Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
- From the column of I’s in the first lines, the speaker opens his arms wide to embrace everyone with a grand “We” and a universal statement of what “we” do. He says, “We think by feeling.”
- With the word “feeling,” it’s as if the speaker has picked up a stitch from line 2. He’s already knitted together several different states of perception: waking, feeling, fearing, learning. Here’s another to add to the scarf: thinking. By saying we think by feeling, he’s thrown out another one of those paradoxes. Aren’t thinking and feeling usually seen as two very separate modes of perception? Here he twists the strands together to add another row.
- When the speaker asks “What is there to know?”, is this a capital B, Big question or is it meant to be rhetorical? Or is Roethke asking you to consider all the stuff that is actually knowable? Will he give you the answers? Do you think this is some kind of a crossword puzzle, with the answers at the bottom of the page? Yeah, we know. We hope so, too.
- In line 5, the speaker shifts back to “I” statements attached to modes of perception. You might think this is a simple sensory experience (hearing) until you enter a warp of synesthesia.
- As this video points out, “Synesthesia is an involuntary joining in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense.” What he hears is his being and not the sounds it makes—that would be too conventional—but its dancing.
- And just to underline the strangeness and wonder of it all, he tells you he hears it from “ear to ear” (with an internal rhyme with “hear”). Often a wide smile is described in this way, “from ear to ear.” His being is one big dancing smile.
- What else can be found between the ears? That’s right—the brain. Gold star for you. The brain is the location of where all of the “goings” and goings-on have taken place so far: waking, sleeping, feeling, fearing, learning, thinking, and knowing. Could it be that this is where the speaker’s being lives (as well as dances)?
- Line 6 should sound familiar to you. Also, the villanelle alarm should go off in your head. How does that work again? Basically villanelles have five tercets (three-line stanzas) and one quatrain (four-line stanza), for a total of nineteen lines in all. The rhyme scheme for each tercet is ABA, while the quatrain is ABAA. (For more on how—and why—all this works, check out "Form and Meter.")
- Now, here’s the tricky part: two lines (lines 1 and 3) are refrains (we can call them "Refrain 1" and "Refrain 2"). They get repeated over and over again, though sometimes with variation. In this poem, Refrain 1 is the line “I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” And Refrain 2 is “I learn by going where I have to go.”
- The effect of this repetition is something like a chorus of a song. The poem returns to a familiar theme for emphasis and to remind readers both of where they’ve been and their progress. But there’s more to it than that.
- Each time the line reappears, it looks and means something slightly different. You know in those optical illusions when they place one color against two others and the original color looks changed? It’s the same thing. With each new use of the line, it’s in a different context, surrounded by different sentences and meaning. It shifts slightly.
- Take line 6, for example. This time when you read, "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow,” it seems to be a follow-up or commentary on the line above it: “I hear my being dance from ear to ear” (5). You get the impression that now his waking is to his own being, a dancing, smiling, abstract, yet joyous awareness.