Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Theodore Roethke

American Poet, Awarded Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

"Deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light."

"The self says, I am; the heart says, I am less; the spirit says, you are nothing."

"What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible."

"Love is a mystery which, when solved, evaporates. The same holds for music."

"A mind too active is no mind at all."

"What shakes the eye but the invisible?"

"We learn by going where we have to go."

"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. "

"I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. I learn by going where I have to go. We think by feeling. What is there to know? I hear my being dance from ear to ear. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. Of those so close beside me, which are you? God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there, And learn by going where I have to go. 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. Great Nature has another thing to do To you and me, so take the lively air, And, lovely, learn by going where to go. 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."

"Let others probe the mystery if they can. Time-harried prisoners of Shall and Will- The right thing happens to the happy man. The bird flies out, the bird flies back again; The hill becomes the valley, and is still; Let others delve that mystery if they can. God bless the roots! -Body and soul are one The small become the great, the great the small; The right thing happens to the happy man. Child of the dark, he can out leap the sun, His being single, and that being all: The right thing happens to the happy man. Or he sits still, a solid figure when The self-destructive shake the common wall; Takes to himself what mystery he can, And, praising change as the slow night comes on, Wills what he would, surrendering his will Till mystery is no more: No more he can. The right thing happens to the happy man."

"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... Dark,dark my light, and darker my desire. My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, Keeps buzzing at the sill."

"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. "

"I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils, Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight, All the misery of manila folders and mucilage, Desolation in immaculate public places, Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard, The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher, Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma, Endless duplication of lives and objects. And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions, Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica, Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium, Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows, Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces."

"My Papa's Waltz: The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy. We romped until the pans Slid from the kitchen shelf; My mother's countenance Could not unfrown itself. The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle. You beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt, Then waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt."

"This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks, Cut stems struggling to put down feet, What saint strained so much, Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life? I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing, In my veins, in my bones I feel it -- The small waters seeping upward, The tight grains parting at last. When sprouts break out, Slippery as fish, I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet. "

"I knew a woman, lovely in her bones, When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them; Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one: The shapes a bright container can contain! Of her choice virtues only gods should speak, Or English poets who grew up on Greek (I'd have them sing in a chorus, cheek to cheek). How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin, She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand; She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin; I nibbled meekly from her proferred hand; She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake, Coming behind her for her pretty sake (But what prodigious mowing we did make). Love likes a gander, and adores a goose: Her full lips pursed, the errant notes to sieze; She played it quick, she played it light and loose; My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees; Her several parts could keep a pure repose, Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose (She moved in circles, and those circles moved). Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay: I'm martyr to a motion not my own; What's freedom for? To know eternity. I swear she cast a shadow white as stone. But who would count eternity in days? These old bones live to learn her wanton ways: (I measure time by how a body sways). Theodore Roethke"

"Infirmity - 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! 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. "

"My Papa's Waltz - The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy. We romped until the pans Slid from the kitchen shelf; My mother's countenance Could not unfrown itself. The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle. You beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt, Then waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt. "

"What's greater, Pebble or Pond? What can be known? The Unknown. My true self runs toward a Hill More! O More! visible. Now I adore my life With the Bird, the abiding Leaf, With the Fish, the questing Snail, And the Eye altering All; And I dance with William Blake For love, for Love's sake; And everything comes to One, As we dance on, dance on, dance on. "

"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 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 a 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. "

"Open House - My secrets cry aloud. I have no need for tongue. My heart keeps open house, My doors are widely swung. An epic of the eyes My love, with no disguise. My truths are all foreknown, This anguish self-revealed. I’m naked to the bone, With nakedness my shield. Myself is what I wear: I keep the spirit spare. The anger will endure, The deed will speak the truth In language strict and pure. I stop the lying mouth: Rage warps my clearest cry To witless agony. "

"Night Journey - Now as the train bears west, Its rhythm rocks the earth, And from my Pullman berth I stare into the night While others take their rest. Bridges of iron lace, A suddenness of trees, A lap of mountain mist All cross my line of sight, Then a bleak wasted place, And a lake below my knees. Full on my neck I feel The straining at a curve; My muscles move with steel, I wake in every nerve. I watch a beacon swing From dark to blazing bright; We thunder through ravines And gullies washed with light. Beyond the mountain pass Mist deepens on the pane; We rush into a rain That rattles double glass. Wheels shake the roadbed stone, The pistons jerk and shove, I stay up half the night To see the land I love. "

"Child on Top of a Greenhouse - The wind billowing out the seat of my britches, My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty, The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers, Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight, A few white clouds all rushing eastward, A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses, And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting! "

"Journey Into The Interior - In the long journey out of the self, There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places Where the shale slides dangerously And the back wheels hang almost over the edge At the sudden veering, the moment of turning. Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones. The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons, Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley. Reeds beaten flat by wind and rain, Grey from the long winter, burnt at the base in late summer. -- Or the path narrowing, Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones, The upland of alder and birchtrees, Through the swamp alive with quicksand, The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree, The thickets darkening, The ravines ugly. "

"I saw a young snake glide Out of the mottled shade And hang, limp on a stone: A thin mouth, and a tongue Stayed, in the still air. It turned; it drew away; Its shadow bent in half; It quickened and was gone I felt my slow blood warm. I longed to be that thing. The pure, sensuous form. And I may be, some time. "

"I think the dead are tender. Shall we kiss? -- My lady laughs, delighting in what is. If she but sighs, a bird puts out its tongue. She makes space lonely with a lovely song. She lilts a low soft language, and I hear Down long sea-chambers of the inner ear. We sing together; we sing mouth to mouth. The garden is a river flowing south. She cries out loud the soul's own secret joy; She dances, and the ground bears her away. She knows the speech of light, and makes it plain A lively thing can come to life again. I feel her presence in the common day, In that slow dark that widens every eye. She moves as water moves, and comes to me, Stayed by what was, and pulled by what would be. "

"All finite things reveal infinitude: The mountain with its singular bright shade Like the blue shine on freshly frozen snow, The after-light upon ice-burdened pines; Odor of basswood upon a mountain slope, A scene beloved of bees; Silence of water above a sunken tree: The pure serene of memory of one man,-"

"All lovers live by longing, and endure: summon a vision and declare it pure."

"An old man with his feet before the fire, in robes of green, in garments of adieu."

"And everything comes to One, As we dance on, dance on, dance on."

"And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions, finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica, sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium."

"Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't."

"And what a congress of stinks!- Roots ripe as old bait, Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich, Leaf mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks, Nothing would give up life: Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath."

"But she rode it out, that old rose-house, she hove into the teeth of it,"

"Bacterial creepers wriggling through wounds like elvers in ponds, their wan mouths kissing the warm sutures, cleaning and caressing, creeping and healing."

"But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water; the small cells bulge; one nub of growth"

"But when I breath with the birds, The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessings, And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep."

"By daily dying I have come to be."

"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."

"For something is amiss or out of place when mice with wings can wear a human face."

"Death of the self in a long, tearless night, all natural shapes blazing unnatural light."

"Do I imagine he no longer trembles when I come close to him? He seems no longer to tremble."

"God bless the roots! Body and soul are one."

"How body from spirit slowly does unwind, until we are pure spirit at the end."

"I came to love, I came into my own."

"I came where the river Ran over stones; My ears knew An early joy. And all the waters Of all the streams Sang in my veins That summer day."

"I am renewed by death, thought of my death, the dry scent of a dying garden in September, the wind fanning the ash of a low fire. What I love is near at hand, always, in earth and air."

"I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing, in my veins, in my bones I feel it,— the small waters seeping upward, the tight grains parting at last."

"How terrible the need for God."