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Dark Reading (Roethke)

Posted on: Saturday, April 01, 2017

See the full text of Theodore Roethke's ‘In a Dark Time’ online here at the Poetry Foundation website.

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.

–Theodore Roethke(1)

It’s the darkness that draws the eye to Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ. The gleam he gives it.

(I hate those faint-eyed Christs.)

He has a lovely face, she said, gentle and passionate.

“Passion” is cognate with “Passive” and “Patient”.

(His eyes fainted, but he was not faint-hearted.)

That place among the rocks—is it a cave,  
Or winding path? The edge is what I have. (lls.11/12)

How dark is dark? Roethke calls it a “deepening shade”, so it’s not pitch. The cave, if it happens to be a cave, will be utterly dark. The path probably not, although there used to be country roads that were almost as good as caves, darkwise. The guides love saying it—Your eyes will never get used to this dark.

If the eye sees in a “dark time” it’s either because it must focus more in the penumbra, or because it has deputised its function. People with what is called “blindsight” can perceive objects and their dimensions after losing their vision.

“…DB's blind field sensitivity is not merely superior to his own sighted field, but also to normal vision.”

– Scientific American(2)

Alright, so it’s not that kind of 'eye', but if it’s not, why don’t we have a word for It—the hidden sense, I mean:

Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines....


Light breaks on secret lots,
On tips of thought where thoughts smell in the rain;
When logics die,
The secret of the soil grows through the eye,
And blood jumps in the sun;
Above the waste allotments the dawn halts.

–Dylan Thomas(3)

The eye is the king of the senses. We refer everything back to it. If you lose your outer sight, you might gain 'inner sight'. If you understand something, however darkly, you say “I see”. But you haven't seen. You’ve felt the vibrations of sound, you’ve sensed the intention behind the presented look, you’ve understood the presented meaning. Sight thinks so much of itself because it’s the dominant currency. It thinks it gets it all, but most of the time we’re 80% blind. The night reminds us of this.

The oxymoron works poetically, though I think more interestingly, in Dylan Thomas’s poem. The two poets influenced each other, but images of light and dark are perennial. They’re everywhere in Elizabeth Bishop, and in ‘Seascape’, we also get a heron:

“This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels….”(4)

She’s looking at an actual picture—“this cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope”.(5)
She’s seeing things that the herons are not, which is what eyes are allowed to do, especially when they’re being ‘inward’. She also undermines Heaven’s solar prerogative:

Heaven is not like flying or swimming,
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare…

Heaven is a Caravaggio.

Roethke was always very close to Thomas’s “secrets of the soil”. In ‘Cuttings’, he is the soil too, and the birth from it. What I find most impressive about ‘In a Dark Time’ are not just the “correspondences” —with myth and aspects of culture, with nature, with other poets—but the way in which they become so personal and then dissolve.

Is there no end to our talking about dark and light? Maybe, inevitably, not, as it’s where we exist—“in” time, “below” time, “on” time, as encountered in days and nights. The sun is the life-giver. The night never rises, it descends.

Like Thomas’s poem, and Bishop’s, the dark and light in Roethke’s are transmuted into something else by means of style and trope. The interpolation of the colourless concept in lls.7/8 does something bright and weighty: “What’s madness but nobility of soul / at odds with circumstance?” Overstated and perfect. Until one links it with “A lord of nature weeping to a tree….” (l.4) and one remembers, “What’s the worst portion in this mortal life? / A pensive mistress and a yelping wife.” (‘The Marrow’)(6) Life’s a bitch, it seems, and the pressure of a hierarchical sense of entitlement makes it harder. “Nobility” now becomes a suspect word.

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.  

But the poet is true enough to allow the images to speak themselves. The dark day is on fire. Desire, passion, is fire, that which burns and is burnt. Repetition of “pure” in “purity” draws attention to the fact that the poet knows that what he’s saying must round upon itself. Shadow isn’t pitch either, but it’s pitched, Platonically, against a “sweating wall”. Is the wall his skin, and is he himself a cave? Is the landscape inside him? Are the rocks and the passage a vision?

As a blind man, lifting a curtain, knows it is morning…(7)

In Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Night in the sockets rounds, / Like some pitch moon, the limit of the globes….”
The action is internal in both poems, or rather, inner and outer, the perspective constantly changing. The further in you go, the further back in time you go too, to all that history that made you. Life-in-death : death-in-life: “And in broad day the midnight come again!” (l.15) The night is unsympathetic but also seamless, untorn: “Death of the self in a long, tearless night, / All natural shapes blazing unnatural light." (lls.17/18). We’re back to Plato’s idealism, and the duality of nature and preternature, as the self dissolves into it. The last stanza reads:

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.

The 'self' desires regardless, darkly. This is science. I don’t think we are in a metaphor for ‘bad’ here; I think we’re only below the sweep of the eyes. In fact, by the end of this short poem, we have miraculously left sight behind altogether. It seems that the outward-looking eye is not essential after all, Lord or no. Something else called “soul”, the property of the speaking "I", has come to the fore. And then the possessor dissolves, until the mind (but what is the relation of the "mind" to the "soul"?) “enters itself” and God (but what is God?) enters what seems to be the dominant part of “the mind”. As if Roethke is in the same state of confusion as the words arouse, he gives it up. For good or ill, dark or bright, night or day, death or life, he emerges from his chrysalis of “fear” and lets go, to a dubious, lacerating, weeping wind.

To find resonances in Bishop and Thomas is not surprising, but here’s Caitríona O’Reilly in Geis:

Like us, they were unable to believe

the frequencies of light concerned them;
they followed the logic of the particle down

to the sea floor, literalists who sought a solution.

– ‘The Winter Suicides’(8)

And from ‘Jonah’:

Brothers, we who have gone down to the roots of the mountain,
and have seen the worm bite the gourd’s root,
are sea-changed, and see with the light behind us,
as through a fine membrane,
a thin curtain of isinglass….

– ‘Jonah’(9)

In 1957, Robert Lowell wrote: “Darkness honestly lived through is a place of wonder and life … So much has come from there.”(8) In a way, everything has come from there; if the scientists are correct, bacteria and genes constituted the world. But in human society, it’s not the troglodytes, or the dwellers in dingy, dark flats, or the people trapped in their mental labyrinths, that generate ‘dark times’. The bringers of what is called darkness are themselves well able to brave the light, seek it, and occlude it with what they think is their own. In Roethke’s relation of lower case to upper case, they are the One, self-styled Sun/Gods, a tearless wind. Tears are not the dark thing.


(1) Roethke, Theodore, The Collected Poems, London: Doubleday, 1975, 231. From The Far Field, 1964.
(2) Dobbs, David: Blindsight: When the Brain Sees What You Do Not .
3) : ‘Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines’, in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas: The New Centenary Edition, Ed. John Goodby, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, p. 46. O
The poem is online at
(4) Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters, New York: The Library of America/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 31. (from North and South, 1946)
(5) Raphael: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes
(6) Roethke, Theodore, The Collected Poems, London: Doubleday, 1975, 238.
(7)  ‘Journey to the Interior’, ibid., 189.
(6) Geis, Hexham: Bloodaxe, 2015, 31.
(7) ibid., 30.
(8) Quoted in Jamison, Kay Redfield, Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2017, 3.

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