Susan R. Bowers: On "North American Sequence"

Roethke is careful to relate the final metamorphosis of the rose symbol in "North American Sequence" to the poetic world in which it appears. "The Rose," the culminating poem of the sequence, begins, "There are those to whom place is unimportant / But this place, where sea and fresh water meet, is important" (CP, p. 196). Roethke's first wild rose is not only situated near the convergence of fresh and salt water, but also on the edge between water and earth, between wild and domesticated nature, where "the tide rises up against the grass / Nibbled by sheep and rabbits" (CP, p. 196). Even the rose's location implies the resolution of contraries.

This rose is in no greenhouse, but open and exposed to the sea wind, anchored in an important place. It is "A single wild rose, struggling out of the white embrace of the morning-glory" (CP, p. 197).

The fact that the rose of "North American Sequence" is the only wild rose in any Roethke poem is significant for several reasons. First of all, its wildness divorces it from the image of the poet's early years amidst his father's rose-houses, and thus from the greenhouse-womb of the child. Yet the "divorce" is actually a re-discovery of "roseness," that is, of the original nature of a rose before hybridization for fashionable gardens. In returning to this wild rose in his symbolism, in the midst of a return to nature in its natural, unaltered state in this sequence, Roethke mirrors the return to his own beginnings which he exhibits in the lines in the second section of "The Rose," which occur immediately after a description of the single wild rose:

 

And I think of roses, roses,

White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses,

And my father standing astride the cement benches,

Lifting me high over the four-foot stems, the Mrs. Russells,

            and his own elaborate hybrids,

And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to

            beckon me,

Only a child, out of myself (CP, p. 197).

 

Sullivan cites the lines which follow, "What need for heaven, then, / With that man, and those roses?" (CP, p. 197) as proof of the symbolic reconciliation with the father which she claims is represented by the rose symbol. Sullivan's point, it seems to me, is valid inasmuch as it points to the synthesis of past and present achieved by the "North American Sequence" rose, but errs, I think, in reading "then" as suggesting a causal rather than temporal relation. In my view, the most consistent reading acknowledges only that for the "then" Roethke, the child, "heaven" needed no more than "that man," his father, and "those roses," the hybrids cultivated from cuttings. Roethke is recalling for us the first time a rose beckoned him out of himself, preparatory to his revelation of how the wild rose can beckon his adult self. The location of this stanza exactly in the middle of the poem, and the evolution of the rose symbol by this point, also argue for the felt necessity of a more mature definition of heaven which requires not a cultivated, but a wild rose that is independent of any man, even the poet's father. The wild rose is alone and free in the sea wind. It and the poet have metamorphosed to a state beyond the poems which preceded The Far Field, in which he did require the constant return to his childhood to seek rebirth and understanding.

The wild rose is Roethke's special adaptation of a very traditional symbol. Particularly because it is wild, his "rose in the sea wind" escapes the confines of what Sullivan calls T. S. Eliot's "highly acculturated rose." The wild rose is definitely of the physical world, neither an artificial creation nor a human-altered bit of nature. Moreover, as a single rose, its beauty is not in its bud form, as for the cultivated rose, but "Widening at high noon, face upward," when its "imperishable quiet at the heart of form" is perceived most clearly. The heart of the wild rose, "the numinous ring around the opening flower" (CP. p. 192), is an exhibit of form. Roethke's wild rose is struggling "Out of the briary hedge, the tangle of matted underbrush" (GP, p. 197), that is, the thorny tangle of living things.

In the wild state, roses are single, not layered, and have five or, rarely, four petals with numerous stamens and pistils. In the domestic state, the stamens (the male, pollen-bearing floral organs) are transferred into petals and the flowers become double. Therefore, the domestic rose is a strictly female flower, possessing only pistils, seed-bearing organs, and able to propagate only through cuttings. Roethke's female-associated rose in the love poems thus is consistent with the sexual identity of the cultivated rose. The rose in "North American Sequence" is both male and female, an androgyny symbolic of its objectification as the union of opposites. The self-fertilization capacity of the wild rose has metaphorical relevance, for it means that this rose guarantees itself unassisted immortality. The plant world, in its natural state, exists in order to continue. A plant uses nutrients, water, and light to re-create itself, an especially efficient process in a plant which flowers rapidly, moving from bud to blossom at the first blush of sunlight. Such a plant is the wild rose, "Flowering out of the dark, / Widening at high noon (CP. p. 197).

"The Rose" is a poem not only "about" roses, but also "about" movement. As in "The Dying Man," whose heart swayed with the world, and in "The Dream" when the poet-lover "swayed out beyond the white seafoam" (CP, p. 115), living things sway in "The Rose." The hawks "sway out into the wind, / Without a single wingbeat" (CP, p. 196); the poet announces, "I sway outside myself" (CP, p. 196), and, in what is perhaps the climax of the poem, he speaks of "swaying out on the wildest wave alive" (CP, p. 199). "Sway" originally meant "to be moved hither and thither by the wind." Roethke seems to intend this meaning, for his hawks and he move, when they sway, by trusting to the force of a natural phenomenon, either wind or wave, so completely that they need exert no effort or resistance, but only be. This relinquishing of control of one's self to some other force is described in the second stanza of the last section of "The Rose":

[quotes ll. 98-105]

The rose is the single symbol of life, growth and fertility in this wasteland of drying, dying things. It thus represents what Douglas Paschall has called Roethke's lifelong subject matter: "the mysterious shooting out of green life from the rich and rank fetor of dying."

The poet tells us in this stanza that he came upon "the true ease of myself" near this rose among the dying trees. "Ease" can mean "opportunity, means or ability to do something," as well as "comfort, absence of painful effort, freedom from the burden of toil." Roethke seems to intend both meanings, for, by risking the loss of self by giving up self, he has achieved the comfort that is beyond becoming and perishing, the opportunity to become something wholly other, which, free from the burden of toil, can sway out on the wildest wave alive and yet be still. And it was near the rose, significantly, that the poet came upon this true ease. The stanza goes on to amplify the stress on motion and energy:

 

And I rejoiced in being what I was:

In the lilac change, the white, reptilean calm,

In the bird beyond the bough, the single one

With all the air to greet him as he flies,

The dolphin rising from the darkening waves (CP, p. 199).

 

The poet is at last content in his own being, and expresses that contentment in dynamic terms: the lilac change; the silent, sinuous energy of a reptile; the single bird whose motion permits potential meeting with all the air; the dolphin moving up into the air from the dark water. These are celebrations of energy, of movement toward; they suggest that Roethke's mystical experience is neither transcendence over nor re-integration with things, but re-integrations with relations between and among things, with the energy that propells and is propelled by the world of living things.

Roethke's mystical experience, then, is his encounter with the life force. Why is the rose the symbol of that life force? Why does Roethke conclude the poem, and thus the sequence, with rejoicing that he is in this rose?

 

And in this rose, this rose in the sea-wind,

Rooted in stone, keeping the whole of light,

Gathering to itself sound and silence—

Mine and the sea-wind's (CP, p. 199).

 

This rose actually exemplifies that law of physics concerning static or latent energy which states that a body possesses the power of "doing work" by virtue of the stresses which result from its position in respect to other bodies. Thus place is indeed important for this rose growing where sea and fresh water meet, eagles soar above grazing sheep, and the tide ruffles the grass. Roethke's rose is solidly anchored on the edge of a cliff, yet free to move in the sea wind which will broadcast its fertilized seed to soil and water alike.

The union of female and male, which, as Jenijoy La Belle has named, Roethke celebrates in the love poems as a kind of religious experience, is represented in the wild rose symbol which incorporates not only the personal, human significance, but also stresses the energy of the union, of the universal creative principle of life. The wild rose gathers light and energy for the future of wild roses. The rose brings together the tensions of life into a vital balance which becomes "the imperishable quiet at the heart of form."

The last lines of the poem, "Mine and the sea-wind's," command a lasting image of the positive force of the sea-wind on the Northwest coast, on which wind hawks can "sway," and of the force of the Northwest's Roethke, gathered together by the wild rose. It is the force of nature united with the force of the poetic imagination in an eternal promise of renewal.

The explorer has mapped the regions of his soul. His reward is the wild rose, that metamorphosed symbol which enables the poet to achieve the mingling of contrasts, of turbulent energy and marmorean stillness in which Yeats claimed to lie the nobleness of the arts. Through the image of the wild rose in the sea-wind, Roethke has gathered to himself sound and silence.

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Title Susan R. Bowers: On "North American Sequence" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Susan R. Bowers Criticism Target Theodore Roethke
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 13 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Explorer's Rose: Theodore Roethke's Mystical Symbol
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