Theodore Roethke Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 101) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Theodore Roethke 1908–1963

(Full name Theodore Huebner Roethke) American poet.

The following entry provides an overview of Roethke's career through 1991. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 8, 11, 19, and 46.

Theodore Roethke is distinguished as one of the most gifted and innovative American poets of the 1940s and 1950s. He is widely acclaimed for his inventive use of language, facile technique, and highly imaginative metaphorical description of the natural world. With the publication of Open House (1941), his first book of poetry, Roethke received critical attention and rose to prominence with The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), Praise to the End! (1951), Words for the Wind (1957), and The Far Field (1964). Roethke's most effective work is characterized by recurring childhood memories and striking primordial imagery that elevate autobiographic detail to archetypal significance. His dynamic and often playful verse relies heavily on intuitive word associations and careful structure for sonic effect. Roethke's penetrating exploration of the past and the subconscious mind reflect a lifelong quest for harmony sought in self-acceptance and transcendence. Highly regarded for his originality and ability to evoke the universal in personal experience, Roethke exerted an important influence on the development of post-war American poetry.

Biographical Information

Born to German-American parents in Saginaw, Michigan, Roethke's rural upbringing centered around the family's prosperous greenhouse business. His early experiences among the acres of sprawling flora ended abruptly during adolescence with a series of tragedies—the sale of the family greenhouse business, his uncle's suicide, and his father's sudden death. The last caused him considerable anguish and would have a profound effect on his writing. Roethke earned an undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan and, after trying a semester of law school, undertook graduate studies in English at Harvard University. A university teaching career followed, first at Lafayette College, then Michigan State University, Pennsylvania State University, Bennington College, and finally at the University of Washington where he remained from 1947 until his death. During the 1930s Roethke began to establish his reputation as a poet by publishing work in several prestigious journals, including Poetry, The New Republic, and The Saturday Review. In 1935 he suffered a serious mental breakdown that resulted in hospitalization and cost him his teaching position at Michigan State University. Roethke would suffer from recurring episodes of manic depression for the rest of his life, a source of intense creative inspiration that disrupted his academic career and weakened him emotionally. He produced Open House, his first volume poetry, in 1941, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship four years later. The Lost Son and Other Poems followed in 1948, resulting in a second Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to finish Praise to the End! in 1951, another success rewarded with large grants from the Ford Foundation and National Institute of Arts and Letters the next year. In 1953 Roethke married Beatrice O'Connell, a former student from Bennington, and published The Waking (1953), which won a Pulitzer Prize, followed by Words for the Wind in 1958, the winner of several major awards, including the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. In the next several years he also published two volumes of children's verse, I Am! Says the Lamb (1961) and Party at the Zoo (1963). After a period of lecturing and extensive travel in Europe on a Ford Foundation Grant, Roethke suffered a fatal heart attack in 1963. He left a substantial body of new work that appeared posthumously in The Far Field, winner of the National Book Award in 1964, and The Collected Poems (1966).

Major Works

Roethke's artistic development is marked by persistent efforts to attain self-knowledge and unity in nature through the reconciliation of individual experience and revelation. His early poems in Open House are studied adaptations of conventional forms that display his mastery of meter and rhyme, though evince an intellectual rather than sensuous approach to his material. Roethke reveals his affinity for nature imagery and adumbrates the subconscious personal tensions that found expression in his later work. The title poem, "Open House," is a self-referential incantation that anticipates Roethke's regression into the psyche and cathartic inner journeys. With The Lost Son and Other Poems Roethke broke sharply with his contemporaries and began his innovative work, abandoning the restrained structure of his previous poetry for more expressive free verse steeped in irregularity and the irrational. The vivid imagery of the first section, referred to as the "Greenhouse Sequence," is among Roethke's most powerful, reflecting a deep connection to the vegetative world of his early life and evoking Jungian archetypes in pre-conscious experience. Through the symbolism of cultivation and harvesting, Roethke exposes the paradox and reality of life and death. This volume also contains "My Papa's Waltz," which portrays the terrifying godlike stature of Roethke's father, and "The Lost Son," which describes the complex and disillusioning process of individuation in a circular pattern that became characteristic of Roethke's metaphysical explorations. In Praise to the End! Roethke ventured further into the surreal, experimenting with the non-grammatical language of pre-verbal childhood with great effect. Alternating between nonsense verse and oracular declaration, Roethke celebrates self-discovery and the union of body and spirit. The title poem, "Praise to the End!," incorporates elements of nursery rhyme and Freudian imagery of sexual awakening to evoke the sensual joy of worldly experience and metamorphosis. The Waking contains selections from earlier volumes and Roethke's well-known "Elegy for Jane" and "Four for Sir John Davies," inspired by the influence of William Butler Yeats. Their lyrical tone, though less associative than that of the previous two volumes, reaffirms the primacy of intuitive perception and faith over reason. Words for the Wind includes The Waking in its entirety along with a series of love poems and two important longer pieces, "The Dying Man" and "Meditations on an Old Woman." Returning to the meter and rhyme of his earlier work, Roethke explores female consciousness and the contradictions of love and mortality with both empathy and wit. The Far Field contains additional love poems, "Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical," and "North American Sequence," considered Roethke's last great achievement. In this expansive series of meditative passages, Roethke employs the journey motif to juxtapose emotional self-exploration and reclamation with sweeping description of the continent and its varied flora and fauna.

Critical Reception

Roethke is widely acclaimed as one of the most important American poets of the twentieth century. In the tradition the Romantic poets and Americans Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, Roethke evokes the mystical and visionary in solitary experience and sustained introspection. Though criticized for derivative aspects of his work, particularly the overt influence of Yeats, Roethke assimilated and extended the modernist contributions of Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot to establish a poetic voice of his own that reached further into the depths of the individual psyche. The Lost Son and Other Poems and Praise to the End! are regarded as his best collections, along with "North American Sequence" from The Far Field. Despite frequent allusion to his emotional life and childhood, Roethke's poetry aspires to the universal and is essentially ahistorical, ignoring social and political events of his time. His diverse work, with its many styles, themes, and moods, defies simple classification, though his effective synthesis of autobiography, playful idiom, and archetypal symbolism was a major influence on beat, confessional, and deep-image poets in subsequent decades. Roethke's innovative attempt to discover psychic origins and to achieve transcendence through intuitive language and organic imagery remains a significant achievement in contemporary American poetry.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Open House (poetry) 1941
The Lost Son and Other Poems (poetry) 1948
Praise to the End! (poetry) 1951
The Waking: Poems 1933–1953 (poetry) 1953
The Exorcism: A Portfolio of Poems (poetry) 1957
Words for the Wind (poetry) 1957
I Am! Says the Lamb (poetry) 1961
Party at the Zoo (poetry) 1963
Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical (poetry) 1963
The Far Field (poetry) 1964
On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (essays) 1965
The Achievement of Theodore Roethke (poetry) 1966
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (poetry) 1966
Selected Letters of Theodore Roethke (letters) 1968
Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems (poetry) 1969
Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke, 1943–1963 (notebooks) 1972
Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures: Poems for Children (poetry) 1973

M. L. Rosenthal (review date 21 March 1959)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Closing in on the Self," in The Nation, Vol. 188, No. 12, March 21, 1959, pp. 258-60.

[In the following review, Rosenthal offers tempered criticism of Words for the Wind.]

Pick up one of Theodore Roethke's longer poems and you are confronted with a stunning mishmash of agonized gibber, described by the poet himself in an essay written some years ago as "the muck and welter, the dark, the dreck" of his verse. The same essay ("Open Letter," published in Ciardi's Mid-Century American Poets) asserts that he nevertheless counts himself "among the happy poets." And indeed, Roethke at his best throws all kinds of dissimilar effects into the great,...

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Karl Malkoff (essay date 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Greenhouse Land," in Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1966, pp. 1-17.

[In the following essay, Malkoff provides an overview of Roethke's life and work, noting developmental influences, recurring themes, and his major publications.]

The "lost world" of childhood experience plays a crucial part in the work of many contemporary writers. This is particularly true in the case of Theodore Roethke, who derived much of his poetic power and originality from his attempt to interpret adult life in terms of a permanent symbolism established in childhood. Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on May 25, 1908. His father and...

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Richard A. Blessing (essay date 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke: A Celebration," in Tulane Studies in English, Vol. 20, No. 0, 1972, pp. 169-80.

[In the following essay, Blessing examines technical devices employed by Roethke to evoke dynamic energy and movement, particularly as evident in his elegies.]

Theodore Roethke was ever one to appreciate the process by which complaint becomes celebration, by which a tirade turns to kissing. He would have understood, I hope, my beginning a celebration of his poetry with a complaint—another man's complaint—against it "We have," writes M. L. Rosenthal,

no other modern American poet of comparable reputation who has absorbed so...

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John Vernon (essay date 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theodore Roelhke," in The Garden and the Map: Schizophrenia in Twentieth-Century Literature and Culture, University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 159-90.

[In the following essay, Vernon explores Roethke's affinity for garden imagery and the symbolism of sexual development, personal growth, and self-consciousness.]

In Marvell's "The Garden" mere is a well-known passage that recalls one of the points Eluard's poem "You Are Everywhere" makes:

The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other World, and other...

(The entire section is 10480 words.)

Harry Williams (essay date 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poets and Critics on Roethke," in "The Edge of What I Have": Theodore Roethke and After, Bucknell University Press, 1977, pp. 13-36.

[In the following essay, Williams provides a survey of Roethke's critical reception among contemporary poets and reviewers.]

Throughout Theodore Roethke's middle and late career and after his death in 1963, poets have enthusiastically praised his work, while major critics have generally ignored or slighted him. Not until the fifth edition of the well-known anthology, Sanders, Nelson, and Rosenthal's The Chief Modern Poets of England and America (1970), was Roethke included; and only recently in a collection of essays,...

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Sandra Whipple Spanier (essay date Spring 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Unity of the Greenhouse Sequence: Roethke's Portrait of the Artist," in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 53-60.

[In the following essay, Spanier examines autobiographic allusions to the creative process revealed in the "Greenhouse Sequence" from Roethke's The Lost Son and Other Poems.]

Simplicity is deceptive in Theodore Roethke's "greenhouse sequence," which includes the first thirteen poems of The Lost Son and Other Poems (1848) plus one other poem inserted in two later editions of the group. The works are short and descriptive. They contain few, if any, abstract or philosophical statements. On first reading, the...

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Kermit Vanderbilt (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Theodore Roethke as a Northwest Poet," in Northwest Perspectives: Essays on the Culture of the Pacific Northwest, compiled and edited by Edwin R. Bingham and Glen A. Love, University of Washington Press, 1979, pp. 186-216.

[In the following essay, Vanderbilt examines Roethke's regional self-identity and distinct American voice, particularly as influenced by his Midwestern origins and later years in Seattle.]

To explore the relationship between Theodore Roethke and the Northwest is very satisfying for several personal reasons. I was Roethke's colleague in his late years at the University of Washington. He knew I admired his poetry, but I was somehow unable to...

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Cary Nelson (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Field Where Water Flowers: Theodore Roethke's 'North American Sequence,'" in Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry, University of Illinois Press, 1981, pp. 31-61.

[In the following essay, Nelson examines theme and image of "North American Sequence" in The Far Field, drawing attention to Roethke's pastoral tone, American sensibility, and frequent allusion to the infinite and rebirth.]

I think of American sounds in this silence:
On the banks of the Tombstone, the wind-harps having their say,
The thrush singing alone, that easy bird,

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Peter Balakian (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Our First Contemporary," in Theodore Roethke's Far Fields: The Evolution of His Poetry, Louisiana State University, 1989, pp. 1-13.

[In the following essay, Balakian draws attention to Roethke's influence on modern American poetry, particularly his synthesis of autobiographical detail and transcendental consciousness reflected in the subsequent work of beat, confessional, and deep image poets.]

Poets' reputations rise and fall with the currents of aesthetic fashion, the prevailing winds of critical methodology, and the vicissitudes of religious and philosophical world views. Of course reputations are not always an indication of artistic achievement, and the...

(The entire section is 4632 words.)

Mary Floyd-Wilson (essay date January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poetic Empathy: Theodore Roethke's Conception of Woman in the Love Poems," in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 56, No. 1, January, 1991, pp. 61-78.

[In the following essay, Floyd-Wilson examines Roethke's representation of women in his poetry, noting Roethke's idealization of the female persona and attempt to transcend self by portraying women as the dual embodiment of the universal and particular.]

In a poetic universe teeming with greenhouse life and distinctly lacking in human beings, Theodore Roethke's two series of "love poems" have a conspicuous presence in a complete collection of his work. While an "utter assent to other people, other lives … marks the...

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Don Bogen (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Method is Cyclic': The 'Lost Son' Sequence and Praise to the End!," in Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process, Ohio University Press, 1991, pp. 54-73.

[In the following essay, Bogen explores the process of self-discovery and maturation as expressed by Roethke in "The Lost Son" and Praise to the End!, especially as influenced by parental relationships and sexual awakening.]

If Roethke became a "master of description" in his composition of the greenhouse poems of the early '40s, his work during the rest of the decade was focussed on developing powers of "suggestion." The four-poem "Lost Son" sequence which concludes Roethke's second...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


McLeod, James Richard. Theodore Roethke: A Bibliography. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1973, 241 p.

Provides a comprehensive listing of Roethke's works, including primary sources, contributions to periodicals, translations of his works, film and musical adaptations, and critical sources about Roethke.


Beaman, Darlene. "Roethke's Travels: An Overview of His Poetry." Green River Review XIV, No. 2 (1983): 79-90.

Explores the inner journey motif and quest for transcendence in Roethke's poetry.


(The entire section is 870 words.)