Theodore Roethke



For Theodore Roethke

All night you wallowed through my sleep,
then in the morning you were lost
in the Maine sky - close, cold and gray,
smoke and smoke-colored cloud.

Sheeplike, unsociable reptilian, two
hell-divers splattered squawking on the water,
loons devolving to a monochrome.
You honored nature,

helpless, elemental creature.
The black stump of your hand
just touched the waters under the earth,
and left them quickened with your name. . .

Now, you honor the mother.
she made you nonexistent,
the ocean's anchor, our high tide.


"Theodore Roethke 1908-1963"


 At Yaddo, you shared a bathroom with a bag
    tree-painter whose boobs bounced in the basin,
    your blues basin where you wished to plunge your head. . .
    All night, my friend, no friend, you swam in my sleep;
    this morning you are lost in the Maine sky,
    close, cold, gray, smoke and smoke-colored cloud.
    Sheeplike, unsociable, reptilian, the shags
    fly off in lines like duck in a shooting booth,
    divers devolving to a monochrome.
    You honoured nature, helpless, elemental
    creature, and touched the waters of the offing;
    you left them quickened with your name: Ted Roethke. . .
    Omnipresent, the Mother made you nonexistent,
    you, the ocean's anchor and high out-tide.
          Robert Lowell. History (1967)


"To Beatrice Roethke"

Dearest Beatrice,

Terrible news! I just heard last night when I returned from a two days' boat race, and I seem to be still tossing about sleeplessly, and trying to recover my old memories of Ted. He was nine years or so older than I, but we always seemed much of an age, and now I feel as though a great chunk of myself has dropped into the pit. Outside, there's a close cold Maine sky, smoke, smoke-coloured clouds, a sense of summer's having drifted between our fingers into winter. There are a couple of birds, reptilian, unsocial, loonlike but all one gray shade, we call shag, flapping about outside - Ted could have made something charming out of them, but I can't.

This morning I read over the spring examination that Ted had enclosed in a letter mailed three weeks ago, and felt under examination myself, and in some doubts as to the result. I think I wrote him last that he had the strength to go on for an extra day's work when anyone else would have given up. One felt this in the exam and of course much more in his poems. I hope it's some consolation to you, and was to him, to know that what was published in his last year showed he was at the top of his powers. I have been in London and Paris for the last two weeks. I had enthusiastic talks with John Davenport, Mary McCarthy and her husband, and indeed everywhere I went about Ted. About his work, about him. It's sad, and still unbelievable to think of all that delicacy of touch and ear, that Rabelaisian energy - gone.

I suppose the scenes I remember best are from the summer we met at Yaddo in 1947 - fierce glistening croquet games, champagne at breakfast, the quick one sentence jabs, Ted and I sitting on the porch at Breadloaf with Frost, the curious lift one had of joshing with a large man, and through it all the feeling of living close to some one very intensely and very innocently dedicated. He was just at the edge then, I think, of his later fame, and I see him very tensed, in earnest and willing to stumble and learn, and I can still hear the last two sections of one of his long poems ("The Shape of Fire?") about "that minnowy world," singing. So much freshness, loveliness and innocence of the right earned kind.

Another scene, is visiting you at the hospital in Seattle, those narrow gray, barracks buildings, barbed wire even, I think, at the gate, you terribly frail, we, clumsy and substantial. My last letter from Ted ended with an addition that your painting was "really rolling," emphatic gray pencilled lines rounding off five pages of looping green ink.

Well, I loved him very much and I love you very much. I trust and hope our last letters cleared up the fog of our never quite speaking through to one another last year in the tumult of New York. Lizzie sends her love and grief. Please let me know if I can do anything.



To Beatrice Roethke. Castine, Maine, August 3, 1963.

The Letters of Robert Lowell. Saskia Hamilton, ed. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.