Theodore Roethke (1908 - 1963)

Life and Works

Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, to Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner Roethke, on May 25, 1908. His father, Otto Roethke was an immigrant from Germany who owned a large local greenhouse. In 1913 Theodore was sent to John Moore School. Young Roethke spent many hours in the greenhouses, following and helping his father in his work. He weeded greenhouse beds and gathered moss in the tract of original forest on the family property. He also roamed the game sanctuary that the family maintained, "a wild area of cut-over second-growth timber," as he described it years later in a 1953 BBC interview: "I had several worlds to live in, which I felt were mine. One favorite place was a swampy corner of the game sanctuary where herons always nested"1. When Roethke was 14, a series of traumatic events began: a conflict developed between his father and his father's brother Charles. This led to the sale of the family greenhouses. Images from the greenhouse and nature crop up frequently in his later poetry. The poet's adolescent years were jarred, however, by the death of his father from cancer in 1923, a loss that would powerfully shape Roethke's psychic and creative lives. That year his uncle Charles committed suicide.

In 1925 the poet went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the first in his family to attend a university. In 1929 he graduated from the University of Michigan and entered the Law School. But in 1930 he dropped out of law school to pursue a master's degree in literature, and in the fall that year he entered the Harvard Graduate School. Soon he became a professor of English. He taught at several universities, among them Lafayette College, Pennsylvania State University, and Bennington College. In 1935, he was expelled from his position at Lafayette, which brought him back to Michigan. Just prior to his return, he had an affair with established poet and critic Louise Bogan2, who was later to become one of his strongest early supporters.

While teaching at Michigan State College in Lansing, he began to suffer from depression, which he used as a creative impetus for his poetry. It was in November 1935 when he had the first of a series of mental breakdowns and was placed in a local hospital for three months. Afterwards he returned to Saginaw to recover. In 1936 he took on another teaching job at Pennsylvania State.

In 1941 Roethke published the Open House. This first book recreates a first step into what may be considered as Roethke's confessional aesthetic: "My secrets cry aloud. / I have no need for tongue. / My heart keeps open house, / My doors are widely swung. / An epic of the eyes / My love, with no disguise." ("Open House"). Belonging to the so called "Middle Generation" or the "Wrecked Generation", he does not really identify with the "urban" poetry developed by fellow poets such as Robert Lowell or John Berryman. M.L.Rosenthal has been a hard critic for Roehtke's work, but in his final reflection in the seminal The New Poets (1967), he declared:

[...] For the most part Roethke had no subject apart from the excitements, illnesses, intensities of sensuous response, and inexplicable shiftings of his own sensibility. The greenhouse poems enabled him to objectify it for a time, but then he had nowhere to go but back inside himself. We have no other modern American poet of comparable reputation who has absorbed so little of the concerns of his age into his nerve-ends, in whom there is so little reference direct or remote to the incredible experiences of the age - unless the damaged psyche out of which he spoke be taken as its very embodiment. But that was not quite enough. The confessional mode, reduced to this kind of self-recharging, becomes self- echoing as well and uses itself up after the first wild orgies of feeling.3

An essential influence on Roethke's poetry is obviously that of the romantic interpretation of nature (Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman are evident powerful influences), and the expansion of that aesthetic projection in Robert Frost's poetics, together with poets who Roethke much admired such as the English poet Gerald Manley Hopkins, and the English Romantics William Blake and William Wordsworth, even though it has been argued that his early influences have been John Donne, Léonie Adams, Louise Bogan, Emily Dickinson, Rolfe Humphries, Stanley Kunitz, and Elinor Wylie. However, Open House was an important beginning for Roethke as it was favourably reviewed in the New Yorker, the Saturday Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Atlantic. The book's subjective focus on personal experience marked an important departure from T. S. Eliot's doctrine of poetic impersonality, searching for an empathy with Frost's imagination. M.L.Rosenthal puts it as follows:

"The Lost Son", for example, took us from the stage of raw terror at the demands of actual life - the brutality of nature and of death, the challenge of adult sexuality - to a phase of self-repossession through identification with the father's daily world and so onward to a final, calmly affirmative, but really unearned resolution.4

In 1943 Roethke decided to leave Penn State to teach at Bennington College. While at Bennington he felt pressured to complete and produce poems that would make up his second book, The Lost Son. In revisiting the landscapes of childhood, the lyrical I searches for connections between a child's consciousness and the adult world presided by the poet's father. Roehtke proceeded to an ongoing recasting process arranging and rearranging his early poetic sequences under the idea of a spiritual autobiography that would expand from The Lost Son up to Praise to the End! (1951), and The Waking (1953). The "greenhouse world" is invoked as a "reality harsher than reality" in order to merge the individual psyche - the poet's romantic ache of looking - with organic life-forms and growth. The metaphor of the "open house" shifts into the figure of the "glasshouse" as the dominant symbol of the inner self. Roethke described the glasshouse, in "An American Poet Introduces Himself and His Poems" (BBC broadcast, 30 July 1953), as "both heaven and hell.... It was a universe, several worlds, which, even as a child, one worried about, and struggled to keep alive."

In 1945 Roethke suffered another depression and he was admitted into a hospital in Albany where received shock treatmet therapy. He also finally received a long-awaited Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to relax while he worked on his next collection of works. In the spring of 1947 he returned to Penn State for a brief teaching position. During the summer he was offered a position at the University of Washington and in September he went west to Seattle.

In 1948 The Lost Son and Other Poems was published. It had actually been completed in 1947 but he delayed publication until the following March. In this poetic sequence and his next one, Praise to the End! (1951), Roethke seems most influenced by William Blake's poetics (especially the sequence Songs of Innocence and Experience) and William Wordsworth's The Prelude, where we discover an intense journey into the word, into pre-rational speech, into the regenerative capacity of language in its tribal ritualistic senses: "I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing, / In my veins, in my bones I feel it, - / The small waters seeping upward, / The tight grains parting at last. / When sprouts break out, / Slippery as fish, / I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet" ("Cuttings").

During the summer of 1949 Roethke returned to Saginaw in order to concentrate on his poetry uninterrupted, but in the fall he had to be submitted to a local hospital. In 1950 he received his second Guggenheim Fellowship. Two years later Roethke went to New York to give a poetry reading and it was here that he crossed paths with Beatrice O'Connell, a former Bennington student. They had a short courtship and married within a month on January 3, 1953.

For their honeymoon they went to Europe and stayed in W.H. Auden's villa at Ischia. They remained in Europe March through May. Afterwards they traveled to Rome, Geneva, then on to Paris. In September they returned to Washington, rented a house on the banks of Lake Washington and settled down into married life. In 1953 Roethke published The Waking: Poems 1933-1953. Emerson's influence is highly noticed along the Waking sequence, where the lyrical I searches to gain a sense of an identity by understanding the spiritual force that exists in any being, object, or natural manifestation in short.

In November that year the poet had a minor mental breakdown from which he recovered quickly, but he suffered another shock no less than three months later when his mother died. Good news did not come until a few weeks later when he was notified of the Pulitzer Prize he had won for The Waking. In 1956 Roethke resumed teaching at the University of Washington after travelling in Europe again. In 1957 he began to have symptoms of another mental breakdown and remained hospitalized for three months. When he recovered he returned to teaching and in the fall of 1958 he published Words for the Wind, which received the Bollingen Prize and the National Book Award. In reviewing this poetic sequence Delmore Schwartz described the essential nature of Roethke's method and matter: "These poems appear, at first glance, to be uncontrollable and subliminal outcries, the voices of roots, stones, leaves, logs, small birds; and they also resemble the songs in Shakespearian plays. . . . Roethke uses a variety of devices with the utmost cunning and craft to bring the unconsciousness to the surface of articulate expression." A good example to illustrate these words may be the poem "The Exorcism": "The grey sheep came. I ran, / My body half in flame. / (Father of flowers, who / Dares face the thing he is?) // As if pure being woke, / The dust rose and spoke; / A shape cried from a cloud, / Cried to my flesh out loud. // (And yet I was not there, / But down long corridors, / My own, my secret lips / Babbling in urinals.)"5.

In 1959 he had another mental breakdown and was admitted into the Halcyon Sanitarium in Seattle. In 1960 the Roethke's went to New York so that the poet could give several readings and afterwards continued on to Europe. In 1961 they returned to America for the publication of his children's collection of poems, I Am! Says the Lamb.

In 1962 he was presented with an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Michigan. In 1963 he finished the first manuscript of The Far Field, but unfortunately he was never able to revise it. Theodore Roethke suffered a coronary occlusion while swimming at a friend's pool on August 1st. He was buried with his mother and father in Oakwood Cemetery in Saginaw. Eileen Simpson, John Berryman's former wife, resumed their relationship with Roethke as follows:

Ted Roethke was the next to go. While he and John had never become close, they had a mutual respect for each other's poetry and, during the summer of 1953, when we and the Roethkes were in Europe and our paths criss-crossed, they came to know each other better. By the time of our meeting in Rome, John was somewhat calmer than he had been in St. Tropez, or at least was less driven to declaim his stanzas to the world. Ted would not have been attracted to such monomania because he was having difficulties of his own. Though sweet-tempered and not at all combative as he had been in Princeton, he was high, if not manic, as we guessed the night he insisted that a group of us who had had dinner together go with him to a German restaurant to have another meal. Another meal - was he crazy? Well, yes, a little. But he was so eager for us to accept his invitation - lire notes tumbling out of his pockets as he insisted he would be the host - that we faked our way through the second dinner with fruit and more wine, while he consumed course after course of the dishes his mother had prepared during his childhood, as if he hadn't eaten in weeks [...] On his return to the United States Ted went back to Seattle, where, in ten years, he published twelve books of poetry, won the Pulitzer Prize (1954), had a series of manic episodes requiring hospitalization for psychotherapy and shock treatment, taught brilliantly and drank and womanized until 1963. A coronary occlusion killed him when he was fifty-five. John, who was assuming the role of official mourner for the group, wrote in "A Strut for Roethke" of "the Garden Master" who would never "cadenza again of flowers", and said he envied Ted's escape from the grinding labor of "daily, trying to hit the head on the nail."6

The Far Field is composed by four sections, each one focusing on a specific area of personal experience and sensibility as a path towards spiritual insight. The first section is formed by several sub-sequences under the following general significant title "North American Sequence", and the titles of each specific sub-sequence: "The Longing", "Meditation at Oyster River", "Journey to the Interior", "The Long Waters", "The Far Field" and "The Rose". The voices that flow along these sequences project what may be considered as a "Northwest sensibility" as Roethke has put it. The Romantic I delves into nature in order to exorcise sophisticated feelings of suffering. Schopenhauer's philosophy should be recovered to interpret these sequences from the perspective of understanding suffering as a way of knowledge. This is M. L. Rosenthal on Roethke's poetic sequence:

The vital tension had retreated some distance, leaving the poems free to attempt something like joyous acceptance of things as they are, immersion in nature in the older Romantic sense, before Keats gave nature the special modern twist of being a mirror of man's own mortal predicament. Sometimes Roethke almost achieves what he is after, notably in "Meditation at Oyster River" and "I Waited": a certain delicate precision, a light-spirited seriousness [...]7

Roethke's previous symbol for the psyche, "the glass house", shifts now into the powerful symbol of the "field of glass": "In my mind's eye I see those fields of glass, / As I looked out at them from the high house" ("Otto"). Time becomes subjective in its most oneiric sense. Wordsworth's Prelude is noticed between Roethke's spots of time along these sequences. These spots of time identify in a very deep way with North East America: "What do they tell us, sound and silence? / I think of American sounds in this silence: / On the banks of the Tombstone, the wind-harps having their say, / The thrush singing alone, that easy bird [...]" ("The Rose"). The journey becomes a major symbol: "I dream of journeys repeatedly" ("The Far Field"). Spatial references such as "in" and "out" determine the triple motif of the outer-inner journeys that characterize the poetic sequence. The symbols of the sea and the field stand for the passages to death and infinity, to the greenhouses and the childhood years, to the interior, and to the possibilities to transcend one's mind.

The projective and retrospective movements of the self require a highly alert reader. There is a subtle progression along these sub-sequences from meditation into an uneasy self-awareness that comes to focus in one of the most powerful poems of the Far Field as a whole, "In a Dark Time" ("Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical"): "In a dark time, the eye begins to see, / I meet my shadow in the deepening shade; / I hear my echo in the echoing wood - [...] What's madness but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire! / I know the purity of pure despair, / My shadow pinned against a sweating wall." In the last stanza we discover a combination of Dickinson's poetics, "Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire. / My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, / Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?", and a voice that becomes profound and transcendental in Emerson's sense: "A fallen man, I climb out of my fear. / The mind enters itself, and God the mind, / And one is One, free in the tearing wind."

In his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut includes an excerpt from Roethke's poem "The Waking." The narrator wrote in the opening chapter, "I had two books with me, which I'd meant to read on the plane. One was Words for the Wind, by Theodore Roethke, and this is what I found in there: 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."



1Seager, Allan. The Glass House; the Life of Theodore Roethke. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1968, p.23.

2Louise Bogan (August 11, 1897 - 1970) was born in Livermore Falls, Maine, and spent one year at BostonUniversity. In 1916 she left the university to marry Curt Alexander, but he died in 1919. After her first husband's death, she moved with her daughter to New York City to pursue a career in writing. In 1925 she married the poet Raymond Holden, but they were divorced in 1937. Bogan's work suffered from disruptions, first by a fire in 1929, which destroyed her manuscripts, then by loss of Holden's inheritence in the stock market crash, and finally by depression, which required hospitalization at the New York Neurological Institute. Illness and her pathologic jealousy ended her second marriage. She published The Sleeping Fury (1937) the year she was divorced, followed by Poems and New Poems (1941), and two works of criticism: Achievement in American Poetry, 1900-1950 (1951), and Selected Criticism: Poetry and Prose (1955). Her Collected Poems (1954) won the Bollingen Prize.

3M. L. Rosenthal. The New Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, p. 118.

4M. L. Rosenthal. The New Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, p. 113.

5It is worth noting William Blake's influence here, for instance: "My mother groand! My father wept. / Into the dangerous world I leapt, / Helpless, naked, piping loud; / Like a fiend hid in a cloud. // Struggling in my father's hands, / Striving my swaddling bands; / Bound and weary I thought best / To sulk upon my mother's breast." ("Infant Sorrow", Songs of Experience)

6Eileen Simpson. Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir. London: Faber and Faber, 1982, pp. 239-240.

7M. L. Rosenthal. The New Poets. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967, p. 115.


Autor: Gabriel Torres Chalk (UNED)