by Theodore Roethke
Shmoopers one and all know, or should know, that the speaker isn’t necessarily the same as the poet himself, but in this poem there’s a real temptation to see the two as one and the same. Why? Even though Roethke has chosen the very artificial form of the villanelle, the voice in this is so honest and bare, it feels real and true. It’s hard to imagine that he is putting on a persona or voice. It really sounds as though he’s speaking from the heart.
Since you can never be sure, let’s just say this is an earnest speaker, one who is deep-thinking and super-aware of his own state of mind. That’s the first thing you notice in this poem, how much it is centered on the first-person experience. Look at all those sentences that begin “I.” Yes, he does try to universalize his experience, but this is someone whose world begins and extends from within.
Age? Our speaker’s old enough to be thinking about death, but not so close that he’s obsessed with it. He’s more attuned to life. A spiritual fellow, this speaker communes with Nature and God almost as peers. But he’s not all fancy and intellectual about it. There’s not one word in this poem for which you’d need a dictionary, not one word that has more than two syllables. Instead, he calls upon the same store of words again and again to discover what’s elemental to existence. He’s also someone who finds his steadiness in the shaking. Maybe his normal is everyone else’s earthquake. He certainly has a lot of different forces and feelings at work inside him, yet they all seem to lead him to an evolved sense of life, the world around him, and ultimately himself.