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The Waking

The Waking


by Theodore Roethke

Stanza 6 Summary

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

Line 16-19

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go. 

  • You can feel the poem is coming in for a landing, can’t you? This is where the speaker makes his final declaration, his summary. If you know villanelles, you know this is where all the strands that are knit together, or braided, get tied off in some kind of a bow.
  • This shaking—what shaking? Did anyone mention shaking? Minutes ago, the speaker was discussing Death and Nature and lovely learning. Perhaps he’s talking about the poem itself and the shifting, shaking, shuffling form of his investigation into the nature of human consciousness.
  • Here’s another one of those paradoxes. This shaking steadies the speaker, or is with the speaker steadily, keeping him. He’s not shaking from fear, or is he? Is he shaking from some other form of ecstatic experience that leaves him rattled?
  • Every good paradox deserves an ambiguity in this poem, and thar she blows. When the speaker says “I should know,” it could mean, “trust me, been there, done that—I know.” It could also mean “I should know, even though I don’t.” With “should” we get that feeling of obligation again. Does the speaker know? What do you think?
  • And things get much more mysterious before we’re done. Line 17 both clarifies and confuses (how’s that for a paradox?). What falls away as one ascends to a kind of spirit is “always.” The body and matter will fall away and this is an inevitable event, a cycle of life. It will always repeat. But, the notion of always, that eternity, falls away too. Maybe the speaker believes that one sees the “end” of always as it falls away. (Look at how closely aligned “away” and “always” are, as one loses or gains letters to shift meaning.)
  • The speaker adds a sentence fragment, the only one in the whole poem, “And is near.” This is the opposite of enjambment, a kind of premature ending. Are we to power through the period and read this as one sentence, “What falls away is always and is near”? If so, why break the sentence up? It’s like an afterthought, something reassuring. Remember the mention of “those so close beside me” (7)? Even as whatever it is that falls away does fall, it’s also near. It doesn’t leave. It’s the falling away, the separation of self from soul, mind from matter, logic and vision that is always, that is near. It sounds like a grand finale, doesn’t it?
  • Time for the refrains to come back in, partnered at last—one thought unified. That’s the beauty of the villanelle form. At the end of the poem, when the two refrains are lined up as a kind of couplet, it gives the poem a wonderful feeling of completion. What do these words mean in this last context?
    I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
    I learn by going where I have to go.
  • Now, more than ever, it seems that the speaker is discussing a slowly dawning awareness of death, the final sleep, recognizing that it may just be another kind of consciousness. When he says that he learns by going where he has to go, that seems to encompass the entire span of a life, what you’ve had to do to get to the end, what you’ve learned along the way. Just as these lines have acquired meaning as they’ve woven in and out of the fabric of this poem, so too does a life gather significance from where it’s gone.

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