Theodore Roethke

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 3100 words.)

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"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 arrangement is vital to his sense of reality. As he says in "Open Letter"; "Listen to them, for they are written to be heard, with the themes often coming alternately, as in music, and usually a partial resolution at the end. Each poem … is complete in itself; yet each in a sense is a stage in a kind of struggle out of the slime, part of a slow spiritual progress; an effort to be born, and later, to become something more." He is talking specifically of eight poems, but the principle holds for the entire collection of his poems. (pp. 274-75)

The first poem in the volume Open House is typical of the early verses. Tightly wrought, rather self-conscious and "metaphysical," it offers little resolution of the dilemma of wanting to tell a plain truth yet being unable to articulate for rage…. The contradictions come to no conclusion, despite the obvious desire to "assert." Thus, "Open House," the title and its suggestions, clashes with those implications contained in "I keep the spirit spare," so that the onrush of visitors is stemmed at the moment of the very invitation…. [He] is not able to verbalize his pain. Later, he will question the ability of language to verbalize his experience adequately. At this stage he is pretending he is in full control. The end of the poem, however, gives such a claim the lie. In addition, the notion that his "secrets cry aloud," and therefore don't need conscious form to articulate them is counterbalanced by the strict construction of the poem itself. In short, anger and love are in conflict, and the poet is whistling in the dark.

"Feud" makes the contraries even more explicit. There is no exit, and the old dead, alive young conflict is clear—too clear to be rich in drama…. Moreover, terms of ascent, "climb" and "scaled," are used in a way contrary to later usage. Here they are associated with evil, and are part of this early philosophy that it is best to pull up your ladders and sit sulkily tight. Indeed, the whole passage is an inversion of later Roethke principles…. The death-principle is in the ascendency, and the fear, negation, is carried over to "Prognosis," which is more self-aware, and ends on a seemingly illogical contradiction, "we are not lost," when the rest of the poem has been proving [the contrary]…. But perhaps we are not lost because all the passion has raised the poet "to a fever," hence to activity, which is better than "nightmare silence."

These poems in the first collection are the ground on which Roethke is to build. They seem contradictory to later attitudes, but in fact, as the poet peers over the edge of the spiral and travels round, he sees these plots, and the higher he gets the more he can evaluate them. (pp. 275-76)

[In The Lost Son, in] "Cuttings," (symbolic title for a being transplanted from the parent stock and having to grow on his own), Roethke stresses his authentic note. Life is beyond good and evil, though it contains both…. [We] must be wary of making these greenhouse poems simple affirmations. Life inside the glass is a combination of art and nature—"Fifty summers in motion at once,"—and nature by itself is inadequate. Its underside is obscene….

The second book ends … with poems of adolescence, "Pickle Belt," "Dolor," "Double Feature." These poems, however, exemplify the definition of adolescence given in "I'm Here" as "an ill-defined dying." Adolescence is not the final end of childhood. Roethke is not writing a Bildungsroman. After "Night Crow," where Roethke is again concerned with regression; "River Incident," which places man in the evolutionary process; "The Minimal," which is concerned with the healing powers of regression, (a line to be continued in "The Cycle," which is the cycle of fertility, the mutuality of up and down, the state of psychic tension, in which "congeal'd" turns to "the fine rain"); "The Waking," which is a Blake-like song celebrating this mutuality of "each to other,"—after these poems, the eddying motion of progress is seen, not only in the cumulative arrangement of separate poems, but within the poem itself. In order to do this, Roethke invented a new form; the longish poem based on the dramatic possibilities of three, four, or five parts, clearly an arrangement taken over from the play. In Roethke's long poems, however, the numbered parts, or acts, have an alogical relationship between them, thus allowing him to swing back and forth in time, space, person, or aspects of the same person. The movement is fluid, in Pound's sense, as opposed to "solid." The title poem "The Lost Son" is the first of these poems in the new vein, and epitomizes the method; "the easiest of the long ones," Roethke calls it.

In "Open House" Roethke had boasted, "I'm naked to the bone," but he is still outlining a program of purgation in "The Shape of the Fire," last poem in the sequence and last poem in the book. A man "Must pull off clothes," and like the first reptile, make the journey alone, without the burden of father and mother guilt—a manifest impossibility. So he is back up another blind alley, and the third part starts him off again, with knowledge of his failure. In the proto-world he knew as a child, he finds love, even though it is clearly not the larger kind of love he knows intuitively exists, the "something else I was hoping for," of "Double Feature." Hence, when he emerges again in section five he is still longing: "To have the whole air!" He knows what he wants, but cannot achieve it, and this whole final section is a prayer…. (pp. 280-81)

Once again [in Praise to the End!], we are in the quasi-insane or madly-rational world of a child, and the [first] poem develops further the sinister implications of "Root Cellar" and "Weed Puller."… This poem has a clearer dramatic structure than the others, it should be noted, and it is not a soft nursery world. Papa and mamma are essentially the same threats they were in "The Shape of the Fire." And this is an extraordinary "child" (just as the "child" in "I need, I need" is also not merely a "child"). He is being used as a symbolic device by Roethke; the child in the grown man. So, in the fourth verse, "Once upon a tree / I came across a time," time and tree are interposed to get the suggestion that the child is a bird-figure (the soul,—"The elms are full of birds"), and the tree is clearly the tree of life or knowledge, the best example of "stretching and reaching," mediating between earth and air. Other mentions of the tree make this clear. This is a poem about an adult trying to find a way…. [Roethke's] methods of collapsing time, place, person, voice, and so on, allow room for the various faces of one individual to be present more or less simultaneously, as in a Cubist painting. Thus, in the fourth stanza, the sophisticated tree-references are masked with childhood nightmares: the symbolic and the childlike, the possible and the actual, are juxtaposed…. "Everything has been twice" is understatement. From the poem we can see that everything has been many times. (pp. 282-83)

Roethke's child is not the post-Romantic or Wordsworthian paragon. It is no better and no worse than an adult. The child's struggle in these poems is a symbol for the adult's struggle. The human struggle is continual in time. (p. 283)

These first three books represent the typical structure of Roethke's work; a slow advance with many regressions in the attempt to purge the psyche of its guilts and fears, and extend the poetic consciousness towards a condition of one-ness, love. But no hard-attained position is thrust upon us, unequivocally. Although Roethke is prepared to allow that God is the final end, he does not claim that his soul was finally absorbed in divine love. God, for him, remains "someone to be confronted, to be duelled with: that is perhaps, my error, my sin of pride."

Of course, there is progress in Roethke's work. There is an enormous difference, for example, between the first book, and the third, just as there is between the third book and the sixth. Progress is in the direction of loss of the "I," the purely human perverse ego, to another center of serenity, and if not achieved (as in The Far Field), then apprehended clearer. It is Roethke's refusal finally to proclaim that he has come through that makes his poems so honest and painful—and sometimes, it must be admitted, exasperating. In a poem like "The Far Field," however, the classical qualities of the verse, with its origin in Yeats, make us think that all the spiraling of the poems we have been examining has had an effect. The poet has a greater degree of control over his own destiny, is "A man faced with his own immensity," and without fear can stir his own depths' "loose wandering fire." Whispers of secrets is enough, and the old frenzy calms: "the why / Of being born fails on his naked ears." He has accepted absurdity, and therefore controls. It is an indication of this control that for "fails" in the above lines, we hear "falls" at first reading.

These first three books leave us exhausted. For one thing, we have to make all the grammatical and rational connections for ourselves, and although the symbols are common enough—roses, trees, ducks, and so on—the fantasmagoric, nightmarish, swirling nature of the poems makes us feel we can never finally come to grips with the dream. And yet, the general direction each poem takes is clear. Furthermore, it is just this challenge that makes Roethke's poems so valuable in a society run by the Mr. Pinches and their simplistic programmatic apothegms. Roethke is profoundly anti-mechanistic because profoundly anti-rational. He learns by going where he has to go. He centers in the individual man, uses himself as laboratory of the feelings. All renewal must come from the self and not from a program…. [Roethke] works his way out … to a vision, as he said, of the body as temple of God, the true anti-mechanistic vision; Lawrence without the hysteria. Not, of course, that Roethke set about a crusade. His vision was more complex than that…. [The] uneven striving in Roethke's work leads up to a plateau, with more peaks ahead, that he never lived to climb. He made a broken music, but the message was integration…. (pp. 285-86)

Brian Swann, "Theodore Roethke and 'The Shift of Things'," in The Literary Review (copyright © 1973 by Fairleigh Dickinson University), Vol. 17, No. 2, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 269-86.

Rosemary Sullivan

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3064

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] … Roethke sought to immerse himself in nature in order to find his personal regeneration there. With this emphasis, the "North American Sequence" becomes a poem of age and parting. Its theme is the need to find a way to accommodate the fact of death within an acceptable view of life. It is also the fulfillment of a long-standing ambition to come to terms with the American landscape, interior and exterior.

Throughout his poetry Roethke had written of the desire to encounter the exterior world without threat, without separation, and of the impossibility of doing so while the values of the conceptual mind persist, since the mind cannot enter wholly into nature without fearing that implicit in change is the specter of its own death. There were two alternatives: either withdrawal into abstract isolation in an attempt to move beyond body, time, and thought, or a deeper penetration into process and change until a vision of order and plenitude in nature was recovered. His "North American Sequence" is a final celebration of this second alternative; it is a search for the "imperishable quiet at the heart of form."… (pp. 765-66)

The paradox of his attitude toward form is clear in his use of water, symbolic of process and formlessness, to integrate his sequence in its quest for form. Each poem contains a progressive attempt to engage the self with the element of water, the generative principle of life seen as cycle and change, proliferation of being. But water poses a threat to the self that it may not be able to sustain. Even as it offers metamorphosis and change, it threatens dissolution of self, extinction of identity. The metaphorical burden of the sequence is to reconcile the poet to the element of life as water, with its advance and retreat, its havoc, until finally he can experience these fluctuating orders without threat. But to accept the fluidity of experience, he needs a still center, a "point outside the glittering current" … of experience. This need is the theme of the first poem, "The Longing."… (pp. 766-67)

The need to identify with the generative reality of the here and now moves him to reject any fixed and final order. T. S. Eliot becomes a kind of doppelgänger in the sequence, haunting him with the allurement of release from nature by positing a separate and settled supernatural order beyond life…. His "North American Sequence" is, as it were, an attempt to recover attachment to place by immersion, almost a kind of baptism, in primal waters. The process will be one of unlearning: "I would unlearn the lingo of exasperation, all the distortions of malice and hatred."… His solution is to reject civilized mentality with its egocentric emphasis: "O pride, thou art a plume upon whose head?" and its alienation from nature, and begin to feel his way backwards toward a more primitive mode of consciousness that might enter wholly and finally into nature. The process is one of self-effacement before reality…. (p. 767)

Symbolic topography is crucial to [his] theme. The sequence begins at the Pacific and moves back continually to the Saginaw, Michigan, landscape of the interior continent, a movement that reproduces the interior journey of the poet into the past of his childhood. It is through this regression and subsequent integration of past and present that the poet recovers the attitude of mind that will allow him finally to merge with the dark and oncoming waters. This process is one of unlearning—the mind, trapped by its memories, roving backwards in search of purification until a new category of memory, almost a racial memory, is discovered in the child's celebration of nature: "Once I was something like this, mindless/Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar."… It is a radical metaphor of belief which asks for commitment to the natural world, trusting that it can accommodate the soul even as it annihilates the … self. (p. 768)

[The] themes are elaborated almost entirely through the accumulation of certain basic images that are repeated with constant variation almost in the manner of musical motifs. Despite their seeming formlessness, the poems derive their meaning from an underlying code in which these images and their qualities are endowed with stable significations. In keeping with a personal habit of perception, Roethke aligns the images into elemental oppositions: earth and water (land and sea), rock and wind, shadow and light, salt and fresh water. They work largely in terms of a tension between notions of openness, vitality, motion, and of closure, sterility, stasis. Earth, even as it offers the assurance of stability, implies false restrictive order. Associated with it are ideas of spiritual dryness and aridity, of failure of desire. Journeys into the nightmare interior of the self find their objective correlative in a car ride through a landscape of dust and rubble, littered with the bodies of dead and dying animals. In contrast, water implies fluidity, even flux, life seen as cycle, proliferation of being; value invested in growth, spontaneity, metamorphosis…. A distinction between salt and fresh water, river and sea, implies an opposition between individual life and the encompassing cycle into which it is subsumed, between temporality and the eternal flux that underlies it. Verbs, as well, carry symbolic import, those of motion and change implying positive ideas of release and liberation: "melting," "shimmering," "widening," "growing," "stretching," "dancing." Negative verbs are those of constriction and diminution: "shrinking," "freezing," "waning," "narrowing," "darkening," "receding."

These verbs and images imply a series of conceptual oppositions in the sequence which involves a debate of values; primarily between ideas of stasis and motion, order and flux, form and formlessness. The poet would work through to a resolution rather than a choice by reconciliation of images, wherein neither possibility need be sacrificed…. (pp. 769-70)

The second poem, "Meditation at Oyster River," opens with an image that seems peculiarly tempting to the American sensibility: "the imagination confronting reality in the guise of the poet gazing at the sea." For Roethke the sea in its inexorable yet imperceptible movement, its blue-black waves creeping closer without sound, without violence, is a symbol of life as ambush. A marvelous paradox occurs in that he chooses to merge with the obliterating waters, to be with the shy beasts where "Death's face rises afresh."… Merging with the flux of the waves is, in the poem, an act of self-effacement before reality, the self plunging into the density of an exterior world that exceeds it. One of the most effective moments in the sequence is the description in section three of this poem of the ice-bound river breaking its boundaries in spring, expressing the ecstasy of release from constriction which is experienced in the escape from self. (pp. 771-72)

That the long journey out of the self is paradoxically a journey to the interior, rather than a counter-impulse towards disembodied transcendence, is made explicit in the third poem. Imagery is entirely symbolic, the exterior landscape a portent of psychological states. There are two journeys: one familiar in Roethke's work—the ascending journey up the narrowing incline along the swollen riverbank toward the dark swampland, the still center of the psychic landscape; the other, more problematical, a symbolic journey westward through an American landscape of desiccation and death, which is probably meant to imply the meager heritage of the Midwest with its uniform, concrete houses, its red weather-beaten court-houses, and its desolate graveyards, all representative of the failure of the culture to provide spiritual sustenance. (p. 773)

In "The Long Waters" the poet turns decisively toward the world of fluidity and change. In a tone of self-mockery, he rejects the appeal of a fixed and final order, and the desire for absolutes as spiritual self-indulgence…. The act of faith is complete. He has chosen the "rich desolation" of the landlocked bay where the salt water is freshened by small streams. The subtlety and effectiveness of the water symbolism is clear; he uses it in an extremely precise fashion to detail a morality of values.

The poem ends with a symbol familiar from "Meditations of an old Woman" and poems like "The Song" and "The Exorcism":

     I see in the advancing and retreating waters      The shape that came from my sleep, weeping:      The eternal one, the child, the swaying vine branch,      The numinous ring around the opening flower      The friend that runs before me on the windy—headlands,      Neither voice nor vision….

This is Roethke's last image of the deep-buried principle of life—the soul principle, not merely of the interior self, but of all things. Multiple and seemingly contradictory, it is "child," "swaying branch," "numinous ring"; it is all these things because it is being. If one were to seek a rationale behind the variable symbols, it is to Jung that one would turn, for Roethke obviously intends the symbols as archetypal images, multiple projections of a transcendent postulate at the core of being. He speaks of the principle as a shape weeping. In "Meditations of an Old Woman" it was a low sweet watery noise; in "Song," a voice from a watery hole. Water is the central symbol for the unconscious. Furthermore, the principle is always subterranean—beneath the darkness under the leaves, under earth, root, or crevice. In contact with the deep-buried self, a reintegrated impulse towards life emerges. The poem ends with the magnificent stanza:

   I, who came back from the depths laughing too loudly,    Become another thing;    My eyes extend beyond the farthest bloom of the waves;    I lose and find myself in the long water;    I am gathered together once more;    I embrace the world….

The process has been of losing and finding, not of regression for its own sake, but in order to recreate the self. It is being that is affirmed unequivocally.

"The Far Field" takes the explicit theme of death and examines its implications…. His tone is hard to assess. It is both nostalgic and serious, yet underlying it is the delicate humor that is so much a part of his style. We can think of the idea of reincarnation as a metaphor of belief in life; for him epitomized not in human consciousness at all, but in the principle of being. (pp. 773-76)

For him the final man is man in the act of leavetaking, faced with his own immensity, the mystery of being which he incarnates and to which the mind can gain no access. He is returning to water, the sea of origin, encumbered with age and memory, the cycle of which he is the returning unit having almost completed its round. The poem concludes with a celebration of the imagination's capacity for analogy: "All finite things reveal infinitude."… He does not use the concept "infinitude" in the sense of perpetual duration in space or time, but as an ever-present quality, or better, capacity of the soul. (p. 777)

Roethke brings his sequence to resolution through the symbol of the rose, perhaps the most resonant of all literary symbols. He claims it as his own through characteristic images that define its context. His flower is a single wild rose struggling out of a tangle of matted underbrush in that place of conjunction where fresh and salt water meet. Free in the wind, the sea-rose represents the reconciliation between rootedness and fluidity, between earth and water, stasis and motion, that he had been seeking. It is not Eliot's heavily acculturated symbol, but a solitary bloom, growing toward clarity out of confusion. Roethke seems to see the symbol as embodying the energetics of the life process itself. In the rose image, the polar tensions of life are brought to balance in a vision of "the imperishable quiet at the heart of form." The vision does not come out of a vacuum. It is the fruit of the long meditative process of the sequence, and can be understood psychologically. It must be recognized that the sea-rose is an objective and emotionally satisfying expression of an inner subjective synthesis. In contrast to the superficial divisiveness of life embodied in the motion of the waves, there exists the stasis of the rose in the sea-wind. It is magically potent and mysteriously satisfying because it evokes the hybrid roses of the greenhouse, the two conflated in a union of past and present…. (pp. 777-78)

The poem ends with an explicit statement of the new change…. In a still moment of synthesis, a profound readjustment of personality has taken place; what Roethke called … the abandonment of the egoistic center of personality to another center of being. It is as though spirit were something to be achieved, a goal in an ongoing process, the aim of the self in its ascent on the scale of being. This is no withdrawal into pious mysticism. The symbol of the rose celebrates the mystery of incarnate, carnal being. (pp. 778-79)

Roethke's insistence on using pure images does … create problems of interpretation. The disposition of the images, their balance and repetition, are the only basis by which the conceptual structure of the sequence can be inferred. The sequence has, in fact, no clear-cut, paraphrasable meaning, but operates with the impact of music, with the persuasiveness of embrace, through imagery that is self-creating and self-perpetuating. But there is certainly a debate of values between what W. D. Snodgrass and M. L. Rosenthal speak of as religious escapism, the desire for disembodied transcendence, and the celebration of incarnate being. It seems to me that Roethke emphatically rejects the former…. He denies the illusion of any fixed and final form of religious stasis beyond the world of becoming, and seeks to identify with nature as a process of change and fluidity. It is the very depth of his insight into this process that makes him fear for the stability and endurance of the self. Paradoxically, a process of immersion in the flux of life, rather than withdrawal into an abstract purity beyond it, allows him to recover a sense of rootedness and stasis, of subjective synthesis. In one sense he has rediscovered his own past through recovery of a childhood memory. But more profoundly, through an experience of mystical intensity in which the barriers of form dissolve, he comes to discover that the loss of self is not something to be feared; that, in fact, death can be accepted with equanimity as a reintegration into the natural processes of life. (p. 780)

One of the problems involved in criticism of Roethke is a failure to accept his primitivism at its profoundest level. He is deeply antirationalistic. Being and knowing are opposite, antagonistic states. The more you are in being, the less you know…. Roethke's primitivism moves him to reject any formal religion. At the same time, however, he will not place final faith in human individuality. He is a mystic, not in his withdrawal from body and time, but in his total submission to nature, and in his pious recognition of the vital mysterious substance of life itself…. (p. 781)

Roy Harvey Pearce has written that all American poetry must be, in some form, a dialogue with Whitman. The "North American Sequence" is Roethke's dialogue—an attempt, in the words of Robert Duncan, to "strike again the naked string / old Whitman sang from." Whitman bequeathed to American poetry a new attitude toward form—a desire to take form not as a given but as something more important, as a process of discovery, of exploration. He sought to create a form of the loosest kind to embrace rather than order the diversities of external nature…. Whitman's most important contribution to American poetry was to reinvigorate the catalogue as a way of stringing particulars together for maximum evocation of the natural scene without the intrusion of the barriers and filters of formal prosody. He called his technique a "going directly to creation" or, in William Carlos Willams' later rephrasing, "No ideas but in things." His emphases were fluency, candor, unpremeditated attention and assimilation, inclusiveness.

Roethke had been waiting a long time to write his American sequence…. Whitman's long, free, cadenced line, his breadth and inclusiveness, gave him the style he needed but not without posing certain problems. Whitman was content with pure description and association, with long catalogues of cumulative images celebrated for their own sake. Roethke was moved to a more explicit order and control…. The problem was how to incorporate things on their own terms and, at the same time, to convey what he conceived to be their value without resorting to generalized statement. This ambition differentiates him from Eliot, on the one hand, and from Whitman, on the other. He does want meaning and order, but without Eliot's philosophical commentary. He wants the illusion of Whitman's freshness and informal unselfconsciousness,… but with hierarchical and moral values implied. His solution is to align his images, particularly the image of water, to stable significations, as has been demonstrated earlier, so that a perfect accuracy of description is able to imply moral perception. With the closest attention, the hidden currents that manipulate the images are clearly discernible, and the illusion of unpremeditation breaks down. As is clear from his earlier work, he was too devoted to form to acquiesce in collecting random sensational images. He offers the illusion of artlessness and artistic self-effacement in order to celebrate the American landscape—the thing itself. But he is too much of a conscious craftsman not to create a world that attempts … "to explain, evaluate, and ordain the real one." (pp. 781-83)

Rosemary Sullivan, "A Still Center: A Reading of Theodore Roethke's 'North American Sequence'," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (copyright © 1975 by the University of Texas Press), Vol. XVI, No. 4, Winter, 1975, pp. 765-83.


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[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

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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 abstractions."

My point is that "Dolor" is no proving exception at all. Instead, the poem itself demonstrates the rule. Roethke does use abstract words; but he connects them so personally to the intimate experience of the poem that he renders them concrete. (p. 25)

The opening of the poem may seem forced—a conscious echo of "Prufrock" … but it is neither abstract nor melodramatic. The personal emotion attaches itself to the otherwise neutral object. The emotion charges the object, and in turn the object holds the personal emotion accessible on the page. What makes Roethke's perception doubly accessible, then, is this imaginative tension between the (personal) emotion and the (common) object, and—in language—between the abstract and the concrete word.

This accessibility begins to broaden in the fourth line, "Desolation in immaculate public places." For the first time in the poem, the dolorous prepositional phrases are interrupted—almost in the nick of time—by a flat, convincing statement. Up to this point, the tension in the poem has resided not in some metaphoric likeness-unlikeness, as much as in the personal emotion at work upon common detail—then back. Here in the fourth line the pairings begin to become inevitable as the reader is convinced of the poem's slant of perception by the line's general truth-in-experience…. There is just enough sadness available in the real objects of daily life. To it, Roethke supplies the personal charge. The result makes convincing even the "unalterable pathos" of the three-line catalog of abstraction-object that follows….

Roethke's accumulation of emotional detail climaxes once again in the eighth line in "Endless duplication of lives and objects." There has been so much duplication of prepositional pairings in the poem, so much convincing tension of emotion (lives) and objects, that it could as well go on endlessly. Instead, Roethke broadens his catalog of despair out further into experience to embrace all our lives, all our objects.

The poem's final climax strikes at the end of its last five lines. The closing vision depends upon the duplicated tension that precedes it—as much as the tension itself requires inexorable resolution and focus. Through the last five lines of the poem, Roethke springs his syntax. He introduces dust in the ninth line, calls it common bland flour, amplifies its quiet threat, then springs the verb—"sift." Roethke broadens his terror "through the long afternoons of tedium," quietly down corridors of common experience. The insidious film—of crystalized despair—coats our lives, glazes the duplicate faces turned grey with despair itself. Roethke's multigraph repetition of "duplicate" is superb. The vision he finds endlessly in the lives and objects of the first part of the poem re-doubles here at the end. The endless repetition of despair seen everywhere in the objects of the poem settles rhythmically in upon the heart. "Standard" suspends the last line an instant like a sigh, grey standard type, grey paper, grey dust, depression grey walls, duplicated everywhere. Standard upon our faces, the external despair closes in and in. (p. 26)

Jeff Westfall, "Roethke's 'Dolor'," in The Explicator (copyright © 1979 by Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 37, No. 3, Spring, 1979, pp. 25-6.

Charles Sanders

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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, which when joined by rhyme scheme, form a sonnet: abbacdd, then ceffegg. The second part is a sestet introducing a third rhyme scheme (ababcc, still within the sonnet's tradition) and printed completely in italics.

The varying stanza lengths and rhyme schemes, the change from roman to italic type, may dramatize and parallel concretely in form the transformation of contraries into harmony which is the poem's intrinsic subject…. Roethke's protagonist is initially made to "study out a dark similitude." The image of his love "fades" but does not "disappear"; he's tangled in her "lively hair" and finds no way out of the "coursing blood." She sighs him "white, a Socrates of snow." In sum, caught up very much in the flesh, the protagonist experiences through his love for woman the love that goes beyond flesh and unites spirit and intellect.

However, this union with woman in the flesh is also a union with not one, but at least two, possibly three poets, whose aspects touch and fertilize the spirit of the protagonist. For while [John] Donne may very well be present from beginning to end …, no less so is William Butler Yeats…. Nor, for that matter, can we eliminate Wallace Stevens' celebrated "Snow Man."… (pp. 27-8)

If the first two stanzas of Roethke's poem dramatize the fertilizing process of lovers and poets in boldface, the third is their innocent progeny, as the poet underscores, "in this light air."…

The earlier two stanzas of Roethke's poem with their separate yet joinable rhymes in one typeface condense into a new vision, signaled by a different rhyme scheme and stanza in a different "lighter" imprint; the process of the form simulates the imprint on Roethke's or the protagonist's sensibility—and on the reader's, we might significantly add. In form and content, "The Swan" is an epitome of the mature Roethkean mode. (p. 28)

Charles Sanders, "Roethke's 'The Swan'," in The Explicator (copyright © 1980 by Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 38, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 27-8.


Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 11)


Roethke, Theodore (Vol. 3)