| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
(1908 - 1963)
Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, and
spent his childhood in and around his father’s large commercial greenhouses,
with their luxuriance of protected natural growth. It was there, among the
acres of roses and carnations, and in cellars rank with rotten manure and
rooting slips, that he developed his participatory awareness of the small
things of nature. These two, the greenhouses and the almost godlike father
directing a crew of skilled florists and helpers, would become the most
pervasive shaping presences in his poetry—the greenhouses a humanly created
Eden surrounded by open fields of eternity, and the father a center of powerful
conflicting emotions of love and hate.
apparently began to write poems during his undergraduate years at the
University of Michigan, where he received a B.A. in 1929, but if so, he wrote
in secret. His doing so is only one early instance of his habitual wearing of
masks to hide an inner vulnerability and seriousness. It was not until his
graduate school years, first at Michigan and then at Harvard, that he either
discussed or wrote poetry openly. His first publications came in 1930 and 1931.
His teaching career, which would prove to be lifelong, began in the fall of
1931 at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Toward the end of his
four-year term there, he served also as tennis coach, a game he played with
intense and even rude aggressiveness. Later he would teach at several other colleges
and universities before settling, from 1947 until his death, at the University
pattern that would also prove to be lifelong emerged by 1931, or even before.
By the time he went to Easton to teach, Roethke was already a heavy drinker,
having frequent bouts of drunkenness during which he sometimes became rowdy and
even destructive. Friends would later recall his drinking as a kind of search
for oblivion. Certainly the drinking was both evidence and a contributing cause
of the complex and severe emotional problems that led to his being hospitalized
several times for what was usually diagnosed as manic-depression. Throughout
his life he swung between extremes—of mood, of bravado or torturing self-doubt,
of self-righteousness or guilt, of certainty that he was America’s preeminent
poet or despair over his supposed lack of achievement. He seems to have felt
that nothing he did would have earned his father’s approval.
1953, Roethke married Beatrice O’Connell, a former student of his and also a
former fashion model. At the time of their marriage, Beatrice was totally
unaware of his history of mental illness; he told her nothing. Before a year
was out, she had seen him through one of his typical crises, though a fairly
mild one involving only two weeks of hospitalization. She rose to the need and
proved remarkably supportive over the years, a real companion as well as
caretaker. It must not have been easy. He was extraordinarily demanding, as
well as dependent, and was an inveterate casual pawer of women. His
difficulties relating to women apparently sprang from very complex feelings
toward his mother which, if less disturbing than those toward his father, were
at any rate troubled. However, several of his late poems record Roethke’s great
care and concern for his wife, and one of his most significant works,
“Meditations of an Old Woman,” draws partly on his regard for his mother.
its disciplined exploration of rhythmic variation and symbolist style,
Roethke’s poetry is characterized by a deep, even mystical, animism, a close
attention to minute living things and natural processes, and a continuing use
of childhood anxieties and his own ambivalent feelings toward his father in
developing a motif of the soul journey. For Roethke, this journey went toward
reconciliation and oneness. In his late poem “The Rose” (from “North American
Sequence”) his father would be joined with an evocation of the greenhouse world
as images of perfect beatitude: “What need for heaven, then, / With that man
and those roses?” Among his many honors and awards were the Pulitzer Prize, the
Bollingen Prize, a Fulbright Award, and two Guggenheim Fellowships.
Texas A & M University
In the Heath Anthology
Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze
fromMeditations of an Old Woman
from Fourth Meditation
from The Lost Son
1. The Flight
4. The Return
5. It was beginning winter
Praise to the End!
The Wakening: Poems 1933-53
Words for the Wind: The Collected Verse of Theodore Roethke
I Am! Says the Lamb
Party at the Zoo
Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical
The Far Field
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke
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An audio reading of The Snake performed by Harolyn Blackwell and Craig Rutenberg.
Modern American Poetry
Several critical essays, a biography, and a bibliography.
Theodore Huebner Roethke
An impressionistic portrait of Roethke, a biography, list of primary works, and more.
Contains fourteen poems, a biographical sketch, and links.