‘I Knew a Woman’ by Theodore Roethke is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of seven lines, or sestets. The poem was published in a section titled, “Love Poems” in Roethke’s collection, Words for the Wind, along with fifteen other short lyric pieces.
The rhyme scheme of this piece is slightly unusual in that the first four lines contain no rhyme at all, but later on, in the text, the stanzas follow a pattern of ababccc. A reader should also take note of the metrical pattern utilized by the poet, that of iambic pentameter. This is one of the most commonly used patterns in poetry and is defined by its separation of one line into five metrical feet or beats. These beats come in sets of two, the first being short, or unstressed, and the second long, or stressed
Due to the fact that this piece was written around the time of Roethke’s marriage, it has been proposed that the woman spoken of in the text is his wife, Beatrice O’Connell.
Summary of I Knew a Woman
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he “knew” a woman. This is evidence of a sexual connection between the two, a fact which will come back into the poem in a later line. They are very close to one another and the man sees her as being far greater than any other woman on the planet. Her life, cares, habits and features are divine, only to be truly understood by the gods.
In the next sections, he displays the amount of devotion he has for her. He would do anything at all that she asked and is willing to follow her around until he learns her every desire. The poem concludes with the speaker stating that his own freedom means nothing to him and that he is willing to throw it away to count time alongside her.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of I Knew a Woman
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;(…)Or English poets who grew up on Greek(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating that he “knew a woman.” This person was lovely on every level, from the surface of her skin to “her bones.” It is important to note the tense utilized by the poet in this line. One could interpret the use of the word “knew” rather than “know” as revealing the fact that the woman is no longer living. On the other hand, it could refer to a sexual connection between the two. He “knew” her in an intimate way.
The second line expands on the impact this woman has on the world. She is very close to the most beautiful elements of nature, such as the “small birds” which “sigh.” The woman “sigh[s] back at them.” They are able to interact, showing a connection between the speaker’s lover and the natural world.
The speaker then turns to describe how the woman physically moves through the world. She does so in “more ways than one,” as if she has an ability that is beyond that of any other. The next line speaks of her as being like a “bright container” that holds “shapes.” She is a source of undefinable beauty and interest.
The last three lines speak of her connection to a higher power. She is truly beyond that which anyone else could hope to obtain. Her “virtues” can only be defined by the “gods.” They are too ethereal and powerful for humankind to grasp. Roethke’s first stanza concludes with a number of rhyming lines and the statement that “English poets” should speak on the woman. She is a worthy muse for anyone’s writing.
How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;(…)Coming behind her for her pretty sake(But what prodigious mowing we did make).
In the next set of seven lines, the speaker describes the impact she has on him. It is with a few simple gestures that she is able to control his movements and thoughts. Her “wishes” always “went” exactly how she wanted. In fact, through her emotions, she is able to teach the speaker to act as she wishes.
The second and third lines of this stanza describe how obedient the speaker became to her touch. He would “Turn” and “Counter-turn,” as well as “Stand” and “Touch” whenever she wanted him to. The speaker learned exactly what the woman wanted and how he should touch “that undulant white skin.”
The following lines show the depth of the speaker’s obedience. He cared, and cares, so much for her affections that he will “nibbl[e] meekly from her proffered hand” if she lets him. He utilizes an analogy between a “sickle” which is used to cut down crops, and a “rake” which follows behind to clean up.
In this comparison, he is the rake and she the sickle. He will follow her without question. The speaker states that he would “Com[e] behind her for her pretty sake.” It is the simple essence of her being which entrances him. Together they made some “prodigious mowing.” Here is another euphemism for a sexual liaison. The two were successful in every encounter they had.
Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;(…)Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).
At the halfway point in this piece, the speaker turns to describe the nature of love itself. He uses another comparison in the first line to describe love “likes a gander” but will “adore a goose.” It is discerning and strong when committed to one individual.
The following lines speak on the “notes” the woman puts out into the world. It is with her “full lips pursed” that she “seizes” on any “errant” or offending “note.” She will not let anything pass her by which she does not see as suitable. That being said, when she does assert her control over another is does it “quick[ly],” loos[ely]” and “light[ly].” It is not with great effort that she makes her move, but with learned ease.
In the next four lines, the speaker takes note of a few individual elements of the woman’s body he is most taken by. These include her “flowing knees” and “several” other “parts” which are kept in “a pure repose.”
As has been well stated at this point, when she moves, the world moves. If she moves in her own “circles” so to do “those circles move.”It is as if she is not directed by the world, but in charge of directing it.
Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:I’m martyr to a motion not my own;(…)These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:(I measure time by how a body sways).
In the final set of seven lines, the speaker throws away all care for an independent life and tells the listener that he wants none of his own freedom. He is not interested in the workings of the larger world, “seed” can become “grass” and the “grass [can] turn into hay” but he will not take notice.
The speaker sees himself as being a “martyr” to a cause that isn’t his own. He has dedicated himself fully to this woman and given up his own “freedom…To know eternity.” She will provide him with access to a higher plane which is worth more than a normal life without her in it.
In the final lines, the woman is once more elevated beyond every other. Her shadow is said to be “white as stone.” She does not cast anything dark or dull out from her body, she is pure. In conclusion, the speaker reveals an amount of exhaustion from the trials he has gone through. He knows that his “old bones” will “live to learn her wanton ways.” He will do whatever it takes to continue to count time by “how a body sways.”