A Villanelle for Graduating Seniors

Suzanne Marie Leclair, "Graduation"

During our commencement ceremonies this past Saturday, my creative writing colleague Karen Anderson was asked to read an appropriate poem. (Previous posts on Karen’s poetry have appeared here and here.) Karen chose a villanelle by Theodore Roethke and then, in a very nice touch, explained how the poem’s intricate form as well as its content captures the experience of going through college.

I have to say that I’ve always been puzzled by this enigmatic poem. Why does the poet wake to sleep rather than from sleep? Maybe there’s an allusion here to Wordsworth’s “our life is but a sleep and a forgetting” or (Shelley now) that we are trying to make sense of “this dream of life.” Or is the poet awaking to (as in becoming aware of) the sleep that will one day descend upon us? After all, there’s an allusion to Eliot’s “death’s grin from ear to ear,” followed by speculation about what “Great Nature” will do “to you and me.” Lightning will blast the tree and, more slowly, the worm will inch its way up the stairway of life. But whether he’s talking about life or death, Roethke appears to be calling on us to make the most of the time we have.

As I listened to the poem, I thought of how, in their four years, my students had become more attuned to their feelings and more sensitive to the blessed ground and that they have been learning by going where they had to go. All in all, it was a perfect poem for a momentous occasion on a gorgeous day. Here’s Karen’s intro and the poem:

By Karen Anderson, English, St. Mary’s College of MD

I have chosen to read Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Waking” because it is, in some sense, the crystallization of a St. Mary’s College of Maryland education. Roethke, in constraining himself to the Renaissance form of the villanelle, demonstrates his dedication to the difficulties of poetic craft and form, just as you have dedicated yourselves to the rigors of your disciplines.  And he uses the repetition of this form to speak to how a process of learning like the one you undertook here will extend beyond the moment of receiving your degree: the abandonment of fear, the necessary doubt, the joy in building knowledge, the gratitude for it that will sustain you for a lifetime of learning.  But beyond that, and most importantly, it is a poem that suggests what we share, students and professors and staff, children and parents, poets and presidents: both the need for the patient dedication to our pursuits and the miraculous way that endings, even one as momentous as this one today, are also always beginnings.

The Waking

By Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.


Note on the artwork: The painting can be found at fineartamerica.com/featured/graduation-suzanne-marie-leclair.html.

This entry was posted in Roethke (Theodore) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!