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Darien McElwee
English 1 Pre-AP
11 February 2013
Theodore Roethke’s Conflict and Loneliness: An Examination of His Poetry, His Early
Adulthood, and the Effects of War on Families
A quote by Wayne Dyer states that, “You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re
alone with”. In that case, are we as people only ever truly lonely, because we are alone or
because we fear being alone with the past memories that have shaped us into the person that we
have become? In Theodore Roethke’s poetry there are multiple uses of dark imagery and a
reoccurring motif of the individual feeling like he is misplaced in the world and wants to escape
the cruel reality of life through any means and discover who he is, which was influenced by
Roethke’s loneliness in his adolescent years that he constantly wished to escape and the
desperation of the families of the soldiers who were drafted to fight in World War II.
The reoccurring use of gloomy imagery present in Roethke’s poems establishes a
constant feeling of loneliness and a key motif that highlights the desperate need for one to break
away from reality. In his poem “Silence,” Roethke describes himself as a “spirit crying in a
cage” (11) because of the unspoken words he desperately wishes to hear. Roethke is represented
as a spirit longing to hear words that cannot be spoken, which emphasizes how this silence
doesn’t just affect him mentally but goes beyond that and engulfs his spiritual being as well.
While his spirit crying in a cage highlights his frustration of being trapped in the silence, because
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he is unable to break away, so the only thing that he is able to do is constantly weep because of
his imprisonment. In an additional poem, Roethke says that “Nobody Sniggered and Mocked”
(“The Boy and the Bush” 6) the boy who talked to a bush, “Because Nobody Heard” (8). The
lonely boy talking to a bush helps give the reader insight to Roethke’s early adulthood when his
peers would not only laugh and tease him but snigger and mock him for having no friends. While
the boy going to the bush to escape the cruel reality of his mocking peers highlights how even at
a young age the boy had a desperate need to escape to a place where nobody would be there to
hurt him but where he could still have a friend. In one of Roethke’s more direct poems about
being lost and wanting to escape reality, “Against Disaster,” he writes that his spirit is “random,
wasted, and dispersed” (Poetry for Students” 5) and now his “special heaven is reversed…/ [and
the] land has become a pit” (7, 9). Roethke describing his spirit as random, wasted, and dispersed
highlights how the chaos in his life has recklessly broken and torn apart not only his mind but
even his spirit. While his special heaven becoming a pit emphasizes how even the one unique
place where he could find serenity has now become just another place filled with darkness that
makes him miserable. The reoccurring motif in Roethke’s poems of needing an escape from the
truth of life gives the reader insight into the troubles he faced in his personal life because of not
having any friends and why Roethke constantly uses dark imagery to explain his characters
feeling toward their lives and the world around them.
Theodore Roethke’s lack of friends and drinking problems during his teenage years
greatly contributed to Roethke’s examination of loneliness and trying to find an escape from a
unfair world in his poems. During his high school years, Roethke was never accepted by his
classmates, because they felt that “brains were for sissies” (Poetry Foundation), so he would
never fit in. Being mocked for being intelligent at such an early age affected Roethke by making
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him lose self confidence and making him feel as if he needed to change himself so that he could
fit in with the rest of his peers. As a result, Roethke turned to poetry as a sanctuary and as a place
where he could escape the reality of his mocking peers by creating characters that represent
himself in a place where they are not made fun of or in a place where they are surrounded by
darkness and their world is filled with misery, both of which Roethke felt during his early
adulthood. The insecurity of being too smart led Roethke to start drinking so he could “be in with
the guys” (Poetry Foundation) and was nicknamed “dancing bear” (Connaroe). A dancing bear
represents a foolish animal that is used only for someone else’s entertainment which highlights
Roethke’s constant struggle of never having a true friend that actually loved him which made
him never able to fit in with the other people around him. The abandonment he had to face every
day of his high school years drove him to emphasize a reoccurring pattern in his poems about the
individual’s feelings of detachment towards the people and world around him. When he was
fourteen years old Roethke’s father died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide which “left
him with feelings of guilt and abandonment that were to haunt him throughout his life”
(Connaroe). Even though Roethke’s father and uncle were not a big part of his life, they were
still his family and one of the few people who would unconditionally love him, and their death
highlights how now that those two people are gone Roethke is completely alone and he feels
guilt for not appreciating them more. The new abandonment produced by his family’s death,
especially his father, caused Roethke to write poems with a motif about his father and the
emptiness he feels now that he is gone and his desperation for him to come back so that he could
tell him all the things he took for granted from his father when he was still alive. As Roethke gets
older he discovers that he can never take any of the comfort he receives for granted, and even
though he may be hurt in reality he can escape to poetry to express his feelings of misery or
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darkness through characters that represent the problems he feels about himself or the world
around him.
During Roethke’s adulthood, many of his poems were influenced by World War II and
the loneliness and desperation of the families of the soldiers who were drafted to fight in the war.
Sons who were taken away from their fathers to become soldiers felt “robbed of their childhood”
(“The American Family in World War II”). The sons who were too young to go to war usually
never saw their father again, because he probably would have been killed in battle which
emphasizes how the children were forced to grow up without a father to care for them and were
only left with the memories of him before the war split apart their family. The loneliness of the
many fatherless families during Roethke’s adulthood due to the war emphasized the motif of the
loneliness that he and the other families felt, because Roethke had to grow up fatherless and now
these children are being forced to grow up fatherless also even though both Roethke and the
families desperately yearn for the return of their fathers. Since many of the father’s were killed
during the war, eventually “five million ‘war widows’ [were] trying to care for their children
alone” (“The American Family in World War II). Since husbands were also the workers and
providers of families, when they were killed in combat many of the women were forced to go
into poverty, because they were unable to provide for their children on the low paying jobs given
to them while the men were off at war. The poverty and desperation of the dying families in
Roethke’s society is shown through the multiple instances of dark imagery which is used to
highlight the misery that the war has brought upon these families. However, while facing the
chaos of the war, Roethke stayed sane by remembering one of his main tropes of his life which is
to always “[establish] a personal identity, a self in the face of… chaos” (Roethke). Even though
there was poverty and complete crisis surrounding Roethke he was actively able to ignore it all
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and focus on discovering his identity which highlights that Roethke is trying change himself and
discover why he is who he is instead of staying alone in isolation from the rest of the world. This
discovery of himself is shown through Roethke’s occasional poems about an adventurous
individual who seeks to discover something about the world or him even when the world around
him is full of misery. Roethke’s connection to the fatherless families of World War II influenced
him to continue his motif of the loneliness and desperation of not having a father but also
influenced him to find out his own identity apart from just being a poet without a father.
By the definition of loneliness by Wayne Dyer, Theodore Roethke’s loneliness was
caused by his painful memories of being fatherless at a young age and being constantly mocked
for not having any friends, not because he was physically alone; this caused him to write poems
with a reoccurring motif of the individual in his story feeling like he is misplaced in the world
and wants to discover who he actually is. The fatherless families in World War II also affected
Roethke’s poetry, because he could relate to the loneliness and desperation of yearning for their
father to come back to them, but also made Roethke discover that the lonely individual he always
wrote about for so many years was actually himself.
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Works Cited
Conarroe, Joel. Eight American Poets: Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, John
Berryman, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, James Merrill : An Anthology.
New York: Random House, 1994. Print.
Poetry for Students. Vol. 3. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1997. Print.
Roethke, Theodore. The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1975.
Roethke, Theodore. On Poetry and Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke. Port Townsend,
WA: Copper Canyon, 2001. Print.
"The American Family in World War II." The American Family in World War II. N.p., n.d. Web.
09 Feb. 2013.
"Theodore Roethke." : The Poetry Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2013.