Theodore Roethke's "The Moment": Mysticism Through the Senses

Karen Alkalay-Gut

Poesis V. 7, No. 3, 1986, 38-46.



Theodore Roethke

We passed the ice of pain

And came to a dark ravine,

And there we sang with the sea:

The wide, the bleak abyss

Shifted with our slow kiss.

Space struggled with time;

The gong of midnight struck

The naked absolute.

Sound, silence sang as one.

All flowed: without, within;

Body met body, we

Created what's to be.

What else to say?

We end in joy.


Theodore Roethke's "The Moment": Mysticism Through the Senses

The first response to many poems by Theodore Roethke is often one of poetic pleasure and intellectual confusion. The rhythms, sounds, vague erotic connotations, the sense of waves of movement and a definite forward direction, are typical and frequently noted. Kenneth Burke, for example, points out that in reading a poem by Roethke, "You have strongly the sense of entering at one place, winding through a series of internal developments, and coming out somewhere else."(1) The literal meaning, however, is often ignored, and dismissed as simply unnecessary.

Roethke helped to perpetuate this approach by his mystic directions on how to read his works, as in his guide to the Praise to the End! sequence:

You will have no trouble if you approach these poems as a child would, naively, with your whole being awake, your faculties loose and alert. (2)

This and other hints thrown out in his journals, lectures, and essays, attest to the fact that Roethke sees a clear need to break away from the intellectual and rational approaches in order to reach a more empathic understanding and communication.

His approach is perpetuated by explicators of Roethke as well. Richard Blessing summarizes the prevailing prejudice against a "close reading" of Roethke in his discussion of Praise to the End!

Those who have fared far worst, it seems to me, have tried to do line-by-line 'close readings' of these poems; that is, they have tried to illuminate the obscurities of the non sequitur, the nonsense, the oracular pronouncement, and the cryptic command or question as each occurs, a step at a time.

Blessing bases his opinion on Roethke's distinction between obscurity that yields to a line-by-line reading and the kind "which shines from every sentence, withholds itself from the poem as a whole on repeated readings, but when it does yield 'explodes'." (4)

Roethke's poems, it is agreed, 'explode'. But can communication be achieved in a poem which ignores verbal significance? An examination of "The Moment" reveals that the poem may be approached from various angles: From a purely external, structural description, an emotional reaction, or a literal close reading, the poem follows the same pattern. All approaches yield a single reading, one that seems to "explode" when the many different parts are combined. This essay will attempt to delineate the parts and unite them.

A cursory glance at the poem reveals a pattern: four verses of diminishing line number and diminishing line length. The first verse has five lines of trimeter, the second has four lines, the third three lines and the fourth two lines of bimeter. The relatively longer, complex sentences which begin the poem become simple in construction near the end, with words of single syllables only. This physical structure may be contrasted to the original model - obviously the sonnet structure - and in the contrast we may note that there is in this poem a movement toward concentration and intensity, a physical thrust toward a conclusion after which no language is necessary, and sound and silence become one. In a sonnet, this philosophical concept could be expressed only verbally: Here it is also carefully illustrated.

But this direction is not linear, as we can see in the language and the rhyme scheme. The second verse has longer words, abstract polysyllabic phrases like "naked absolute", which in context jar the reader with their intellectualism. The first verse is relatively physical in its language and imagery (ignoring meaning for the present) and the words are short. The third and fourth verses also seem to be composed of more concrete language, but it is interwoven more inobtrusively with abstractions and there is a more successful combination of concrete and abstract.

The rhyme scheme of the poem, aabcc/adda(slant)/abb/ee, also shows up the second verse as disharmonious, forced. Every other verse interrhymes - only here are imperfect rhymes. But the last line of this second verse, "Sound, silence sang as one", blends into the rhyme of the first line of verse three, "All flowed: without, within;" and the sound (and significance) of "one" blends with "all". We can conclude that something must happen in verse two to alter the disharmony, to move from a "struggle" to a "flow", to allow the poem to end ultimately in "joy".

A literal line by line interpretation, then, is unnecessary to a comprehension of the feeling of a development towards union and transcendence in the poem. However, when a line-by-line interpretation is attempted, it reinforces the structure and simultaneously multiplies the significances: through reference to jungian symbols, literary allusions, philosophical terminology, and other poems by Roethke, an "iceberg" effect is achieved, a sense that the surface of the poem indicates entire systems underneath. Although this is a short poem, I find it inexhaustible in its references and am certain the reader's memory will also be jolted into recalling other sources and references that amplify the implications of the poem.

The ice of pain is the first stage to be passed in the poem. Pain that is ice in Roethke's poems is primarily associated with the agony of the solitary self. Usually this awareness of cold is associated with the awakening out of a trance of self, an emergence from an immersion in the psyche not unlike R.D. Laing's "Schizophrenic Experience", in which the individual is cut off from the external world for a period as he explores the inner regions of his mind. When he ascends from this state, a need for communication, for unity with others, is awakened. In his sequence, "The Lost Son", for example, the protagonist begins to awaken from a kind of self exploration with: "I'm cold./ I'm cold all over. Rub me in father and mother." (5). The outset of "The Moment", marks the beginning of the relationship with the world outside, and the poem passes through the awareness of cold, the recognition of isolation. A relationship is therefore begun between man and lover, poet and reader, poet, lover and sea.

This is the necessary initial stage, the ice breaker. But there is also another level upon which the poem moves, that of literary associations. To the Romantics the image of the ravine beginning in some frozen heights and often flowing down to the sea is the objective correlative for the pattern of the mind of the poet. Describing the Ravine of Arve in "Mont Blanc" Shelley addresses it as "dark, deep Ravine", and illustrates the scene:

awful scene

Where Power in likeness of the Arve comes down

From the ice gulphs that gird his secret throne


This power in the ravine, emerging from the ice, whose source and significance is unknown, is both creative and destructive according to the will of man. In Roethke's poem the potential of the will has become purely positive, in an attitude reminiscent of Book XIV of Wordsworth's Prelude. Recollecting his vision of Mt. Snowdon, Wordsworth writes:

There is beheld the emblem of a mind

That feed upon infinity, that broods,

Over the dark abyss, intent to hear

Its voices issuing forth to silent light

In one continuous stream: a mind sustained

By recognition of transcendent power

In sense conducting to ideal form,

In soul of more than moral privilege.

Wordsworth's concept of the conversion of sensory objects by the senses into ideal forms is perhaps the initial force in Roethke's poem, but it is supby the image of the next line in "The Moment"

The wide, the bleak abyss

Shifted with our slow kiss

The abyss, in Wordsworth the place from which the voices "issue forth", moves and responds to the erotic preliminaries of union in "The Moment". However this abyss will not be transcended here, as in Wordsworth, but will be incorporated by a more expansive experience. It is not surprising that one may find in Roethke's notebooks the demand: "I want it all, Lord, the depths and the heights." (6)

In many early poems Roethke uses the abyss. Since he often uses the same symbols, but continually accumulates additional references, the significance of the abyss alters, although the basic meaning and direction remains the same. For example, in an earlier poem, "The Lost Son", the "abyss" is the nadir of a schizophrenic experience, the depths of the self - terrifying and fecund. In "Mixed Sequence", the sequence which is concluded with "The Movement", it is the pit into which man in his search for transcendence may plunge unexpectedly:

And the abyss? The abyss?

'The abyss you can't miss:

It's right where you are -

A step down the stair'


In the course of the sequence, the fear of the abyss is overcome and the depth and heights are joined in "The Moment", transcended through incorporation.

The awareness of both the fecundity and the terror of non being the abyss has come to indicate must be maintained and incorporated in any transcendent movement.

The transitional line between the ravine and the shifting of the abyss is: "And there we sang with the sea". The "We" has given itself to the motions of the water, the primitivity of the sea, and its universality, rather than endeavoring, as in previous poems, to "outleap the sea".("The Abyss", 219). The sea is collective identity as well as collective unconscious is Roethke's lexicon. It is also a borrowing from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan".

Kubla's pleasure dome, it will be recalled, employs the same images as his contemporaries Wordsworth and Shelley, with the pointed addition of the sea:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

(ll. 1-5)

And this pleasure incorporates all time and space, all sound and silence, all paradoxes of existence:

The shadow of the pleasure dome

Floated midway on the waves,

Where was heard the mingled measures

From the fountains and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device.

A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice.

(ll. 31-6)


Coleridge, however, cannot revive this vision in his poem, this vision in which all opposites combine, and from which he was awakened midway. And Roethke, with Coleridge in mind, proceeds to create this vision - wide awake, to combine the opposition of dream and wakedness.

There follows a kind of explosion - one which goes beyond literary allusions to more simple, abstract words. "Space struggled with time". The struggle between space and time here can be abstractly defined as the attempt of two forces to occupy the same place at the same time. This can be concretized in an erotic metaphor and/or a concrete mystic metaphor. For the attempt is to find eternity in a moment and infinity in a finite space, the dream of Blake - "to hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and Eternity in an hour." - united in one motion.

This mystic union of space and time, infinity and eternity, is fulfilled at the stroke of midnight, the witching hour and the traditional moment of ascension. Times of day have symbolical significance in most of Roethke's works. In "Mixed Sequence" he describes the abyss as "noon of failure". Noon, like the abyss, is locked in time. Midnight, however, is the apogee and the moment when time may transcend itself to eternity.

And midnight is the moment when the gong strikes the absolute, when time and space unite. The physical terms - "naked" and "gong" - combine with the specific abstract: "midnight" and "absolute". This is the combination toward which Roethke has endeavored to move throughout the poem, the concrete universal. The line that follows, then, almost speaks for itself. "Sound, silence sang as one" does not suggest a transcendence of language so much as a unity between language and silence, meaning which exists whether it is expressed or not. Language does not lie and silence does not betray. "All flowed; without, within" describes this destruction of boundaries, the unification - both of the lovers and of all previous distinctions, with andwithout bodies.

The poem ends on this note. Nothing more need be added, except that the mystic, the literary, and the erotic experience related - as well as the poem itself - end in joy, a state anticipated by many English writers - including Yeats, Coleridge, and Eliot - but rarely achieved.

A literal interpretation of Theodore Roethke, then, is not only possible, but serves to reinforce and expand this initial vague emotional reaction to this poem, and explains the "explosion" Roethke works so hard to achieve. Although the actual subject - love, mystic unity, the relationship between the poem and the reader - is not delineated, the relationship within this subject is clear. This is not nonsense, but all sense.


1. "The Vegetal Radicalism of Theodore Roethke, "Sewanee Review (LVIII, Winter, 1950), 68.

2. Ralph J. Mills, Jr., ed. On the Poet and His Craft: Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1965), 37.

3. David Waggoner, ed. Straw For The Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 261.

4. Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1974), 84.

5. Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 56. All other quotations from Roethke refer to this text.

6. Notebooks, 28.