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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

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Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Theodore Roethke, wrote his hauntingly beautiful poem, "The Waking", using the highly structured form of a villanelle, the exactness of which allowed him the freedom to explore the somewhat amorphous and cadence-driven wanderings in the poem's nineteen lines.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

From the poem's first stanza, the reader is offered a glimpse of the paradoxical nature of the speaker's, as well as our own, experience in the world. All things, it seems, are dependent upon the recognition of their antithesis, so that existence takes place between two absolutes (just as the poem's structure "houses" the poem's meaning). Thus waking and sleeping, two distinct states of consciousness, are the boundaries within which the speaker (and the reader) "learn by going where I have to go."

Roethke continues his construction of meaning, which is understood through paradoxes between the mind and the body: sensorial (i.e. "hearing") understanding and experiential (i.e. "dancing") understanding. He recognizes the necessity of the stabilizing force, such as "the Ground," which, of course, serves the same purpose for conscious knowing as the constraints of the villanelle does for the language being used to describe that "knowing."

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Finally, that which is oblivious to all of our finite ability to truly comprehend is revealed, and, in so doing, Roethke introduces the relief inherent in our acceptance of a certain powerlessness over "Great Nature" and, at the same time, an appreciation of Great Nature's infinite wisdom and beauty:
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
Light, tree, worm, and the promise of "the lively air" will mitigate, it seems, the fuzzy edge of what we try to know. Roethke reassures us that, in the end, "what falls away is always. And is near."
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go

The paradoxical nature of knowing, that "steady" exists as a counterforce to "shaking," allows us to trust that consciousness by design is its own natural process of ebb and flow.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631

“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 tradition in lyric poetry in which the poet speaks on his own authority and in his own voice directly to the reader. The poet also employs another tradition, an old American penchant for the slightly didactic voice of the “seer” or “visionary” who has seen, who now knows, and who wishes to impart his understanding.

In the first stanza, the poet speaks from within the darkness (as readers learn by the third stanza) as he chants his awareness that life leads to death: “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” He ventures to say (in lines 2 and 3) that this fact cannot make him afraid because he is aware these are the necessary processes of nature. In the second stanza, he amplifies the idea that abstract knowledge is not frightening but is even irrelevant because he, like the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, would rather “think by feeling,” basing his life upon the stream of experience rather than abstract ideas. The third stanza presents a vivid example that illustrates why he is unafraid of the awareness that life leads to death: When he senses the presence of someone he cannot clearly see (perhaps, for Roethke, his dead father), he feels the holiness of nature and the rightness of nature’s plan.

Two more examples are offered in the fourth stanza: “Light takes the Tree” and “The lowly worm climbs up the winding stair.” Both examples depict the miraculous and wonderful growth in nature. These two examples of life processes are contrasted to the central idea in the fifth stanza that nature has “another thing” to do to human beings (death). Thus in stanzas 4 and 5 he exemplifies the two processes that he has set out in the first stanza—growth and decay, or living and dying—and challenges the listener with the carpe diem theme to “take the lively air,” to live fully in the time remaining. In the sixth and final stanza, the poet sets forth the justification for his trust in nature’s plan: Whatever seems to die still remains. He says, “What falls away is always,” and so the reader sees the poet’s vision: Life does indeed lead to death, but death does not entail a complete severance. Rather, everything (and everyone) abides.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373

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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111

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