In a Dark Time
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood--
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,*
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What's madness but nobility of the soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the wrocks--is it a cave,
Or a winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is--
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
Theodore Roethke 1965
* The heron is a large, solitary wading bird, the wren a small, sociable songbird.
Mr. Roethke's poetry fuses psychological insight, tense verse, and natural imagery to form vibrating, heavy poems like this one. It treats his version of madness--the multiplicity of selves that come up. Not merely multiple personality disorder, Roethke treats the insanity of human consciousness when "the eye begins to see" what is: namely, multiplicity. Day to day, minute to minute, we change. Things come, things go; the narrator is sometimes solitary, sometimes sociable, and never stable. Madness, then, is instead an extreme mode of being, whether that means ideals of experience ("nobility of the soul") rubbing up against the reality of "circumstance" or living on the edge.
Also at work in this poem is the parallel between man and nature; the narrator's psychological state mirrors the chaotic, wheeling forest presented in the poem. Both nature and his mind include a "steady storm of correspondences," which we may read as a storm of thoughts. These thoughts, then, are "ragged," and flowing with many birds (presumably a reference to the heron-wren cycle above?).
Swelling in the third stanza to break in the fourth, the climax of the poem involves him coming out of that madness. The soul keeps buzzing incessantly, another version of the storm of thoughts, and the narrator questions "which I is I?" In other words, among this cyclic multiplicity, is there a self to be rescued? Is there unity, peace, calm among this torrent of thoughts and being?
The poem answers it with insight--when one sees what one is, there is at least unity within multiciplicity, unity in the storm, the "tearing wind."