By Susan Pinkus fromExplicator, Summer, 1992
ROETHKE'S THE WAKING
When a poem takes dead aim on the eternal we should not be surprised that it draws many interpretations. Neal Bowers sees the key to the cryptic opening lines of "The Waking," and consequently to the entire poem, as a matter of grammar. If you read "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow" as a prepositional phrase rather than an infinitive, Bowers writes, then sleep becomes a condition, not a process, and therefore a kind of revelation or understanding (51-53). The conclusion that sleep is an awakening is true enough, but it does not account for the mystical use of the paradox that informs the poem, where sleeping and waking, living and dying, dissolve into the vision of oneness with the universe. Jay Parini perceives "The Waking" as evidence of the poet's "steady movement toward self-transcendence on `the long journey out of the self'" (173). Richard Allen Blessing describes "The Waking" as "a world in process about a world in process" (223). This is more metaphor than statement and perhaps the only way to approach the vision of Roethke's poem. Both Parini and Blessing sense the mystical nature of the poem. Neither, however, shows precisely how it comes about.
Roethke's "The Waking," as we know, is a villanelle, an elaborate, fixed form of five tercets and a quatrain. The villanelle is built on only two rhymes, with the two key lines of the first stanza alternately repeated as the last line of each tercet and joined together in the closing quatrain. The two key lines of the poem are "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow" and "I learn by going where I have to go." The repetition of these lines gradually unfolds the meaning of the poem. The lines weave in and out through this short poem like an incantation. We follow the movement of waking and going, waking and going, until we feel like a leaf caught in the current of the lines and the words. Where the actual lines are not repeated, the sound pattern takes over. Except for three halfrhymes, the vowel sounds of "wake" and "go" and "fear" carry us from verse to verse, echoing the central lines in every single line of the poem. The end-stopped lines enforce the rhyme, which slows the movement only to heighten the circular sound pattern of assonance and interlocking rhyme. This effect leads us from one verse to the next in a kind of endless movement that suggests the perpetual cycle from birth to death. It is hard to imagine another form that would express this cyclical movement more effectively than the villanelle.
The meaning of the key lines of the poem adds definition to the sense created by the poem's form. Waking to sleep, and learning by going where you have to go are both paradoxes. A paradox is a statement containing two diametrically opposite ideas, such as sleeping and waking, that ultimately join together in one meaning. The effect is circular, like traveling east as far as you can go to reach the west. Because the poem is built on a series of paradoxes, the meaning of the poem becomes as circular as its sound pattern. The effect of a circular form and a circular content adds to the mystical nature of the poem. The circle is the ultimate mystery of our lives. As the poem develops, however, the meaning of the paradoxes becomes clear.
The first verse establishes the central paradox: "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow." The precise meaning, at this point, is not clear. The next line, "I feel my fate in what I cannot fear," is another paradox. Normally, we fear fate because it is unknown, because it cannot be felt or anticipated. By feeling fate rather than fearing it, you accept it rather than resist it. The last line of the tercet unifies the stanza's meaning. To learn by going means to move without a specific goal, simply accepting "where [you] have to go," which is your fate. Now the first line becomes clearer. Sleep becomes the state that the poet must reach to awake and discover this acceptance. The multilayered meanings of "wake" and "waking" can now be unraveled. Being awake is normally a more conscious state than being asleep. But in the poem, being awake is the unenlightened, pedantic state in which only logic guides us. Here is the paradox. To sleep is to acquire the vision that releases us from the involvement of our intellect and helps us drift into the acceptance of our fate. To "take my waking slow" may have at least two meanings. First, it is the speaker's reluctance to move back from the visionary experience (sleep) into the ordinary world of the intellect, that is, to wake up slowly in the ordinary sense. As the poem develops, the visionary sense of the phrase becomes more and more dominant. To wake up slowly is to become slowly more aware of the full sense of the visionary experience, as we drift from the myopic intellectual world to the visionary world of the spirit, where we become at one with the eternal force. This is the kind of complexity that runs through the poem.
The second stanza rejects the intellect as the road to enlightenment. To "think by feeling" is another paradox. The poem asks, "What is there to know?" The implied answer is that there is nothing "to know." Life can only be felt. From here it is one short step into ecstasy: "I hear my being dance from ear to ear." The fusion of the senses of sight and sound and the sensation of one's being throbbing to the rhythm of life dissolves into the repetition of the first line of the poem. This time there is no ambiguity in the meaning of this line. Waking to sleep is to dissolve into the trance. We are a part of the visionary experience.
The vision continues into the next stanza. Of "those so close beside me," he asks--friend or lover, alive or dead, it is difficult to say-- "Which are you," the waking or the sleeping? Again Roethke plays with the paradoxical meanings of waking and sleeping. To these meanings he now adds a further layer, the living or the dead. Are the dead, being an organic part of this living world, more alive than the living? In the next line, the word ground is capitalized. The ground is not simply an object but the life force, where the dead body dissolves, nourishes new life, and continues the cycle. In this sense, the repetition of the second of the key lines ("And learn by going where I have to go") makes clear that death is the fate that he "cannot fear."
From the ground and death we move through the cycle to the growing things, the light of life, the "Tree," the lowly worm climbing "the winding stair." The imagery here is mystical and visionary. We cannot explain what drives the cycle. We can, however, sense the mystery and feel a part of it.
In the next stanza, the last tercet, we come back from the vision to this world, "Great Nature," with the understanding of our mortality. With our new enlightenment we can see how we must live this side of the grave. We must take "the lively air" and let fate, our partner, lead us in the dance of life.
The first line of the final stanza unifies the entire poem. Within the paradox of keeping steady by shaking, we find an explanation of the seemingly opposed forces of life and death. The "shaking" is both the fear of accepting mortality and the ecstasy of absolute openness to experience. The point where fear and ecstasy meet, where logic becomes vision, where death changes to life, is the point on which we must balance. Because we are alive, we must deal with the physical part of nature. Because we are human beings, we must transcend the physical and experience the vision of our interconnection with all living things. Within this vision we perceive that " [W]hat falls away is always. And is near." What dies is perpetuated by the cycle of life, so that the worlds of the living and the dead are never fully separate. In this last stanza is the final meaning of "The Waking."
We are still somehow removed from the effect of Roethke's poem. We must return to the harmony of its form and content. Ultimately, we perceive the poem as we would a piece of music, not in its themes and philosophy, but in the blending of sound, tone, movement, and recurring motifs. When we join this to the metaphor, we sense something of the beauty and complexity of Roethke's poem. It is as vibrant and fragile and mysterious as the circle of our lives--birth and decay, life and death--that inspired this poem.
Blessing, Richard Allen. Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1974.
Bowers, Neal. "Roethke's `The Waking.'" Explicator 40.3 (1982): 51-53.
Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1987.
Parini, Jay. "Blake and Roethke: When Everything Comes to One." Theodore Roethke. Ed. Harold Bloom. New Haven: Chelsea House, 1988.
Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
By SUSAN PINKUS, West Vancouver, B.C.
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Source: Explicator, Summer92, Vol. 50 Issue 4, p241, 4p.