Theodore Roethke's The Lost Son

Theodore Roethke has long been one of my favorite poets.  "Dolor," "The Minimal," "My Papa's Waltz," and "The Waking" are foundational pieces in my appreciation of poetry, but I realized recently that I knew very little about the poet or his full body of work.  I didn't know, for instance, that he spent much of his childhood in his family's 25-acre greenhouse.  I didn't know that so much of his early work dealt with the natural, physical world of roots and stems and soil.  I didn't know that 3 of my aforementioned favorite poems and much of his best known work comes from the small collection The Lost Son

Published in 1949, The Lost Son is divided into 4 sections.  The first is the longest and comprises his "floral" collection.  The second is my favorite, not only because it includes "My Papa's Waltz" and "Dolor."  The third returns to the natural world but takes a wider view; it includes "The Minimal." Finally, the fourth section, holding only four longer poems (including the title poem), feels much more mature, more ambitious in scope and subject.

"The Lost Son" either anticipates or reveals the mental depression Roethke would suffer from during his lifetime.  The opening line refers to Woodlawn, the cemetery where Roethke's father was buried.  The struggle of the "lost son" to determine his identity in the body of his loss is definitely seen, although through a cloudy lens, in this poem.  I love this passage from the first stanza of section 1, "The Flight":

I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time. (6-11)

The poem is deliberately fragmented, lacking in cohesion of form or subject, but the questioning and questing feeling is consistent.  There is a heaviness in each line, except perhaps the last few from the untitled section 5:

Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
Yet still?

A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.
Wait. (18-25)

Another interesting side-note from this collection is that section 3 includes a poem called "The Waking," but it is not the one that Roethke is well-known for.  In fact, it is not a very good poem at all.  A few of the poems that were new to me that I liked particularly were "Judge Not" from section 2 and "Flower-Dump" and "Old Florist" and "Root Cellar" from section 1.  Though I don't love the whole poem, I do like the opening lines of "Last Words" from section 2:

Solace of kisses and cookies and cabbage,
That fine fuming stink of particular kettles,
Muttony tears falling on figured linoleum,

Frigidaires snoring the sleep of plenty (1-4).

The revelation of those everyday impressions is something I always appreciate, something I often strive for in my own work, albeit without regular satisfaction.

Once again, a poetry collection has given me a few quiet moments to dwell in a different world.  I am so thankful for those moments and for Roethke and for all those who try to capture their words under glass and watch them begin to bead up, to sweat, to breathe.


  1. Anonymous said...Sara, this is Bob from BOTG. I have finally finished "Room." I really wanted to like it, but found myself underwhelmed throughout. The continuing inconsistencies in Jack's narrative that kept reminding me that this really isn't a 5-year-old never went away. I was really bothered by the pacing of the novel, as well. Unlike your other commenters, I was flat-out bored by much of what happened after the escape. Only the ending, where Jack really rises to the occasion ("I'm deciding for both of us!") and forces his mother and himself to confront the place of evil, really moved me. But the problem may be mine; I think I was expecting something else. I think when there's a Grendel out there, a reader needs more contact with it.

  2. Yes, Bob, that was my sentiment almost exactly. I didn't like the second part much at all. I love, too, your reference to Grendel. One of my favorite villains and such a good example of how we shrink from the truth in order to remain safe.

  3. Lovely post on an author I see discussed so infrequently!

    The title poem of this collection is one of my, I don't know, maybe five favorite poems of all time. It inhabits to such a beautiful extent the tergiversations of a descent into depression, capturing certain mindsets that most depictions don't. Like the giddiness that overtakes a person at a certain point in the depressiveness spiral, when all the thing you thought mattered are no longer important & it's almost freeing. And then those final lines. Breathtaking. They have sustained me more than a time or two.

  4. Also breathtaking? The word tergiversations. I'd never heard of it before, and it is a lovely thing indeed.

    Welcome home, Emily? Or are you still reveling in France? I've been away for a few days, myself, so I have quite a few posts to catch up on. Thanks for your comments here. I think I didn't fully recognize that quality of giddiness until you mentioned it, and then - WHAM - I felt it swirling around that poem with certainty. And yes, those final lines should be imprinted on our collective memories at times, should they not?