Jan 28, 2011

Roethke's "The Meadow Mouse" and the Problem of Sentimentality

Left, a juvenile heron (Black-crowned Night Heron??) catches a crab but isn't sure what to do next. Although it took awhile, the heron gets the crab down, one piece at a time. Was the crab young too? Who knows?

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

Though probably not as well known or esteemed as "The Waking" or “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethke’s “The Meadow Mouse” seems to be a favorite among his readers, and I can see why. There’s no reason to argue against the poem's content as raw ideas—essentially, sympathy for the vulnerable, the wounded, the doomed.

Also, most of the individual images are effective in conveying a sensibility that might fit both children and adults, which is an accomplishment. The inverted, archaic syntax in “sleeps the mouse” (2) is charming, and it immediately sets up a tone that could inform either a children’s tale or adult literature. But sometimes in “The Meadow Mouse,” Roethke’s language and thinking (if there’s a difference) fall too far into a youthful level of understanding and way of talking about experience.

Presumptuous as it must seem, I’d have urged Roethke to think again in a few places, most of which amount to a tendency toward sentimentality—which is, remember, not just the emotional content in a work, but an excess of emotion, feelings that have not been earned by the poem’s presentation of an experience, feelings that exceed any known cause for them, or emotionality that has not been controlled and balanced by an intellectual presence in the poem.

This is a tightrope that every poet must walk; T.S. Eliot said the right balance between heart and mind could be called “Felt Thought.” I don’t mean that we should follow Eliot because he’s Eliot, but that particular concept is a keeper. (Of course, we should feel free to reverse the words to Thought Feeling).

Well. That’s something to chew on and respond to for now. TGIF: what’s a Friday for if not poetry analysis? I’ve gone windy on the poem, so here’s TGIF-2: I’ll wait a day or two before adding some examples and additional ideas, maybe lots of them.

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry



Kitty said...

Hi Banjo!
I must have commented to you before that I'm not one for poetry. For some reason it really challenges my patience, even though I'm a very patient person.

I read the poem and the last verse is really incredible. I love it, though it's not a 'lovely' series of images. It is poignant.

I have to ask whether this really happened. Did he really find a mouse, reflect on it and draw meaning from it? The details are such that you feel it really happened.

Thank you for pointing out this poem.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjomyn, what does "an excess of emotion, feelings that have not been earned by the poem’s presentation of an experience, feelings that exceed any known cause for them" mean? Should we not feel connection to the mouse just yet? Has Roethke not given us enough to draw a conclusion of connection?

The first stanza's youthful idealism attracts me to this poem. It has hope. He hopes the mouse is healing, accepting him. Totally a human trait/emotion, right?

And then "WHAM!". Did the mouse get eaten? How was it consumed? Did the food chain reality hit? And the mouse, being the lowest on the food chain, became some larger animal's meal? Ouch ouch ouch. (Banjo, did you see thru every Disney movie, reminding your little sister that "Bambi probably got shot by some hunter, and proved to be mighty tasty?" Just asking...) You see the world so much more real than us wearing the romantic/blinding glasses. I could use a dose of your reality.

Ah, Roethke, like Disney, lets us believe all creatures love us, can be loved by us, and sit by our sides forever. Screw the hawk, the owl, the tom-cat, the snake. I want the mouse to live!

Banjo52 said...

Kitty, welcome back. Your feelings about poetry are completely understandable. It does take patience. That's been a the root of all my harping about the "gifts" in poetry. But we've gotta take it slow, and, as I like to say, wallow in each line, often each image, to find and then enjoy the gift. "Aha, he feels just as I do"--that might be one reward for wallowing. Or, "I'd never thought of it that way." Or, "That's an old idea, but what a new way to say it." Etc. My own impatience is with novels and other prose that draw me in for 8 or 88 pages, then become slow or repetitive or some bad thing.

Kitty and Brenda, if I post the rest of what I've written, you're gonna send a posse after me. But I've spent at least a couple of hours on it, so it'll probably go up. Brenda, I know folks who might laugh to hear me called a realist.

But I do think there's danger in turning our backs on certain important realities--about animals or history and politics or whatever. If we goo-goo the mouse too blindly, we might invite him to give us lice or rabies.

Barbaro said...

Brenda asks a good question despite your solid definition. Sometimes I think a few of us are cursed with anti-rose colored glasses so we must forever explain to others why enthusiasm of any sort can be bad.

The poem is oddly ragged for Roethke. I like the last stanza.

Sometimes real experiences lead to the worst poems. There's a lot more distance--and thus art--in My Papa's Waltz or The Waking even though all are prob based in reality.

Banjo52 said...

Barbaro, welcome back. So joy and other positive experiences, responses, are unfashionable among the literati? I agree, and I'd add that they're probably the most difficult to portray--without cloying. In purely logical terms, Negativity of any kind is a much EASIER argument.

Lovers' Lane