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Re-Reading Theodore Roethke

Animism, or the belief that nature has a soul, only provides a partial way in to Roethke’s poetry. He doesn’t merely believe in the existence of a soul in nature; he identifies with nature to such an extent that he seems to believe in the existence of his soul in nature.

In his poems he repeatedly describes the spiritual process by which he merges with nature. This invocation of the natural world, and his expression of the parts of himself he finds in the process, places the reader at the core of his mystical experience.

The speakers of Roethke’s poems appropriate the language of nature as a mode of self-expression. Ill at ease to the point of misery when surrounded by matter of the human world, the speaker of “Dolor” laments the “inexorable sadness of pencils…The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher.”

Roethke’s narrators feel as much kinship with, say, slugs as they do discomfort with the human world. The speaker of “Slug” says of the slimy creature, “I longed to be like him, and was, / In my way, close cousin / To the dirt.” In his notebooks, Roethke admits: “I can project myself easier into a flower than a person.” It’s not through human objects but through natural objects that he seeks to express his vexed inner life.

As the speaker of Roethke’s “The Lost Son” dwells on the memory of his father’s greenhouse, he asks his power of expression to manifest itself in nature: “Voice, come out of the silence. / Say something / Appear in the form of a spider / Or a moth beating a curtain.” Here, apparitions of spiders and moths allow him access to a part of himself difficult to reach on his own.

When Roethke’s speakers find themselves unable to get in touch with their inner lives, something fascinating happens: they locate the things of nature and undergo mystical transformations. As he puts it in “The Pure Fury,” “Stupor or knowledge lacking inwardness…Every meaning had grown meaningless. / Morning, I saw with second sight, / As if all things had died, and rose again. / I touched the stones, and they had my own skin.” In this way, the haze that covered the speaker’s inner truth is cleared when he’s reborn as a part of nature.

Roethke’s poems reveal the pain he finds hard to express without the help of nature.  In “The Pure Fury,” the speaker laments, “The appetite for life so ravenous / A man’s beast prowling in his own house, / A beast with fangs, and out for his own blood.”  He depicts the hunger for being that consumes him through the image of a wild animal let loose in the safety of his own home.  The use of the nature metaphor doesn’t hide his feelings but rather vividly conveys the experience of a man whose desire for life is so intense it turns against itself and consumes him instead.

Roethke’s use of nature doesn’t impede the confessional nature of his poetry. Although he deals with his emotions in the realm of nature, this is not a ploy to disown them.  On the contrary, they are still very much his own, but have merely been projected onto the natural world as a means of coping with them.  Since Roethke sees nature as the realm of spiritual truth, for him to examine his emotions within that context is to see them in their most profound clarity. In “Unfold! Unfold!” he says, “At first the visible obscures: / Go where light is.”  A deeply mystical poet, Roethke takes his reader there, for, in his mind, “deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.”