Richard Allen Blessing: On "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz"

The poem conveys an impression of an elusive, darting "reality," for the three Fraus move so swiftly as to manage to be in two places at once, to be "Gone" and "still hovering]" simultaneously. The ladies, like the Old Florist, have the power to transfer their energy creatively into the life around them, and it is that power which commends them to the memory and to the apotheosizing power of the imagination. The Fraus are glimpsed through a blur of active verbal forms--creaking, reaching, winding, straightening, tying, tucking, dipping up, sifting, sprinkling, shaking, standing, billowing, twinkling, flying, keeping, sewing, trellising, pinching, poking, and plotting. Even nouns such as Coils, loops, whorls, nurses, seed,, pipes, and others are potential verbs, reminding us that the names of greenhouse things are squirming with metaphorical action. The ladies are never still, for even when they stand astride the greenhouse pipes, their skirts billow and their bands twinkle "with wet." Their movement is always that of "picking up," and the movement of the poem, like the movement of the climbing roses, is upward from the earth toward the sun. So swiftly do the ladies scurry that the memory blurs fact into fiction, the historical ladies into the mythic. Flying "like witches," they become more and more enormous in their activity until at last they trellis the sun itself, giving support to that strange flower which is the life of our planet.

As the remembered ladies become apotheosized into mythic figures, Roethke imagines them to take on the fecund powers of earth mothers. They straddle the phallic pipes of the greenhouse, pipes belonging to Roethke's father, until their skirts billow "out wide like tents"--as if someone might live there. They have, we are told, the power to "tease out" the seed, to undo the lifeless "keeping" of the cold. And finally, they give the poet himself a symbolic birth. Acting as midwives to themselves, they pick him up, pinch and poke him into shape, "Till I lay in their laps, laughing,/ Weak as a whiffet." The ladies, trellisers of the sun, also trellis "the son," the boy fathered by the greenhouse owner.

Though the old women are, as the first word of the poem indicates, "Gone," they "still hover" in the air of the present. All of the verbs in the first stanza are, as one would expect in a remembrance, in the past tense. Nevertheless, Roethke refers to the Fraus as "These nurses of nobody else" as if they were present, as if the memory had established them in the poet's room. And, of course, he says that "Now, when I'm alone and cold in my bed,/ They still hover over me,/ These ancient leathery crones. . . ." The relationship between poet and crones is a highly dynamic one. On the one band, the hovering mothers "still" have the power to give him life. He lies like a seed, cold and in his bed, and they breathe over him the breath of life, a snuff-laden blowing that lifts him from the keeping of the cold into a life that manifests itself in poetic blossoms. On the other hand, it is the poet who "keeps" the Fraus alive, whose breath gives to the dead the power to move and be again. Their energy is entirely dependent upon his ability to intensify the language until their movement becomes tangible in the empty air, becomes an event in the viscera of the reader. The poem itself takes its cadence not from a man named Yeats, but from the German Fraus--takes it and gives it back again. As for the poet, he has, by the end of the poem which is the end of the Greenhouse Sequence, lost himself in two places at once. He is in his bed and the time is now, yet the crones who hover above him breathe "lightly over [him] in [his] first sleep," presumably that sleep from which one wakes at birth. They are the remembered gateway to the house of glass, these witches capable of collapsing time so that the cold sleep of the adult is as one with the first sleep from which he wakened into life. They are the means by which Roethke demonstrates the dynamic reach of the "Now" in which we always live; for, through the Fraus who were, through the Fraus mythologized, and through the Fraus who remain as a felt presence, he has made a poetic representation of the living extension of the past into the ever-moving present.


Title Richard Allen Blessing: On "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Richard Allen Blessing Criticism Target Theodore Roethke
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision
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