Roethke’s “The Pure Fury”

Obviously the best poem in the section entitled "Love Poems" of Words for the Wind is "Words for the Wind," and "The Sensualists" is probably still my favorite poem, a hangover from my college days when I found the poem insightful, and shocking. But then, I hadn't read any of the beat poets yet, either. I sometimes fear my fondness for particular poems depends more on what I read in a significant time in my life than on any inherent value of the poem. I mean, after all, I still love Elvis's "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" even though my taste in music today runs more toward Tracy Chapman or R.E.M than country western. Fortunately, you'll have to buy the book or run to the library to read those poems.

That said, the poem I found most fascinating in this section when I re-read it was "The Pure Fury," perhaps because this is not a typical "love" poem:

THE PURE FURY

Stupor of knowledge lacking inwardness--
What book, O learned man, will set me right?
Once I read nothing through a fearful night,
For every meaning had grown meaningless.
Morning, I saw the world with second sight,
As if all things had died, and rose again.
I touched the stones, and they had my own skin.

The pure admire the pure, and live alone;
I love a woman with an empty face.
Parmenides put Nothingness in place;
She tries to think, and it flies loose again.
How slow the changes of a golden mean:
Great Boehme rooted all in Yes and No;
At times my darling squeaks in pure Plato.

How terrible the need for solitude:
That appetite for life so ravenous
A man's a beast prowling in his own house,
A beast with fangs, and out for his own blood
Until he finds the thing he almost was
When the pure fury first raged in his head
And trees came closer with a denser shade.

Dream of a woman, and a dream of death:
The light air takes my being's breath away;
I look on white, and it turns into gray--
When will that creature give me back my breath?
I live near the abyss. I hope to stay
Until my eyes look at a brighter sun
As the thick shade of the long night comes on.

The ironical, if not paradoxical, tone of this poem is set in the first stanza when this man-of-letters argues that a "stupor of knowledge lacking inwardness" cannot bring one happiness. In fact, too much of such knowledge seems to make the world appear meaningless. Sometimes only experiencing things directly can lead to "second sight" and put us back in touch with our world.

The second stanza attacks the premise that monastic life is the true way to attain enlightenment in the same way the first stanza attacks the premise that books are the true source of wisdom. Though there's a disturbing tinge of disdain in phrases like an "empty face" and "my darling squeaks in pure Plato," the stanza as a whole seems to suggest that it is, indeed, this woman that leads him to enlightenment.

A true introvert would certainly identify with the third stanza. Roethke's tying of solitude to "appetite for life" might seem strange to an extrovert, but makes perfect sense to those of us who find the truest life in our "own blood." When you're an introvert, even passionate love cannot completely replace the need for solitude and the inner life.

The last stanza is even more disturbing, tying together the loved one and death, suggesting that somehow this love takes his "being's breath away." It's almost as if his love has tainted the loved one, turning white into gray. And underlying the whole poem is still Roethke's feeling that he lives "near the abyss," near death. In the end though, the lines "I hope to stay/ Until my eyes look at a brighter sun" seem to suggest that it is precisely this love that brings him joy even "as the thick shade of the long night comes on."

One thought on “Roethke’s “The Pure Fury”

  1. Never mind (for a moment) the premise of this poem. It shows Roethke’s metrical mastery working in high gear. He taught and taught again the power of playing with the stresses so that the pushed the sentences, sometimes tightening up, sometimes opening out in Whitmanesque whoops and yawps. Roethke was above all a prodigy at it, and it’s sometimes ignored because his content is romantic and his theme mystical. But look at the following pairs of lines for example:

    Great Boehme…opens with a couple of hard stresses and those open A’s, and is followed by an almost comical line with its offbeat verb (squeaks) ending in double syllable with the rhyme on the unstressed 2nd syllable, a commonly comic device. So the metrics are doing their work, counterpointing the idea. That workmanship was a source of pride to him. There may be raw power in the poem, but not in its form. Since “pure” appears 4 times int the poem, it’s also a structural key. In the last three lines, three technical tactics are used, first to slow us down (splitting the sentence at mid-line); moving into (almost) regular rhythm in the next line, but not quite…that “look at” has an almost unconscious pause. It moves us to the series of unstressed syllables coupled with double stresses that follow “as the” THICK SHADE
    “of the” LONG NIGHT comes on. Powerful poet.

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