Symbol of the Journey in Theodore Roethke's North American Sequence

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Faculty of Philology English Department
American Poetry and Poetics

The symbol of the journey in
Theodore Roethke’s “North American Sequence”


The poetry of Theodore Roethke is marked by the quest for identity and in this essay I want to discuss the nature of the journey as main theme in “North American Sequence”, the first part of his last volume The Far Field (1964). The concept of journey as a spiritual search, a journey out of self, with the detours taken before reaching a destination, pushes the “I” in this sequence into movement, into discovering the poet’s true place. I decided to start with the poem “Journey to the Interior” because here the poet achieves a deeper self awareness, he learns acceptance even though he discovers that he sees what he wishes to see. The second poem I chose, “The Far Field”, shows the poet making a journey backwards into his childhood when he first encountered death. The questions of life, death and eternity appear but the poet assumes them with confidence. The last poem in my essay “The Rose” brings a beautiful ending to this sequence. The poem shows that the poet has reached an even deeper understanding of his life and that he has found his “true place”. The sequence as a whole is a spiritual search for maturity.

Theodore Roethke, the poet

Theodore Roethke’s personal lyrics derive their subject matter and imagery from his past experiences. As a young man, Roethke lived in close proximity to nature, and “he had keenly meditated the nursery world of flowers and plants in a greenhouse owned by his father. Sometimes, nature becomes the projection of his psychic landscape and moods; at other times, it is completely separate from him” (El Kareem Elsayed 5). Neal Bowers notes Roethke tries “to get outside himself by breaking down the walls of flesh to free his spirit…but he turned within himself for a route to the outside” (qtd in El Kareem Elsayed 5). William Meredith, in anatomizing the sources of Roethke’s imagery, says: “In recounting a spiritual autobiography he tells us what he feels about cats and dogs, hot and cold, father and mother, trees, weeds, birds, stones, and fish, and about his special imagery, the wind” (qtd in El Kareem Elsayed 5). Theodore Roethke is seen as an intensively introspective poet who focuses on himself as subject in his poems. His most successful device is his use of symbols found in his intimate associations with nature that started with the greenhouse (Southworth, “The Poetry of Theodore Roethke 326). The Far Field is the last volume of poetry Roethke wrote before he died in 1963. Published posthumously the volume is separated in four sections: “North American Sequence”, “Love Poems”, “Mixed Sequence” and “Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical”. The poems in ”North American Sequence” represent an extension of the poet’s endless preoccupation with the idea of the self and with the contradictions between body and spirit. The temporal scheme of this sequence is a mixture of isolated moments of joy and sorrow with a lifetime of experiences. The poet’s exploration goes back to his youth years in “Journey to the Interior” and even more backwards to his childhood memories in “The Far Field”, only to come back in the final poem of this sequence to a mystical present in “The Rose” (Staples 190). The poet states his themes symbolically and directly, the meaning is always clear, using vocabulary of everyday life, with speech rhythms familiar to the readers (Southworth, “Theodore Roethke: The Far Field” 414). The sequences successfully fuse, as Valéry says “the greatest number of independent parts or factors: sense, the real and the imaginary, logic, syntax, and the double invention of content and form” (qtd in Southworth, Theodore Roethke: The Far Field 414). The visual images dominate and the symbolic landscape, as the title of the sequence suggests, is drawn from The North American continent....
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