Roethke’s “The Rose”

To me, Roethke’s “North American Sequence” is one of the one of the greatest sequences of poems ever written, though I’ll have to admit to a certain bias since much of it is set in the Pacific Northwest, and I first read it while at Fort Knox, longing for home.

Here is the opening section from

There are those to whom place is unimportant,
But this place, where sea and fresh water meet,
Is important
Where the hawks sway out into the wind,
Without a single wingbeat,
And the eagles sail low over the fir trees,
And the gulls cry against the crows
In the curved harbors,
And the tide rises up against the grass
Nibbled by sheep and rabbits.

A time for watching the tide,
For the heron’s hieratic fishing,
For the sleepy cries of the towhee,
The morning birds gone, the twittering finches,
But still the flash of the kingfisher, the wingbeat of the scoter,
The sun a ball of fire coming down over the water,
The last geese crossing against the reflected afterlight,
The moon retreating into a vague cloud-shape
To the cries of the owl, the eerie whooper.
The old log subsides with the lessening waves,
And there is silence.

I sway outside myself
Into the darkening currents,
Into the small spillage of driftwood,
The waters swirling past the tiny headlands.
Was it here I wore a crown of birds for a moment
While on a far point of the rocks
The light heightened,
And below, in a mist out of nowhere,
The first rain gathered?

It is here that the poet claims to find his true self,

And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.

I probably didn’t understand this poem at the age of 22, but it left an impression that has stayed with me since first reading it, and it rings truer today than it ever has.

Judging from the photographs I’ve posted here this year, some might even believe that I’ve been trying to illustrate this poem the last year. I haven’t, but I have. I suspect I understand the poem much better having spent the last year at Nisqually and at Pt. Defiance.

15 thoughts on “Roethke’s “The Rose””

  1. Roethke is on my short list of favorite poets; he just may be #1. These lines you gave are to me some of his most striking:
    It is here that the poet claims to find his true self, And I stood / outside myself, / Beyond becoming and perishing, / A something wholly other
    This is a poet who knew so many ways of describing a transcendent experience.

  2. You can never have too many comments, Mike.

    I’ve never read “The Letters of Robert Lowell” but anything by Roethke would interest me.

    And I have Berryman’s book on the shelf waiting to be read.

  3. In the Lowell volume I referred to there are letters to and about Roethke, no letters from Roethke. As a lover of Roethke I find some of Lowell’s observations illuminating but testing.

  4. Loren I apologise for my second comment in as many days but after reading your posting I am having a Roethke day. I have just reread the Roethke letters in “The Letters of Robert Lowell” if your readers haven’t done so already they may be interested in seeing Ted through the prism of Cal. To top this off I have also just reread Berryman’s “A Strut for Roethke” to me this is a very poignant piece – Westward, hit a low note, for a roarer lost…….The Garden Master’s gone.” There is an eastern brown snake hunting under my veranda as I post this.

  5. I was in the room the day Roethke unveiled the Rose.
    Hearing him read it aloud, watching him gesture, was
    uncanny, and the poem has enormous power even without that memory.

    1. “…in the room…” uh, who are you are you, Mike Ivory, where are you, and have you written about your experiences with him? … The North American Sequence is my favorite poetry period. Mike Starry, UW, ’74

  6. You might find it interesting to know that my old girlfriend, Nola Kurtz (who introduced me to Roethke in 1965) had also turned on her ex-boyfriend, Dustin Hoffman, to Roethke and that Dustin, in turn, turned on Mia Farrow to Roethke, which is how Mia named her book about her misadventures with Woody Allen “WHAT FALLS AWAY.”

  7. okay, Loren and other R readers, if you add The Far Field, In a Dark Time, The Sloth, Wish for a Young Wife, Journey to the Interior, and My Papa’s Waltz to The Rose, one has the primary list of R’s strongest and best poems! Though he, of course, has many poems which work as quality for they stand the R test – his point that a good reading of a poem is a near as possible to a recreating of the idea of the poem; poems which measure up (such as the ones I’ve listed) in this fashion are R’s best!

    Much thanks for keeping Roethke’s spirit alive.


  8. “What falls away is always and is near.” Along with Bishop’s “One Art”, the best of villanelles written in English. I was a student in Roethke’s last class in 1965, along with Tess Gallagher. Interesting about the connection betwween Kurtz (whom I did not know), Hoffman, and Farrow. The Roethke spirit is alive and well in the Northwest and I’m happy to know elsewhere as well.

  9. Well, of course I wasn’t in Roethke’s last class in 1965 — nor was he introduced to anyone in that year — since he died in 1963. It was 1965 when I got my M.A. from the U.W. I was in Roethke’s last classes from January until some time in June 1963. Sorry for the mistake.

    1. Actually, I knew that. I graduated in 1964 and was finally signed up for Roethke’s Modern Poetry Class when he drowned that summer. Missing his class was probably my greatest disappointment in college.

      Instead I ended up with David Wagoner, Vernon Watkins, and Henry Reed.

  10. I am a bit confused.

    The Rose in collected Poems of T. Roehke
    Anchor Books 1975
    after the line -The first rain gathered? –
    is completely different from the version above.

    Are there two versions of the The Rose?

    What am I not understanding?

    Seeking enlightenment from any all?

    David Juda

  11. This is a very old post that had apparently been corrupted in moving from Blogger, to MT, to WordPress. The first section ends with the line “The First Rain Gathered.”

    The line “It is here that the poet claims to find his true self,” was my comment that introduces the final quote from the poem. Somehow the HTML code got scrambled and was different from when it was originally published.

    Thanks for the comment, which enabled me to make the correction.

  12. Theodore Roethke is a truly remarkable poet, a larger than life man who embraced life in a bear hug yet was often moody when haunted by ghosts of his past – a father who died of cancer, an uncle (and next-door-neighbor) who committed suicide at about the same time – and who struggled, as all great artists do, with doubts about the worth of his talents.

    Roethke is now reckoned to be among the greatest of American poets yet remains a virtual stranger in Saginaw, Michigan, the town where he was born and raised, the town where his father ran a successful florist business. The 25 acres of greenhouses/growing plots were where young Roethke grew up, and where he returned to find the passion and inspiration for much of his greatest work.

    At the back of the Roethke property was an undeveloped field; Roethke often played there with his sister. This bit of wild land inspired more of his work, including
    “The Far Field.” That field, once subdivided for homes, became the backyard of the home in which I was born in 1950. My feet ran through the same grass, my hands dug into the same rich earth. My father, possibly without even knowing the connection, grew dozens of rose bushes each summer, roses so beautiful that traffic slowed as it passed our house.

    As a writer, as a student of English and literature, and as a fan of history, I love Roethke and his work. I sense a kinship with him that I feel with no other writer.

    If you like Roethke’s work and want to be a part of an effort to preserve the home and the land from whence he drew his inspiration, please visit Many of his fans, myself included, call this little place on the web “home.” You’re more than welcome to join us.

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