Theodore Roethke

Imagine growing up in a greenhouse. The American poet, Theodore Roethke (1908‐1963), developed his fascination with nature while growing up on his father's 25-acre property filled with tropical greenhouses in Saginaw, Michigan. The American poet is known for his personal, introspective poetry, and his keen use of natural imagery. Roethke is best known for his poetry book, The Waking (1953), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. 

Theodore Roethke Theodore Roethke

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    Theodore Roethke, Girl in Green Among Plants, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Nature is often personified to reflect human feelings and characteristics in Roethke's poetry.

    Theodore Roethke: Biography

    The depth of Roethke's poetry can be traced back to his struggles with self-esteem, grief, and manic depression. Despite all these hardships, he became a renowned and respected poetry professor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who inspired many.

    Theodore Roethke's Early Life

    Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, on May 25, 1908. His father, Otto, was a German immigrant to America who ran 25 acres worth of greenhouses with his brother. The family ran a floral company in Michigan and many of Roethke's poems were influenced by the time he spent in these greenhouses as a child.

    However, Rotheke's childhood was not entirely idyllic. The American poet's father died from cancer, and his uncle committed suicide when he was only 14. Roethke was a well-read, intelligent teen, who showed a unique talent for writing from an early age, but he suffered greatly from grief and low self-esteem.

    Theodore Roethke's Education and Teaching Career

    Theodore Roethke received his Bachelor's and Master's in English from the University of Michigan. Here, he began writing poetry and exploring his profound love for nature through language. In the 1930s, Roethke learned the craft of poetry by imitating an array of poets he admired, including W.H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Wiliam Carlos Williams, William Wordsworth, William Blake, Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and Dante.

    Theodore Roethke's first poetry book, Open House (1941), was perceived as being highly imitative. However, Open House was praised for transforming feelings of humiliation into poetry, lending insight into Roethke's depth and potential as a poet.

    Roethke graduated with his Master's in 1936, briefly attend the University of Michigan School of Law, and then Harvard Law School. At Harvard, Roethke began an apprenticeship under the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and English Literature professor, Robert Hillyer.

    Roethke left Harvard graduate school due to his distaste for his career and the effects of the Great Depression (1929‐1939). Instead, the poet began his lifelong career of teaching writing and poetry. Roethke taught English at numerous universities around America, including Michigan State University, Lafayette College, Pennsylvania State University, Bennington College, and the University of Washington.

    Roethke was known for being a dedicated, eccentric, and effective teacher. However, the poet's enthusiasm and near-obsession with teaching became a source of exhaustion and a hindrance to his own writing.

    Theodore Roethke, Writing Workshop, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Many of Roethke's students went on to become highly successful poets, such as David Wagoner, Richard Hugo, James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, and Jack Gilbert.

    Theodore Roethke's Struggles with Mental Health

    The poet suffered greatly from mental health issues. He suffered a mental breakdown in 1935 and spent a few months at the Mercywood Sanitarium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Roethke suffered another severe breakdown in 1945, and from then onward, the breakdowns became increasingly frequent. The poet had to regularly attend therapy sessions and was eventually diagnosed with manic depression.

    Some psychiatrists and critics noted that his unhealthy mental state was partly due to his need for productivity and the nature of his deeply personal, intrusive, introspective poetry.

    Theodore Roethke's Career as a Poet

    The type of poetry Theodore Roethke wrote made him constantly recall and tap into past tragedies and discomforting feelings. Roethke's exploration of the darkness of his childhood and his struggle for identity can be clearly seen in his poetry book, The Lost Son (1948), particularly in "The Greenhouse Poems." The poet's next book of poetry, Praise to the End! (1951), followed this trend of intense exploration through inner monologues.

    In 1953, Theodore Roethke published his most famous book of poems, The Waking. The Waking won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and is regarded as one of the most significant books of 20th-century American poetry. This poetry collection took a step back from such deep introspection to explore the poet's relationships with others. The Waking was influenced by Rothke's relationship with his wife, Beatrice O'Connell, whom he married the same year the book was published. The book's title poem, "The Waking" is one of the most frequently studied and anthologized contemporary poems by an American poet.

    Roethke's next two poetry collections, Words for the Wind (1958) and The Far Field (1964), both won the National Book Award for Poetry. The poems in these collections explore ideas of mysticism and religious feelings and experiences grounded in the poet's imagination.

    The Far Field was published a year after Roethke's death in 1963, and it won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1965, two years after the poet's death.

    Theodore Roethke's Death and Legacy

    Theodore Roethke died on August 1, 1963, at the age of 55. The poet died of a heart attack while swimming in his friend's pool in Bainbridge Island, Washington.

    Theodore Roethke is remembered as a sensitive and prolific poet. He is noted as one of the most influential contemporary American poets and has influenced numerous writers, most notably, Sylvia Plath. Roethke is known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, The Waking (1953), and his National Book Award-winning poetry collections, Words for the Wind (1958) and The Far Field (1964). He is also known as an inspirational, eccentric writing teacher who inspired numerous students to pursue poetry and writing careers.

    Theodore Roethke: Writing Style

    Theodore Roethke's writing style varied from short, witty poems to rigid, rhyming verse, abundant free verse, and reflective inner‐monologues. However, the poet is known for his acute use of natural imagery and emphasis on creating rhythm in words and poetry, which he emphasized when teaching his students how to write.

    Roethke wrote in a highly personalized, introspective manner and used his life and past experiences as inspiration for his poems. Inspired by Naturalist and Romantic poets, Roethke's writing often focused on nature, human life and struggles, and the human imagination and inner life. He is known for writing many lyric poems that turn everyday life into art.

    Lyric poems are short, songlike poems that convey strong emotions.

    Theodore Roethke: Poems

    Theodore Roethke is best known for his poems "My Papa's Waltz" (1942), "The Waking" (1953), and "Elegy for Jane" (1953), which will be explored below.

    "My Papa's Waltz" by Theodore Roethke

    "My Papa's Waltz" was first published in 1942 in Hearst Magazine and was later included in Roethke's poetry book, The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948). The poet recalls the memory of a little boy who is dancing with his rough, working-class father. "My Papa's Waltz" explores the complex relationship between the son and his drunk father with a strict rhyme scheme and meter. The beginning of the poem follows:

    The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy. (1‐4)

    Note how the poet uses iambic trimeter (six syllable lines in an alternating pattern of unstressed followed by stressed syllables) to mimic the three beats characteristic of a waltz.

    "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke

    "The Waking" (1953) is the title poem of Roethke's most notable poetry collection of the same title, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. The poem uses repetition and natural imagery to compare sleep and waking cycles to life and death. The poet suggests that the processes of nature cannot be controlled by humankind. "The Waking" begins:

    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." (1‐3)

    Theodore Roethke, Woman Sleeping, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The poet emphasizes the inevitably repetitive cycles of sleep and waking through repetitions of lines and phrases in the poem.

    "Elegy for Jane" by Theodore Roethke

    "Elegy for Jane" (1953) is another poem from Roethke's poetry book, "The Waking." The poem is a modern elegy written for one of Roethke's students named Jane. "Elegy for Jane" pays homage to the simplistic beauty and magnitude of the girl's life through vivid natural imagery:

    I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,And she balanced in the delight of her thought" (1‐4)

    An elegy is a poem that expresses remembrance and grief for the dead. While traditional English elegies usually provide consolation for grief at the end, Roethke's modern elegy does not. Rather, the poet expresses his insurmountable grief and the trouble of not knowing what to do with it.

    Theodore Roethke: Quotes

    Theodore Roethke acknowledged the strong influence of other poets on his own writing. He explores how poems are like songs passed down through generations. The following quote is from Roethke's four-part poem, "Four for Sir John Davies." In the poem, he pays homage to the poets Sir John Davies and W.B. Yeats, whose influences helped form his own poetry.

    I take this cadence from a man named Yeats:I take it and I give it back again:For other tunes and other wanton beatsHave tossed my heart and fiddled through my brain." (19‐22)

    Rotheke often wrote about nature in ways that strayed from conventional beauty and serenity. He points out the idiosyncrasies of nature, its near frightening power, and its ability to reflect human life. This can be seen in his poem, "Child on Top of a Greenhouse," in which the poet expresses his feelings of guilt and shame through his relationship with nature:

    The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,A few white clouds all rushing eastward,A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!" (3‐7)

    Interesting Facts About Theodore Roethke

    • When Theodore Roethke was a freshman in high school, he wrote a Red Cross campaign speech that was translated into 26 languages.
    • The poet always kept a notebook with him and wrote about everyday thoughts, ideas, and conversations, which he used to help him write his poetry.
    • In 1952, the poet received the Ford Foundation grant to study philosophy and theology in greater depth. Roethke spent a year studying philosophers and theologians such as Sören Kierkegaard, Evelyn Underhill, Meister Eckhart, Paul Tillich, Jacob Boehme, and Martin Buber.
    • Theodore Roethke's wife, Beatrice O'Connell, was one of his former students. She ensured the posthumous publication of the poet's final poetry book, The Far Field, as well as a book of children's poetry called Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures (1973).
    • Theodore Roethke wrote a children's book called Party at the Zoo (1963).
    • The pool that Roethke died in was turned into a zen rock garden that is part of the forest garden, Bloedel Reserve, on Brainbridge Island, Washington.

    Theodore Roethke - Key takeaways

    • Theodore Roethke is an American poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1953 poetry book, The Waking.
    • The poet was an eccentric, effective writing teacher at numerous universities.
    • Theodore Roethke's poetry was heavily influenced by nature.
    • The poet's writing style is personal and introspective.
    • Notable poems by Theodore Roethke include "My Papa's Waltz," "The Waking," and Elegy for Jane."
    Frequently Asked Questions about Theodore Roethke

    Who is Theodore Roethke?

    Theodore Roethke is one of the most influential contemporary American poets. 

    What was Theodore Roethke known for?

    Theodore Roethke is best known for his poetry book, The Waking, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954.

    What is Theodore Roethke's most famous poem?

    Theodore Roethke's most famous poems are "The Waking" and "My Papa's Waltz."

    What mental illness did Theodore Roethke have?

    Theodore Roethke had manic depression.

    Where was Theodore Roethke born?

    Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan on May 25, 1908.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What does the epitaph of the poem say?

    The poet mentions Jane's great capacity for which of the following?

    Which of the following birds does the poet not metaphorically compare Jane to? 

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