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Theodore Roethke: Impact on Literature There are many influential aspects of life such as a person’s childhood, family, or career just to name a few. What makes these effects so influential is their impact on everyday habits and important decisions people have to make. Poets are no exception to this same idea. In fact, the events that affect the poet’s life can be seen through his or her writings. Theodore Roethke, a twentieth century poet, is a great example of this concept.
Along with many other influences, one could argue that the three most influential aspects of the life and time of Theodore Roethke were his childhood greenhouse, his physical and mental health, and the literary period during which he wrote. Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan where his parents owned a local greenhouse along with his uncle (Seager 6). He began to teach at various schools such as Harvard and Lafayette College, but once the Great Depression came he was forced to leave them behind (71).
Roethke was hospitalized for what would be a reoccurring mental illness. In 1923, his father died of cancer and around the same time his uncle committed suicide. He went on to marry Beatrice O’Connell in 1953 and ten years later in 1963, he suffered from a fatal heart attack and died (104). During the last years of his life he composed 61 award-winning, new poems that are still fairly popular to this day (87). The greenhouse of Roethke’s childhood would prove to have a substantial impact on his writings later on in life.
He wrote in his poetry, “the greenhouse is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth”(Kramer 22). Among his earlier poems, the most interesting and more noticed are those which evoke his childhood, his life as the son of a florist (Carruth 25). Babette Deutsch stated, “His work gains from the fact that his childhood was intimately bound up with the life of a Michigan greenhouse, which, physically and otherwise, was to afford the material for some of his est lyrics” (165). What she is trying to say is that the majority of Roethke’s inspiration and ideas for his poetry came from his greenhouse in Michigan. Deutsch goes on to name some titles of works that show influence of the greenhouse like “Root Cellar,” “Flower Dump,” and “Moss Gathering. ” In Roethke’s poem “The Waking,” there seems to have been a transformation from his easy going, nature-loving philosophy into an almost musical format which could be considered soothing.
This poem is a short reflection on both living and learning, and is one of the finest villanelles in English. As the biographer Alan Seager quotes, Roethke wrote, “I can sense the moods of nature almost instinctively… When I get alone under an open sky… I’m tremendously exalted and a thousand vivid ideas and sweet visions flood my consciousness” (55). In order to reflect on living and learning, he uses nature as a tool because of how well he can relate and how relationships between nature and life help people see the hidden messages in a different way.
For example, in “The Waking,” his advice is to relax and enjoy nature, not to strive too hard “like the lowly worm who pointlessly climbs the winding stair” and not to become too worried about living or learning (Cone). Also, he implies that the truly important knowledge will come just as easily as the trees change with the seasons (Turner). Along with that, he used a complex vision of the greenhouse poems and his great ability to humanize the details and moods of nature, as symbols of large truths about all of life, which is important to his poetic accomplishments (Carruth 168-169).
Poems published in The Lost Son and Other Poems, show themes in which his imagination returned to the Saginaw greenhouse and found there images of the dank, ugly and incredible forces which are the fundamentals of life as he stated. A greenhouse is the country of Roethke’s childhood, the inevitable place of his return. This world under glass where, as a boy, small among the “the lovely diminutives,” he grubbed, weeded, pruned, transplanted, is bound in with his family, for whom it was, presumably, an economic as well as a physical center of gravity (Kunitz 177).
He speaks of this greenhouse with love and its invincible Becoming. He believed in nature’s green force and stretching and reaching of plants (Kunitz 178). For example in his poem “Cuttings”, he stated: This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks, Cut stems struggling to put down feet, What saint strained so much, Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life? (Roethke, “Cuttings”) Kunitz is not stating that Roethke’s greenhouse world is rosy, innocent, optimistic, or anything along those lines. Instead Kunitz claims it swarms with malevolent forces, or in other words wicked and evil things. It is a place of scums, mildews, and smuts; of slug-soft stems; of obscenely lolling forms; a place of moist and rank. What a congress of stinks! It is engulfing, and horribly fecund” (Kunitz 177). Roethke’s earlier poems were about groping roots, straining tendrils, the turmoil of growth in a steamy greenhouse. From this Roethke passed to a consideration of all primitive life, the dark life of a weed and minnow at the bottom of a woodland pond, and the equally dark life of children (Carruth 198).
In complete contrast to the previous argument that Roethke’s writing about nature is dark and evil, in “Requiem for God’s Gardener,” the criticism says that Roethke’s outlook on nature is that of beauty and not evil. Carruth states that Roethke’s best poems about nature were created with his great imaginative powers, as well as using other sources like Taoism, Amerindian poetry, Mother Goose, and mostly things he invented himself. He was also a birdwatcher, an excellent one, and his professional knowledge of flowers is said to have begun within his father’s greenhouses.
In the poem “All Morning” he brings together the minute felicities of songbirds, even their cutenesses, the things we depreciate on greeting cards, and does it so unaffectedly that suddenly we realize he has touched the elemental force of the universe (Carruth 199). He writes of nature’s larger aspects, such as movements of waters and mountains, which contradicts his previous nature poems that rely on small, detailed features like plant roots, and parts of leaves. When he writes about mountains and waters, he evokes a sense of “cosmic restlessness” or in other words, nature’s constant motion.
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