Jan 31, 2011

Roethke's "The Meadow Mouse" Part 3, Conclusion

Part 3

Before I quit, let me discuss two of the poem’s gifts.
The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry
First, there's the daring opening, “sleeps the baby mouse” instead of “the mouse sleeps,” or some other less charming phrasing.

The inverted, perhaps archaic syntax in “sleeps the baby mouse” instantly creates the tone of a children’s tale, which the rest of the poem pretty much sustains, effectively forcing us to revive our childlike sensibilities. That diction might even offer the argument that compassion and sensitivity are inherently childlike responses, what Wordsworth called the “primal sympathies, which having been must ever be.”

Although I still fault Roethke’s poetic excesses in this direction, they might create an interesting position about human psychology. What if every instance of human sympathy or empathy is, and must be, the resurrection of a child’s heart and mind? What if that’s the only way we can even begin to understand compassion? What if adulthood without that inner child is limited to sterile, desiccated, egocentric, often mean thoughts and behavior?

Why would this be so? Because adults have learned to expect “adult” behavior from others—cunning, aggression, intrusion. Defensively, that requires of each adult constant vigilance, suspicion, strategizing, guile. Without those stone walls and nimble maneuvers we are children, spontaneous and empathic but vulnerable.

Maybe we are especially susceptible to feeling stupid

for not having foreseen and thwarted the trickery of our peers. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” The adage that W. made extra famous is probably more relevant to the adult’s world than the child’s, though it’s impossible to know when and how barriers begin to rise and thicken. And, lest we over-romanticize puerile innocence, let’s remember that most of these defenses are necessary to psychic or even physical survival.

Secondly, part of my resistance to Roethke’s final line grows from what I imagine without that line. It’s considered heresy in critiquing a friend’s poem to rewrite images or lines for him, but I’m going to do just that—to an icon, no less. I’d have encouraged Roethke to consider this ending:
I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble
of the highway, the paralytic stunned
in the tub, the water rising.
The End. If we omit Roethke’s final line, we have a turn from vulnerable mouse toward vulnerable human, the paralytic. And stop. Although it’s a sudden, even shocking turn, it’s been implied all along. The poem is about all things vulnerable, not just baby mice.

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

In my suggestion there are risks of causing the poem to seem disjointed or herky-jerky at the end—and making the poem more anthropocentric. Maybe I’m suggesting, “You thought it was about the mouse? It was always about the human, always will be, if a human’s telling the story.”

But that would not glorify humans; it would simply pin down the nature of human sympathy, confessing that we care about the mouse primarily because that sympathy clarifies the way we care about our own, our collective Me. To say otherwise is at least a little dishonest.

Let me repeat that I have no axe to grind with Theodore Roethke, whose poem “The Waking” I admire as much as any poem I know. “My Papa’s Waltz,” “I Knew a Woman,” and “The Geranium” are not far behind.

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

I also love the parental instincts here, the compassion, the heart, the . . . reverence? . . . for everything fragile in “The Meadow Mouse.” However, I think those feelings might have more power if they’d been forced to struggle for existence, struggle to be expressed, if there were a sense that Roethke had tried to hold back more of his flood of sensitivity, if the poem were a little tougher about its emotionality. In the old, good bromide, “Show, don’t tell,” I wish the poem had told a little less and been satisfied with what it showed.

So I'm outta here on this. You think you're sick of the subject? Imagine how I feel. Happy February.


Brenda's Arizona said...

Maybe Roethke studied under Annie Lamott, haha. She advocates describing in detail so that the reader has no doubt. With this poem, I have no doubt how to picture the mouse; 'he' has a tail that "I" carried it by; he is small enough to fit in my palm; he is trembling; I picture his whiskers, his tiny feet, his puppy - like actions. Should Roethke just said "I caught a small mouse and put it in a box" - and be done with the first part of the stanza?

What would you think if the whole second stanza were missing, not just missing the last line? Is the second stanza the 'reality check' that Roethke hits himself in the forehead with? Stanza one, he cuddles, he sighs, he coos over the mouse. Stanza two - he realizes that those emotions were probably childish of him. The reality is that the mouse is fodder for some other creature... and the food chain is reality; the mouse was an emotion.

And your photos - totally awesome, Banjomyn!

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I'd say "I caught . . . and put it in a box" would be paring it down too much. Like you, I need to picture the mouse and the speaker's actions in some detail, for a sense of their characters and images/events pointing toward some sense of purpose. I like your breakdown of Part 1--setting it up--and Part 2--elaborating, responding to Part 1, and taking a turn in a new direction as well. In that way, I wonder if it's a little like the octave and sestet of an Italian sonnet. Far-fetched? Forced? No rhyme or meter or 14 lines, of course, but set-up and response (return volley?) . . . maybe.

Jean, I realize the notion of inherent goodness in children is highly debatable. I hesitated to put it in, but decided to go with it.

So is all goodness, compassion, altruism learned? Are they the mark of an adult who's been on the planet for awhile and learned to control his savagery? Lord of the Flies anyone?

Brenda's Arizona said...

So how do you get such awesome bird photos? Are you feeding them? Or do you have a 400x camera lens? I am so IMPRESSED!

Brenda's Arizona said...

Italian sonnet? Why not like a Spenserian Stanza - with all lines pentameters except the last (not that Roethke wrote in pentameter, but that everything is flowing nicely... until), and then the last comes along as a hexameter or alexandrine. Just blows ya away!!!

PJ said...

I wish you would use a larger format for your photos. If you ever want to know how to do that, let me know. You're a great photographer.

Jean Spitzer said...

Not exactly, not control savagery, just think about taking care of others. Babies are all about themselves and their own needs. It's natural.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, Brenda, Jean, thanks for the comments on photos.

Paula, for photos I usually choose medium size (sometimes small) over large for quicker down (up?) loading for visitors. If you have additional tips, I'm all ears, and thanks in advance.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I'll see your Spenserian stanza and raise you an ottava rima.

Dammit, now I'm gonna have to look up Spenserian stanza . . .

Pasadena Adjacent said...

“You thought it was about the mouse? It was always about the human, always will be, if a human’s telling the story.”

thats a thought I can play with

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