The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 631 words.)