A Poem by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012
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.
.......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.
the damp chill of a root cellar—an underground or partly underground storage
room or pit for root crops—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.
Nothing would sleep in that
cellar, dank as a ditch,
.......The theme of the poem is the speaker's celebration of the hardiness and determination of life forms—however small or ugly or insignificant—to survive and generate progeny even in unfriendly environments.
.......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.
.......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.
.......Roethke relies on alliteration in “Root Cellar” 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,
.......Following are examples of other figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
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 darkSimile
Shoots dangled and drooped,Study Questions and Writing Topics