“A poet can write about a man slaying a dragon,” commented W. H. Auden, “but not about a man pushing a button that releases a bomb.” And likely enough this is why that outstanding American poet Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963), whose anniversary of death is today, August 1, he who once found himself sitting beside Edward Teller at an award ceremony, acted as he did in front of his class recounting to them this circumstance. To observe that Roethke was bipolar is hardly to say that such a diagnosis exhaustively explains his behavior on that occasion. Regarding said psychological condition, however, we can go to the Poetry Foundation Website and read a couple of paragraphs in Roethke’s biography posted there for some enlightening context.
Though the second of his breakdowns did not occur until 1945, they became increasingly more frequent in the ensuing decade; by 1958, he was attending therapy sessions six times a week. In all probability he was dismissed from Michigan State because his breakdown was viewed as an unacceptable failing (the letter read “we have decided that it will be better both for you and the College if your appointment for the coming year is not renewed”), but in later years his mental problems were recognized as an unfortunate but accepted part of his personality. When a perspiring Roethke entered the first class of the 1957-58 University of Washington school year by flinging “himself against the blackboard in a kind of crucified pose, muttering incoherently,” the plea to the police was a compassionate but urgent “this is a very distinguished man and he is ill. All we want you to do is take him to a sanitarium.”
Despite some suspicions of his worth which followed such incidents, Roethke remained an invaluable and highly esteemed member of the Washington faculty. In 1959, a Washington state legislator concerned about Roethke’s sick leaves approached university vice president Frederick Thieme and asked, “Who’s this professor you’ve got down there that’s some kind of nut?” This prompted English Department chair Robert Heilman’s unequivocal defense of Professor Roethke describing his illness, the university’s obligation to its teachers, his distinguished writing, his teaching success, and his overall service to the university. It read, in part: “Roethke has a nervous ailment of the ‘manic-depressive’ type. Periodically he goes into a ‘high’ or ‘low’ state in which he is incapable of teaching…. His illnesses are well-known throughout the University and the local community. I have always been pleased that they have been accepted as the terribly sad lot of an extraordinarily gifted man…. [In] teaching, developing interest in a great literary form, training writers who themselves go on to become known, and doing his own distinguished writing which has won all kinds of acclaim—Roethke is performing what I call a continuing service to the University, which goes on whether he is sick or well.”
James Knisely, a student of Roethke’s at the time, describes Roethke’s account of sitting beside Edward Teller (cf. Theodore Roethke Remembered: HistoryLink.org Essay 3857):
I do recall an incident that gave me a glimpse, perhaps, of Roethke’s daemon. He had been given an award or honor of some sort. I can’t remember whether it was an award he had just received or whether on this occasion he was recalling the Pulitzer ceremony or something of the sort. But as he was describing this award ceremony to his class one day, he told us he had found himself seated on the dais next to Edward Teller, “the father of the H-bomb.” Roethke told us he had always held Teller to be an evil man, and finding himself seated next to the guy was so unsettling even in memory that as Roethke recounted the event he grew so agitated that he was shouting and flailing his arms, red in the face and (as I recall) sweating profusely, telling us how much he hated the evil that son-of-a-bitch had unleashed into the world.
In the midst of this rant Roethke stopped himself and looked around at us, his students, then somewhat sheepishly shrugged, and laughed in an impish way he had, then simply resumed his teaching.
Unbalanced? Yes, he was unbalanced, clearly so. Mad? Well, consider. “What is madness”, asks Roethke in his well-known poem, In a Dark Time, “but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance?”
So what then was his circumstance? Simply put, being a poet writing poetry in a dark time. And what was his nobility of soul? Aspiring to be the very poet who would bring light to that dark time. Wherefore then the madness? Being a poet purely and simply, being a poet moreover in a century stonily inimical to poetry, a poet therefore whose shadow was “pinned against a sweating wall”, a poet whose light was a “dark light”, a poet in fine who knew thoroughly “the purity of pure despair”. Will we lay down judgement? Take care. Sometimes it is possible, in reading a poem, to feel the poem reading us.
In a Dark Time
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.
A fallen man, he climbs out of his fear. Yet we are moved to ask, does the mind really enter itself? Does God really enter the mind? Is one really now One? Is one really free in the tearing wind? Granted all this is really as he says it is, we sense nonetheless that another fall is coming.
It might be tempting to label Roethke a manic-depressive and have done with him, patronizingly to dub him after reading his poetry (even if admiring it to highest heavens) a mad poetic genius, if it were not for Edward Teller in our imagination sitting beside him. What about this sane scientist sitting there beside the mad poet? What about Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, sitting beside him as sane citizen? Certainly no nobility of soul here at odds with circumstance! No indeed, for here is a dutiful, hard working, tax-paying citizen who, righteously armored in patriotism, and by the sweat of his mathematically prodigious brow, brought into the world hell’s gift of the hydrogen bomb. Here sits the epitome of government-approved sanity who once complacently remarked, “Had we not pursued the hydrogen bomb, there is a very real threat that we would now all be speaking Russian. I have no regrets.”
No regrets. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, had regrets – deep regrets – and he voiced them, but not Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. Edward Teller, with no regrets, Edward Teller the sane scientist, the scientist who spoke official sanity to sane, tax-paying citizens, feeling none, voiced none. We progress after all. Let sin take care of itself in the one whose darkness is sin, particularly the one whose soul is “like some heat-maddened summer fly”, definitely not the one whose soul becomes the spitting image of your realpolitik cold war scientist. By the way, what is the radiation level these post Chernobyl, post-Fukushima days where you live?
Very well then, what about us? Don’t we at least sometimes experience the madness, the very madness Roethke speaks of? The madness of a nobility of soul at odds with circumstance, i.e., the circumstance of a world sliding ever more precipitately into unacknowledged darkness?
But, as Roethke has elsewhere said, “deep in their roots, all flowers keep the light.” And if light is what we need, then let light be the better of our natures; let light be as much of God as we can take; and let what we can take of God become a veritable steady storm of correspondences. Immeasurable goodness is what we need in our hard place among the rocks, whether that place is cave or winding path. Impossible? No worries, as the phrase goes. All we need, as Roethke assures us, “is more people who specialize in the impossible.”
An example of just such a one, a specialist in the impossible, would be Saint Seraphim of Sarov, whose commemoration (Opening of Relics – August 1) is today.
Born on July 30, 1759, he began a devout life at a young age. Son of a merchant, Seraphim had little interest in trade. According to Russian Orthodox tradition, as a small boy he was healed by a wonderworking icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Theotokos or God-Bearer), Our Lady of Kursk. It is said that through the course of his life he experienced a number of visions. In 1777, at the age of 19, he joined the Sarov monastery as a novice. In 1786 he took his monastic vows, being given the religious name of Seraphim. Shortly afterwards, he was ordained a hierodeacon. In 1793 he was ordained a hieromonk, becoming the spiritual leader of the Diveyevo Monastery, which has since come to be known as the Seraphim-Diveyevo Monastery. It was soon after this that he retreated to a log hut in the woods outside Sarov monastery to lead a solitary life as a hermit for the next 25 years.
While chopping wood one day, Seraphim was attacked by a gang of thieves. Mercilessly they beat him with the handle of his own axe. Not resisting in the least, he looked to be dead. The thieves searched for money in his hut, but all they found was an icon of the Blessed Virgin. Although this incident left Seraphim with a hunched back for the rest of his life, at the thieves’ trial he pleaded to the judge for mercy on their behalf.
“Acquire a peaceful spirit,” he once said, “and around you thousands will be saved.”
After this incident, in pain from his injuries, in whatever weather, with his arms raised to the sky, Seraphim spent a thousand successive nights on a rock in continuous prayer. The prayer he prayed was the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner – also called the Prayer of the Heart. A tradition of many centuries lies behind this prayer, it being widely esteemed by monks in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as a method of opening up the heart. Prayed in rhythm of breath and heart-beat, this prayer is considered also to be the Unceasing Prayer that the Apostle Paul advocates in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
In 1815, in obedience to a request from the Holy Virgin in a vision, Seraphim began to admit pilgrims to his hermitage as a confessor. Due to his reputation for healing miracles and for gifts of prophecy, he became ever more popular. He was routinely visited by hundreds of pilgrims a day, having the ability to answer visiters’ questions before they themselves could voice them.
“God is a fire,” Saint Seraphim said, “that warms and kindles the heart and inward parts. And so, if we feel in our hearts coldness, which is from the devil—for the devil is cold—then let us call upon the Lord, and He will come and warm our hearts with perfect love not only for Him, but for our neighbor as well. And from the presence of warmth the coldness of the hater of good will be driven away.”
It’s a cold heart that has no regrets. It’s a cold heart that tells both of a fear of the world speaking Russian and of a pursuit of the hydrogen bomb in less than a heart beat, in no more than one quick breath of a breath-taking sentence.
“Love begets love,” Roethke said. “This torment is my joy.” If we really need more people who specialize in the impossible, then we need more saints like Saint Seraphim – and who would think to fathom the fiery torments of this man’s love, love begetting love, even with God in him, even with God all around him? For, as Saint Jerome had his lion, as Saint Francis had his wolf, so Saint Seraphim had his bear. The edge is what any of us has.
But we need more people like Theodore Roethke, too, wounded soul that he so tragically was. After all, it is Roethke who tellingly affirmed: “Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.” Without its martyrs, without those eyes that begin to see, how else will modern poetry learn to become as innocent as the dove, even as it becomes wise as the serpent? How else, nobility of soul at odds with circumstance, will it meet victoriously that shadow in the deepening shade? How else will it set the day on fire?
Pax et bonum,