Theodore Roethkes North American Sequence

In "North American Sequence," the opening section of Roethke's posthumous collection The Far Field (1964), the poet appears at times to draw almost too heavily on the Four Quartets. Nevertheless, "North American Sequence" is one of the most important meditative poems of the century. Roethke is a difficult poet to categorize: he was not a confessional, although there are clearly confessional aspects to his work, nor was he a New Critical formalist, although many of his poems adopt formal structures. Among the poets of his generation (the generation of poets who began publishing mature work in the 1940s and early 1950s), Roethke was arguably the most important heir to the American tradition of meditative poetry.

"North American Sequence" is a series of visionary landscape poems written in the final years of his life. As James Dougherty suggests, the sequence resembles the Four Quartets in several respects: it "reflects upon specific landscapes with a mind trammeled in memories but in quest of the eternal";2 it adopts a sequential and quasi-musical structure; and it even ends with the symbol of the rose. Yet at the same time, Roethke's poem can equally well be linked with other predecessor poems, such as Whitman's "Song of Myself" and his two seaside meditations "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and Wordsworth's Romantic landscape meditation "Tintern Abbey." One important difference between Roethke's sequence and Eliot's is that, as Dougherty observes, Roethke's "spiritual insight and deliverance from the egoistic self. . . come not from ascetic detachment but from the plenitude of his experience of nature." For example, Roethke rewrites Eliot's imagery in substituting a wild rose blowing in the sea wind for Eliot's domesticated rose garden.

"North American Sequence" is divided into six poems, each of which charts a portion of a physical and spiritual journey taken by the speaker. David Perkins characterizes the journey enacted by the poems as one "out of frozen self-disgust, darkness, fragmentation, and isolation into vital wholeness and union with Being."3 The sequence is a powerful synthesis of landscape poetry and mystical or symbolic poetry; it can also be read as a continuation or rewriting of Whitman's quest in "Song of Myself" and other poems to discover the self through contact with the physical world. At every step along the speaker's journey, the state of the poet's consciousness is correlated with the landscape that surrounds him, as the poem alternates between highly emotional moments of self-exploration and precise descriptions of nature. The personal sections of the poem become increasingly ecstatic and mystical as Roethke moves more deeply into the organic world he contemplates within himself; yet this movement toward an ecstatic reunion with the self is constantly prevented or nullified by nature's presentation of its "dying face."

I will focus here on the fifth poem in the sequence, "The Far Field," a poem which presents Roethke's meditative poetic at its most powerful. The poem is itself divided into four sections, the first of which presents a quasi-surreal dream vision:

I dream of journeys repeatedly:

Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel,

Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,

The road lined with snow-laden second growth,

A fine dry snow ticking the windshield,

Alternate snow and sleet, no on-coming traffic,

And no lights behind, in the blurred side-mirror,

The road changing from glazed tarface to a rubble of stone,

Ending at last in a hopeless sand-rut,

Where the car stalls,

Churning in a snowdrift

Until the headlights darken.

The central motif of the journey is established here through the evocation of a dream which also sets the meditative tone of the poem as a whole. The image of the bat entering its tunnel suggests the return to an imagination based in the subconscious, and the imagistic narrative of the stalled car is the first of a series of images suggesting frustration or paralysis.

In the next section, Roethke moves into a series of childhood memories which are evoked by images ofnature that suggest death, decay, and hidden danger. In a corner of the field that has been "missed by the mower" and that now serves as a "flower-dump" and a repository for "tin cans, rusted pipes, broken machinery," the speaker (now a child) finds "the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles" as well as young rabbits "caught in the mower," and "the tom-cat, caught near the pheasant-run, / Its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers, / Blasted to death by the night watchman." The discovery of these dead bodies provided a knowledge of "the eternal," allowing him to understand the cycle of life and death:

I suffered for birds, for young rabbits, caught in the mower,

My grief was not excessive.

For to come upon warblers in early May

Was to forget time and death:

How they filled the oriole's elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,

And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes -

As a result of his direct contact with nature, the child learns "not to fear infinity, / The far field, the windy cliffs of forever . . . The wheel turning away from itself, / The sprawl of the wave, / The on-coming water." Roethke's evocative series of images combines both mystical and natural elements in a synthesis that takes us beyond customary understandings of life and death. He experiences "a weightless change, a moving forward / As of water quickening before a narrowing channel / When banks converge, and the wide river whitens." The young poet has taught himself how to remain calm in the face of natural process. He can now experience his life as "a still, but not a deep center, / A point outside the glittering current," and he moves into a kind of meditative state: "My mind moves in more than one place, / In a country half-land, half-water."

Roethke's search for a "still, but not deep center" is certainly reminiscent of Eliot's quest for a "still point of the turning world"; however, the conclusion of the poem takes Roethke's speaker in a very different direction from that taken by Eliot's more philosophically introspective narrator. As Roethke travels deeper into his reunion with nature, he finds his "lost self' changing into "a sea-shape turning around." Faced with "his own immensity," he experiences "all the waves, all their loose wandering fire." The waves of the ocean are at the same time the waves ofhis own physical being, bringing to him "the murmur of the absolute." He discovers the eternal not in the neat patterns of gardens or in the historical experience of religious tradition, but in the plenitude and endless variety of nature:

The mountain with its singular bright shade Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow, The after-light upon ice-burdened pines; Odor of basswood on a mountain-slope, A scent beloved of bees; Silence of water above a sunken tree: The pure serene of memory in one man -A ripple widening from a single stone Winding around the waters of the world.

Roethke's use of sound, and especially the alliteration of several different consonants, brings a sonic richness to the passage that matches its rich presentation of aural, visual, and olfactory imagery. The synthesis of sound, image, and idea brings us to the deepest point in Roethke's meditative process, where the speaker is finally reconciled with his natural surroundings as well as his own physical and psychic nature.

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