The Poem

“The Waking” is the final poem in the collection The Waking (1953), for which Theodore Roethke received the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1954. In a departure from the free verse of much of his earlier work, this poem is composed in the form of a villanelle, a nineteen-line closed verse form consisting of five successive tercets rhyming aba followed by a closing quatrain rhyming abaa. Two key lines that contain the theme of the poem are repeated alternately at the end of each stanza and then again together in the last stanza. The title suggests the central idea of the poem: a discovery of the fundamental paradox of human life. The “waking” to which the poet refers involves the broad assertion that life leads to death. More precisely, the poet has grasped the insight that living (waking), which involves coming to new awarenesses, ultimately leads only to dying (sleep). By using several examples, the speaker reveals that this truth is not overwhelming or even essentially negative. Rather, “The Waking” describes the poet’s revelation of life as an organic and somewhat mysterious process; the poem portrays the refinement and gradual confirmation of this truth. Hence, for him life is a process in which individuals move unhurriedly (“waking slow”), trusting nature to take them through the seemingly contradictory processes of coming to life and moving toward death. The poem is written in the first person, and the poet speaks to readers directly about his own experience. In this way, Roethke makes use of a rich...

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Forms and Devices

The form of the poem is the villanelle, a verse form that can be traced back to Italian folk songs of the late fifteenth through the early seventeenth centuries. In the sixteenth century, French poet Jean Passerat gave the poem its current form. One distinctive quality of the Roethke villanelle is the contrast between the precision of this complex, closed form and the loose process of association that so clearly marks the poem.

The poem contains two central metaphors—waking and sleeping—and connotations hovering around these two metaphors express much of the ambiguity of the poem and the richness of the poet’s vision. In a narrow sense, the antithesis of waking/sleeping suggests gaining consciousness and losing it, growing and diminishing, and living and dying. The poem’s title itself suggests another meaning of “waking”: the dawning of the idea that the process of waking/sleeping does not involve a horrible reality. That is, the metaphors of waking and sleeping describe the life cycle, and the waking that the poet wants to describe for the reader is the new awareness that this life cycle is to be feelingly lived and loved rather than feared.

Every metaphor in the poem—the light, the tree, the air, the worm, and the winding stair—plays a part in clarifying the poet’s vision. The light taking the tree and the worm ascending the stair represent two images of growth. The suggestion to “take the lively air” presents a direct invitation to the reader to enjoy life, particularly the things that bring great pleasure and joy, while the time remains to enjoy them. A final, important image of things “falling away” contains the fundamental reason for the poet’s acceptance of and trust in life. He avows, “What falls away is always.” Hence, what dies only seems to pass away from human presence at times, for the poet senses the presence of absent things and people even though they cannot be clearly apprehended by the senses. The atmosphere of this poem is celebratory as the poet paints a backdrop of night, loss, and death only to lead readers to an awareness of the presence of departed friends and an ultimate acceptance and trust in nature.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.

Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Kusch, Robert. My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948). Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986.

Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981.