Jul 23 2014

Theodore Roethke – In a Dark Time

Published by at 8:57 am under Poetry

In a Dark Time
by Theodore Roethke

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.

— from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, by Theodore Roethke


/ Photo by mill56 /

This is one of those poems to keep close in difficult times.

In a dark time, the eye begins to see

The struggle against despair, disorientation, darkness. The solitary individual lost in a lost world. We have all been there at some point in our lives. Deep seekers have a particular tendency to travel through those shadowed spaces.

I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.

That despair is often a deep seated sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the human world presented to us. It can feel uncaring, limited, violent, broken, and incomplete. In other words, it is a place that does not accept the individual as he or she is. To operate in the human world, we are forced into games of pretense and self-disguise. It is a feeling of homelessness and isolation.

What does one do when the soul is at odds with circumstance? It creates a terrible crisis. As social creatures, we align with the group mind, often without awareness or consent. The more naturally we do this, the better we fit into society and exist in the human world. But what about the eccentrics and visionaries, those who resist that psychic pull in order to answer the soul’s need to be itself and see beyond social artifice?

The edge is what I have.

They tend to dwell at the edges. That is where both danger and possibility are found. There we gain the possibility of seeing clearly for the first time, witnessing reality as a complete and self-fulfilled individual.

But the danger is very real, as well. No longer relying on socially constructed reality as our boundary we also lose our safe landmarks. The psyche becomes disoriented and fragile.

To navigate this necessary dark night of the soul, the seeker and the artist must cultivate a highly refined inner sense of balance and discipline. This is an important reason for developing a vigorous spiritual practice. Without the necessary inner solidity, the tendency is to rely on dangerous crutches, like excessive drinking and drug use — a terrible problem for so many creative non-conformists.

Think of it this way: The normal consensus reality is like the rigid shell of an egg. It does an excellent job of safely containing the unformed individual and protecting it from exposure to the unknown outside reality. But, if the individual remains within that shell forever, he never experiences the fullness of life. Through spiritual practice, one awakens the fire of life and takes on inner solidity and form. Then, when the shell has become too confining, you can break free into the open air without danger of fragmentation, ready to encounter the new world.

…Those dark periods we experience, they do actually serve a purpose, awakening clarity of vision and a compassionate heart. When we feel most vulnerable and lost, we are often going through our greatest growth and transformation, readying for the blaze of light.

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Learn to work deeply amidst the darkness; discover what is really you slowly emerging from the shadows, for that is your stable landmark when all else shifts about.

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke, Theodore Roethke poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Theodore Roethke

US (1908 – 1963) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

More poetry by Theodore Roethke

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Theodore Roethke – In a Dark Time”

  1. Patricia Summerson 23 Jul 2014 at 7:15 pm

    Lovely~ and in fact I just read this poem two days ago when the Gaza children, families were being massacred and the Malaysian airliner was shot down from the sky. Thank you again for always sensing what we need to hear. Namaste, Patricia

  2. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 24 Jul 2014 at 7:03 am

    Thank you, Ivan, for your choice of Theodore Roethke’s poem In a Dark Time and for your meaningful comments. I resonate with Patricia’s connections with the tragic events in our world.
    Roethke has always spoken to me. His words illuminate the experiences life gives us so masterly.
    Yes, “In a dark time the eye begins to see” when
    we trust and allow the time to learn–no matter the pain. If we can only remain at the edge.

    Blessings to you.
    Therese

  3. Carolon 25 Jul 2014 at 6:16 am

    Thank you yet again Ivan,

    It seems your poems arrive at just the right time. I am not familiar with Theodore
    Roethke poems, but just purchased his Collected Poems that will include In a Dark Time.

    That was a very powerful poem for me, with my own time of major depression
    back in the eighties and still quite memorable. And your commentary, as usual.
    helps us come on board with the poet and appreciate his language all the more.

    Thank You

  4. Suzanne Boyer Lalandeon 25 Jul 2014 at 10:24 am

    Thank you Yvan for introducing me to this poet!! The poem resonated with me a great deal! What I appreciate the most is your explanation of the poem ! I don’t always understand everything so you come and put sense and light to it! I really appreciate it!! Love and Namaste Yvan!! Thank you!! ~•๑✿♥ʚįɞ♥✿๑•~

  5. Pegon 26 Jul 2014 at 8:47 am

    Great commentary. I would like to add the caution to not romanticize the darkness like so many artists do. They explore it, drink it, and literally use the fear to create new art forms of fear and darkness like Roethke has done in this poem. Look how many lines he devoted to the darkness. So many are trying to live in this shadow space and focus on one false catastrophe after another unable to break free. There is no death and that is what these beautiful mystic poets are telling us. One cannot truly live in the darkness. Notice and observe but move through it by not attaching emotionally. The poet finally realizes at the end that the darkness was only a mental creation and not reality. Clear out all mental fear through spiritual discipline and then you will find yourself resting in peace within the great void being transformed and rejuvenated.

  6. Sarah LeBlancon 26 Jul 2014 at 10:40 am

    Just came across your site today. Thank you for your comments and inviting others, and for posting this particular poem. It speaks to me of shadowboxing ones way to freedom and authentic self through our ever challenging world. It was a good read for me today. Namaste

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