Owing much to the mystics of the Anglo-Celtic tradition such as Blake,
Yeats, and Auden, poet Theodore Roethke, exerted, in turn, a significant influence on artists of
the 1940's and 1950's generations. Not only did a poet like Sylvia Plath find inspiration in
Roethke's work, but a number of American composers, among them Samuel Barber and Ned Rorem,
found the lyricism of his verse excellent material for song settings.
Born on May 25, 1908 in Michigan and educated there, he went on to Harvard before pursuing an
academic career at various American universities. His first volume of verse, OPEN HOUSE (1941),
initiated his hallmark use of plant imagery as a symbol for human flowering and decay. He followed
this with autobiographical verse, THE LOST SON (1948) and PRAISE TO THE END! (1951), which showed
him embracing the visionary style of Yeats. THE WAKING won the poet the Pulitzer Prize in 1953,
while the Bollingen Prize-winning WORDS FOR THE WIND is probably his best known work. After his
death in 1963 the remainder of his verse, letters, and essays were published posthumously and a
COLLECTED EDITION of the poems appeared in 1975.
Listen to "Snake" in the Songbook
by Theodore Roethke
(set by Ned Rorem)
I saw a young snake glide
Out of the mottled shade
And hang, limp on a stone:
A thin mouth, and a tongue
Stayed, in the still air.
It turned; it drew away;
Its shadow bent in half;
It quickened and was gone
I felt my slow blood warm.
I longed to be that thing.
The pure, sensuous form.
And I may be, some time.