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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Theodore Roethke
(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.

Roethke 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 of Washington.

Another 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.

In 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.

Besides 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.

Janis Stout
Texas A & M University

In the Heath Anthology
Big Wind (1948)
Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze (1948)
Root Cellar (1948)
Elegy (1958)
fromMeditations of an Old Woman
      First Meditation (1958)
      from Fourth Meditation (1958)
from The Lost Son
      1. The Flight (1948)
      4. The Return (1948)
      5. It was beginning winter (1948)

Other Works
Open House (1941)
Praise to the End! (1951)
The Wakening: Poems 1933-53 (1953)
Words for the Wind: The Collected Verse of Theodore Roethke (1957)
I Am! Says the Lamb (1961)
Party at the Zoo (1963)
Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical (1964)
The Far Field (1964)
The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1968)

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Secondary Sources