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Root Cellar
A Poem by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication
Tone
Summary
Text of the Poem
Theme
Interpretation of Theme
Rhyme
Alliteration
Other Figures of Speech
Questions, Writing Topics
Roethke Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012
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Type of Work and Publication Year

.......""Root Cellar" is lyric poem that exults in the feisty plant roots that survive in a hostile environment and bring forth a new generation of their species. 

Publication

.......Doubleday and Company first published "Root Cellar" in 1948 in Garden City, N.Y., in a collection of Roethke's works entitled The Lost Son and Other Poems

Tone
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.......The tone is upbeat. The speaker exhibits wonder at, and admiration for, the plants in the root cellar because of their stubborn determination to survive and generate new life.

Summary

.......In the damp chill of a root cellar~ez_mdash~an underground or partly underground storage room or pit for root crops~ez_mdash~the roots, bulbs, stems, shoots, and tubers never sleep. Instead, they are ever active, struggling to bring forth a new generation of life. So it is that bulbs break out of their boxes in search of cracks or holes that admit life-supporting light or offer an escape route to the outside. 
.......Shoots dangle and droop over the sides of crates or hang down like snakes. The smell of these denizens of the dark~ez_mdash~along with the manure and buildup of mold against shelves and crates~ez_mdash~is rank. But they refuse to die. Even the dirt shows signs of life.

Text of the Poem

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath. 

Theme

.......The theme of the poem is the speaker's celebration of the hardiness and determination of life forms~ez_mdash~however small or ugly or insignificant~ez_mdash~to survive and generate progeny even in unfriendly environments. 

Interpretation of the Theme

.......One can interpret the theme as applying to anything that struggles fiercely to survive: a country in turmoil, a race of people facing prejudice, a religious movement, a company in financial trouble, an endangered species of animal, a revolutionary idea, a scientific theory, a political party, and so on. 

Rhyme

.......Although there is no rhyme scheme in the poem, two lines (4 and 5) do rhyme. Moreover, some words echo the sounds of previous words. For example, stinks echoes chinks, roots echoes shoots, ripe echoes like, rich echoes ditch, rank echoes dank, mold echoes old, planks echoes rank and dank, and life echoes ripe.

Alliteration

.......Roethke relies on alliteration in ~ez_ldquo~Root Cellar~ez_rdquo~ to give the poem rhythm and oomph. The following rendition of the poem highlights alliterating sounds.

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath. 

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Other Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of other figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Assonance

Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
Hyperbole
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
Metaphor
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark
Comparison of bulbs to creatures that hunt
Simile
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes
Comparison of shoots to snakes
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a short poem about plants or flowers.
  • Define the following words: bulb, shoot, root, stem, silo, and lime.
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem, such as "To a Skylark," and a ballad?
  • Write an essay that tells how to make a root cellar.

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