Within the short and effective poem, the poet utilized many different examples of imagery to help readers envision the sights, smells, and other sensations that one could encounter in his root cellar. The images are meant to disgust and repel the reader while at the same time intriguing them regarding what else one might find down there.
Explore Root Cellar
‘Root Cellar’ by Theodore Roethke describes the plant life living in the dark, dank conditions of a root cellar.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker uses clear and interesting language to compare the plants growing in his dark cellar to tropical snakes. He describes how the plants move “obscenely” through crates and dangle from the ceiling. As the poem progresses, the speaker describes the variety of smells emanating from his cellar and how repulsive their combination is. Despite the speaker’s disgust with the underground room, the poem ends with his acknowledgment of the strength of the plants and “dirt” that continue to breathe “a small breath” and seek out life.
You can read the full poem here.
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
In the first part of this poem, the speaker begins by referring to the “cellar” as “dank as a ditch.” This is a simile that ensures readers are going to be immediately made aware of what the room is like. It’s not somewhere that anyone would want to spend any amount of time, even to sleep for one night. Not only would a human being be repulsed by the idea of spending any time down there, but the speaker also implies that any living thing would detest the place.
Throughout his first lines, the reader should take note of Roethke’s use of language. He intentionally chooses words like “dank,” “dangled,” and “drooped” in order to evoke a particular reaction from the reader. This is furthered through his description of the plant life, the only living thing that manages to survive down there.
These “bulbs” and “shoots” break out of boxes and make their way, seen through the poet’s use of personification, through the dark. By describing the plants as “lolling obscenely,” the speaker is intentionally trying to evoke a feeling of disgust in the reader. The poet could’ve phrased all of these lines differently in an effort to make the cellar more interesting and entrancing than it is dark and gross, but that was not his intention.
There is another example of a simile in line five. Here, the poet compares the long, hanging shapes of the plants to “tropical snakes.” This imbues them with a sense of danger and creates a more exotic atmosphere. The plants are surviving but not in a way that evokes the speaker’s (or the readers’) admiration for the tenacity of nature, at least not yet.
And what a congress of stinks!
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
In the next lines, using easy-to-read and straightforward language, the poet emphasizes the “congress,” or collection, of smells. Emanating from the cellar are a wide variety of smells that are too numerous and strange for him to categorize. They are coming from the various plant matter that is at once thriving and decaying. He mentions some of the many sources of the smell in the following lines.
The alliteration that Roethke uses throughout comes through clearly in these final lines as he lists out the “Leaf-mold” and “lime” as well as the “Roots ripe as old bait.”
Everything in the cellar is decaying and stinking so much that one would not think it was possible for plants to be the source. Without providing readers with too much detail, the speaker implies that the cellar is filled (probably in a somewhat hyperbolic fashion), up with “manure, line, piled against slippery planks.”
Despite the speaker’s description of plants decaying and the inhospitable nature of the cellar, he concludes the poem by noting that nothing would give up life. Despite the wet, dirty, and generally horrible conditions of his root cellar, the plants that do reside there are hearty. They are determined to live, no matter the circumstances.
Structure and Form
‘Root Cellar’ by Theodore Roethke is an eleven-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This means the poem is written in free verse. Despite this, readers should note the poet’s use of rhyme where it does occur. For example, “crates” and “snakes” the perfect end rhymes at the ends of lines four and five. There are also examples of half-rhyme and assonance, for instance, “lime” and “life” in lines nine and ten.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Simile: can be seen when the poet creates a comparison between two things using “like” or “as.” For example, the “shoots” that are compared to “tropical snakes” in the first half of the poem.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, the repetition of “dank” and “ditch” in line one and “Bulbs broke” and “boxes” in line two.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “[…] that cellar, dank as a ditch, /Bulbs broke out of boxes.”
The themes at work in this poem are nature and survival. Despite the conditions that the plants live in within the speaker’s root cellar, they continue to live, weaving their way through the rafters and up the walls. Without stating it explicitly, the speaker implies that he is impressed, as well as disgusted, by the variety of life that resides there.
The purpose is to entertain and intrigue readers. While most of the poem is crafted with the intention of catching the reader’s attention and helping them to imagine a particularly gross root cellar, by the end of the text, the reader should feel interested in the fact that life can survive in the most inhospitable of conditions.
The poem is an engaging and exciting description of the variety of plant life that lives in a root cellar. At the same time, the speaker is interested in inspiring readers to appreciate the tenacity of this kind of life, despite the terrible and even disgusting conditions in which it thrives.
The message is that life can find a way to survive even in the worst conditions. Although most of the poem is focused on the speaker’s expression of his disgust with his own root cellar, there is an underlying theme of survival and the strength of nature.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Theodore Roethke poems. For example:
- ‘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.
- ‘Elegy for Jane’ -uses intense natural images to depict a deceased young woman and the love the speaker has for her.