Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
- Man. Just look at that column of I’s lined up along the left-hand margin, each one with its own verb conveying a kind of consciousness. Your eye adds them up and comes up with a sum about individual awareness. For those who have more of a math mind, it’s something like: waking/sleeping + (feeling – fearing) x fate = learning. Got that?
- The first part of this equation, “I wake to sleep” presents a paradox. You may feel like asking, “So which is it, smarty-pants poet? Are you awake or sleeping?” The thing is, it’s both, and so Roethke sets the tone and subject for the poem as a whole. Wake up. You’re in a world between states, a poetic world where contradictions not only coexist, but they create a new hybrid where they merge.
- The speaker goes on to say he takes his waking slow. Listen to that assonance. All those long A sounds ("wake," "take," "waking") add music. Is this a lullaby? Would the poet have you sleep, too? (For more on this technique, check out "Sound Check.")
- There’s no rush to this kind of waking. That’s a relief.
- After a line of assonance, line 2 has some crazy alliteration going on, a kind of tongue- (and brain-) twister with all those F-words (and not one to get your mouth washed out with soap).
- This next “I” describes feeling. Normally you’d expect feeling to be grounded in the tangible world, but what’s "felt" here is fate, which is a big fat abstraction.
- Hmm. How does someone go about "feeling" fate? How does the speaker? He feels it in “what I cannot fear.” So what the Shmoop does that mean? Don’t worry. It’s a good thing to have all these questions. They let you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. You’ve entered someone’s mind.
- So let’s ask: what is it about fate that the speaker can’t fear and why can’t he? Is it that it’s essentially harmless? Or is that some things about fate cannot be felt because they’re too vast? Or both? You don’t need to answer these questions. The questions themselves help you to approximate the dimensions of the speaker’s new awareness. Roethke’s not afraid to take on the Big Ideas, like fate and fear. So don’t you be a chicken. Get in there and grapple yourself.
- Ask yourself, what is the relationship between fate and fear? When someone says they’re fatalistic, doesn’t that mean they recognize that things are predetermined or inevitable? That they’re already written? The effect of these lines is reassuring, even as they acknowledge a kind of helplessness. It’s as if the speaker has let go, not with a shrug, but by accepting that whatever is going to happen will happen—que será será.
- The third “I” up is learning. In case you were worried that the speaker would be paralyzed by fatalism, don’t sweat it: he isn’t. He’s learning, growing, becoming, not stuck at all. What’s more, he’s learning by going, on the move.
- Where does he go? Oh, there he goes again, bringing up fate or obligation. “Where I have to go” suggests that he doesn’t have much say in his direction. He’s fulfilling some kind of fated duty. But, if you’re fated to go somewhere, you might as well learn something from it, right? A life lesson maybe?
- This tercet (a stanza of three lines) reveals one part of the rhyme scheme. “Go” echoes “slow” from line one. When words rhyme they seem to share more than just sound. Their meanings pair up, which makes sense, as this is a poem about going slow. For more on the rhyme patterns of this poem, check out "Form and Meter."