Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)
Contributing Editor: Janis Stout
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Personal Background: Roethke had extremely ambivalent feelings about his father, who was managing partner in a large greenhouse operation in Saginaw, Michigan. He also had problems related to alcohol addiction and bipolar disorder, which resulted in periods of hospitalization. All of these personal tensions are confronted in his poetry.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
"Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze"
The three "ancient ladies" preside over processes of growth (both vegetable and the poet's own) almost as personifications of natural forces, or even the three Fates. Their presence, like Mother Nature's, is somewhat ambiguous; there is a note of threat in their tickling of the child and in their night presence. The three women's vigor and authority should be noted, as well as their avoidance of limitation by sex-role stereotypes: clearly female (they wear skirts, they have a special association with the child), they also climb ladders and stand astride the steam-pipes providing heat in the greenhouse.
"Root Cellar" and "Big Wind" represent the celebrated "greenhouse poems," a group characterized by close attention to details evident only to one who knows this particular world very well--as Roethke did. They are distinguished from, say, Wordworth's nature poems in that they celebrate equally the natural processes themselves and the human effort and control involved. They share Wordsworth's ability to appreciate the humble or homely elements of nature. Here, in particular, we see Roethke's wonder at the sheer life process even when manifested in forms that would ordinarily seem ugly or repellent.
We might say "Big Wind" celebrates the tenacity of human effort in the face of hostile natural forces, an effort that wrests out of chaos the beauty of the roses. However, that idea should not be pressed so far as to exclude the creative force of natural vitality. Nature and human effort join together in producing roses. The greenhouse itself, shown as a ship running before the storm, seems almost a living thing.
"The Lost Son"
"The Lost Son" illustrates three major elements in Roethke's work: surrealistic style; reflection of his own psychological disorders; and mysticism, his vision of spiritual wholeness as a merging of the individual consciousness with natural processes and life-forms.
1. "The Flight" is a poem of anxiety about death and loss of identity.
2. "The Return" associates wellness with the greenhouse world of childhood. The return spoken of is the return of light and heat--of full heat, since the greenhouses would scarcely have been left unheated on winter nights. The plants are both an object of the poet's close observation and a representation of his life.
"Meditations of an Old Woman"
Probably the most far-reaching question that can be asked of students, but also the most difficult, is, What difference does it make that the speaker is an old woman? Old, we can understand; we think of wisdom, experience, release from the distractions of youth. But why not an old man? One tempting answer is that our society has typically seen passivity and the passive virtues (patience, for instance) as feminine.
Not often anthologized, this funerary tribute approaches a fusion of comedy with high seriousness. Aunt Tilly is a wonderfully strong, assertive, independent-minded woman who both fulfills traditional roles (housewife, cook, nurse, tender of the dead) and transcends them. The comedy emerges in the last stanza when Aunt Tilly comes "bearing down" on the butcher who, knowing he has met his match, quails before her indomitability and her clarity of vision.
Balakian, Peter. Theodore Roethke's Far Fields: The Evolution of Hid Poetry (1989).
Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke (1987).
Seager, Allen. The Glass House (1968).
Stout, Janis P. "Theodore Roethke and the Journey of the Solitary Self." Interpretations 16 (1985): 86-93.
Sullivan, Rosemary. Theodore Roethke: The Garden-Master (1975).