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Analysis of Poem "The Waking" by Theodore Roethke

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke and The Waking

The Waking is an enigmatic villanelle written in 1953, a year after he got married. In it the poet puts forward various ideas about life and how to live it, all within the traditional rhyming and iambic pentameter form.

  • A villanelle is based on repeated lines (a refrain) that connect each stanza as the poem progresses, a reflection of the original meaning of the word - a peasant song from Italy, taken up by the French.

Theodore Roethke's poetry is known for its exploration of the self through reflection on family and nature; there is plenty of depth and technical skill. His mental illness also caused him to look into the darkness from time to time, recording his inner life in personal poems.

Growing up, he spent lots of time in his father's garden and greenhouses and soil and plants and roots and things often turn up in his work. In fact the greenhouse, for Roethke, was a symbol 'for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth.'

The Waking doesn't contain a greenhouse but it does have symbolism and takes the reader into unexpected places. Slightly meditative and hypnotic, it is both introspective and positive in its outlook.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Analysis of The Waking Stanza By Stanza

First Stanza

The first person speaker introduces to the reader a paradox, that is, a contradictory logic-defying statement. Here is someone awake yet asleep, a somewhat confused state to be in. If this anonymous speaker has his eyes open he still feels as if he's asleep; or does he wake with eyes closed and take all morning, all day, all of his life to fully wake up?

Is there a suggestion of enlightenment as the speaker, now consciously awake, comes to realize that there is nothing to be afraid of. Note the alliterative flourish...feel...fate...fear.

Destiny is more tangible; there's a refreshed outlook on life, a new determination. The speaker clearly has strong feelings and is emotionally certain of what the future holds.

Learning will come naturally if he 'goes with the flow.' This could be an educational learning, as in someone going off to university for example, or it could be that the speaker learns about himself because he's following his heart.

Second Stanza

Again, the first four words are a paradox of sorts. The speaker suggests that we (all humans) have rational thoughts based on what we feel. We're emotional creatures, rather than logical. We're not machines. We articulate feelings, end of story. Perhaps we already know too much, or maybe we'll never get to know exactly just how the psychology of being works.

The speaker is listening with a big fat smile across his face as his essence dances. Is this a solo dance? Or one involving the self? The reader is challenged to fathom this line out - how deep is our existence, the knowledge that we exist fully in the dance of life?

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The opening line is repeated as if to emphasise the idea of cherishing each and every moment we're alive.

Meter & Rhyme - The Waking

The Waking has 19 lines made up of five tercets and one quatrain, mostly in iambic pentameter, that is, five beats per line:

  • I wake / to sleep, / and take / my wak / ing slow.

The end rhymes help connect the whole poem and are a mix of full and slant:

  • slow/go, know/slow, you/go, how/slow, do/go, know/slow/go AND fear/ear/there/stair/air/near.

Alliteration occurs in the second line - I feel my fate in what I cannot fear - and also in the fifteenth and sixteenth lines.

More Analysis

Third Stanza

The opening line is up close and personal as the speaker asks an intimate question, to himself and the reader. Perhaps the speaker is walking beside someone - the reader is definitely close to and beside the speaker; neither would fully exist without the other. Would the poem still exist without the reader? Only in the mind of the poet?

Are we on holy ground? The introduction of God suggests this, and the blessing is directly associated with blood, with sacrficie, with those who are in the ground. The capital letter G suggests that this is more than simple dirt, this is the Earth itself, which the speaker respects by treading lightly - he doesn't want to wake the dead?

The speaker reinforces the idea of learning as he goes, a near repeat of the third line.

Fourth Stanza

More natural imagery for the reader to digest - influenced perhaps by Dylan Thomas - in the shape of a Tree, again with capital T suggesting thast this is no ordinary tree but the Tree of Life, or a Family Tree.

Again that verb take enters the fray. Light takes the Tree, meaning that the Tree experiences light in a certain way, a unique way, which the human mind cannot ever fully grasp. Science may be able to rationalise, deduce and reduce - you know, photosynthesis and all that - but the scientist cannot ever fully feel what it is to be that Tree created from light.

Even a worm can ascend to the heights. Evolution in action or some kind of spiritual hierarchy at work?

In this context ignorance is truly bliss, especially for the speaker who is still in the process of learning, from the worm, from the light, from the Tree, from the Ground up.

Further Analysis

Fifth Stanza

So the speaker is gradually waking up by always learning, going softly to wherever it is he has to go (perhaps deep inside himself). Nature will eventually catch up with him (and you, the reader, or an unnamed partner?), and that'll be that.

As to what this act of Nature is, well, the reader is again challenged. The language suggests that the speaker has a close partner, a lover, a wife, a husband, a friend - so this natural act could be anything from death to conception.

The repeat of take implies experience, so the speaker is encouraging a partner (lovely) to live and also to learn. This positive togetherness has taken four stanzas to develop.

Sixth Stanza

Note the sequence of contrasts as the poem progresses:

wake - sleep

think - feeling

shaking - steady

falls away - is near

The shaking could be an allusion to love, or it could be a reference to the poet's mental instability (Theodore Roethke spent time in hospital for mental breakdowns), which would make the second clause - I should know - understandable.

What falls away is gone forever - people, things, love, life, memory, time, sense - and these losses happen all the time to anybody, anywhere. They are close by, the line is thin, fate fickle.

In conclusion, the quatrain sums up the speaker's spiritual sensitivity. His learning and therefore his continued existence, depends on the journey - within and without - and he's happy to take at least one close person with him, whilst the rest of us look on, hopefully dancing from ear to ear, feeling what it is they just thought.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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