the most efficacious defense against the cold multiplicity of the modern world because it can create order and it fuses inner and outer worlds. When the mind achieves a complete identification with the external world, the tension between the self and the world dissipates. To achieve this identification is extremely difficult; but the heroic task of the modern poet, Roethke believed, is to make the attempt.


Theodore Roethke American Literature Analysis


Roethke, Theodore