Roethke’s The Far Field

In my biased opinion Roethke’s The Far Field rivals Walt Whitman’s original Song of Myself as one of the greatest books of American poetry ever published, and the sequence entitled “North American Sequence” is as inspiring as any of Whitman’s poetry. If you love modern poetry, this is still a must-read book.

I love so many poems in this book it’s nearly impossible for me to choose a favorite poem. Needless to say, “In a Dark Time,” a poem I’ve previously analyzed, would probably rank as my favorite. But poems like “The Meadow Mouse,” “The Far Field,” “The Rose,” and, particularly, “The Abyss” seem equally great.

However, when I was depressed after my divorce and returned to this book for a source of inspiration, I discovered:


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.

Surprisingly, according to the notes I took when I first read the book during Armor training at Ft Knox in 1965, this poem was not a favorite. In the middle of my divorce twenty years later, though, it stood out as strangely comforting, offering a wisdom that I desperately needed to right myself.

Caught in the middle of an impossible situation, it’s not hard to become Hamlet. Thinking of all the things you “should have done” and you “should do” or “shouldn’t do” causes paralysis. As Roethke says in “His Foreboding,” “Thought upon thought can be/ A burden to the soul./ Who knows the end of it all?”

All that really helps is to somehow rediscover your own happiness by doing those things like hiking or cross country skiing that bring you happiness. Once you find your own center, rediscover your own happiness, it’s amazing how everything around you seems to fall in place.

Of course, the same can be said in times of “national disaster.” It’s far easier to be caught up in the hysteria, point to the other and cry “enemy” than to sit still untill things become clear. Demonizing the enemy may make it easier to assuage your pain and outrage, but remaining true to those ideals that made your country great is more apt to bring success in the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the poem’s final stanza also reminds me of the ending of Yeats’ great poem “A Dialogue Of Self And Soul:”

I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action, or in thought;
Measure the lot to forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Perhaps it is Roethke’s repetition of the line “The right thing happens to the happy man,” like Dylan’s famous repetition of “Do not go gentle into that good night,” that makes this such a memorable poem. It’s certainly a line I hope to keep with me “as the slow night comes on.”