The Waking

The cycles of sleeping and waking are often compared to the cycle of life and death. In "The Waking" (1953) by Theodore Roethke, the poet takes this concept and expands on it to explore the nature of life and death and their unbreakable connection to one another. Influenced by American Romanticism, Roethke expresses the eternity of life and humankind's connection to nature using carefully chosen words, images, and comparisons. Do you agree with Roethke's view on life and death as expressed in "The Waking"?

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Table of contents

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke: At a Glance

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke Analysis & Summary
    Poem"The Waking"
    WrittenTheodore Roethke
    Rhyme schemeABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABBA
    Structure19-line villanelle written in mostly iambic pentameter
    ToneCalm, peaceful
    MoodSerene, accepting
    Literary devicesSynesthesia, refrain, paradox, visual imagery, personification
    ThemeThe cycle of life and death
    AnalysisLife and death are part of an ever-repeating and natural process that can't be controlled by humankind.

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke: Summary

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke is a short 19-line poem known as a villanelle. The voice of the poem contemplates the nature of waking, only to go to sleep again. With sleeping and waking becoming symbolic of living and dying, the speaker explores the importance of enjoying the experiences of life and accepting death as a natural process. It's a part of a continuous and unstoppable cycle.

    A villanelle is a nineteen-line poem comprising five tercets (three-line stanzas) and one final quatrain (four-line stanza). There are two rhymes throughout, with lines 1 and 3 repeating systemically.

    The structure of the poem itself is a constant cycle of sleeping and waking, using refrain to represent this cycle. With the refrain "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow" repeated four times through the entirety of the poem, and the second refrain "learn by going where I have to go" also repeated four times, Roethke maintains a constant routine of awareness and rest, of sleeping and waking, of life and death. The cyclical nature of life and death is meant to be taken as a learning experience—a way to grow—and a way to transcend the physical form to assume a greater meaning or presence.

    Roethke was influenced by American Romanticism. The Romantic Era, or American Romanticism, was an arts and literature movement that began roughly around 1830 and lasted until around 1870. The defining characteristics of literature from the Romantic Era include a focus on the power of imagination, the importance of emotion, humankind's connection to nature, and the rejection of artificial aspects of civilization. Roethke's "The Waking" exhibits these traits by expressing human life as intrinsically connected to nature, showing a similarity between the worm and humans, and expressing nature as a way for humankind to persevere beyond death and the physical being.

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke: Full Poem

    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.

    The Waking, Sun Shining Trees, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Sun shines through the trees as a symbol of life.

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke: Analysis

    Theodore Roethke's villanelle uses the calming images of nature and a simple rhythm to express to the audience the necessity of death. A closer analysis of "The Waking" shows that the poem is a meditation on the cyclical nature of life and death and the way that our experiences and perceptions are shaped by our surroundings.

    Lines 1-3

    The first tercet of the poem introduces the reader to the idea that being awake is akin to living, while sleep is equivalent to death. This daily process of waking and sleeping is merely a routine, like the one of life and death. Impending death is something we "cannot fear" but part of the process of life which we must "learn by" (lines 2-3).

    Lines 4-6

    The synesthesia (describing one sense with another) in line 5, "I hear my being dance from ear to ear" shows a voracity for life and expresses that much of our living and life experiences are processed between the ears—in the mind. The ending line in this tercet, a refrain, emphasizes that daily life is a necessary part of dying. "I wake to sleep," (line 6) or I live to die.

    Lines 7-9

    This tercet takes the speaker away from thoughts and helps the reader go through life to the fullest by experiencing the "Ground" and stepping "softly there" (line 8). A sense of oneness, a popular motif in Romantic poetry, is communicated in line 7, where the speaker asks, "Of those so close beside me, which are you?" Using apostrophe, a figure of speech that addresses someone or something that can't respond, the speaker questions the audience and creates a feeling of intimacy, emulating a private conversation.

    Lines 10-12

    This second-to-last tercet serves as a symbolic death as the worm ascends the staircase, transitioning into a different state of existence. The poetic voice expresses uncertainty about what happens in death and in line 10 poses the question, "Who can know?" The inquisitive nature of this section beckons further exploration and curiosity, rather than fear. It is an invitation to learn and experience.

    Lines 13-15

    The final tercet of the poem personifies nature as an entity that has "another thing to do" (line 13). In line 14 the speaker states, "so take the lively air"—advising the reader to experience and enjoy life. It then endearingly refers to the reader as "lovely" (line 15) before suggesting the audience can "learn by going" (line 15).

    Lines 16-19

    The concluding quatrain of "The Waking" reassures the reader that what is gone is "always" and "is near" (line 16). The constancy and continuation of life is reinforced, so there is no need to feel loss. The refrains of the poem are restated one last time, emphasizing the continuation of the cycle of life, and death. The first half of line 19, "I learn by going..." implies that experiences result in learning, and this learning happens as a result of necessity. The speaker embodies an acceptance of the final sleep, of death, by stating resolutely, "I have to go" (line 19).

    The Waking, Girl Sleeping, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - The poem reflects how one must wake daily, live daily, and learn about life in order to experience life's longest sleep, death.

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke: Meaning

    Theodore Roethke's "The Waking" emphasizes the romantic notion that death is a natural process and that the being or soul of an individual is connected while following a natural cycle in life. The structure of the poem, staying true to a villanelle, uses repetition to reveal the repeating characteristics of life and death.

    The Waking, Life is Now Sign, StudySmarter

    Fig. 3 - The speaker advises readers to embrace life and the experiences it offers.

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke: Theme

    The main theme in Theodore Roethke's "The Waking" is the cycle of life and death. It offers a calming reminder that life precedes death and is just a portion of the natural process of things. After one wakes or lives, one must inevitably die. "The Waking" is an awakening for the reader to embrace and learn from the experiences life offers before death. Just like the "lowly worm," (line 11) we all succumb to sleep (line 18). It is an unavoidable conclusion faced by all.

    Throughout the poem, the reader is made aware of cycles, which are represented through the visual structure of the poem, Roethke's use of refrain, and literary devices. The constant cycle makes the reader open to the idea that life and death are a process and become accepting of the inevitable conclusion: death. Ironically, "The Waking" becomes a forced awareness of our final sleep.

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke: Literary Devices

    Central literary devices in "The Waking" help Roethke enhance the meaning of the poem and help readers personally connect with the overall message. By incorporating the literary devices naturally and in a cycle that imitates the cyclical trait of nature, Roethke uses his skill as a poet and writer to mimic nature in his poem. The poem itself becomes an awareness of life and death—a cycle we all are a part of.

    Synesthesia in "The Waking"

    Roethke uses synesthesia in "The Waking" to show a cyclical connection between living, dying, and the process of life.

    Synesthesia is when one of the five senses are expressed as being part of another sense, showing an intermingling between the two.

    "I feel my fate in what I cannot fear." (2)

    Synesthesia forces the reader to think critically about the information conveyed through the poem and gain a deeper understanding. Fate is an intangible thing, that can't be felt. However, the line "I feel my fate" expresses that fate can be felt and each living organism shares a universal fate: death. In different ways, we can all feel our inevitable fate approaching. We begin to weaken and age, but we also become wise. The ultimate fate, death, is something the poetic voice asserts humans "cannot fear," (line 2) because it cannot be avoided.

    Line four states "[w]e think by feeling" and introduces another instance of synesthesia that reveals truth through contrast. Although thought and emotions are often considered opposites, many decisions are a result of a combination of the two. To "think by feeling" exposes the important role emotions play, even in a logical sense.

    Refrain in "The Waking"

    Roethke uses refrains within the poem to bring consistency, form, and emphasis to important ideas in the poem.

    A refrain is a part of a line, complete line, or a series of lines repeated throughout a poem. Sometimes the repetition occurs with slight alterations, but the core structure remains.

    "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow." (1)

    "I learn by going where I have to go." (3)

    The two refrains in "The Waking" maintain the structure of a villanelle and bring emphasis to the central ideas of the poem through repetition. "I wake to sleep" in line 1 introduces the cycle and connection between sleeping and waking. One must be in a state of awareness and awake in order to eventually lull to sleep. The voice takes the "waking slow." In this first line, "waking" can be taken to mean living, and so individuals must be living, in order to sleep, to die. The line and sentiment are repeated periodically in lines 6, 12, and 18. As the voice revisits this line, readers gain a sense of the repetitive nature of life and death.

    The other refrain, "I learn by going where I have to go" stated first in line 3, supports the fact that individuals don't have directions for life, but learn through experience. Because learning, daily living, and life are recursive processes, the refrain, or a version of it, is repeated in lines 9, 15, and 19. The idea of life being a learning process closes out the poem, referencing that the ultimate lesson comes at the end of life and is part of the process as well.

    Paradox in "The Waking"

    In "The Waking", Theordore Roethke employs paradox to grab the reader's attention and force focused thought and critical thinking.

    Paradox is a figure of speech that contains a seemingly contradictory statement intended to reveal an underlying meaning that is true.

    "This shaking keeps me steady." (16)

    Throughout the poem many paradoxical statements work to express deeper meaning and heighten the reader's understanding. Line 16, "[t]this shaking keeps me steady" is an example of a paradox that reveals a truth of life. Sometimes change, or shaking, is the one thing that is constant. Time, which is always in flux, is also constant. For the speaker, the "shaking" provides a sense of stability.

    The Waking, time is constant, StudySmarterFig. 4 - The poem reflects how time is constantly present and cannot be stopped.

    Visual Imagery in "The Waking"

    Visual imagery in "The Waking" helps Roethke establish a sense of unity and a serene mood.

    Imagery is any description that appeals to the five senses. Visual imagery is a detailed description that appeals to the reader's sense of sight.

    "The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair" (11)

    The "lowly worm" ascending the staircase can be representative of the journey all creatures must take. Humankind, just like the worm, must adhere to the laws of nature and become a part of the natural order of things again. Just as the worm climbs the figurative stairs to a different form of existence, so too must people adhere to the natural processes and ascend to a greater existence. The visual imagery describing the worm climb a staircase shows a sort of struggle, as we all struggle through life. We work tirelessly, toil each day, and in the end, we become part of the same cycle as the worm. As a portion of nature, we are joined with all of it. Whether we be worms or kings, we all wake daily, to partake of the eternal last sleep.

    Personification in "The Waking"

    Roethke uses personification in "The Waking" to indicate that forces of nature are important and only slightly concerned with humankind.

    Personification is a figure of speech that provides the attribution of human characteristics to non-living things or ideas.

    "Great Nature has another thing to do" (13)

    Roethke personifies nature in "The Waking" to emphasize that humans are but a portion of the central cycle of nature, life, and death. This personification helps to surface the idea that the cycle consists of other portions of the world, unconcerned with the dealings of humankind. Nature itself is busy with "another thing to do" (line 13) and is not presently concerned with people. Roethke's discussion of nature's priorities exemplifies the idea that the reader too should have other priorities, rather than focusing on the natural cycles. Rather than fear the inevitable, we should rejoice in the present.

    The Waking - Key Takeaways

    • The poem "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke is a villanelle.
    • "The Waking" was first published in 1953.
    • Roethke uses paradox, visual imagery, metaphor, and refrain to express the nature of life and death, waking and sleeping.
    • The theme in "The Waking" focuses on the cycle of life and death and how it is an unending process.
    • The poem "The Waking," with its focus on nature and unity between mankind and life and death, is an example of the Romantic Era's influence on Roethke's writing.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Waking

    Who is the speaker in the poem "The Waking"?

    The speaker in the poem "The Waking" is an unnamed, introspective individual.

    What is "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke about? 

    "The Waking" is about the natural cycle of life and the cyclical aspects of life and death. 

    What is the mood of the poem "The Waking"? 

    The mood of the poem "The Waking" is serene and thoughtful. 

    What advice about life is implied in line 19 of "The Waking"? 

    Line 19 of "The Waking" implies that experience in life comes by necessity. 

    What is the rhyme scheme of "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke? 

    The rhyme scheme of "The Waking" is ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABBA.

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