Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

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Several of Roethke’s previously stated themes not only appear but also are further developed in “Words for the Wind.” In “The Waking” (1954), a poem that also celebrates the sheer joy of existence and the knowledge that one finds by living one’s life intensely, Roethke wrote, “Great Nature has another thing to do/ To you and me,” meaning that death will come to all living things and therefore one must enjoy the miracle of life as much as possible. In “Words for the Wind,” however, these rather grim thoughts are balanced by the line, “Love has a thing to do,” which suggests that life is more than merely an inevitable decline to the grave and that it may be expanded and enlarged by the emotion of love.

Also in “The Waking,” Roethke wrote, “What falls away is always. And is near,” a line that suggests that the mind or spirit retains what the senses no longer have and that nothing is irrevocably lost. The echoing lines in “Words for the Wind” are “What falls away will fall;/ All things bring me to love.” This pair of lines suggest that it does not even matter if what is lost is permanently lost, because everything leads the poet back to the supreme experience, love. It is not necessary to dwell on or to retain the past if the present is informed by this ennobling and defining condition.

In “The Waking,” Roethke’s line “We think by feeling. What is there to know?” might be considered at worst nonsensical, since there seem to be many things to know, and at best anti-intellectual, a strange contention for a poet who was also a university professor. Roethke’s point, however, is that knowledge that leads to depression or confusion is worse than no knowledge at all. The human body persists in believing that it is good to be alive, in spite of the threat of war, poverty, nuclear disaster, or other horrors. Roethke’s poetry implies that one need know no more than that it feels good to be alive. In “Words for the Wind,” Roethke amplifies the lines in “The Waking,” with “Wisdom, where is it found?—/ Those who embrace, believe.” These lines unite and relate love, belief, and not merely knowledge but wisdom.

Sometimes, the intensity with which Roethke lived life led him into a manic-depressive cycle that dipped into psychosis. Yet, Roethke’s philosophy seems to hold that one can trust one’s possibly self-destructive feelings because love leads one out of one’s self and confirms that one’s single impressions and feelings are not merely solipsistic madness but also shared by and thereby confirmed by others: “I bear, but not alone,/ The burden of this joy.” In receiving love’s embrace, one is also helping another to live and understand, so that love is not something one selfishly receives but something through which one enlarges the life of the world and the other beings in it.