Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan in March of 1908. His father, Otto, was an immigrant from Germany and worked as a market-gardener and owned a large local 25-acre green house. It was within this greenhouse that much of Theodore’s childhood was spent. It is likely that this early natural influence was what stimulated his later interest in natural subject matter. Roethke’s early life was marked with tragedy when in 1923 his father died and his uncle committed suicide.
As a young man Roethke attended the University of Michigan from which he graduated with honours and earned a BA. After his initial education he spent a brief period of time at the University of Michigan Law School before transferring to Harvard University. It was here he worked with the poet Robert Hillyer. These studies were later also abandoned during the Great Depression. He took up work as an English teacher in universities throughout the northeast. Some of these included Pennsylvania State University, Bennington College and Lafayette College.
A number of years later he was expelled from his position at Lafayette and returned to Michigan. While teaching he came into contact with a number of students who would go on to make important careers for themselves such as Tess Gallagher and James Wright. It was also here that he began to suffer from manic depression, a condition which only exacerbated his already intense periods of writing. In 1941 he published the collection, Open House. It was followed seven years later by The Lost Son and Other Poems. Roethke’s poetry is noted for its introspective nature, a factor which drew the great writer Sylvia Plath to his works.
Later Life and Writings
In 1952 he received a Ford Foundation grant. He spent the next months in deep study of existential works by writers such as Sören Kierkegaard and Evelyn Underhill. One year later he married Beatrice O’Connell who was a former student. Throughout his life Roethke suffered from alcoholism and bouts of mental illness but nevertheless managed to published Praise to the End! In 1951, The Waking in 1953 and Words For the Wind in 1958.
In 1963 Roethke suffered a heart attack in a friend’s swimming pool. He died soon after on Bainbridge Island, Washington at the age of 55. After his death his wife, Beatrice, insured the publication of his final volume of poetry, The Far Field as well as a collection of Children’s verse, Dirty Dinky and Other Creatures.