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The Meadow Mouse -- Theodore Roethke

Was planning to run this immediately after 'The Midnightmouse' last week, but
(Poem #267) The Meadow Mouse

In a shoe box stuffed in an old nylon stocking
Sleeps the baby mouse I found in the meadow,
Where he trembled and shook beneath a stick
Till I caught him up by the tail and brought him in,
Cradled in my hand,
A little quaker, the whole body of him trembling,
His absurd whiskers sticking out like a cartoon-mouse,
His feet like small leaves,
Little lizard-feet,
Whitish and spread wide when he tried to struggle away,
Wriggling like a minuscule puppy.

Now he's eaten his three kinds of cheese and drunk from his
        bottle-cap watering-trough--
So much he just lies in one corner,
His tail curled under him, his belly big
As his head; his bat-like ears
Twitching, tilting toward the least sound.

Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
He seems no longer to tremble.


But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm?--
To run under the hawk's wing,
Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm-tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

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, and the water rising,--
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.
-- Theodore Roethke
What most interests me about today's poem is its division into two very distinct
parts. It starts off as an exceedingly ordinary animal poem, of the sort that
abounds in school workbooks. Indeed, if I didn't know its provenance, I would be
tempted to label it juvenilia (and not very precocious juvenilia at that) and
think no more about it.

The second section, though, is everything that the first is not - original,
disturbing, provocative, carefully constructed... I especially like the
phrasing: while it's not stunning in and of itself, it is very effective at what
it sets out to do, and it's original enough to stick in your mind.

The transition isn't particularly abrupt, but it's very noticeable. And most
definitely intentional - the final stanza (the actual crux of the poem) wouldn't
work half as well without what went before it. In a sense, the very ineptitude
of the first section draws attention to the power of the last ten lines.
Skilfully done.



Theodore Roethke was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1908. As a child, he spent
much time in the greenhouse owned by his father and uncle. His impressions of
the natural world contained there would later profoundly influence the subjects
and imagery of his verse. Roethke attended the University of Michigan and took a
few classes at Harvard, but was unhappy in school. His first book, Open House
(1941), took ten years to write and was critically acclaimed upon its
publication. He went on to publish sparingly but his reputation grew with each
new collection, including The Waking which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in

He admired the writing of such poets as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Blake, and
Wordsworth, as well as Yeats and Dylan Thomas. Stylistically his work ranged
from witty poems in strict meter and regular stanzas to free verse poems full of
mystical and surrealistic imagery. At all times, however, the natural world in
all its mystery, beauty, fierceness, and sensuality, is close by, and the poems
are possessed of an intense lyricism. Roethke had close literary friendships
with fellow poets W. H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Stanley Kunitz, and William Carlos
Williams. He taught at various colleges and universities, including Lafayette,
Pennsylvania State, and Bennington, and worked last at the University of
Washington, where he was mentor to a generation of Northwest poets that included
David Wagoner, Carolyn Kizer, and Richard Hugo. Theodore Roethke died in 1963.

45 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Sharonkyl said...

Did the mouse die at the end of the poem or did he just run away?

Anonymous said...

The poem clearly tells us it escaped, but mentioning those predators in the final stanza shows how the poet worries about the mouse's safety and not caring whether he escaped or not. It is natural to run away, as your instincts sense danger in an unfamiliar place.

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Anonymous said...

Did dat mouse got fucked at the end.. Someone plizz comment coz my language teacher sucks

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