There is “desolation in immaculate public places,” the poet writes in the first stanza. Although the poet’s speaker never explicitly states what he’s talking about, by bringing the accumulated images together, readers get a picture of an oppressive world that no one should want to be a part of. The speaker is opposed to the confinement of work-life and, through the lines of ‘Dolor,’ shares his feelings. It should be noted that no solution to these problems is presented.
The speaker spends the lines of this poem emphasizing how mournful and lonely objects like pencils, paper, and paperweights are. By using personification in this way, he’s able to relate these objects to a particular state of affairs. Someone who spends their whole life going from home to work and work to home will see these things over and over again. The structures of this kind of life are draining and dangerous. The standardized grey faces of people who endure this are brought into the poem in the final lines.
You can read the full poem here.
I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
In the first line of ‘Dolor,’ the speaker begins by noting, strangely, that he knows the “inexorable sadness of pencils.” There’s something in these tools that feels unavoidably sad. It’s something that is consistently conveyed through their presence in neat boxes. They are confined and organized in a way that’s tragically sad.
There is a similar tragedy and sadness, or “dolor” to the “pad and paperweight.” It’s organized and weighed down. It’s filled with “misery” like the “manilla folders and mucilage,” or glue.
Although some may not see it this way, the speaker sees the “desolation in immaculate public places.” These places are stripped of their possible interest and beauty through their sorrowful organization.
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
The following four lines continue the same atmosphere as the first four began. The speaker describes more mundane images, made worse by the way they are organized and contained. There is a ritual to the bits and pieces of everyday life that feels oppressive. These objects and “lives” are duplicated. The poet’s speaker takes the reader through recognizable images but casts them in what’s likely a new light. He’s imbuing everything with emotion. The world is lonely and unalterable. The duplication of days and personalities, and activities is a sorrowful thing to consider in his mind.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.
The final lines bring in more images. These include the “walls of institutions” and the tedium of long afternoons. The speaker is thinking of a specific experience but has broadened it to make it applicable and relatable. He’s describing what feels like a confining and demoralizing situation/place. The world of sorrowful objects, actions, and experiences result in this tedium and danger. The “standard” grey faces are pale and terrifying. They result from a total submersion in this world, something the speaker is warning against.
Structure and Form
‘Dolor’ by Theodore Roethke is a thirteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem uses lines of different lengths, although they are fairly visually similar.
Throughout ‘Dolor,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially vivid descriptions. For example, “the inexorable sadness of pencils” and “Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica.”
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “pad” and “paper” in line two and “public places” in line four.
- Accumulation: occurs when the poet lists out or accumulates descriptions. Together, they create a broad picture of a scene or experience. In this case, he moves quickly, listing out quotes like: “Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard” and “Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma, / Endless duplication of lives and objects.”
- Personification: occurs when the author imbues non-human things with human characteristics. For example, “the inexorable sadness of pencils.”
The meaning is that a world filled with mundane routines can result in a dark and lonely life. The poet emphasized the simple “sorrowful” objects of everyday life and related them to “grey standard faces” of people consumed by this world.
The purpose is to remind readers of the dangers of becoming too consumed by the structures and mundanity of everyday life. Societal rules and restrictions, as well as allusions to confining work life, are all to be considered in this poem.
The tone is direct and mournful. The speaker is well-informed about their topic and addresses it head-on. They do not try to make things sound better than they are. In fact, they emphasize the darkness in places one might not expect.
The speaker is someone who is opposed to the everyday life that society crafts for most individuals. So opposed, in fact, that they imbue simple objects like pencils in a box with feelings of sorrow and oppression.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Dolor,’ should also consider reading other Theodore Roethke poems. For example:
- ‘Elegy for Jane’ -uses intense natural images to depict a deceased young woman and the love the speaker has for her.
- ‘In a Dark Time’ – a powerful, short poem about identity. The speaker contends with their mental health while exploring their darkness.
- ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ – a surprisingly dark poem. It depicts a possibly abusive father who “waltzes” his son to bed.
- ‘I Knew a Woman’ – describes a relationship between a devoted man and his lover, with whom he is completely obsessed.