I stumbled across this Roethke poem again recently and it has been years since I’ve tried to tackle Roethke. I always found his language a bit thick and dated, like trying to swallow a date thick with honey. This particular poem has nothing to do with my current mind set, but has everything to do with Roethke as he battled mental illness, which I believe was simply eccentric behavior in response to his Uncle’s suicide and father’s death in the same year when he was only 15. Reading this poem several times I’ve found plenty of evergreen images, a consuming duality, but the overall idea of finding oneself not necessarily requires, but is aided by those dark, breakdown moments we all experience. I think there’s definitely some truth in this “…the tough get going.” declaration. You’ll also find hints of this style of language in Roethke’s most famous students James Wright and Richard Hugo. Anyhow, there’s one sentence in particular that sums up this poem in case you don’t feel like reading it and that’s “My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.”
In A Dark Time
by Theodore Roethke
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 a 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 summer 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.