In a Dark Time

Here’s the poem this journal takes its title from:

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.

Theodore Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” seems even more powerful today than when I first read it in 1965. It stands as a masterpiece in itself but takes on added depth when read within the context of Roethke’s entire body of works. When one understands the dark nature of many of Roethke’s earlier poems, poems like “Epidermal Macabre,” “Weed Puller, or longer poems like “The Lost Son,” the transcendence suggested in the phrase “and one is One” is amazing. In another sense, though, it is a “typical” Roethke poem because many of his poems attempt to move from despair to hope.

The first line of the poem suggests the essence of the poem, the idea that in a dark time, a time of despair, one begins to find oneself. Too often we lose ourselves in our despair and give up all hope, but the loss of the most important things in life can also help us gain insights that enrich our future life. Indeed, perhaps it is only in such moments of despair that we can find our true selves because they test who we are and what we truly believe.

When the poet sees his “shadow” he sees his alter ego, perhaps even the dark side of his soul, in this increasing darkness. The “echo,” though it may seem merely to reflect the idea of the shadow, instead seems to indicate a different idea, the idea that he finds himself reflected in nature, which is usually a source of insight and power in Roethke’s poetry. This idea of highs and lows is mirrored in the closing lines where he uses images of “the wren,” high, and, “serpents of the den.” low.

The line “What’s madness but nobility of soul/ At odds with circumstance” seems particularly poignant considering the number of times Roethke was committed to a mental institution for treatment. Certainly if anyone could understand the “purity of despair” he could. “That place among the rocks-is it a cave,/Or winding path?” forces us to wonder how many times in the midst of this tormenting “fire” he felt he saw a way out, like Yeats’ spiral path, only to discover that was a source of greater despair, the cave of the “serpents of the den.” In these moments of despair, he seems to be constantly walking on the edge of the abyss.

In this “dark night of the soul” he receives many “messages,” literal or symbolic. It is a night when the birds, often used to represent the soul, fly away, as if suddenly disturbed by some force or as if leaving the body behind. The complex symbol of the “ragged moon” suggests “lunacy” or loss of imagination, while the eclipse suggests that the dark side is prevailing and that all hope is lost. The “unnatural light” reinforces the idea that the forces of darkness are at work here. Worst of all, there are no tears, as if no one really cares what is happening, even the poet himself.

The poet, a “heat-maddened” fly desperately buzzing at death’s door, simply wants to die. And miraculously, at this very moment of the “death of the self,” the poet finds himself and God, becoming one with One, and he is suddenly “free in the tearing wind,” free in spirit, no longer held by the flesh. It’s almost Zen-like, or perhaps the kind of merging with God that Christian Saints felt in mystical moments.

This final transcendence seems more convincing because of the powerful images of despair that precede it. This is no easy victory, no easy transformation promised in a book. This is the record of a hard-won victory by this man at this moment.

And, if Roethke can win his victory over the forces of darkness and despair, there is hope that I can too.

Here’s a number of Roethke resources on the web.

A Scott Ruescher essay on Roethke’s collected poems.

A Roethke page at the Academy of American Poets

This site is a touching dedication to Roethke

Eleven of Roethke’s poems are included here if you want some background. “The Far Field” and a “Journey to the Interior” might shine the most light on “In a Dark Time.”