At first sight, the poems appear to be surrealistic juxtapositions of nursery rhymes, riddles, songs, and chants. Viewed more closely it becomes clear that Roethke is imitating an Elizabethan tradition, that of the Bedlam Beggar, the natural man, stripped of all pretenses, who stands on the edge of incoherence, courting madness as a recovery of sense. Thus the rants and ravings, attempts to convey the mind's extremity, can always be translated naturalistically, but of course at the price of their vigor. For they are an attempt to force language to convey the very rush and thrust of emotive impulse, to make language instinctive. The experiment is part of a purgative quest to get back to elemental emotions, what he affectionately called "mutterkin's wisdom," learned with the ear close to the ground. If we look to the core of the introverted state with which each poem begins, we discover that what is damming the vital life energies is a fear of organic processes and of death, projected onto nature that is stagnant and implacable. To exorcise this fear Roethke underwent a purgative cleansing, a ritual stripping away of all encumbrances until he achieved, in the state he called "Pure Mind," a fervent, intuitive attachment to, and re-absorption in, life.
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The poem begins with the "Lost Son" at Woodlawn where his father lies buried. Not only personal loss but also the dread impersonality of death harrows him as he feels in himself the acquiescent pull toward death. The slamming of iron, whether the sound of shovels or of the cemetery gate, is lulling, hypnotic to his ears. Shaking the "softening chalk" of his bones, he sets out on a therapeutic quest for identity, an "I" to assert against this disintegration. He turns for solace to the subhuman. . . .
The Lost Son has proven unworthy and cut himself off from the primitive code of "mutterkin's wisdom." Therefore he begins the terrifying journey through an emblematic landscape of filth and slaughter to the "quick" water, the reed-grown river's edge in the valley of the psyche." What he is seeking in his flight is described in the traditional teasing manner of folk riddle. . . .
The subject of the riddle is the self as night-fisher plunging into the depths of the unconscious. It is described as phallical--lubricous and repugnant, because this is the core of the Lost Son's obsession. His fear of life and desire for oblivion express themselves as a revulsion from sexuality. He descends to "The Pit," a place of elemental questions: "Where do the roots go? . . . Who put the moss there? . . . Who stunned the dirt into noise?" The questions echo Blake's epigram to the "Book of Thel": "Does the Eagle know what is in the pit?/Or wilt thou go ask the Mole."