Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sunday Poem: Theodore Roethke

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood --
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks -- is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is --
Death of the self in a long tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) taught at the University of Washington, in Seattle, for most of his career. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for The Waking: Poems 1933-1953. His early work is marked by plant imagery of growth and decay, which was a result of growing up around his father's greenhouse and its strangely beautiful dance of life and death. He also shows a mystic side of himself that sometimes echoes William Butler Yeats, as is evident in the poem above.

Like many of Roethke's poems, this one moves from despair toward hope. The final two lines are as transcendent as Roethke ever was in any of his verse. That this poem was among his last stands as a testament to the lifelong process of how far Roethke would go to find out who he was.

This is a classic "Dark Night of the Soul" poem, both in its literal context and in its thematic elements. Roethke encounters his shadow, knows "the purity of pure despair," feels himself to be on an edge, and experiences the "death of the self." Yet he climbs out of his fear--having lost the discernment of "which I is I"--and out of this despair emerges an experience of oneness with God.

All of us go through hard times, and if we are on a path of spiritual growth, no matter which faith or approach, we are sure to have one or more Dark Nights of our own. The finite self never wants to give up its hold on us, and in an effort to keep its place at the center of its world, it will drag us into the depths of hell. But it is the descent that makes transcendence possible, just as Roethke found in today's poem.
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