In a Dark Time

Author Theodore Roethke (1908–1963)
First Published 1960; collected in The Far Field, 1964
Type of Poem Lyric

The Poem

In this confessional poem, Theodore Roethke describes a passage through a "dark time" in his life and his emergence from this episode, not into peace and quietude, but at least into wholeness. The journey to and out of the psychic pit described in the poem may be a metaphor for personal tragedy, spiritual emptiness, or, more likely, because it is known that Roethke suffered from periods of psychosis, a poetic attempt to deal with a mental breakdown.

The poet insists that a plunge to the bottom of the abyss of psychological disorientation and dislocation of identity is necessary to achieve clarity: "In a dark time, the eye begins to see." There must be painful struggle, though, before this end is reached. In the first stanza, the poet has glimpses of his personality, but he finds only fragments and pieces, meeting not himself but his shadow, hearing not his voice but his echo. As he says later in the poem, "The edge is what I have." He also finds that he is not sure of his place in the larger scheme of life because he "live[s] between the heron" (a stately, beautiful creature) "and the wren" (an ordinary bird), between "beasts of the hill" (highly placed, but brutal animals) "and serpents of the den" (associated with evil and danger, but also with knowledge).

In the second stanza, the poet specifically identifies his problem as mental illness but implies that it is not he but the world which is out of joint: "What’s madness but nobility of soul/ At odds with circumstance?" In fact, madness may not necessarily be "a cave" in which one is lost, but may be "a winding path" to a new awareness. Despair experienced completely may lead to "purity."

Meanwhile, there is the chaos described in the third stanza, in which daytime is suddenly replaced by midnight, ordinary objects blaze as if lit from within, and images are thrown one upon another at such a dizzying pace that the experience is described as "a steady storm of correspondences." Nevertheless, the confusion is necessary because the old personality must be destroyed before a new one can be born: "Death of the self in a long, tearless night."

Although the paradoxes ("dark, dark my light") and the unanswered questions ("Which I is I?") continue in the final stanza, there is an apparently unexpected resolution of the conflict, as the poet touches the bottom and then begins to rise: "A fallen man, I climb out of my fear." At last, there comes a mystic union with God and the poet feels a part of everything ("one is One"), but there is no safe haven. The poet has been born again into a violent world, but this time he is able to face it "free in the tearing wind."

Forms and Devices

Although, at first glance, "In a Dark Time" seems to be a collection of outbursts and slapped-together images which is less a description of madness than an example of it, the poem is really a carefully crafted work in which its conclusion is implicit in all of its elements, beginning with the rhyme pattern of the poem. Roethke uses a six-line stanza, the rhyme scheme of which is abcadd. This pattern, which appears at first glance to be no rhyme scheme at all until the stanza’s last three lines, reinforces the point of the poem, which is that disintegration may be necessary to achieve unity. There appears to be no rhyme after the first three lines, but with the end of the fourth comes a resonance of the first—the suggestion that there is order where there had appeared to be none. The last two lines of the stanza, a strongly rhymed couplet, imply that the poet is drawing his world together again into a type of order.

The a rhyme of the first stanza ("see" and "tree") is strong and definite, but the same element of the second stanza ("soul" and "wall") is only a near rhyme, as is that of the third ("correspondences" and "what he is—") and fourth ("desire" and "fear"). These near rhymes reinforce the idea that the poet is only barely in control of himself and the poem, but the strongly rhyming last couplet of each stanza pulls the poem and the reader away from formlessness. As a final seal on the idea that to endure this kind of psychic torment is to break through into a new kind of reality, the last two lines of the poem, the ones which in each stanza had borne a strong rhyme, themselves yield to near rhyme ("mind" and "wind"). It is as if the poet is telling his readers that they thought they had his poem figured out, but that they do not. To experience fully the reality that the poet is describing, it is necessary to see things in a totally new way.

The imagery of the poem, at first confusing, also reinforces the idea that from apparent paradox and nonsense come new knowledge. Some of the images embody contradiction, such as the serpent with its double meaning in Western culture. Others lose their paradoxical quality when seen in the terms of the poem’s entire statement. It seems impossible that a "light" could be "dark," but Roethke means that one must embrace all elements of one’s personality in order to integrate them, even those parts which one does not regard as admirable ("beasts of the hill") and even if the process is confusing ("Which I is I?"). Confusion and disorientation are necessary, Roethke says, for only by asking the question and admitting ignorance can one begin to find new ways of learning.

Themes and Meanings

In "In a Dark Time," Theodore Roethke uses one of his own major themes—the renewal of the human spirit through contact with the natural world (a theme which unites him with the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century)—in company with a major theme of modern literature—the theory that it is necessary not merely to test limits but also to break past limits in order to become fully oneself.

In many of his other poems, Roethke comes to the creatures and the milieu of the physical world to renew himself and give his life meaning during a time of crisis. Roethke is primarily a poet of small nature, reveling in the existence of little creatures such as sparrows, snails (as in "Elegy for Jane"), tiny fish, and even amoeba ("The Minimal"), and feeling a sense of kinship and brotherhood with them. In "In a Dark Time," however, the representatives of the natural world are threatening beasts and serpents, and the poet is unsure of his place in the scheme of things, as he lives "between" the various living things that he mentions. Furthermore, the natural world is no longer an ordered, understandable place: The moon is "ragged," and midnight descends during day. The creature with which the poet finally chooses to identify "my soul" is the not only despised but wretched "heat-maddened summer fly" which, "buzzing at the sill," can see the world that it wants to enter but is unable to do so.

One of the points made by the poem is that the world is not understandable, not only by logical means, but also by any kind of ordinary human perception or judgment. Perhaps the path of insanity or psychic disintegration, feared and shunned by most people with good reason can, instead of leading to destruction, provide a gateway to a new kind of reality. At the end of the poem, Roethke says that he "climb[s] out of [his] fear" and becomes "free in the tearing wind" but does not offer the reason that this change has occurred because the process is incomprehensible by the usual methods of evaluation. The poet has not arrived at a quiet place, such as the eye of a storm, but is still in the midst of the tearing wind which unsettles and jumbles everything. At least he himself is whole—"one"—and can endure what he had previously feared. It is also unclear just who or what is the "God" which the poet encounters at the end of the poem. Roethke was neither conventionally religious nor consistently mystical; in his other poems in which he speaks of union with all life, he does not maintain that he is thereby always contacting a divine spirit, as did one of his poetic heroes and ancestors, William Blake.

"In a Dark Time" is, after all, not a philosophical treatise but a highly charged description of an emotional storm. As Roethke states in another poem: "We think by feeling. What is there to know?" ("The Waking"). Roethke would also say that poetry is not read for answers but for experiences. Even as the only way to find the world that lies beyond ordinary human consciousness is to push sanity past its limits, so the only way to understand a lyric poem such as "In a Dark Time" is to push reason past its limits and feel the poem.