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 best 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...