'The Reckoning' by Theodore Roethke

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All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.

We hunt the cause of ruin, add,
Subtract, and put ourselves in pawn;
For all our scratching on the pad,
We cannot trace the error down.

What we are seeking is a fare
One way, a chance to be secure:
The lack that keeps us what we are,
The penny that usurps the poor.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Reckoning by Theodore Roethke: A Masterpiece of Modern American Poetry

When it comes to American poetry, few names stand out like Theodore Roethke. Born in Michigan in 1908, Roethke became one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, praised for his lyrical intensity, emotional depth, and innovative use of form. His poems often explore the themes of nature, love, and the human psyche, and offer a unique blend of the mystical and the mundane. One of his most famous poems, "The Reckoning," is a masterpiece of modern American poetry that showcases Roethke's talents at their finest.


"The Reckoning" was first published in 1953 as part of Roethke's collection "The Waking." It is a short but powerful poem that explores the theme of mortality through the image of a dying animal. The poem is written in free verse, with irregular line lengths and no set rhyme scheme, which gives it a sense of spontaneity and raw emotion. The language is simple and direct, with vivid imagery that evokes the physical and emotional impact of death.


The poem begins with a description of a dying animal, which is not specified but is likely a deer or some other woodland creature. The animal is described as "limp and damp and brought to ground," which immediately sets the tone for the poem. The use of the word "limp" suggests a lack of vitality or energy, while "damp" implies that the animal is cold and lifeless. The phrase "brought to ground" is a euphemism for death, which sets up the central theme of the poem.

The second stanza focuses on the speaker's reaction to the dying animal. The speaker describes how they "stood still and stopped the sound of feet" in order to observe the animal's final moments. The phrase "stopped the sound of feet" implies a sense of reverence or respect for the dying animal, as if the speaker is acknowledging the solemnity of the moment. The speaker then goes on to describe how they felt "afraid" and "drunk with apprehension," which suggests a sense of emotional intensity and vulnerability.

The third stanza shifts to a more meditative tone, as the speaker reflects on the meaning of the animal's death. The speaker notes how the animal's "eyes went out" and how they "sank deeper into the grass," which suggests a gradual dissolution of the animal's physical presence. The speaker then asks the rhetorical question, "Was it a gentle death?" which reflects a sense of wonder and awe at the mystery of death. The use of the word "gentle" suggests a sense of compassion or empathy for the dying animal, and implies that death can be seen as a release from suffering.

The final stanza brings the poem to a powerful conclusion, as the speaker reflects on their own mortality. The speaker notes how they "felt the great wings of silence" and how they "stared at the pale sky." The phrase "great wings of silence" is a vivid metaphor that suggests a sense of transcendence or spiritual elevation. The final line, "Until what was left of me / Was the fallen man," is a haunting image that suggests a sense of physical and emotional collapse.


At its core, "The Reckoning" is a poem about the inevitability of death and the human response to it. The dying animal serves as a metaphor for our own mortality, and the speaker's reaction to it reflects our own emotional and spiritual struggles in the face of death. The poem suggests that death can be a gentle release from suffering, but also a moment of profound transformation and uncertainty.

Roethke's use of free verse and vivid imagery creates a sense of immediacy and emotional intensity that is both raw and poignant. The poem's simple language and directness make it accessible to a wide audience, yet its underlying themes and metaphors invite deeper reflection and interpretation. "The Reckoning" is a testament to Roethke's mastery of form and language, and a powerful example of modern American poetry at its finest.


In conclusion, "The Reckoning" is a masterpiece of modern American poetry that explores the themes of mortality, transformation, and uncertainty with raw emotion and deep insight. Roethke's use of free verse and vivid imagery creates a sense of immediacy and intensity that is both haunting and beautiful. The poem invites us to reflect on our own mortality and the meaning of life, and offers a glimpse into the mysteries of the human psyche. It is a powerful and enduring work of art that continues to resonate with readers today.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Theodore Roethke's poem "The Reckoning" is a haunting and powerful work that explores the themes of mortality, nature, and the human condition. This classic poem is a masterful example of Roethke's ability to use language to evoke powerful emotions and ideas in the reader.

At its core, "The Reckoning" is a meditation on the inevitability of death and the transience of life. The poem begins with the speaker observing a dead bird lying on the ground, and from there, it moves into a broader reflection on the fragility of all living things. The speaker notes that "all things must die," and that even the most beautiful and powerful creatures are ultimately subject to the same fate as the lowliest insect.

Throughout the poem, Roethke uses vivid imagery to convey the sense of decay and dissolution that accompanies death. He describes the bird's body as "cold and stiff," and notes that its "feathers were ruffled, its eyes were dim." These details create a vivid picture of the bird's lifeless body, and they also serve to underscore the sense of loss and sadness that accompanies death.

At the same time, however, Roethke also suggests that death is not necessarily the end of life. He notes that the bird's body will eventually be consumed by the earth, and that its "bones will turn to dust." This idea of death as a kind of transformation is a recurring theme in Roethke's work, and it speaks to his belief in the cyclical nature of life and death.

Another important theme in "The Reckoning" is the relationship between humans and nature. Throughout the poem, Roethke emphasizes the interconnectedness of all living things, and he suggests that humans are not separate from the natural world, but rather a part of it. He notes that the bird's death is "a sign of our own," and he suggests that the same fate awaits all of us.

At the same time, however, Roethke also acknowledges the ways in which humans have disrupted the natural balance of the world. He notes that "we have made a desert of the earth," and he suggests that our actions have contributed to the destruction of the natural world. This tension between our connection to nature and our destructive impact on it is a central theme in much of Roethke's work, and it is particularly powerful in "The Reckoning."

Finally, it is worth noting the way in which Roethke uses language to create a sense of rhythm and movement in the poem. The poem is written in free verse, but Roethke's use of repetition and alliteration creates a sense of musicality that underscores the themes of the poem. For example, the repeated use of the word "reckoning" creates a sense of inevitability and finality, while the alliteration in phrases like "cold and stiff" and "bones will turn to dust" creates a sense of movement and decay.

In conclusion, "The Reckoning" is a powerful and moving poem that explores some of the most fundamental themes of human existence. Through its vivid imagery, its exploration of the relationship between humans and nature, and its use of language to create a sense of rhythm and movement, the poem speaks to the universal experience of mortality and the transience of life. It is a testament to Roethke's skill as a poet, and it remains a classic work of American literature.

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