One of My All-Time Favorite Poems

And,  malheureusement, terribly appropriate for my present passage.

In a Dark Time
Theodore Roethke

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.

It's hard not to love a poem that posits, "I live between the heron and the wren."  And then, that sly and yet forceful allusion to Baudelaire that heads the third stanza--an entire poetic/philosophical system in a single line.

from Les Fleur du Mal
Charles Baudelaire


La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d'enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d'autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l'expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l'ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l'encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l'esprit et des sens.

Go to The Fleurs du Mal Site for multiple English Translations:
The sonnet form of this latter is interesting and powerful, and the influence of the theory behind this poem cannot be overstated--as it gives rise to both imagist and symbolist schools of poetry--Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, and even Apollinaire, all influenced by this.  And as we see, mid-twentieth century--it still has its echoes through the art.  Indeed, I'm half convinced it informs much that is written today. (And probably gave rise to much of the [both good and nonsense] semiotic and deconstructivist schools of thought.  (By the way, I find the Campbell translation at the site quite springy, subtle, interesting and powerful.))

Back to Roethke--in a single line he brings us into this school and reminds us authoritatively what he is about in the composition of his dark and mystical gem. Is there also a reference--admittedly oblique to Dante hovering there in the first two lines?

Poetry is often a resonant chamber, achieving its power, vision, and authority from the way that it plays the music of the past on instruments made for the present.


  1. Yes, Roy Campbell is underappreciated as poet and translator.

    Thank you -- more than mere words can convey -- for these ever familiar but ever surprising poems by Roethke and by Baudelaire! Roethke puts us all to shame, I think, with the agility and dexterity of his five-beat lines. Even, or especially, when he writes in extremity.


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