Theodore Roethke



Epidermal Macabre


Indelicate is he who loathes

The aspect of his fleshy clothes, --

The flying fabric stitched on bone,

The vesture of the skeleton,

The garment neither fur nor hair,

The cloak of evil and despair,

The veil long violated by

Caresses of the hand and eye.

Yet such is my unseemliness:

I hate my epidermal dress,

The savage blood's obscenity,

The rags of my anatomy,

And willingly would I dispense

With false accouterments of sense,

To sleep immodestly, a most

Incarnadine and carnal ghost.




In purest song one plays the constant fool

As changes shimmer in the inner eye.

I stare and stare into a deepening pool

And tell myself my image cannot die.

I love myself: that’s my one constancy.

Oh, to be something else, yet still to be!



Sweet Christ, rejoice in my infirmity;

There’s little left I care to call my own.

Today they drained the fluid from a knee

And pumped a shoulder full of cortisone;

Thus I conform to my divinity

By dying inward, like an aging tree.



The instant ages on the living eye;

Light on its rounds, a pure extreme of light

Breaks on me as my meager flesh breaks down—

The soul delights in that extremity.

Blessed the meek; they shall inherit wrath;

I’m son and father of my only death.



A mind too active is no mind at all;

The deep eye sees the shimmer on the stone;

The eternal seeks, and finds, the temporal,

The change from dark to light of the slow moon,

Dead to myself, and all I hold most dear,

I move beyond the reach of wind and fire.



Deep in the greens of summer sing the lives

I’ve come to love. A vireo whets its bill.

The great day balances upon the leaves;

My ears still hear the bird when all is still;

My soul is still my soul, and still the Son,

And knowing this, I am not yet undone.



Things without hands take hands: there is no choice,—

Eternity’s not easily come by.

When opposites come suddenly in place,

I teach my eyes to hear, my ears to see

How body from spirit slowly does unwind

Until we are pure spirit at the end.



In a Dark Time


In a dark time, the eye begins to see,

I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;

I hear my echo in the echoing wood--

A lord of nature weeping to a tree,

I live between the heron and the wren,

Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.


What's madness but nobility of soul

At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!

I know the purity of pure despair,

My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,

That place among the rocks--is it a cave,

Or winding path? The edge is what I have.


A steady storm of correspondences!

A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,

And in broad day the midnight come again!

A man goes far to find out what he is--

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,

All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.


Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire.

My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,

Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,

And one is One, free in the tearing wind.




Big Wind


Where were the greenhouses going,

Lunging into the lashing

Wind driving water

So far down the river

All the faucets stopped?—

So we drained the manure-machine

For the steam plant,

Pumping the stale mixture

Into the rusty boilers,

Watching the pressure gauge

Waver over to red,

As the seams hissed

And the live steam

Drove to the far

End of the rose-house,

Where the worst wind was,

Creaking the cypress window-frames,

Cracking so much thin glass

We stayed all night,

Stuffing the holes with burlap;

But she rode it out,

That old rose-house,

She hove into the teeth of it,

The core and pith of that ugly storm,

Ploughing with her stiff prow,

Bucking into the wind-waves

That broke over the whole of her,

Flailing her sides with spray,

Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,

Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely

Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;

She sailed until the calm morning,

Carrying her full cargo of roses.

Back to the database of writers | Send more excerpts | Back to Literature | Home