Theodore Roethke Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 19) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roethke, Theodore 1908–1963

Roethke was a major twentieth-century American poet. His work strongly conveys in dynamic descriptive imagery the physical presence of nature and the human body. The Far Field is generally considered his best and most representative work. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1954 for The Waking. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Brian Swann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The purpose of this essay is to take representative poems from the first three books Roethke wrote, Open House (1941), The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), Praise To The End (1951), and demonstrate what he called, in "The Renewal" "the shift of things." What he means by the phrase is shown in an article he wrote in 1950 entitled "Open Letter." His method is "cyclic," he says, and he believes "that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. Any history of the psyche (or allegorical journey) is bound to be a succession of experiences, similar yet dissimilar. There is a perpetual slipping-back, then a going-forward; but there is some 'progress.' Are not some experiences so powerful and so profound (I am not speaking of the merely compulsive) that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variation and change, each time bringing us closer to our own most particular (and thus more universal) reality?"

What resolution there is in Roethke's poetry is achieved by constantly refining the same materials, same situations, same imagery. Some critics have complained of this tack as being too narrow and restrictive. But it is my purpose to show that the shape of the work is not a closed circle, but an open one ("Open House," "Open Letter," "Where Knock is Open Wide"). It is not the snake with the tail in its mouth, but a spring, a spiral, a coil, and—a Yeatsian analogy not being out of place when discussing Roethke—a gyre. That is, the poet ends at a higher level but remains directly over and in contact with the early coils. This spiral idea is popular with Roethke…. [We] have to beware of being too mechanistic or simplistic in defining progress…. [If] we go to the body of the work expecting a clearly defined, unambiguous upward movement, we will have to twist and strain the poems for what isn't there. (pp. 269-70)

Roethke, of course, believed in a goal, in "a personal myth," and regarded his work [as] a quest. He creates his own mythic structure, "a larger structure," since "most of the myths" have become a bore…. [He] chooses not to work within an existing structure, but from the vagaries of the self. (p. 270)

He is very aware, however, that being so personal he runs the risk of idiosyncracy and madness. In his need to stretch to the universal, therefore, and to create his own larger myth, Roethke finds analogies for the hero he is setting out to be, the "final man" of "The Far Field."… By the time of The Far Field, in "The Longing," he has found the real whale which swallows him in orthodox fashion. Ahab merges into Jonah on this journey to the interior, and is ambiguously reborn or regurgitated to begin the process over again: "I have left the body of the whale, but the mouth of the night is still wide." (Like the self, Roethke's "devouring mother" also takes many forms.)

Finally, in this brief and indicatory survey, the poet-hero is appropriately Proteus, who is not only changer of shapes, but primarily guardian of a secret. The secret Roethke wants is in himself, in the "primordial slime" of his own personality, and only a strong hold in the wrestling will force the Protean self to deliver…. If anyone can be said to be a mythic hero for Roethke it is Proteus: the same in change, but possessor of a secret he will only reveal after struggle. (pp. 270-72)

The search is for "enlightenment," and light is the most highly charged symbol in the poems: all the openings in the poems is an attempt to let in the light…. Fiat lux is the prime act of creation, and in the Biblical account, this act is connected with separation, identity, naming. Identity is the effect of enlightenment. Roethke's concern is not to let enlightenment become mere separation or naming. It must incorporate "the creative powers lost in childhood." Yet he never reaches identity without ambiguities. Light symbolizes his creative power in making himself feel "alone," or uniquely creative. Being alone, however, has its prices, and Roethke in his life paid them.

Finally, the goal can be identified as love, God, Christ, or the Father: "ideas of salvation." One must be existentially or creatively alone, but uniqueness must lead to community, in sharing, communicating, or merely feeling human and to know oneself exists, objectively. A strong sense of the identity of some other being, also "brings a corresponding heightening and awareness of one's own self, and, even more mysteriously, a sense of the absurdity of death, a return to a state of innocency." Even in the love poems, however, Roethke finds, among other things, that although he has worked his way out of lust (and Roethke is a very Puritanical poet), love is also a cave where the Mother sits. Knowing what we do about the mother-figure by the time we get to these later poems, the situation is not unambiguous. It is counterpoint and not plain-song, on a thematic level, what Hopkins called "generic form." (pp. 272-73)

And as for God, the search is a "long journey out of the self" which has "many detours" ("Journey to the Interior"). In a sense, God is hardly approachable, since although "all finite things reveal infinitude" ("The Far Field"), "Brooding on God I may become a man" ("The Marrow"). That is, God is eternal and only slowly revealed, the results being seen pragmatically in sinful finite fallible man. It is man who sees God, not a God who reveals himself. Such dynamism is typically protestant. In addition, since the world of Roethke is humanistic and not theistic, man's knowledge of God grows through seeking a knowledge of the human father, and "a man has many fathers." As the poet keeps losing and finding himself and his father, so he keeps losing and finding God…. Both love and God are without end, what Roethke called in "Open Letter" a "genuine mystery," and therefore the quest never ends. Roethke does not make simple assertions, nor give easy answers. He is one with Ruskin and the doctrine of imperfection: "The dire dimension of a final thing" ("The Tree, The Bird"), refers to the fear of the finished death. (p. 273)

Roethke does speak at times as though there is such a thing as a final unequivocating goal. For example, in "The Motion", he calls what he has learnt of love "this final certitude." If we follow onto the next poem, however, we find him qualifying himself. "I love myself: that's my one constancy,"—but then he calls out, that what he was so sure of is slippery, has more sides than a seal: "Oh, to be something else, yet still to be." (pp. 273-74)

[Man is] part of a cycle, in which life, or heightened spiritual life, is the goal…. Even an act against life is seen to heighten the awareness of that life, and so we progress by contraries. Life, itself, is the great force, but even too much of it, as we shall see, leads to the death-wish. In the earlier poems, however, everything is instinct with passion and power, right down to the microbes: "Nothing would give up life" ("Root Cellar"), or, as it is put in the later "Unfold! Unfold!" "What the grave says, / The next denies." But the journey through Roethke's poetry is always two steps forward and one step back. Its burden might be the motto of one of his favorite poets: "without contraries is no progression." The idea streams through the early poems, as will be seen, by way of leitmotif, and it is also clear in the later ones, from 1953 onward.

Roethke expects his poems to be read in sequence, since their...

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Rosemary Sullivan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

An ambition to find order through poetry is movingly apparent [in Roethke's last poems]. The poems read like last poems, attempts to integrate his themes and bring his vision to final statement. All seem preoccupied with the fear of death and the threat it poses to the validity and endurance of the self, a fear that was responsible for his continuous interest in mysticism. Completing "Meditations of an Old Woman" in 1958, he had probably become aware of what threatened to be a persistent dilemma—that his drive toward mystical ecstasy could prove to be a drive away from life. The "North American Sequence," as I read it, is a penitential act of reintegration with nature…. In this article, I wish to [show that] …...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[All previous readings of I Knew a Woman] have assumed the woman to be real, having bones, skin, hips, nose, and other physical attributes; all have therefore concluded, with variations, that this is a love poem with erotic overtones. None considers the woman as a personified abstraction whose flesh-and-blood realism gives power to the symbolism. The "woman" is the Art of Poetry. The poem is a mature craftman's tribute to the form of art he has come to cherish, both as a self-fulfilling vocation and as a kind of salvation for his soul.

Several lines refer explicitly to the art of poetry in speaking of the woman. Only "English poets who grew up on Greek" have the right to discuss her rare qualities (except for gods themselves), and such discussions should be conducted formally and classically, as in Greek drama….

[Graceful] movement and beautiful structure (two essential qualities of poetry) are dominant metaphors in the poem, both suggesting the blending of elements into a whole. "She" (Poetry) has the structure and graceful movement of a light-boned bird. Poetry offers a "container" (a well-formed whole) made from pleasing component "shapes" (stanzas or figurative patterns). This Coleridgean motif of multeity-in-unity recurs later: the "several parts" of a good poem seem to "keep a pure repose" as one gazes at the poem on the page. Yet they move, too, in a logical and emotional sense, as a hip may quiver or a nose twitch when the woman's body is at rest. This effect explains line 21: "She moved in circles, and those circles moved." The equation of a circle with perfection of form applies here: the woman, herself an aesthetic form, moves in a series of circles, like a poem of perfectly-fashioned stanzas. The craftsman-persona of this poem, enthralled by this beauty of motion, like a lover watching his beloved, becomes a "martyr" (gives his life) to the poetic calling. (p. 10)

Dwight L. McCawley, "Roethke's 'I Knew a Woman'," in The Explicator (copyright © 1979 by Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 37, No. 3, Spring, 1979, pp. 9-11.

Jeff Westfall

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is a common critical opinion that for Roethke, "all problems centered in the self" …, and that "one of Roethke's gravest limitations [was] that his feeling for the specifically human dimension [was] insecure"…. What little critical comment there is on Roethke's "Dolor" places the poem against this background of the preoccupied self, and sees it as the exception that proves the rule. For example, for Karl Malkoff, "Dolor" is "the possible exception" to his opinion that "Roethke was never able to write very good poetry about society." And the poem is Kenneth Burke's exception to his opinion that in The Lost Son, Roethke "goes as far as humanly possible in quest of a speech wholly devoid of...

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Charles Sanders

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Scholars are indebted to Jenijoy La Belle's The Echoing Wood of Theodore Roethke … for its demonstration that Roethke's poetry, increasingly from 1951-on, issues from the poet's dramatized union with another "partner," frequently an idealized woman, a beloved traditional poet, or some fusion of both. Love is the metaphor of Roethke's amalgam, or the conception of poetry becomes synonymous with the act of love.

A poem which otherwise receives scant or no mention but may be a microcosm for the general Roethkean method is "The Swan."… Curiously, its external form, if not its content, resembles no other in Roethke's canon. It is divided into two unequal parts. The first contains two septets,...

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