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The Waking

The Waking

by Theodore Roethke

Stanza 3 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 7-9

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there
And learn by going where I have to go.

  • With line 7, the pattern is broken. This sentence begins with a preposition (“of”), not the usual pronoun (I or we), and that goes well with the content of the question.
  • Remember what we said about juxtaposition and context (see stanza 2’s detailed summary)? The speaker is explicit about place now: “Of those close beside me.” Did you see anybody or anything close beside him? Nope, we didn’t either. There’s no mention. Nor did we know there were multiple different categories of neighbors, as the word “which” would seem to imply.
  • A little investigating is in order. Okay, so if placement and shuffling of lines and ideas are the keys to this poem, let’s look at the lines “close beside” this one. The line above, “‘I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow,” (6) might suggest two different groups, those awake and those sleeping, or possessing, like him, a hybrid paradoxical state like a heightened trance.
  • Or maybe upon waking to this sleep/trance state, the speaker is suddenly aware that there are other people who share this space or state with him. It’s ambiguous.
  • What’s clear is that, after all those I-statements, and the lone “We” line (4), there’s a recognition of a “you.” Is the speaker addressing the reader? Has he just woken up to the fact that his words are being read? Or is it someone or something else?
  • Let’s look at the next line and what do we find but, “God bless the Ground!” (Notice that both “God” and “Ground” are capitalized, giving them almost equal billing.) Is the speaker abruptly aware of the presence of God (and earth)? The exclamation mark makes this line really pop out. But which are “you”? God or Ground? Or something else? There’s not enough evidence for a ruling.
  • After all this heady musing, isn’t it a relief to be back on solid ground though? If it is solid, after all. Instead of simply dancing from ear to ear, now this speaker is actually going somewhere. He does so softly (as he wakes slowly—he seems like a gentle sort), and learns “by going where I have to go.” As well, you can learn more by going softly, because there’s less of your ego to get in the way.
  • And like clockwork, there’s the return of line 3, as determined by the villanelle form. At first “Where I have to go” was a commentary on fate, but now we expect it. It might be a little poetic in-joke about the restrictions of form. The poet has to go there because that’s the rule of a villanelle! He has to return to this line, and “softly.” What’s learned, in some way, may be the content of the poem itself.
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