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

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.

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