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Root Cellar by Theodore Roethke

Theodore Roethke’s “Root Cellar” is a short “greenhouse poem” full of vivid imagery. It was published in 1948 in Garden City, New York by Doubleday and Co. in Roethke’s second collection entitled The Lost Son and Other Poems. The original title of the poem was “Florist’s Root Cellar.” It was later shortened to only “Root Cellar.” This poem is about a dark, dank cellar where all the shoots are drooping, roots are ripe, and manure is piled against the planks. Still, they refuse to give up and stop breathing. The speaker is amazed to see the motivation and the stubborn determination of the plants on the verge of dying. They are even able to generate new life that embodies the main theme of the poem.

  • Read the full text of “Root Cellar” below:
Root Cellar
by Theodore Roethke

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.

- from The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948)
Analysis of Root Cellar by Theodore Roethke


Summary

“Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke is a poem about a dingy cellar, way too dark and musty, incapable of supporting any living form within. But the cellar plants did not lose hope and fight for survival. Nobody is trained enough to live for a day in that cellar as it is so suffocating. It reeks of dying plants.

The bulbs peep outside of the boxes in search of a small ray of light, “hunting for chinks in the dark.” The herbs are “lolling obscenely,” thus seeming lifeless. There is an intolerable “congress of stinks,” a collection of foul odors. Everything in that cellar is on the verge of rotting, suggesting the end of life. Microbes and other creatures started to decompose the living parts. Hence, there is a buildup of molds and fungi, which can be seen in the scenery of the stinking cellar.

However, towards the end of the poem, Roethke voices the message of fighting back. He portrays the image of determination and courage to fight the odds one faces in life through the lines, “Nothing would give up life:/ Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.”

Meaning

Roethke’s “Root Cellar” is a motivational poem that spreads the message to live and thrive even through the worst, deadly scenarios in life. One should not lose hope and grow along the way, clearing all the hurdles that may come. To describe this concept, Roethke describes a root cellar/greenhouse where all the plants are on the brink of dying. Foul odors filled the place, making it impossible for one to breathe. In fact, none can imagine living in that place. However, the plants still fight for the light, struggling for existence. After watching the scene, it seems to the speaker that even the “dirt” refuses to stop breathing.

Structure & Form

This short poem is full of images that evoke the sense of smell, taste, sight, and touch. The title of the poem suggests a cellar, stagnant and dingy with old, ripe roots that excel to survive in that tough and dark environment of the cellar/greenhouse. This free-verse poem specifically highlights the lush, undisturbed, and unhindered budding of life in the poet’s paternal greenhouse. It is enriched with organic imagery of the plants grown there.

Roethke intentionally chooses an odd diction to create a tone of disgust and revulsion. The overall tone of the poem seems to be inspirational and upbeat, highlighting the indomitable will of the living things. This poem follows no regular meter; there are just some shreds of evidence of slant rhyme like “crates,” “snakes,” and “planks.”

Figures of Speech & Poetic Devices

Roethke’s “Root Cellar” showcases the use of the following figures of speech.

  • Alliteration: It is the occurrence of the same sound at the beginning of the closely placed words. For instance, it occurs in the following phrases, “sleep in that cellar,” “dank as a ditch,” “Bulbs broke,” “dangled and drooped,” “Roots ripe,” “rank, silo-rich,” etc.
  • Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds between two syllables of nearby words.  For example, “sleep in,” “lime, piled,” etc.
  • Consonance: It is the repetition of the same consonant sound in a line of a poem. For example,  “evil necks, like tropical snakes,” “Hung down long yellow,” etc.
  • Metaphor: It is used to refer to a certain idea or a thing to show similarity. For example, in “Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,” the poet compares “bulbs” to the creatures that hunt. In “Silo-rich” stems, silos are referred to be ingested with pests and worms. The “congress of stinks” refers to the collection of deadly odors, and “dirt kept breathing” refers to the “dirt” performing the human act of breathing.
  • Simile:  It is a comparison of two unlike things with the words “as” or “like.” For example, it is used in “Long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes,” “dank as a ditch,” and “Roots ripe as old bait.”
  • Personification: It denotes human qualities to animals, objects, or abstract ideas. For instance,  all the phrases here attach human attributes to plants/objects: “Nothing would give up life,” “even the dirt kept breathing a small breath,” “Shoots dangled and dropped,” “lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,” and “hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.”
  • Hyperbole: It is used to exaggerate statements or claims which are not meant to be taken seriously. For instance, in “Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath,” the dirt is exaggerated to be breathing.


Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-4

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,

Roethke begins his poem “Root Cellar” on a very disgusting note. It is set in an old dank cellar or greenhouse that belonged to the poet’s father. In the beginning, the poet exclaims, “Nothing would sleep in that cellar,” stating that the place is too awful for human cohabitation. The cellar is “dank as a ditch,” meaning it is too gloomy for the eyes.

Roethke uses such words to evoke the senses of dirt, filth, and absolute disgust in readers’ minds. He could have used the word “basement” instead of “cellar,” but he is very much clear in his description of the place and the words he uses. The word “cellar” brings a much more filthy, dingy, and foul odor of the underground compartment in one’s olfactory sense. The first stanza gives a picturesque description of the environment or the condition of the “Root Cellar.”

The speaker further asserts that the “cellar” is too unlit that nobody is capable of being there. The pest-infested cellar is highly unfit for human living, and nobody would dare to stay and “sleep” in there. “Bulbs” in the second line stands for the predators, the carnivores, or the insectivorous plants (to be specific) that come out of their long period of rest to “hunt” for the light that comes from the “chinks,” narrow gaps of the wooden boxes admitting light.

Further, he says, the “shoots dangled and drooped,” indicating the apparent lifelessness of the plants being in that dingy, suffocated cellar. The cellar provides the worst possible, unimaginable circumstances to support any life form. The shoots lie dead in a “lolling obscene” manner in the “mildewed crates.” The poet, in all, tells us about the dark atmosphere of the cellar incapable of supporting or sustaining the plants.

Lines 5-9

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.

Roethke continues his description of the loathsome cellar in these lines as well. He states that “Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.” It is a simile used to denote the semi-darkness that makes the long sleek shoots appear “like tropical snakes.” The poet compares the long green stems of the herbs to “snakes” who hang their “evil necks” out of the crates. It seems that the stems wait like snakes to hunt those who live in cohabitation.

The poet further uses the words “congress of stinks” to mark the worst possible scenario possible. Here, “congress of stinks” refers to the collection of different odors, evoking our sense of smell with olfactory imagery.

The various images of sight and touch are invoked through “Roots ripe as old bait,” “Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,” and “Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.” The condition of the cellar is the worst. It is filled with utmost filth, foul odors, and waste.

The stems are “pulpy,” indicating their ripeness. The “silo” is storage where grains are kept, is infested with pests. All the organic matter has begun to turn into compost (“manure”), and the rotting of these organic stuff has made the cellar planks “slippery.”

Roethke extraordinarily uses imagery to achieve the heights of disgust that one cannot even imagine. The cellar is full of grime, slime, and smut, so much so that the levels of one’s perception of the filth is even exceeded.

Lines 10-11

Nothing would give up life:

Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

The poet concludes “Root Cellar” on a highly optimistic note of being determined to survive in the worst of the worst situations. The concept of remaining alive in nature is the survival of the fittest. Living organisms that fit into the criteria not only survive but also evolve for the best.

The speaker states, “Nothing would give up life.” The word “nothing” is used as a metaphor for all the plant species that were inside that cellar. Not even a single plant in the cellar is ready to give up. They refuse to lie dead there. No matter what, they try their best to be alive, whatever it takes.

The poet quotes the perfect example to revive the hope that is dead inside all of us. It goes like, “Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.” If the dirt, which is a lifeless thing, is capable of breathing and living in that stinky cell, why not us, the human beings? Roethke tries to spark the lost motivation and determination in the readers.

Themes

Determination and Will

Will power and determination are the two most important aspects that a person should have in their personality. Without these two contributing factors, success can be a nightmare. Imagine you have decided your aim in life, you have already researched the goal, but you do not have the courage or the determination to get started. The fuel that your system needs to get started is determination and will.

The poet gives numerous examples to cite his concept of determination through the image of the plants of the dingy cellar. Despite the cellar being too dark, smelling of the rotten organic matter, with hardly any opening for the light to peep in, the plants still push themselves up and try to keep going. They do not lose hope and try to strive against all the harsh and bitter conditions that come their way.

Similarly, the main message that Roethke wants to convey is to keep pushing oneself forward, avoiding looking back. Then one can be at their destination in no time. When the motivation comes from within, one naturally finds the strength to fight back.

Imagery

The poem “Root Cellar” displays a tremendous use of Roethke’s unusual imagery, his ability to supersede the ordinary, to put his readers in a dilemma often disturbing in nature. The poem is set in a dingy, stinky cellar where there can be no expectations for the possibility of life. Roethke uses precise and accurate imagery to showcase what is actually there in the cellar, invoking all the senses of the human body, the sense of smell, sight, taste, hearing, and touch.

Visual Imagery

Beginning with the first category of the imagery, i.e., the imagery of sight, Roethke uses phrases like the cellar to be extremely gloomy and humid – “dank as a ditch.” The condition of the cellar is really dark and “dank.”

Roethke takes us further to his sight of the cellar as “Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,” “Shoots dangled and drooped,” “Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,” and “Hung down long evil yellow necks, like tropical snakes.” All these images of the phototropic plants searching for light, the hanging of the shoots on the parts of the cellar like a snake, etc., provide the visual and the scenic pleasure to the eyes. It seems as if the speaker hands over his spectacle to his audience to experience what he sees through.

Olfactory Imagery

Moving onto the imagery of the smell, i.e., the olfactory imagery, the poet expresses the odor inside the cellar as “congress of stinks!” – a deadly combination of awful odors. He states that the smell of all the rotting organic matter is so bad that “Nothing would sleep in that cellar.”

Tactile Imagery

Roethke evokes our sense of touch through the images of “Roots ripe as old bait,” “Pulpy stems,” “rank, silo-rich,” and “Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.” The use of this vivid, sensual imagery plays a great role in achieving the purpose of writing this piece. By the use of such imagery, the poet claims that despite being surrounded by the toughest environment, one should not back out and always keep going.

Historical Context

Theodore Roethke (Theodore Huebner Roethke) was born on May 25, 1908, in Saginaw, Michigan, U.S. He was an American poet who had a deeper interest in the natural world. He is known for his remarkable lyricism, introspection, and extreme use of scenic details. His diction widely ranged from rigid, rhyming stanzas syncing with one another to the complete adoption of free verse. Roethke’s first collection of poetry, Open House, was published in 1941. He was highly motivated by his passion for writing and always uttered, “I’m always working.” His pockets were always filled with surprising thoughts and “out of the box” ideas. Roethke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book The Waking in 1954, National Book Award for Poetry in 1959 and 1965, and the Bollingen Prize in 1959.

Roethke was raised in Michigan, where towns and cities are woven into rivers, streams, and lakes. The motivation behind such lively and vivid imagery in “Root Cellar” is from none other than his own birthplace, Michigan. Besides, Roethke was raised in proximity with a 25-acre greenhouse jointly owned by his father Otto Roethke and his uncle. He spent most of his time in and around the greenhouse, observing it with his eyes wide open.

The imagery in his “greenhouse poems” from The Lost Son is the product of his childhood memories of the greenhouse and nature. In 1923, his close uncle’s suicide and his father’s death traumatized him and shaped his lifelong psyche and creativity. He had no other choice but to look up to nature for solace and peace.

Questions & Answers

When was “Root Cellar” written?

Theodore Roethke produced “Root Cellar” in 1943. The poem was first published as “Florist’s Root Cellar” in the November 1943 issue of Poetry magazine. Later, in 1948, it was included in Roethke’s second collection of poetry, The Lost Son and Other Poems.

What is the meaning of “Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke?

The title of the poem hints at the root cellar within a greenhouse that functions to keep the roots alive, allowing them to grow in the underground structure. Roethke uses the cellar as a symbol of living in uneven circumstances.

What is the theme of “Root Cellar”?

The themes of motivation and the determination to fight the impediments that come in one’s way are highlighted in this poem. This piece also taps on the themes of nature, living, survival, and containment.

Is “Root Cellar” a free verse?

Roethke’s “Root Cellar” is undoubtedly a free verse poem that does not contain a regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. However, there are a few slant rhymes in the poem.

What does “Roots ripe as old bait” mean?

This line is an example of a simile that presents a comparison between roots and old bait. The phrase “old bait” refers to the stale food placed on a hook or net to catch prey. Here, the ripe roots smell and look like some old bait placed for a long time.

What does “congress of stinks” mean?

This phrase refers to the combination of different odors in the root cellars. In a congress, each individual does not lose their personal qualities. Each puts forth their unique identity. Likewise, one can smell the foul odors separately in the cellar.

What does “silo-rich” mean?

Silo means a pit or underground space used as storage for grains, green feeds, etc. The phrase “silo-rich” depicts how pulpy the stems of that cellar were.

What does the line “lolling obscenely from mildewed crates” mean?

The shoots of the plants hang from the mildewed crates like someone sticking out the tongue so that it hangs loosely out of the mouth. It appears obscene (indecent/offensive) to the speaker.

Which figures of speech are used in “Root Cellar”?

The poet adds several figures of speech in order to ignite the desired literary spark in the poem. Some important poetic devices used in the poem are simile, metaphor, alliteration, personification, assonance, etc.


Similar Poems about Nature and Motivation

  • [little tree]” by E.E. Cummings — This poem is about a Christmas tree freshly plucked from the forest and brought to the poet’s home. The poet personifies the tree as a small child.
  • It Couldn’t Be Done” by Edgar Guest — This piece highlights the indomitable courage and perseverance needed to succeed.
  • Talking in their Sleep” by Edith M. Thomas — This poem shows how winter lays her icy hands at different creatures. No matter what, the living beings keep breathing and wait for the chilling time to pass.
  • They are hostile nations” by Margaret Atwood — In this poem, Atwood describes the post-Cold War era and how she is hopeless regarding the future.


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