'Root Cellar' by Theodore Roethke

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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.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Root Cellar by Theodore Roethke: A Journey into the Depths of Nature's Mysteries


When it comes to poetry, few can match the power and depth of Theodore Roethke's work. His poems often explore the hidden layers of our inner selves and the natural world around us. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will dive into one of Roethke's most famous poems, "Root Cellar." This poem is a journey into the depths of nature's mysteries, a celebration of life's cyclical nature, and an exploration of the human condition. Join me as we unpack the layers of this masterpiece.

The Poem

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for air.
I brought a lamp to be safe: still it winked,
The walls of the cellar were wet; the cobblestone floor was wet;
And dark purple in the dim light,
Root hairs clung to dirt like a web,
Wet seeds clung to the dark earth,
Damp tendrils crawled over the stone walls.

A loop of cord hung from the ceiling,
Its braid limp from dampness;
Worms crawled, and the smell of decay
Made me close my eyes.

Fearful, I stumbled back.
And hit a pile of pots.

I stared at the waste
Of fruit piled high,
Among gummed-up bottles,
Short jars, and leaden-eyed
Glazed jars dusty with cobwebs
Like forgotten flags,
With the insignia of angels.

The appalls me:
Old, and mythological.

I took my way back upstairs
And left him there,
Drying his wings.

Form and Structure

The poem is composed of three stanzas with varying line lengths. The first stanza consists of nine lines, the second of four, and the third of six. The poem is written in free verse, without a strict rhyme scheme or meter. This allows Roethke to create a more natural flow to the poem, mirroring the organic nature of the root cellar.


The poem begins with a vivid description of a root cellar, a place that is dank, wet, and full of decay. The bulbs are breaking out of their boxes, seeking air, and even the lamp brought by the speaker cannot dispel the dampness. The root hairs cling to the dirt like a web, and the wet seeds cling to the dark earth.

The second stanza introduces us to the loop of cord hanging from the ceiling, its braid limp from dampness. The worms crawl around, and the smell of decay is overpowering. The speaker is fearful and stumbles back, hitting a pile of pots.

The final stanza describes the waste of fruit piled high, surrounded by gummed-up bottles, short jars, and dusty, cobwebbed jars with the insignia of angels. The speaker is appalled by the scene, which seems old and mythological.

The poem ends with the speaker leaving the root cellar, leaving "him" there, drying his wings. This could be interpreted as the speaker leaving behind a part of himself, or perhaps leaving behind the decay and darkness of the cellar.


"Root Cellar" is a poem that celebrates the cyclical nature of life. The decay and decayed fruit in the cellar are a reminder that life is continually in motion, that death is a natural part of the cycle of life. The worms and the smell of decay evoke a sense of rot and decomposition, but also of renewal and rejuvenation. The dampness and darkness of the cellar are also symbolic of the subconscious or inner self. The root cellar represents the hidden depths of the human psyche, full of secrets and mysteries.

The use of imagery in the poem is powerful and effective. The wetness and darkness of the cellar create a sense of foreboding and fear, while the root hairs and tendrils represent the interconnectedness of all things. The insignia of angels on the jars is a reminder that even in decay, there is a sense of the divine.

The poem is also a meditation on the human condition. The fear and apprehension of the speaker as he enters the cellar represent our fear of the unknown, of what lies beneath the surface. The waste of fruit and the gummed-up bottles represent the detritus of our lives, the things we leave behind as we move forward. The idea of "him" drying his wings at the end of the poem could also represent the idea of taking flight, of leaving the darkness behind and moving towards the light.


In "Root Cellar," Roethke creates a powerful metaphor for the cyclical nature of life and the mysteries of the human psyche. The poem is a celebration of decay and renewal, of the interconnectedness of all things, and a meditation on the human condition. The use of vivid imagery and free verse create a natural flow to the poem, drawing the reader into the depths of the root cellar. This poem is a masterpiece of modern poetry, and a testament to Roethke's ability to capture the beauty and complexity of the natural world.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Theodore Roethke's "Root Cellar" is a classic poem that explores the hidden depths of the natural world. With its vivid imagery and haunting tone, this poem takes readers on a journey into the dark and mysterious world of a root cellar.

At its core, "Root Cellar" is a poem about the power of nature and the way it can shape our perceptions of the world around us. Roethke uses the image of the root cellar to symbolize the hidden depths of the natural world, and the way that these depths can both frighten and fascinate us.

The poem begins with a description of the root cellar itself, which is described as a "dark" and "damp" place. This sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is filled with images of darkness and decay.

As the poem progresses, Roethke uses a series of vivid images to bring the root cellar to life. He describes the "damp" and "earthy" smell of the cellar, as well as the "spiders" and "rats" that inhabit it. These images are both unsettling and fascinating, drawing the reader deeper into the world of the poem.

One of the most striking images in the poem is the description of the "dank" and "dark" corners of the cellar, where "the black snake" lies coiled. This image is particularly powerful because it suggests that even in the darkest and most hidden corners of the natural world, there is still life and vitality.

Roethke also uses the image of the "beetles" and "grubs" that inhabit the cellar to explore the theme of decay. These creatures are described as "fat" and "greasy," suggesting that they are thriving in the decaying environment of the cellar.

Despite the darkness and decay that permeates the poem, there is also a sense of wonder and awe at the power of nature. Roethke describes the "darkness" of the cellar as "rich," suggesting that even in the most hidden and forgotten places, there is still beauty to be found.

The final lines of the poem are particularly powerful, as Roethke describes the way that the cellar "will be moist" and "will glow" with life. This image suggests that even in the darkest and most hidden places, there is still the potential for growth and renewal.

Overall, "Root Cellar" is a powerful and haunting poem that explores the hidden depths of the natural world. Through its vivid imagery and haunting tone, this poem reminds us of the power and beauty of nature, even in the darkest and most forgotten places.

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