Roethke’s “The Lost Son”

I'll have to admit that in the past whenever professors have said that we would be studying poems from "Praise to the End," I've been apprehensive. And, despite the fact that my copy of Words for the Wind has multiple notations from the various grad courses I've taken, I'm not at all assured that I truly understand any of these poems. Despite Roethke's, "But believe me: you will have no trouble if you approach these poems as a child would, na"vely, with your whole being awake, your faculties loose and alert. (A large order, I daresay!)," I find them nearly as difficult to understand as Pound's Cantos, though for very different reasons. Where Pound seems to be using literary allusions, Roethke seems to be making allusions to his own life and to his inner feelings.

Not surprisingly Roethke's comments in On Poetry and Craft offers the best clues I've found to begin understanding this sequence of poems:

"the method is cyclic. I believe that to go forward as a spiritual man it is necessary first to go back. Any history of the psyche (or allegorical journey) is bound to be a succession of experiences, similar yet dissimilar. There is a perpetual slipping-back, then a going-forward; but there is some "progress." Are not some experiences so powerful and so profound (I am not speaking of the merely compulsive) that they repeat themselves, thrust themselves upon us, again and again, with variation and change, each time bringing us closer to our own most particular (and thus most universal) reality? We go, as Yeats said, from exhaustion to exhaustion. To begin from the depths and come out- that is difficult; for few know where the depths are or can recognize them; or, if they do, are afraid.

Recognition of that cycle plus the realization that, as Roethke notes, "Much of the action is implied or, particularly in the case of erotic experience, rendered obliquely. The revelation of the identity of the speaker may itself be a part of the drama; or, in some instances, in a dream sequence, his identity may merge with someone else's, or be deliberately blurred. This struggle for spiritual identity is, of course, one of the perpetual recurrences," makes it possible for the reader to make some sense out of this sequence of poems

"The Lost Son" is probably the best known of these poems and the easiest to follow:


1. The Flight

At Woodlawn I heard the dead cry:
I was lulled by the slamming of iron,
A slow drip over stones,
Toads brooding wells.
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

Fished in an old wound,
The soft pond of repose;
Nothing nibbled my line,
Not even the minnows came.

Sat in an empty house
Watching shadows crawl,
There was one fly.

Voice, come out of the silence.
Say something.

Appear in the form of a spider
Or a moth beating the curtain.

Tell me:
Which is the way I take;
Out of what door do I go,
Where and to whom?

Dark hollows said, lee to the wind,
The moon said, back of an eel,
The salt said, look by the sea,
Your tears are not enough praise,
You will find no comfort here,
In the kingdom of bang and blab.

Running lightly over spongy ground,
Past the pasture of flat stones,
The three elms,
The sheep strewn on a field,
Over a rickety bridge
Toward the quick-water, wrinkling and rippling.

Hunting along the river,
Down among the rubbish, the bug-riddled foliage,
By the muddy pond-edge, by the bog-holes,
By the shrunken lake, hunting, in the heat of summer.

The shape of a rat?
It's bigger than that.
It's less than a leg
And more than a nose,
Just under the water
It usually goes.

Is it soft like a mouse?
Can it wrinkle its nose?
Could it come in the house
On the tips of its toes?

Take the skin of a cat
And the back of an eel,
Then roll them in grease,--
That's the way it would feel.

It's sleek as an otter
With wide webby toes
Just under the water
It usually goes.

2. The Pit

Where do the roots go?
Look down under the leaves.
Who put the moss there?
These stones have been here too long.
Who stunned the dirt into noise?
Ask the mole, he knows.
I feel the slime of a wet nest.
Beware Mother Mildew.
Nibble again, fish nerves.

3. The Gibber

At the wood's mouth,
By the cave's door,
I listened to something
I had heard before.

Dogs of the groin
Barked and howled,
The sun was against me,
The moon would not have me.

The weeds whined,
The snakes cried,
The cows and briars
Said to me: Die.

What a small song. What slow clouds. What dark water.
Hath the raine a father? All the caves are ice. Only the snow's
I'm cold. I'm cold all over. Rub me in father and mother.
Fear was my father, Father Fear.
His look drained the stones.

What gliding shape
Beckoning through halls,
Stood poised on the stair,
Fell dreamily down?

From the mouths of jugs
Perched on many shelves,
I saw substance flowing
That cold morning.
Like a slither of eels
That watery cheek
As my own tongue kissed
My lips awake.

Is this the storm's heart? The ground is unsmiling itself.
My veins are running nowhere. Do the bones cast out their
Is the seed leaving the old bed? These buds are live as birds.
Where, where are the tears of the world?
Let the kisses resound, flat like a butcher's palm;
Let the gestures freeze; our doom is already decided.
All the windows are burning! What's left of my life?
I want the old rage, the lash of primordial milk!
Goodbye, goodbye, old stones, the time-order is going,
I have married my hands to perpetual agitation,
I run, I run to the whistle of money.

Money money money
Water water water

How cool the grass is.
Has the bird left?
The stalk still sways.
Has the worm a shadow?
What do the clouds say?

These sweeps of light undo me.
Look, look, the ditch is running white!
I've more veins than a tree!
Kiss me, ashes, I'm falling through a dark swirl.

4. The Return

The way to the boiler was dark,
Dark all the way,
Over slippery cinders
Through the long greenhouse.

The roses kept breathing in the dark.
They had many mouths to breathe with.
My knees made little winds underneath
Where the weeds slept.

There was always a single light
Swinging by the fire-pit,
Where the fireman pulled out roses,
The big roses, the big bloody clinkers.

Once I stayed all night.
The light in the morning came slowly over the white
There were many kinds of cool
Then came steam.


Scurry of warm over small plants.
Ordnung! ordnung!
Papa is coming!

A fine haze moved off the leaves;
Frost melted on far panes;
The rose, the chrysanthemum turned toward the light.
Even the hushed forms, the bent yellowy weeds
Moved in a slow up-sway.


It was beginning winter,
An in-between time,
The landscape still partly brown:
The bones of weeds kept swinging in the wind,
Above the blue snow.

It was beginning winter,
The light moved slowly over the frozen field,
Over the dry seed-crowns,
The beautiful surviving bones
Swinging in the wind.

Light traveled over the wide field;
The weeds stopped swinging.
The mind moved, not alone,
Through the clear air, in the silence.

Was it light?
Was it light within?
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
Yet still?
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Be still.

Somehow it's easiest for me to simply follow the poem as a black-and-white rendition of a Grimm's fairy tale, perhaps as directed by Tim Burton. When you realize that the snail seems to symbolize Roethke's idea of the spiral progress of the soul, then lines like Snail, snail, glister me forward" show the main thrust of the poem. Most of us have "fished in an old wound" and have ended up finding very little comfort "In the kingdom of bang and blab."

Of course, the poem is even easier to follow if you happen to have read this advice from Roethke:

"The Lost Son" " follows a narrative line indicated by the titles of the first four sections: "The Flight," "The Pit," "The Gibber," "The Return." "The Flight" is just what it says it is: a terrified running away-with alternate periods of hallucinatory waiting (the voices, etc.); the protagonist so geared-up, so over-alive that he is hunting, like a primitive, for some animistic suggestion, some clue to existence from the subhuman. These he sees and yet does not see: they are almost tail-flicks, from another world, seen out of the corner of the eye. In a sense he goes in and out of rationality; he hangs in the balance between the human and the animal.

"The Pit" is a slowed-down section; a period of physical and psychic exhaustion. And other obsessions begin to appear (symbolized by mole, nest, fish). In "The Gibber" these obsessions begin to take hold; again there is a frenetic activity, then a lapsing back into almost a crooning serenity ("What a small song," etc.). The line, "Hath the rain a father?" is from Job-the only quotation in the piece. (A third of a line, notice-not a third of a poem

Section IV is a return, a return to a memory of childhood that comes back almost as in a dream, after the agitation and exhaustion of the earlier actions. The experience, again, is at once literal and symbolical. The "roses" are still breathing in the dark; and the fireman can pull them out, even from the fire. After the dark night, the morning brings with it the suggestion of a renewing light: a coming of "Papa." Buried in the text are many little ambiguities, not all of which are absolutely essential to the central meaning of the poem

In the final untitled section, the illumination, the coming of light suggested at the end of the last passage occurs again, this time to the nearly grown man. But the illumination is still only partly apprehended; he is still "waiting."

In the end, I don't think it's really necessary (unless, of course, your teacher thinks it is) or realistic to believe that you can logically analyze or understand these poems because they are at the very least dream sequences and childhood remembrances. Since few of us are able to understand our own subconscious feelings, it's doubtful we're going to be able to fully understand someone else's, no matter how good of a poet they are.

What we can do is identify with the despair of these moments and the longing for spiritual enlightenment that accompanies them.

Perhaps for a few moments we can even understand why some manic-depressives become great artists dramatizing the spiritual quest most of us ploddingly pursue.

4 thoughts on “Roethke’s “The Lost Son”

  1. “The Lost Son” part 4: The Return is the Roethke of the greenhouse poems which so many readers enjoy. In cold weather, greenhouses require heat, and perhaps a boy to keep the “boiler” going. There seems to be a memory of walking “Over slippery cinders/Through the long greenhouse.” It’s where roses are growing, and as the boy walks, he says, “My knees made little winds underneath/ Where the weeds slept.” Underneath what? Anyone familiar with greenhouses will know that the particular plants being grown and cared for in a greenhouse will be raised off the floor. Underneath them,on the greenhouse floor, often weeds will grow, receiving the benefits of nutrients and care (warmth) lavished on the more valuable plants above. The boy’s goal is the boiler, where coal glows red and becomes “The big roses, the big bloody clinkers.” There is a memory: “Once I stayed all night. / Snow.” Is the boy as valuable as the roses which are not allowed to freeze? Or is he like the weeds, an accidental recipient of nourishment and care? “Then came steam./ Pipe-knock.” It’s a hot water heating system and the pipes are noisy. Has he done his duty? “Ordnung! ordnung!/ Papa is coming.” The plants are well. “A fine haze moved off the leaves; /Frost melted on the far panes.” The snow is no threat. The valued rose and chrysanthemum “turned toward the light,” but so, too, do the “bent yellowy weeds” which “moved in a slow up-sway.” Just as the rain falls on the just and the unjust, the beneficent climate of the greenhouse sustains the rose and the weed. The question is, which does the boy feel he is?

  2. It can simply be read for its sheer beauty, its evocative images, its rhythms and its hope. Letting the words roll off the tongue and into the ear is a great pleasure and perhaps, just perhaps you are in a state or stage of life where explication is a distraction.

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