The Lost Son and Other Poems, Theodore Roethke's second book, was published seven years after his first, Open House. In this 1948 volume Roethke developed a poetic style that moved away from the more formal lyrical mode of his earlier work, finding a way to express interior monologues both intense and descriptive. Assessments differ over whether the book marks Roethke's finest achievement in the form, or whether the book serves as precursor to the important work to follow.
The years around the publication of the volume brought some major changes in Roethke's life. In 1948 he left the east coast, where he had taught for many years, and took a position at the University of Washington. He received a Guggenheim Foundation award in 1945, was hospitalized at the end of the year for a recurrence of the mental illness that had afflicted him ten years earlier, and the following year spent a summer at the Yaddo writer's colony - where he wrote a number of the poems that appeared in the volume. The publication of The Lost Son led to another Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950, and marked his transition from a minor poet with a solid reputation to a major national and international figure.
In 1945 Roethke wrote to his friend, critic Kenneth Burke, of the poems he was writing: "I am trying to loosen up, to write poems of greater intensity and symbolical depth," and to others he wrote that he was trying to delve deeper into the memories and workings of his own psyche, to write poems that got closer to the lived and felt mental processes that they recorded. These experiences, as the book's title suggests, involved to a large extent Roethke's childhood memories, and especially his relationship with his father Otto. Otto Roethke, like his German immigrant father, had run the family horticultural business, with extensive greenhouses and nurseries in Saginaw,
Michigan, until his death from cancer a month before Roethke's fifteenth birthday.
The Lost Son is divided into four parts, and most discussion has centered upon the first and last sections. The 14 poems in the first section have, since their publication, been known as the "Greenhouse Poems." In these poems the process of birth from the soil, the nurturing and struggle to stay alive and grow, the skill and instincts of those who tend the plants, describe both the life processes of nature and the struggles and growth of the child/poet who recalls them. Roethke's comments on his poems are often quoted, and are frequently very helpful. He has written of the greenhouses, "they were to me, I realize now, both heaven and hell, a kind of tropics created in the savage climate of Michigan, where austere German Americans turned their love of order and their terrifying efficiency into something truly beautiful."
The opening two poems of the greenhouse sequence describe birth and renewal, and mark the close identification of the poetic voice with the life-cycles that the poems describe. In "Cuttings": "The small cells bulge // One nub of growth / Nudges a sand-crumb loose," and in "Cuttings (later)" "I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet." The poems that follow describe growth emerging from the darkness, their concrete detail capturing in particular the smell of the earth with hands and face close to the plants. As many critics have pointed out, and as Roethke's comments quoted above make clear, the experience is as frightening and threatening as it is beautiful. Many of the images of enclosure suggest the grave as well as birth. In "Weed Puller" the "me" of the poem is "Alive, in a slippery grave." The orchids in "Orchids" have "Lips neither dead nor alive, / Loose ghostly mouths / Breathing." In "Moss Gathering" the child feels as if he were "pulling off flesh from the living planet," while in "Flower Dump" one tulip, not limp like everything else, is described as "One swaggering head / Over the dying, the newly dead." "Big Wind" describes the all-night battle to save the greenhouses when a fierce storm has cut off the crucial water supply. "Carnations," while celebrating growth, beauty, and the blooming flowers, suggests change within its evocation of timelessness - "that clear autumnal weather of eternity / The windless perpetual morning above a September cloud."
The middle two sections of The Lost Son contain poems on themes similar to those in the rest of the volume, but in the more formal, lyric style that is closer to the poems in Roethke's first book. They include the often anthologized "My Papa's Waltz," which opens section II. But the breakthrough for Roethke came with the poems of the fourth section. In his broadcast "An American Poet Introduces Himself and his Poems" Roethke described his move from the opening poems to the longer poems of section IV:
In those first poems I had begun, like the child, with small things and had tried to make plain words do the trick. Somewhat later, in 1945, I began a series of longer pieces which try, in their rhythms, to catch the movement of the mind itself, to trace the spiritual history of a protagonist (not "I" personally but of all haunted and harried men); to make this sequence a true and not arbitrary order which would permit many ranges of feeling, including humor.
All these states of mind were to be rendered dramatically, without comment, without allusion, the action often implied or indicated in the interior monologue or dialogue between the self and its mentor, or conscience, or, sometimes, another person.
The literary "ancestors" of these poems, Roethke wrote in his essay "Open Letter," are "German and English folk literature, particularly Mother Goose; Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, especially the songs and rants; the Bible; Blake and Traherne; Durer."
In The Lost Son the four poems of section IV are the title poem - itself divided into five sections - "The Long Alley," "A Field of Light," and "The Shape of the Fire." These four poems subsequently became part of the second half of a 14-poem sequence that formed Roethke's third book, Praise to the End!, in 1951.
The first of the title poem's five sections opens at a cemetery, with "At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry," which begins the theme of alienation from his father, and from the Christian Father, which runs through these four poems as well as the later, longer sequence. The language in this and the following poems moves in and out of rational order, the images going through sudden shifts, as Roethke tries to get close to the fear and desperation of the experience, suggesting subconscious as well as conscious expression. Each poem, Roethke wrote, is "in a sense ... a stage in a kind of struggle out of the slime; part of a slow spiritual progress; an effort to be born, and later, to become something more." The poems also follow a loose trajectory of moving back into this primordial "slime," as a kind of retreat, before moving forward. In this first section of "The Lost Son" the narrator runs from the "cry," and in an empty house, with childlike puzzlement - "in the kingdom of bang and blab" - tries to understand and give a name to his surroundings. The next section, "The Pit," takes him to "where . . . the roots go," and "the slime of a wet nest." The section titled "The Gibber" Roethke has described as ranging from "a frenetic activity" to "a crooning serenity," from "balked sexual experience" to "'rant,' almost in the manner of the Elizabethans." "The Return" section recalls a childhood experience of the greenhouse, viewing the morning light and awaiting the promise of the father's return, as well as discovering his own individual identity. Light is a major motif in this and the companion poems in the sequence, and the final, untitled, section questions the nature of a light seen traveling "over the wide field," - and this final part of "The Lost Son" ends with the exhortation, "It will come again. / Be still. / Wait."
The following poem, "The Long Alley," is centered around river imagery, and makes even clearer that the search is for a spiritual as well as an earthly father, the move from the earth to light encompassing the search for and possible presence of both. The last two poems of The Lost Son end with images of light. In "A Field of Light" the poet enters the "wide field" of the final section of the title poem, ending: "And I walked, I walked through the light air; / I moved with the morning." In "The Shape of the Fire," light fills and nurtures the flower, providing a containment that is an alternative to that of the grave, "a quick pouring / Fills and trembles at the edge yet does not flow over, / Still holding and feeding the stem of the contained flower."
The final poem of the sequence that Roethke later published in Praise to the End! that incorporates these four poems from The Lost Son emphasizes this opening out, and the potential reward of a search at once physical, psychological, and spiritual. "O, Thou Opening, O," ends:
Going is knowing. I see; I seek; I'm near. Be true. Skin.
That Roethke began the following volume, The Waking (1953), with this poem reinforces the continuity between the poems in The Lost Son and Other Poems and the subsequent two books, and makes clear that the search that the 1948 volume records was for Roethke, both as son and poet, a productive one.
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