I'm trying to understand Roethke's "The Waking", and one of my problems is that I'm not sure who "you" is. Most of the poem uses "I" or "my", etc.. There are a few instances where other pronouns are used:

First instance of "you" (line 7):

Of those so close beside me, which are you?

This verse (the 5th) seems to be addressed to "you"? At least, I think the person addressed by "lovely" is meant to be the same as "you":

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

Then, there are a few times that collective pronouns are used. Do these include the "you" from elsewhere? If so, do they include more than the speaker and "you"?

Line 4:

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

Line 10:

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

Who is "you"? Is it the same for both instances of "you"? Is the speaker addressing someone offscreen? Are they talking to the reader? How do the instances of "we" and "us" fit in to this? I'm not sure where my problem is coming from: am I just not familiar enough with villanelles, or Roethke, or some convention of poetry? Regardless, I still am unsure. Who is "you" in "The Waking"?

1 Answer 1


Roethke's "The Waking" is a villanelle. The structure of the villanelle, with its first and third lines repeated multiple times over the entire poem, makes the form inherently kaleidoscopic, generating new insights by rearranging elements. Each verse of "The Waking" provides a fresh way of looking at the themes announced in the opening tercet: the relationship between knowledge and experience, sleep and waking, life and death.

The paradoxical opening line suggests that since we awaken only to go back to sleep eventually, there's no point in rushing to wake up. The second line likens sleep to death. We are fated to die, as we are to sleep; but we do not fear sleeping, suggesting that death itself need not be fearsome. The third line brings together the first two. We are alive only to die: the assertion "I wake to sleep" tells us "where I have to go". And we "learn" how to die, i.e., we experience our "fate", in "going" to sleep. This line also suggests that the experiences through which we live our lives shape our understanding of death ("I learn") even as each experience, marking as it does the passage of time, brings us closer to death.

While the first verse uses the singular, the situation the speaker puts forward is universal. The "we" of the second verse is a general "we", one including all of us; the same is true of the "us" of the fourth. The "you and me" of the fifth are similarly universalizing, including the speaker and all auditors—or the poet and all readers.

That leaves the "you" of the third verse:

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.

These enigmatic lines defy easy readings. They're tremendously allusive. They bring to mind T S Eliot:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land V: What the Thunder Said. 1922. Accessed at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land January 1 2024.

The gloss at the Poetry Foundation site explains that Eliot's own notes to these lines

reference Ernest Shackleton’s account of one of his Antarctic expeditions, in which the explorers maintained the delusion that there was an extra member present. It also clearly conjures up a biblical story from Luke 24 of travelers on the road to Emmaus, in which two disciples encounter a third presence on their journey, who is revealed to be a post-resurrection Jesus.

Roethke's lines echo Eliot's while deepening the mystery. The idea of someone close who is adored suggests both romantic and religious love, and that this person is not recognized reinforces the parallel to the story from Luke. Which are you is in itself a complex phrase, nicely ambiguous between singular and plural, identified and identifier. It could mean "which one(s) can I identify as you?" or, "which one(s) do you identify as yourself?" The simplest interpretation is that the speaker is speaking to his beloved, or to a religious leader, but the lines can also be taken as a query to the reader. The speaker asserts that we are close to him, and asks us to identify ourselves. He says he will follow in our footsteps as he learns the way through life to death. This is another universalizing move, claiming that the poem can encompass all experiences, irrespective of who undergoes them.

Through this nicely calibrated, polysemic "you", the opposition between nature and art also becomes thematically relevant to the poem. As in Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 or Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn, the villanelle makes immortal what would otherwise be lost to death. The cycle of sleep and waking, life and death, "is always. And is near", but it "falls away" when captured in an artwork that outlasts its subjects and its maker.

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