The poem is filled with incredible images of darkness and struggle. Roethke’s speaker, who may be the poet himself, is somewhere between innocence and corruption at the beginning of the poem. By the end, he’s completely turned over the latter and in the depths of his own madness. This allows him to draw close to God and find peace within ‘In a Dark Time.’
Explore In a Dark Time
‘In a Dark Time’ by Theodore Roethke is an unforgettable poem about darkness and the quest to understand one’s personal truth.
Throughout the stanzas of ‘In a Dark Time,’ the speaker contends with their own mental health and a “madness” that they’re exploring. It’s dark and consuming. By turning themselves over to it, they are by the end of the poem able to learn a great deal about themselves.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout ‘In a Dark Time,’ the poet engages with themes of identity, darkness, and mental health. The speaker is dealing with what he calls “madness.” As he dives deeper into it, he learns more about himself. His being is revealed as he traverses through the darkness of his madness. The poem suggests that this is the only way that one is ever going to be able to learn who they are at their core and find peace as he does at the end of the poem.
Structure and Form
‘In a Dark Time’ by Theodore Roethke is a four-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines. These lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABCADD except for in stanza four where the third and fourth lines rhyme as well. The majority of the poem is also written in iambic pentameter. This means that the lines contain ten syllables each. These are divided into two sets of five metrical feet. The first beat of which is unstressed and the second stressed. There are a few moments where the pattern is broken, and an extra syllable is used.
Roethke makes use of several literary devices in ‘In a Dark Time.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example: “purity” and “pure” in line three of the second stanza and “Dark, dark,” “darker,” and “desire.”
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause in the middle of a line. For example, “That place among the rocks—is it a cave” and “Or winding path? The edge is what I have.”
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example: “A” at the beginning of lines one, two, and four of the third stanza.
- Simile: a comparison between two things that uses “like” or “as.” For example, “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly” in stanza four.
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
In the first stanza of ‘In a Dark Time,’ the speaker begins with the phrase that was later used as the title. The speaker is setting up a metaphorical situation in which they, in the dark, meet their shadow in “deepening shade.” This is one of the most important statements in the poem. The poet is asserting that when times are dark, it’s there that one can find the truth of their existence. One can hear their “echo in the echoing wood.”
He uses the images of “the heron and the wren” as symbols of innocence and beauty and “Beats of the hill and serpents of the den” as symbols of corruption. He, like all people, is somewhere in-between. This poem has been, due to its personal nature, connected to Roethke’s own mental illness and struggles to understand himself.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
The dark side of the speaker’s mind is dominant in this stanza. He refers to “madness” as “nobility of the soul.” He’s in a dark place where he’s unsure of what’s true and what’s not, “pinned against a sweating wall.” These chaotic images are suggestive of the speaker’s mental instability. He can’t distinguish between “a cave” and a “winding path.” This suggests that he doesn’t know where his own path is leading or what the dark truths he’s learning about himself reveal.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
No matter what the speaker does, he’s pursued by his madness. It comes to him during the night with “birds” and in broad day the “midnight come again.” This state is a daunting one, but it allows “A man” to go far to figure out “what he is.” The following lines start to make sense of the perilous state the speaker seems to be in. He describes the “Death of self” during which he is going to lose track of the person he thought he was. His deep dives into his “shadow” may result in an uncomfortable or surprising truth.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
The fourth line provides readers with a good example of alliteration and repetition. The use of “dark” several times here emphasizes the overall state that the speaker is interested in. His madness has completely taken over his mind and his soul is compared to that of a “heat-maddened summer fly.” He’s chaotic and without direction. Now that he’s consumed by the darkness, he no longer knows “Which I is I.” He’s a fallen man, but that doesn’t mean he’s totally lost. There in his darkness, he’s able to become “one” with “One” and God provides him with direction. By reaching the depths of his madness, he becomes free.
The tone is anxious, sorrowful, and frantic depending on which line and stanza the reader is engaged with. The poet’s speaker is trying to reconcile his identity and deal with the darkness of his madness. This means that his thoughts are somewhat jumbled and hard to sort out.
The mood is concerned and contemplative. The reader might find themselves feeling pity for the speaker, or in some cases, even jealousy as he’s found the truth of his existence. This is something monumental that most people strive for their whole lives. At the same time, he is suffering from some kind of madness which is concerning.
The speaker may or may not be the poet himself. Some scholars have suggested that this is a personal poem, dealing with Roethke’s own mental illness and concerns about his existence. But, without a statement from the poet, it’s impossible to know for sure.
The meaning is that in order to figure out the truth of one’s life and identity, one has to engage with darkness. It’s only there, in the worst moments of one’s life or when one is surrounded by dark forces (physical or mental) that the truth can be determined.
Readers who enjoyed ‘In a Dark Time’ might 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.
- ‘I Knew a Woman’ – describes a relationship between a devoted man and his lover, with whom he is completely obsessed.
- ‘My Papa’s Waltz’ – is a surprisingly dark poem. It depicts a possibly abusive father who “waltzes” his son to bed.