He was born
on 25 May 1908 in Saginaw, the son of Otto Roethke and Helen Huebner, who, along with an uncle
owned a local greenhouse. As a child, he spent much time
in the greenhouse observing nature.
In 1923 his father
died of cancer and his uncle committed suicide. From
1925 to 1929 Roethke attended the University of Michigan
at Ann Arbor, graduating magna cum laude. Despite his
family’s wish that he pursue a legal career, he quit law
school after one semester. He spent 1929 to 1931, taking
graduate courses at the University of Michigan and later
attended the Harvard Graduate School, where he met and
worked with fellow poet Robert Hillyer.
In 1935, while
teaching at Michigan State University, Roethke suffered
a bout of mental illness. He finished his Master of Arts
degree at Michigan, and was able to get another teaching
position at Pennsylvania State College that fall. 'Open
House', his first book of poems, was critically
acclaimed for its brief lyricism, and the collection’s
intimate, personal quality influenced later
'confessional' poets, including Sylvia Plath and
Sexton. Along with Robert Lowell and W.S. Merwin,
Roethke was one of many American poets whose writing was
admired by the late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes.
Son', and 'Praise to the End!', his second and third
books, were a significant breakthrough for Roethke,
exercising his abilities to write compelling free verse.
'The Waking: Poems 1933-1953' collected a number of
poems from those earlier volumes and documented the
poet’s return to traditional forms. In 1953, Roethke
married Beatrice O'Connell, a former student. Roethke
did not inform O'Connell of his repeated episodes of
depression, yet she remained dedicated to Roethke and
his work. She ensured the posthumous publication of his
final volume of poetry, The Far Field.
Theodore Roethke died of a heart
attack on 1 August 1963 while visiting friends on
Bainbridge Island, Washington. Although his work
anticipated several poetic movements, and despite his
influence on several major American poets, many critics
argue that he is not given enough attention by
contemporary readers and has been overlooked as a
leading force in American poetry.
(Biographical details written by
I am renewed by death, thought of
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.