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The Senses

Symbol Analysis

You may have learned as early as pre-school about the five senses: seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, and feeling, but a lot has happened since in pre-school. Theodore Roethke is on to the advanced study of the senses. In this poem, he includes most of the first five and adds the more cerebral senses along with a bunch of his own combinations.

Because this poem begins by entering a liminal space (a fancy way of saying it’s betwixt and between, a hybrid of waking and sleeping), he’s already multiplied the possibilities. He’s also practices a kind of literary synesthesia (mix-up of sensory experiences), treating the reader to some trippy moments.

  • Line 2: What exactly does fate feel like? Is it chilling? Is it rough? Does it have feathers like a goose walking over your grave? That’s what we’re talking about. This isn’t your usual “reach-out-your-hand” feeling. Instead it’s a pre-sentiment of a pre-sentiment. We said things would get trippy. And look at the alliteration in this line! It practically stutters. The feeling here is a description of a presence understood through an absence. The fate is felt through what the speaker cannot fear. It sounds like a double negative, but it isn’t. There’s a surety and reassurance in this fate. It is beyond fear, somehow.
  • Line 4: Just when you thought you knew what this guy means by “feeling,” he gives it another definition. This time thought is a feature of feeling. Most people would see a big difference between the two, calling one a matter of logic, the other an attribute of intuition or sentiment. He’s saying “we,” but do you agree?
  • Line 5: Crack open your dictionaries and get a load of this: “synesthesia, noun, a subjective sensation or image of a sense […] other than the one […] being stimulated.” This speaker is one sensitive dude. His hearing is so acute that he can hear his own dancing being. It seems like all of his senses are a-tingle and firing in every direction. Talk about waking!
  • Line 16: You get the feeling that, when Roethke mentions “This shaking,” he means the entire mix of the poem. It’s as if the speaker is thrown into a jar with all these perceptions and thoughts and feelings and something (Nature? God?) has given the thing a good shake. But that’s just what he likes. That’s what keeps this guy steady!

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