The Temple in Roethke's Poetry
Part 5 of the Hero's Journey series
“In a dark time,” the poet tells us, “the eye begins to see ...” The poet in this instance is Theodore Roethke, but what is this dark time, and what do we see in it? These are questions at the heart of the apex-nadir (paradox intended) of the Hero’s Journey: the Temple.
The Temple takes many forms – for Roethke, as we will see, it exists within the self, in each person. For others, it is a cave, or a church, or a metaphysical space. For many, it is literally a temple, like that of the oracle Pythia, consulted by the ancient Greeks in the temple of Delphi. The Greeks considered this sanctuary on the slopes of Mount Parnassus to be the centre of the world, much the way Roethke considered the self to be discoverable only by going to the centre within, which is where Joseph Campbell considered the destination of the heroic quest to be, at “the center of our own existence”.
The ancient geographer Pausanias described the temple of Delphi in his Description of Greece, telling us that “the summit of Parnassus is hard to reach – even for a man in good condition”. The mytho-metaphysical temple found at the end of the hero’s quest is always difficult to reach, arrived at only by the Road of Trials. Pausanias notes that the mountain’s “peaks are above the clouds”, so that the approaching worshipper cannot see the Delphic temple in advance, just as the Temple of our hero can’t be known before it is reached. “Only the crazed Thyades run here,” Pausanias writes, “in honour of Dionysus and Apollo.” These spiritual devotees worship both gods, reconciling the polarity they represent between Chaos and Order. Our hero, having entered the Temple, will learn to do the same.
“The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.”
~ Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
For Theodore Roethke, American poet of the mid-twentieth century, the titular period of his poem “In a Dark Time” was brought on by episodes of mental illness. He suffered from bipolar disorder, benefiting from ridiculously productive manias that in turn led through exhaustion to crippling depressions. But Roethke was a man who refused to let life and its hard-earned, learned-through-pain lessons go to waste. His literary philosophy was that the poet must “march through the history of poetry ... [to become] a poet who has absorbed the tradition and who thus may take one step forward and add to that tradition”, and this applied equally to his personal life. Every trial he marched through added to his experience of the history of what it is to be human, adding his voice to the tradition of pain as poetry.
From the peaks of mountains climbed, Roethke viewed conquerable lands no one else had yet seen. When he sank to great depths, he plumbed them while there and came up with muddy gold. His manic episodes fuelled prodigious amounts of work, and his suffering informed a tension that runs throughout his writings between compassion and a desire to hide from the world. His solitude took Nietzsche’s line about “man alone with himself” quite literally: Roethke sought a pure, one-to-one encounter with his true self. He sought an answer to the question posed in his poem, “Which I is I?”
“In a Dark Time” is, under one of its many readings, an archetypal journey through the flames of existence to burn away what was and be reborn as what is truly underneath, ash transformed into a transcendent form. In other words, a Hero’s Journey. In four stanzas we travel from the poet approaching the Temple, that dark place, back to the descent he made into madness that brought him here, and finally arrive inside the Temple where the poet meets with himself. A close analysis of Roethke’s journey will show us exactly what the Temple is and what our hero discovers inside.
“What's madness,” Roethke asks his reader, “but nobility of soul / At odds with circumstance?” This is a concise rendition of the reason so many heroes undertake their journey – Joseph Campbell laid it out more comprehensively by saying that if your vision for the world is at odds with your society’s vision of it, “you’ve got an adventure in the dark forest ahead of you”. The poet’s noble soul contradicts the norms of his circumstances, which leads his society to point at this incongruity, at the artist shunning material wealth and traditional values for art, and call him “mad”. The aim of the journey now is to bring the soul and the society into alignment.
At a broader level, this is always what the heroic quest seeks to do – to reconcile division. The Temple is where this finally can happen. Access to the Temple is gained only with great difficulty. As the first line of Roethke’s poem reminds us, it is only in our darkest moments that “the eye begins to see”. In the following stanza, he writes, “I know the purity of pure despair,” understanding that the hardships he had endured with several mental breakdowns had revealed truths to him that he could not have learned otherwise. The stripping away of the self, like the kind that occurs in depression, also strips away the world, and beneath its layers we find strata hidden from everyday life. The Road of Trials has shown us that a weapon of worth must be forged in flame, that a hero must be strengthened by tests, and the same holds true here.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo and his comrades must use their wits to crack the clues in their map to discover the hidden doorway into the mountain. In Lost, Jack must die in one reality before he can awake into another reality. Roethke too, in his poetic journey, looks ahead to a “place among the rocks” (the rocks being the final path of his madness into the Temple) and is unable to tell if this is the correct way to go. Is it “a cave” or a “winding path”? Is it a dead end or the route he should follow? Ultimately, he must be brave and press on, feeling his way along the wall of this dark tunnel, because “the edge is what I have”.
The Temple cannot be found without having journeyed along the Road of Trials to reach it. Anyone who cheated their way there (if such a thing were possible) would not have what is required to enter the Temple and face what is inside. There is always a dragon dwelling within every cave worth entering, and the hero will be eaten immediately if she has not trained for this battle and prepared for what the beast will throw at her.
Bilbo’s Temple is that daunting cavern in which Smaug sleeps, and Bilbo is only able to enter and succeed in his task because of all he has learned on his journey. When his dwarvish group reach the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo summons the courage he has cultivated during treks through enchanted forests and fights with trolls and spiders. Just like when he was lost in the goblins’ lair, he can now either collapse or carry on, and (just like he did in the goblins’ lair) he stands on his feet and marches into the unknown. His journey down the dark, winding tunnel towards Smaug is one he makes in stealthy silence – a partly natural talent as a hobbit that he trained and augmented as a thief on the road to this place. He crept up on trolls, picked their pockets, escaped from Gollum, and went undetected in the elvish halls of Mirkwood.
Finally, he reaches the heart of his Temple and faces the great dragon, that emblem of the Chaos that Bilbo has, first in his Shire life, avoided and then, during this journey, raced towards. In this cavernous hall lit with glittering gold and guarded by the tyrannical monster, Bilbo encounters his final test in becoming a hero. Smaug asks him who he is; Bilbo’s brave and clever response is to identify himself in riddles (another skill we saw him practice to escape Gollum). In his response, Bilbo finally reconciles his identity, proudly accepting that he is defined by the deeds he has done:
“I am he that walks unseen ... I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly ... I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me ... I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider.”
In the end, these are simply various ways of saying that he is a hero. These epithets spell out the distance Bilbo has traversed to become this new figure. As Roethke puts it, “A man goes far to find out what he is.” The dive into the Belly of the Beast and the long, hard slog on the Road of Trials form the hero, and heroes are the only ones who can enter and survive the Temple. So what is it that we find in this strange place?
“What makes Heroic? – To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.”
~ Nietzsche, The Gay Science
The Temple is a place that revels in apparent paradox; the hero’s task is to resolve these paradoxes and understand them differently, not as contradiction but as cooperation. As Roethke approaches his own Temple, he meets his shadow in the last place one might expect to – not in bright light to cast it clearly, but “in the deepening shade”, where it ought to be swallowed by the darkness. And yet. He hears his own voice echoing back to him, and he does not hear it in an open, quiet space but in the clustered, close quarters of a forest, hearing his own voice somehow amongst the din of “the echoing wood”. Delving deeper into his pastoral imagery, Roethke becomes a “lord of nature” – but is he master? No, he is shown as weak and, as if in a pose of supplication, “weeping to a tree”.
So Roethke’s poem contains paradoxes, and this is also the architecture of the Temple. It is built on paradox because the union of polarity – the bringing together of previously opposed elements in what might appear to the uninitiated as contradictions – is the purpose of the Temple.
Roethke’s father was, in the poet’s evocation of the man, an austere and intimidating patriarch who was seemingly determined to live up to the stereotypes of efficiency and seriousness cast at Prussians. Having moved his family to America, where Theodore was born, he kept greenhouses that appear in his son’s poetry. For the poet growing up, these glass houses of carefully tended selections of the nature he so loved were “both heaven and hell ... [where] German-Americans turned their love of order ... into something truly beautiful”. In a notebook entry, Roethke would define the greenhouse as “a jungle and ... a paradise; it was order and disorder”.
In the Temple, Order and Chaos live together, and though it will surprise our hero to learn this, they are embodied in one figure. Our hero finally discovers the union between these two elements, that they have always been two aspects of a single nature. Although our hero thought she was fighting against Chaos in favour of Order, her final task is to accept that she has fallen for a false distinction. Chaos is not all-evil nor is Order all-good.
At the broadest level, when Chaos is given free rein, it leads to entropy. But Order at its utmost leads to totalitarianism. At one extreme, decay, disorder, relativism, and a tyranny of meaninglessness; at the other end, despotism, unfreedom, the demise of creativity, and the death of art. Amnesia in the depths of Chaos, which is forever racing ahead and forgetting where it has come from; stagnation in the grip of Order, obsessed with maintaining the status quo and stuck in stasis as a result. To be more specific, the extremities of Chaos without balancing Order and vice versa for the heroes whose journeys we have followed this far look like this:
For Bilbo, it is the death of imagination and the stifling of his soul if he remains in the cage of extreme Order at Bag End. If he allows, on the other hand, Chaos to take control, he will lose himself in aimless wandering of the wider world or the endless pursuit of gold.
For Jack in Lost, total Order was what he sought, but it would inevitably lead to his becoming a tyrant, controlling everything and everyone around because his ego would be a god. He would feel nothing so that the disorder caused by emotions could not disrupt him or require alcohol to numb them. Complete Chaos, on the other hand, would make him a slave, a patsy of the kind Locke became to anyone demanding his submission, and with the sacrifice of his ego, his identity too would die.
In Giovanni’s Room, as we saw right at the start of this series, David was unable to even begin his journey and pursue either Chaos or Order. His inability to decide led to his wildly fluctuating between the reckless abandonment of responsibility and the wilful submission to the straitjacket of gender-norms. Unable to reconcile them, he was stuck with the destructive extremes of his Order and Chaos.
There is a concept of “in-betweeness” that Plato named “metaxis” and described as the state of being between the human and the divine. I define it slightly differently as being between the divine and the mundane – that is, the mechanistic, orderly motions of reality. Metaxis is to be human; to be fully engaged in Being is to be in a constant tension between the pull of Order and the tug of Chaos, between life and death, creation and destruction, past and future, love and hate, and every other duality we bring into being as a sapient and sentient species. The goal of the Hero’s Journey is to bring about greater balance, and the role of the hero is to overcome whatever is tipping it over. Inside the Temple, our hero finds that great figure symbolising both the oppositions and equilibrium between her duality. Joseph Campbell chose to express this creature as the Father.
(Sidebar: As with all mythological language, if you take this literally it becomes nonsense – it also raises questions of gender and sexism that are valid yet do not negate the essential principle beneath the vagaries of language.)
Roethke’s own father was a complicated man in whom extreme Order and creative Chaos were manifested. The difficult relationship between them, broken off in medias res with the father’s death when the son was fifteen, recurred in Roethke’s poetry, most explicitly in his poem “My Papa’s Waltz”. Here, we witness an uneasy dance around the danger and safety in the father’s embrace. Every interaction between boy and man harbours love and violence, each line conveying simultaneously the silly, tender waltz and shocking, spiteful aggression.
“The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle.”
Is this intimate or threatening? It is both. The Father represents that which we fear and that which we desire. The oldest trope involving the familial patriarch is that of the child desperate not to become the father. The oldest irony that accompanies this is that the child often fails to prevent it happening as a result of their effort. The Father is the Shadow, the parts of ourselves we keep in darkness and do not like to see. But these aspects, like our shadows, are always there.
At the end of Lost, Jack enters a church where, in this Temple of reconciliation, he finds himself face to face with his long-dead father. This is the tyrant Jack has fled his whole life, the man whose mistakes Jack refuses to repeat (or confess he has repeated), and whom Jack also most wanted to impress, the man whose approval he desired. The myth and lore of Lost are far too extensive to be able to describe in any detail all the facets of Jack’s ultimate apotheosis in the church, but suffice it to say that he is able to reconcile everything he has gone through on the island, in life, with his father, and with himself. In that moment, he and his father embrace, able to say, “I love you, Dad,” and “I love you too, Son,” at last.
Carl Jung thought of this as “integrating your shadow”: accepting those dark or unseen aspects of the self and incorporating what is useful from them into your identity, while safely keeping in check what is dangerous. Those dangerous aspects can even become useful in constrained forms; what is aggression in shadow form can become an ability to stand one’s ground fairly when the shadow is integrated. In any case, for our hero to pass through the Temple, she must reconcile her division. Both sides are required for balance. As Jack’s father tells him of the others he lived and died with on the island, “You needed all of them, and they needed you.”
Freudian analysis can unpack the concept of the Temple in interesting ways. In a psychotherapeutic context, Order is the superego, the idealised self-image, while Chaos is the repressed id, primitive instincts that can lead to the destruction of others and of the self. Our hero in this case is the ego, the “I” that perceives itself and the world around. The hero’s goal is to mend the fracture between Order and Chaos, the superego and the id, uniting them to become whole.
Christianity projects these internal concepts onto the external world, manifesting the superego as God and the id as the Devil. In an attempt to modernise the morality of their literal god, most Christians claim that only good comes from him (despite God’s own claim in Isaiah 45:7 that, “I make peace and create evil/calamity/disaster,” depending on your translation). To explain evil, Christians invented the Devil, the manifestation of death, destruction, and deceit. In the moment that Lucifer was born as an idea, God became a fractured identity.
In the Old Testament, God’s wrath and mercy co-exist; he creates everything and then destroys most of humanity, delivers the Israelites out of slavery after annihilating Sodom and Gomorrah, and so on. In the New Testament, God has been split in two so that his destructive tendencies can be relocated to a separate entity. It might serve us (and theology) better to accept that “God” deals out death and destruction just as he offers love and life, much like most other deities from Anu to Zeus who were prone to both Chaos and Order, and who were, in that sense, human. This way, we might better accept the unity between creation and destruction, understanding that there is no life without death.
A less literalised rendition of God’s duality has the superego as his actual character and the id as his potential. The idea is that we ought to fear God because he could destroy us and we should love him because he won’t. This is the casuistry employed by many Evangelicals, among other denominations and other faiths, in an effort to reconcile this division between God’s terrible potential and his actual divinity. This demand to love that which we fear turns us into cowardly slaves who accept our chains and worship the slave master. It is the result of viewing the deity as an extant entity out there, rather than as an aspect of our inner selves.
Once placed properly within us, God can be reconciled fully – we love him as we love ourselves, and we don’t fear his destructive energies because they are under our control. We understand that this repressed id, this destructive deity, is a part of ourselves, and we can exercise self-restraint. In the first stanza of “In a Dark Time”, Roethke meets his own shadow, the darkest part of himself. This is contrasted against his hearing his echo, representing the best part of himself, which was his voice, his poetic talent. He is, like the rest of us, caught somewhere between the heights and depths of what it is to be human, somewhere between “the wren” in the sky and “the serpents of the den”. In understanding himself fully as made up of both aspects, Roethke brings the two together, introducing Order into Chaos.
There is a final element to the Temple, one that may come early, late, or comprise the whole of the experience: the death and rebirth of our hero.
This death is a form of sacrifice. Our hero voluntarily submits to Chaos, though it may appear as if it kills her. This submission opens our hero to the true form of Order, which is bound up in its opposite. Her rebirth is the gifting of balance to overcome the tyranny of either extreme. It is because Jesus submitted to the cross that he proved his divine worth and was therefore able to rise again. Had he resisted his meeting with Chaos in the Temple of his physical tomb (and, according to the Gnostics, his battle in the depths of Hell) he would have been only as human as those two mortal thieves crucified beside him, and he would not have been resurrected.
This self-sacrifice is the final trial of our hero, the weighing of the heart as Egyptian mythology portrayed it, in which it is shown once and for all that our hero is worthy. She is prepared to surrender her ego to that which she is consumed by, that which transcends her individuality. The oblation of the individual on its own, however, is only half of the transaction. Individuals giving their identity up to the “greater good” is how we end up with cults and extremists. In the Hero’s Journey, this sacrifice is rewarded with rebirth.
When our hero is reborn, she regains her individuality but it is reinforced with the wholeness of a given context. That is to say, before she was singular, now she is plural, an I that contributes to an us. Before, she aligned her identity with one half of a dichotomy and characterised it with the personality of Chaos or of Order; now, she has a place within the metaxis of Chaos and Order. She is “in-between”. She is among. Heroes reconcile division.
In myth, this heroic death-and-rebirth is often literalised. Dionysus, given the epithet “Dithyrambos” meaning “he of the double door”, was torn apart by the Titans and then born again. Jesus was crucified, placed dead in a tomb, and rose three days later. Miaoshan allowed herself to be killed and was subsequently expelled from the underworld for her selflessness, returning to life in our world. In Lost, Jack dies in one reality only to wake up in another, with a sense of wholeness about his life and who he is.
In other stories, this death and rebirth might be symbolic, as in The Hobbit, in which Bilbo sheds his old identity, dying as his old self, and is reborn a new figure, a hero. Orpheus and Persephone both travel to the underworld, the realm of death, and return, though technically neither of them have died. In Roethke’s “In a Dark Time”, the poet-persona discovers that it is the “death of the self” that frees his soul, which is “like some heat-maddened summer fly ... buzzing at the sill”. He symbolically dies, “a fallen man”, and is reborn to “climb out of [his] fear”. With this final sacrifice and resurrection, he is at last “free in the tearing wind”.
“Doesn’t part of the awe that fills us when we confront the unknown come from understanding that, should it at last flood into us and become known, we would be altered?”
~ Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark
As we undertake our heroic journey, we cannot fully comprehend what awaits us at its end – as it is phrased in Corinthians, “Now we see through a glass, darkly.” Finally in the Temple, we come “face to face” with unity and with ourselves, and “then I shall know even as I am also known”. This is what Campbell referred to as apotheosis, where “we no longer desire and fear; we are what was desired and feared”.
“The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror ... to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are atoned.”
In La Commedia, Dante reaches Heaven at last, and he gazes into its metaphysical depths to see “gathered with love in a single volume / the leaves that through the universe have been scattered”. These are the prophecies of the Cumaean Sibyl, written on the leaves of trees and kept in a cave until a great wind swept them across reality. There is a story from the Jewish Mystic traditions that says that creation consisted of divine light contained in glass vessels, some of which were shattered and scattered across the cosmos. The task of humans is to collect these shards and restore unity. In entering the Temple of Paradise, Dante is transformed by the unity of knowledge. He experiences the kind of monism Roethke suggests at the end of his own poem, where Roethke writes:
“The mind enters itself, and God the mind, And one is One, free in the tearing wind.”
As Dante puts it in describing his theosis, his union with divinity:
“... my desire and will were turned, Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly, By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”
Where does – where possibly can – our hero go from here? From such great heights can surely only come a great fall. Perhaps, or perhaps our hero’s final task is to bring his Ordinary World up here, or at the very least bring it a little closer. She must raise the floor of everyone’s wellbeing in however small yet profound a way only our hero can. This is what we will explore in the final part of the Hero’s Journey series, when we make our Return to the Ordinary World.
< Previous: The Road of Trials Next: The Return >
(You can read Roethke’s “In a Dark Time” in full here.)
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• The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (1949)
• The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers (1988)
• “In a Dark Time”, in Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Theodore Roethke (1961)
• “My Papa’s Waltz”, in The Lost Son and Other Poems, Theodore Roethke (1948)
• Description of Greece, Pausanias (circa 2ndcentury AD)
• The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien (1937)
• An American Poet Introduces Himself and His Poems, from a BBC broadcast, Theodore Roethke (1953)
• Straw for the Fire: From the Notebooks of Theodore Roethke 1943-63,Theodore Roethke (1974)
• Lost, created by JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof, and Jeffrey Lieber (2004 – 2010)
• The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche (1882)
• Forest Dark, Nicole Krauss (2017)
• La Commedia, Dante (1320)
• The Lord of the Rings: The fellowship of the ring, JRR Tolkien (1954)