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.”

7 thoughts on “Roethke’s The Far Field

  1. hi writing from Im studying in a unirsity called YÜZÜNCÜ YIL ÜNİVERSİTESİ..the American writers are one of the subjects of our lessons then I thought I could have information about MR.Roethke…I hope you can..I will be looking forward to your reply because I m gonna give a shortly informative lecture to my friends about Roethke then plss reply me as soon as possible…thxxxx

  2. Was looking for the “right poem” to read in class this a.m. after our
    terrible national disaster here with the killings on the Virginia Campus by the young Korean student who then killed himself ….Once again your choices are of the highest standards. Thank you, Elaine Starkman,Walnut Creek, CA 94598

  3. Loren, I shut down my Blog a while back and only recently brought it back to life.

    One of the posts from the old days was about Roethke. I have a stack of alternative and early versions of his poems, and some unpublished poems that I transcribed out of his letters. At least I think that is where I got them.

    I am always interested in comparing. Thinking about why in the final version he might have chose one word over another, cut a line out. If you would like to see this stuff let me know. Ok?

    I couldn’t agree more about The Far Field.

  4. Yes, Loren, R’s The Rose (along with Journey to the Interior & The Far Field) is powerfully his strong work. But, best we not overlooked these equally quality R poems: The Meadow Mouse, Cuttings (later), My Papa’s Waltz, Her Time, The Sloth, and In a Dark Time–in which one finds these genuine R lines:

    In a Dark Time, the eye begins to see,

    What’s madness but nobility of soul

    My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.

    A man goes far to find out what he is–
    Death of the self in a long, tearless night

    Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.

    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.
    So much of what Roethke’s whole body of poetry of the search for oneself is embodied within that poem.
    But it was from the roots, the ‘muck & mire’ (as Roethke said) of Michigan that he got his essence–his connection with the natural world. Having lived in his hometown, down the street from his family home, the nursery, the cemetary in which he rests, I know of his beginning, his strengths, his power:


    Just as the cat sat so patiently outside his door,
    now these several years ago, outside this glass door
    I sit watching the duck take her three nearly miniscule
    ducklings down to the lake to feed, to peck and feed,

    then back up under a bush to sleep, to rest, out of sight,
    secure from any unwanted prey, out of the hawk’s,
    out of the vulture’s view. This mother of winged
    swimmers, not unlike the humans peopling Degas’

    canvases–these many dancers captured in varying
    hues of blue and green, she’s poised to instruct, to teach,
    from sunrise to dusk, as long as necessary until her
    young charges can fend for themselves, sustain life

    without aid in whatever weather Mother Nature
    brings around. It was the spring and summer birds,
    the muck and mire of Michigan woods, the quiet
    of the forested Puget Sound area; it was the voice

    of natural connection, the note of life in each flower,
    wild or tame, Roethke recorded and spoke so clearly.

    Thank you for keeping Roethke’s spirit very much alive. And the opportunity to offer my thoughts and my poetic ‘tribute’ but one of many I’ve written over recent years.


  5. It was my fondness for In a Dark Time that prompted me to choose it for the title of my blog, fred, not to mention the idea of individual redemption that is found throughout his poetry.

    I discussed many of his earlier poems in earlier entries when I reread Words for the Wind.

  6. Hi I am 12 yrs old and i am working on a project for english on repetition poems and i found that right thing poem inspiring!! It helped me to think of ideas! thanks

  7. I’m an American poet and I was thrilled to find this page on Roethke, who I believe, is one of our least-known greatest poets and certainly a rival to Whitman. Thanks for this.

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