Jan 30, 2011

Roethke's "The Meadow Mouse" Part 2, Specific Complaints

Tricolored Heron (please correct me any time I mis-identify), a purty bird intended to balance the criticism (and drudgery?) below.

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

Here are a few of my reservations about “The Meadow Mouse,” which offers so many gifts when it’s not flawed by excesses of repetition and sentimentality.

First things first: the last line has got to go. The opening lines strongly imply that the speaker’s compassion has been far-reaching and is more than a childlike kindness toward baby animals. To be sure of that, he's included the paralytic human. So tacking on “all things innocent, hapless, forsaken” is an overdose of sugar—especially after baby birds, turtles, and a drowining human have just been introduced to the list of the wounded and vulnerable.

That final line is only the most salient example of Roethke’s loosened grip on the poem’s emotionality; he’s already pushed the limit. At first, the mouse “trembled and shook.” Does the poem require him to do both? After all, he’ll be trembling twice more to close out Part 1.

Along these lines, must the animal be pet-named “little quaker?” It’s a bit of a smile, I guess, but in what way is humor relevant to the poem as a whole? The diminutive “little quaker” adds even more emphasis to a quivering that’s already trembling under its own weight.

And what an odd thing it is to hear in “little quaker” a thinly veiled allusion to the brave and peaceful Society of Friends. Some might instinctively consider them victims because of their pacifism and earnest lives of self-denial outside the frivolous mainstream, but shall we therefore compare them to mice? Shy as a mouse, quiet as a church mouse?

As if that’s not enough, the mouse—the whole body of him—once again is explicitly “trembling.” Yes, Mr. Speaker, we get it—he’s small, young, vulnerable, and afraid. And by the way, he’s trembling. Are you afraid we won’t see that if you don’t repeat it several, several, several times?

Must the mouse’s feet be like small leaves as well as “little” lizard feet? Why not “His feet like leaves or lizard-feet”? The comparison to non-mammalian forms is a good way to make us see the mouse in a different, unexpected light. But those other items are small too, so why saturate the lines with the tininess of everything?

If the mouse must be compared to another young, vulnerable creature, namely, a puppy, why the gawky, hyperbolic, and unnecessary word, “miniscule.” Although others might not hear, as I do, a rhythmically awkward and scientific quality in “miniscule”—maybe words like “microscopic” or “particulate"—surely “miniscule” is not an urgent or even accurate modifier for a puppy. Instead, it’s one more instance of piling on children’s images of smallness and vulnerability.

The second stanza of Part 1 is better controlled and paints an appealing picture. It’s still plenty sweet and tender, and it offers a companion image to lizard-feet in the un-cuddly “bat-like ears.” Both images work well against our natural tendency toward anthropomorphism; humanizing the mouse is a tendency to which we’re all probably susceptible, never mind the risks of sentimentality and inaccuracy. So, to keep us from making the mouse even more of a teddy bear than necessary, the poem skillfully offers similarities to Mr. Lizard and Mr. Bat, with whom very few of us are likely to feel a kinship.

Then, as if he’d let too much brain into his heartfelt story, Roethke backslides into a heartfelt repetition of trembling, not once, but twice. I suppose the counter-argument is that the mouse’s trembling is, physically, the dominant descriptive element; it is what the speaker notices again and again, so he must make us notice it the same way. But given the connotations of the image itself—its shout of Victim, Pain and Suffering, Injustice—one “trembling” after another is excessive.

In Part 2 of the poem, the problems continue. The animal is not “the” meadow mouse, but “my” meadow mouse. I love you, Mr. Roethke, but that's pretty cloying. Had he been simply “the” meadow mouse, I would still have been concerned for the nuzzling “thumb of a child” as he escaped into the larger world of predation. So the callow possessive of “my” mouse distances me, an adult, from this cooing speaker. Cooing is a private matter, between me and my pooch or me and my infant; a poem-full of cooing is hard to take seriously. I’m not sure “poem-full” is what we have here, but we’re close enough for me to find it excessive and distracting.

Before I quit, let me discuss two of the poem’s greatest gifts . . . .

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

Part 3, Conclusion, coming soon . . .


Pasadena Adjacent said...

Would you like this poem better if he were a rat?

Never thought of the quakers or mice as being meek.

Quakers: I think of them as being courageous and principled. It's how my Japanese friend's mother was able to avoid the camps.

Mice: Despite the twitch and tremble, the white lab moue is the hero of 20th century medicine.

maybe the bird ate the mouse

Banjo52 said...

Rat instead of mouse--interesting! Don't know if I'd prefer it, but it has the advantage of playing AGAINST our (probable) tendency to be overly sympathetic to itsy bitsy cutesy wootsey mousey poo. (Sorry, got carried away. Was that as good for y'all as it was for me?).

"Quakers: I think of them as being courageous and principled." Me too--I called them "brave and peaceful." But I did just now tweak the wording to clarify that I'm not the one who sees them as mice. I was trying to object to that possibility in the old version too.

Finally, maybe the mouse ate the bird? :)

Jean Spitzer said...

First, thanks for the photographs. They are beautiful--including the one of the heron with the crab in its grasp.

AH says it well, as she often does.

I don't have a problem with the last line. Obvious is okay with me, in principle.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I've been looking for some kind of explanation along those lines. It would go a long way toward explaining "little quaker."

What I know of Roethke (not much) could argue for irony behind/within/explaining the schmaltz here OR just his big, sincere heart, seen elsewhere, could've just outweighed his self-editing skills here.

And thirdly, I bet a lot of readers would or will say, "That's not schmaltz; that's just normal sensitivity." Maybe they're right, but I want the more hard-nosed reading to be represented, even if some hear it as mean-spirited.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I don't think you're misreading it. I do think it's about a mouse, just as it appears to be. But what's fragile in the mouse is also fragile in humans. At least that's the mouse-human connection I was going for. You too, AH??

Jean, PA, AH==

When I said, Roethke's "big, sincere heart . . . could've just outweighed his self-editing skills here," I meant that as a possibility at least as likely as some elaborate, inward-looking ironic spirit. If I'm understanding AH's point, hearing irony in Roethke's excesses is a way to explain and defend Roethke against charges of schmaltz.

If you want me to commit to either A or B, my hunch is thatRoethke just lost his grip somewhat, as all the greats do sometimes. It bothers me because I like some of his other poems and some of this one so much.

If he'd omitted "miniscule," "little quaker," and the final line, I probably wouldn't have written all I did, though I stand by my charge of sentimentality in those parts--UNLESS there's some extremely cerebral, exotic irony going on, and I've missed it. And "little quaker" COULD fit into some kind of irony, maybe "Look how clever I am, pretending to be sappy, when it's that very sappiness I'm critiquing" (by infusing it with self-parody).

Maybe that's not even what AH meant by irony . . .

Am I clear as mud yet?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Listening to learn or talking to win?

Anonymous said...

No, that wasn't what I meant. But that's ok.

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