The Waking by Theodore Roethke

The Waking is a nineteen-line villanelle composed of five tercets and a single quatrain. The poem is mostly written in iambic pentameter and has five beats per line. Theodore Roethke’s poem, The Waking, can be read in full here.


The Waking Analysis

Stanza 1

The opening stanza starts with the speaker engaging readers in the first person, and introduces the initial paradox of the poem. A person waking to sleep is a contradictory feeling to experience. The statement can be interpreted in two ways: either the speaker is awake and simply feels as if he is still asleep, operating almost robotically, or he takes the entire day, or his entire life, to fully awaken.

The second line presents readers with alliteration, which also occurs later in the 15th and 16th lines of the poem,  “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.” In this line, the emphasis is on feeling, fate, and fear. The speaker seems to ascertain that there is nothing to be afraid of, so he sounds more awake and certain than he did in the first line.

In the last line of stanza 1, the feeling of fear has been overcome and the speaker is now taking things, or his life lessons, as they come and doing what he has to do. The things the speaker has to do can be interpreted as a job or education, or other items people typically encounter in everyday life.


Stanza 2

Much like stanza 1, stanza 2 also opens with a paradox. The speaker is stating that people’s logical thoughts come out of their feelings—which most people view as a contradiction. Of course, humans are emotional since they experience feelings. But they can also be rational, or logical, at times. However, asserting that feelings are a result of logic is a definite contradiction.

In line 2 of stanza 2, speaker is hearing himself, and listening to himself, while smiling and internally dancing. Here, the reader is being challenged to interpret this dance, which can be seen as akin to the dance of life. How much do people really know about this dance, and how deeply do they experience it? These are things the speaker wants the reader to consider.

The opening line’s paradox repeats itself at the end of the stanza, as the speaker is trying to make readers realize how important the moments of our life actually are.


Stanza 3

This stanza starts off with the speaker asking a personal question, to both himself and the reader. It’s possible that the speaker is either with somebody as he contemplates this line, or taking a close look at the reader, since the speaker of the poem cannot function without a reader. Or, it is possible that the speaker is asking the reader to consider how well he or she knows personal acquaintances.

Blessing the ground suggests the speaker is now on holy ground, and capitalizing “G” implies that the ground, to the speaker, is far more than dirt. To the speaker, the ground is part of the Earth, and the speaker shows respect for the planet by walking lightly. The line can be interpreted as a link to environmentalism and taking care of the planet, or as the pantheistic belief that God is in all of nature, so humans should respect all of it, even the dirt they might find lowly or annoying.

And learn by going where I have to go.

We now get a near repeat line to reinforce the concept that people must do things in life whether they want to or not, but can find education and learning in their everyday required actions.


Stanza 4

We’ve moved from the association with the ground now to a higher level, the light and the trees, which introduces nature into the poem besides the dirt. The capital “T” of tree also suggests that this tree is something special, perhaps the Tree of Life. The question “who can tell us how?” implies the mysteries that God has in nature, and that to understand nature better, people should look to God. Again, the pantheistic connection of God and nature stands out in this line.

The speaker uses another reference to nature in line 2 of stanza 4 with “lowly worm,” but suggests that even creatures that seem low on the human totem pole can climb up in the world. This can be a reference to evolution, spiritual or otherwise, or the fact that even people who seem to have little can still achieve much, like the worm.

We know, in the last line of the stanza, that the speaker is still alive and therefore still experiencing learning. In this stanza, he took time to learn from the worm, the light, the tree, and the ground. So the speaker is still, in a sense, waking up slowly as he finds knowledge in everyday aspects of life.


Stanza 5

We get the sense that through the process of always learning through everyday requirements, the speaker is always obtaining knowledge and thus waking up. He knows that nature will eventually create his end, as well as the reader’s end, with death, which is why he is again suggesting that people cherish the moments of their lives. The repeat of the verb “take” implies the speaker is wanting others to also live and learn through experience.


Stanza 6

The “shaking” the speaker suggests could refer to love, or the many difficulties of life, or even Roethke’s own mental challenges (since Roethke suffered from mental breakdowns). Either way, the comment “I should know” means again that the speaker is speaking from his life experience and the lessons he learned, which was already covered in the poem.

Also, the suggestion that the things that fall away are gone for good refers to time, people, things—anything we can lose through the mere act of living. We might have these things close by, but they can still vanish forever before we realize it.

Also, the references to shaking and falling away make readers think of leaves on trees and link back to the earlier Tree of Life reference in the poem. So, in essence, the speaker is saying that from his experiences learning, the Tree of Life is never steady, which most people would ultimately agree is a true assumption.

The last quatrain, which repeats earlier lines of the poem, emphasizes again the speaker’s waking, or learning, by going where he has to go, or completing the things he must do every day.


Historical Context

Theodore Roethke’s The Waking was written in 1953, and is part of his Pulitzer Prize winning collection from the same year. The poem was composed shortly after World War II ended and as the world entered the Cold War, so Roethke challenges people in this poem to understand their place in the changing world and to comprehend that they should appreciate each moment in life. This focus on life appreciation could stem from a fear of the world ending due to the nuclear weapons programs building up during the time.

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