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Rachel Tran
March 5, 2014
Poetry, an empowering piece of literature, has the ability to encompass concealed
elements which express one’s feelings or ideas in a more meaningful way. By examining and
dissecting a poem in fragments, many hidden techniques representing significant ideas may
begin to emerge. Many poets, such as Theodore Roethke, tend to use these devices and
techniques of poetry that enhance their piece of literature. Roethke utilizes remarkable
techniques which transform his love for nature into an illustration of his personal viewpoint of
life through his life experiences.
Theodore Roethke frequently expresses a wide variety of many emotions and thoughts
throughout his work due to his life events. In his poems, “The Waking” and “Night Journey”, he
expresses his love for nature while conveying his hidden meaning of life using the devices of
poetry. Roethke’s “family owned the largest greenhouses in the state. He called his home “a
wonderful place for a child to grow up in and around”” (“Roethke, Theodore”). Growing up and
spending much time with his father’s greenhouses was the cause of his affinity to nature, which
significantly affected his poetry later in life. Although he lived a happy childhood, Roethke’s
later years were rough and difficult. “During Roethke’s second year in high school, his father
died of cancer . . . as Roethke’s mature poetry suggests, the loss had a deep and lasting effect on
him” (“Roethke, Theodore”). Charles Roethke, Theodore’s uncle, committed suicide during this
time as well. These events negatively affected him as he became quieter and felt more isolated.
Roethke also “lived much of his adult life in the throes and cycles of manic depression for which
he was periodically hospitalized and on occasion given shock treatment” (Balakian, Peter).
“…Roethke surely took it all into the nerve-endings, into the blood and pulse, into the rhythms of
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his giant body which became the rhythms of his poetry" (Blessing, Richard). In the “Night
Journey”, Roethke speaks about the good and bad changes in life, and how we must come to
accept them. He uses symbolism to symbolize the speaker’s journey through life and there is an
irregular rhyme scheme which represents a rugged journey through life. From the very first line
in the poem, “The Waking”, and through every line that follows, it is clear one has entered the
mind of an individual who has a complex inner life due to the complicated series of paradoxes
and more.
Roethke utilizes techniques of poetry in “Night Journey” which express his viewpoint on
a person’s journey through life. One of the most significant devices that he uses in this poem is
symbolization. The night journey isn’t merely a train ride – the journey is a symbol for the
speaker’s journey through life. The speaker uses the environment to extract and signify different
parts of life. For instance, the iron bridge represents all metaphorical bridges we build and cross
during our lives, the forest and mountain shrouded in mist represents the moments we lost our
way, and the bleak space represents all our wasted opportunities and regrets. The speaker has
experienced all the things seen in the journey in life which build up the speaker’s final
conclusion: a love for his “land” and an appreciation for all the things it consists of, beautiful
because of its many difference. The poem’s rhyme scheme is mainly irregular, but only one
section (lines 12-19) is regular. This implies that our lives can go smoothly but rough at times, as
well. Just as life has rhythm, the train has rhythm which is represented by the continuous iambic
trimeter. Other devices Roethke uses are alliteration, feminine rhymes, slant rhymes,
cacophonies, metaphors, personification and much more to convey his feelings and ideas. This
poem ties in together with his recurring love of nature that is seen throughout a wide array of his
poems.
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Roethke’s “The Waking” is a poem that can be interpreted in any number of ways
depending on what frame of mind the reader is in at the time he or she reads Roethke’s offering.
Roethke uses the words sleep and wake as metaphors for death and life and advises and educates
the reader to accept the fact that life ends in death and to make the most of life by living in the
moment. He also uses a tree as a metaphor for human life in the villanelle because it emphasizes
these values. The tree cannot fear its death, nor can it attempt to avoid fate. This metaphor is
further utilized in the line, “God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there”, because he teaches
us that we need to respect our surroundings and others (8). "Everything in life is evolving in an
upward spiral, which suggests that . . . all of creation must be respected and honored for being a
part of that grand process of spiritual growth" ("The Waking"). Theodore Roethke incorporates
the rhyme scheme to match the meaning of the villanelle as well. The tercets are ABA, where the
letter refers to the end rhyme of each line, while the quatrain is ABAA which is changed in lines
7 through 10. The rhyme is predictable, but shift as the poem develops which represents and
mirrors change in development in our lives. The iambic pentameter is almost similar to footsteps
that echo the speaker’s trek forward.
It is simple to uncover many different interpretations of Roethke’s meanings in his poems
when detecting techniques of poetry and his background information. Although Theodore
Roethke may have had a different intended meaning to each of his poems, one will never truly
know what he means and expresses unless one speaks to him in person. Our interpretations of the
poems come from using the clues like his background and the devices of poetry he utilizes to
understand his intended meanings.


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Works Cited
Balakian, Peter. Theodore Roethke's Far Fields: The Evolution of His Poetry. Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press, 1989. Print.
Blessing, Richard A., “Theodore Roethke: A Celebration,” Tulane Studies in English 20 (1972),
176-79.
"Roethke, Theodore." Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature. Vol. 4. Detroit:
Gale, 2009. 1385-1388. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Mar. 2014.
"The Waking." Poetry for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 34. Detroit: Gale, 2010. 293-
311. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Turner, Jack. ""The Waking"." Bloom's Literature. Facts On File, Inc. Web. 21 Feb. 2014














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“The Waking”
By: Theodore Roethke

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.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.



















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“Night Journey”
By: Theodore Roethke

Now as the train bears west,
Its rhythm rocks the earth,
And from my Pullman berth
I stare into the night
While others take their rest.
Bridges of iron lace,
A suddenness of trees,
A lap of mountain mist
All cross my line of sight,
Then a bleak wasted place,
And a lake below my knees.
Full on my neck I feel
The straining at a curve;
My muscles move with steel,
I wake in every nerve.
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane;
We rush into a rain
That rattles double glass.
Wheels shake the roadbed stone,
The pistons jerk and shove,
I stay up half the night
To see the land I love.

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