Theodore Roethke’s poetry is distinguished by its inherent rhythm and natural imagery. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book, The Waking, named after the prescribed poem. “The Waking” is a villanelle , a poem of five tercets and a final quatrain with two rhymes The title is a very eloquent one. It at once symbolizes enlightenment, illumination and self-discovery. One ponders on why the poet has chosen the leaf as the speaker of the poem. “The Waking” is essentially a poem about self-knowledge, through various mediums of learning as echoed in the different stanzas. Perhaps the poet opts for a leaf as the mouthpiece, as it a passive spectator to the phenomenon of life .Furthermore, it is universal for subsistence. Roethke has been hailed as one of those who showed reverence for “everything that lived.”

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

The beginning stanza takes the experience of life itself as a source of knowledge. We awaken to fall asleep. Here, Life is the waking and Death is the sleep. We all take birth in this world only to ultimately cross the threshold of death. Change is an inevitable aspect of life As and while life exists,the poet asserts he aspires to take his ‘waking slow’: he endeavours to live life to the fullest. He renders Life itself as his fate, his ultimate, as it does not offer him much to dread. His journey of life, is the greatest experience to him, and he learns by going wherever he has to go to.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

The above stanza exemplifies how sensory perception is very crucial in one’s learning process. Thought is a very significant part of comprehension. However, it only follows feeling .As the senses apprehend outward phenomenon, feeling comes in naturally. Not only are the sense perceptions significant, they are intricately associated to each other as the poet exclaims:” I hear my being dance from ear to ear.” The poet ‘hears’ something ‘visual’ and this experience occurs between his ‘auditory’ organs. The waking part of it is the best, and he wants to render it as slow as possible in order to enjoy it.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?

God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go.

The very base of one’s existence is the dearest to one. It is his baby step in self-recognition. To reach the highest step of the ladder, one must begin at the bottom-most rung. Therefore,one’s base is his foundation. The ones closest to him mirror to him his own. It is one’s closest relatives that criticize his follies and foibles, makes one reflect on them. The closest are those who mirror ourselves in the most earnest manner. These elementary steps are vital in gaining primary knowledge of the world.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

The poet then proceeds to the irrational world of life, the life that excludes the human world. “Light takes the Tree” implies that even a vegetative entity devoid of life may find illumination in its life. In fact, this line is reflexive for the speaker of the poem, the leaf, who shares the bare facts of life. One may comprehend meaning even in the meanest of living creatures, like the worm. Compare these lines with Wordsworth’s lines from the Immortality Ode:

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

Even life at the lowest existence strives to reach its destination point. Even in the form of a miniature staircase. It dawns gradually on the poet, but he prefers to take his waking slowly.

Great Nature has another thing to do

To you and me, so take the lively air,

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

The inanimate aspect of Nature is also a great instructor on the elementary facets of life. The lively air animates us with its spirit. The lines are reminiscent of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”. Though the air is devoid of matter, it has direction, destination and above all a spirit that permeates whatever it touches. In spite of the fact that it is, lifeless, it educates where to go, by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.

“This shaking keeps me steady” has an aphoristic quality to it.The Leaf loves the shaking,as it is what makes it steady.The speakers finds failure as the greatest teacher. The speaker loves its failures more than its successes. For, what failures teach us, success can never can.

Therefore, he wants to taste failure first and slowly, because only repeated failure can render the taste of success sweet.

©Rukhaya MK 2010

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