A lot has been made of the fact that Roethke grew up pretty much in a greenhouse (his father, Wilhelm, ran a nursery). No, he was no hothouse flower, but he had a fascination with the botanical world, and nature in general. With its beauty and order, nature offered comfort and escape to the growing boy, and, later, the man used natural images to convey a kind of pre-fall purity and truth, in contrast to flawed human business. Although this poem is very much about human experience, nature does make a grand entrance, to “ground” some of the headier concepts discussed.
- Line 8: Did we mention grounding? Here both God and the ground are given nearly equal billing, both capitalized, joined in alliteration, both welcome guests in a poem about various forms of mental activity. It’s a relief that the world isn’t just a matter of human invention. It’s as if God and Ground represent different poles on an axis. The speaker can now find his way or orbit between them.
- Line 10: Light is personified as a kind of thief or explorer, taking a tree, but what could that mean? As an image it’s ambiguous. The simplest way of seeing this is that the tree is illuminated, but something more is going on. We know that because the speaker immediately asks who can tell us about how this happens, its function, what it means. Throughout the poem, the speaker is asking questions about how the world works, including how this light can “take” the tree. He’s drawn to the natural phenomenon, but is also interested in the mechanisms of life that create it in the first place.
- Line 11: This isn’t Richard Scarry’s Lowly Worm character (with his German hat and his one red high-top sneaker). This worm has the distinct whiff of death, and you’d think that would be a total downer, but, surprisingly, it’s not. That’s because even the lowliest can make the ascent up a winding stair. Doesn’t that sound hopeful? Even if the worm spells out putrefaction of a corpse, it’s all part of the endless cycle and course of life. We all must learn “from where we have to go.”
- Lines 13-14: Here nature makes her entrance in a big way, addressed by name and given quite the honorific (a title of respect). Isn’t that special, capitalized and titled “Great”? Actually, it really is special, and a mark of power. Great Nature, personified, has something up her sleeve, “another thing to do” to us, and it doesn’t look good.
- Lines 14-15: Because Great Nature might “do” to you something final, like death for example, you have to live now. There’s a certain #YOLO, carpe diem feeling to the advice to “take the lively air, / And, lovely, learn by going where to go.” Seize the day, take the lively air; you only live once, so you better make it good.