American poet and teacher Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) is considered a major poet of his generation. He demonstrated a wide range of styles and growing awareness of how to transform his love of nature into a vehicle for expressing his mystical visions.
Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Mich., on May 25, 1908. The family owned the largest greenhouses in the state. He called his home "a wonderful place for a child to grow up in and around"—25 acres under glass in town and "the last stand of virgin timber in the Saginaw Valley" out in the country.
Roethke claimed to have hated high school; nevertheless, he continued his education, earning a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Michigan (1929) and spending 1930-1931 at Harvard. He began teaching at Lafayette College (1931), later taught at Pennsylvania State College, then moved to Bennington as assistant professor of English (1943). By 1947 he had settled at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 1962 he was appointed poet in residence in addition to being professor of English. Awards and honors were frequent during these years, including a Pulitzer Prize (1953), the Bollingen Prize, the National Book Award (1958), and even a posthumous National Book Award for his last poems, The Far Field (1964).
Roethke began writing prose in high school but switched to poetry in graduate school (encouraged by Robert Hillyer and I. A. Richards). His first book, Open House, appeared in 1941. These short, intense lyrics demonstrated superior craftsmanship as well as a generous, ebullient personality: "My heart keeps open house,/ My doors are widely swung./ … I'm naked to the bone,/ With nakedness my shield./ Myself is what I wear:/ I keep the spirit spare." Years later Roethke said: "In those first poems I had begun, like the child, with small things and had tried to make plain words do the trick. Somewhat later, in 1945, I began a series of longer pieces which try, in their rhythms, to catch the movement of the mind itself, to trace the spiritual history of a protagonist (not 'I' personally but all haunted and harried men)."
The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), a group of remarkable poems, traces Roethke's spiritual biography and celebrates growing up in the atmosphere of greenhouses. His moving elegy "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze" is almost equaled by "Big Wind," "Root Cellar," and "The Lost Son." Praise to the End! (1951) was followed by The Waking (1953) and Words for the Wind (1958). By this time Roethke's reputation was firmly established as a superb metaphysical poet. "I learn by going where I have to go," he wrote in an early poem, and in the last years of his life he was taking his verse into the province of his master, W. B. Yeats: visionary lyrics, interior monologues, projected personae, transmuted life. He died on Aug. 1, 1963, of a heart attack. Had Roethke lived longer, he might well have surpassed his masters.
Roethke's Collected Poems appeared in 1966. Ralph J. Mills, Jr., edited Selected Letters (1968) and a volume of selected prose, On the Poet and His Craft (1965). The only biography of Roethke is Allan Seager, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke (1968). The major critical study is Karl Malkoff, Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry (1966). Arnold Stein, ed., Theodore Roethke: Essays on the Poetry (1965), contains an introduction by the editor and essays by critics.
Wolff, George, Theodore Roethke, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981. □