Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
- Flash! Fiat lux, let there be light, and there is light. Following the exclamation about God (8), light appears anthropomorphized into a kind of thief. The speaker has turned his attention from the inward state to the things and beings around him. It happens with a blast of light, the long view, as the light takes the Tree (also capitalized—paging Emily Dickinson.) But what is meant by “takes”? (Take is a key word to the repeated line, remember.) Ravishes? Steals? Shines on? Climbs? Dominates? Enlivens? It’s hard to say.
- And as if to acknowledge the impossibility of knowing, the speaker says, “who can tell us how?” Who indeed? Again, is this a rhetorical question, a sort of shrug? It seems like he accepts that there are many things beyond the human mind. Or else the question is asking for some kind of instruction.
- Notice that “how” is an eye rhyme with “slow,” but sound-wise breaks the pattern of “oh”-sounding “-ow” words. He may go where he has to go, but Roethke as a poet can innovate as he goes.
- From the heights of the treetops, we now plummet to the “lowly worm” who is climbing a winding stair. Lowly Worm? Roethke doesn’t mean Richard Scarry’s character Lowly Worm. More likely he mentions the worm to indicate the fate we all face: “the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout” from “The Hearse Song.” But this worm is climbing up. It may be associated with our mortality, our rot, but it also can make the ascent up the winding stair.
- The winding stair is no doubt a reference to William Butler Yeats’ poem “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” because that’s what this poem has been in part: a dialogue between the different facets that make up a person.
- The Yeats poem begins:
My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;
Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
Upon the breathless starlit air,
Upon the star that marks the hidden pole;
Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done:
Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?
- The stair of Roethke’s poem offers a similar mystical or spiritual ascent. If we take Roethke’s poem as a dialogue between poet and poet (with self, soul, mind, god, and nature as onlookers) we can begin to get a better sense of what Roethke’s saying. He too believes that there is something above us all where thought or “Self” cannot venture, “the star that marks the hidden pole.”
- But let’s not let Yeats hijack this poem. It’s not his; it’s Roethke’s! Just in case you strayed too far, in comes Refrain 1 to wake you up again.