by Theodore Roethke
The Waking Theme of Transformation
Not to sound all literati-glitterati, but let’s face it: all poetry is a process of transformation, from observation, idea, or feeling to words that in turn are transformed in the reader’s mind into impressions and understanding. Think of the immediate power of a metaphor. A poet says this is that, and somehow the transformation is complete by mere association. Multiply that by “always” in this poem that makes transformation an explicit theme. The speaker in “The Waking” is quite deliberately entering a liminal (threshold or in-between) state in order to have an experience that will change his sense of things and maybe even his essence. While delving the many layers of consciousness, he says himself that his very being is moved to dance.
Though the refrains of the villanelle recur throughout this poem, they often appear altered, or take on new meaning from the lines around them. By the end of the poem, the refrains arrive bearing all the layers they’ve acquired along the way, as the speaker has learned from going where he had to go.
Questions About Transformation
- By what means are the transformations in this poem achieved?
- Are mystery and awe essentially transformative? How would the speaker answer that question?
- Does everyone have equal access to change, or is this speaker just special? How do you know?
- Is change inevitable? What would our speaker say?
Chew on This
All deep reckoning changes you. Thinking is change (though it doesn’t produce any real coins, you know).
The speaker is the same at the end of the poem as he is at the beginning. All that’s changed is he knows himself better. So he’s got that going for him.