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The Waking
The Waking
by Theodore Roethke

Sound Check

Read this poem aloud. What do you hear?

Imagine the sound of measured footsteps resounding across a wooden floor: that’s what you hear first in this poem. Written in the villanelle form, with strict iambic pentameter meter, this poem strides confidently in, announcing each stress with gusto. The speaker may say he’ll go softly, but the poem “has another thing to do / To you and me.”

With the steady beat laid down, the melody can come in all the more sweetly. This is a very musical poem, with the refrains returning like a song’s chorus, weaving and winding through the column of lines. There’s also an airiness, a feeling of space between statements created by the numerous questions that bring the ends of the lines up in wonder, mimicking the ascent of the lowly worm toward the end of the poem.

Finally, we get another musical layer with all the alliteration happening in the poem. For example, the F-words (no, not those F-words, gang) in “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear” (2) give us a kind of repeated, forced breath over the bottom lip, underlining the stuttering breaths that a frightened person might take. As well, the alliteration of “God bless the Ground!” twins the spiritual with the earthly (both G-words here), subtly reminding us that these separate spheres are not so separate for our speaker. These alliterative moments (and others in the poem), work to underscore the speaker’s ecstatic state by giving our ears a sense of play and connection on a sonic level.

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