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Theodore Roethke

(1908 - 1963 / Michigan / United States)

The Meadow Mouse


1

In a shoe box stuffed in an old nylon stocking
Sleeps the baby mouse I found in the meadow,
Where he trembled and shook beneath a stick
Till I caught him up by the tail and brought him in,
Cradled in my hand,
A little quaker, the whole body of him trembling,
His absurd whiskers sticking out like a cartoon-mouse,
His feet like small leaves,
Little lizard-feet,
Whitish and spread wide when he tried to struggle away,
Wriggling like a minuscule puppy.

Now he's eaten his three kinds of cheese and drunk from his
bottle-cap watering-trough--
So much he just lies in one corner,
His tail curled under him, his belly big
As his head; his bat-like ears
Twitching, tilting toward the least sound.

Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
He seems no longer to tremble.

2

But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm? --
To run under the hawk's wing,
Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm-tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble of the highway,
The paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising,--
All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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  • Eddie Morales (10/7/2007 1:02:00 PM)

    You might think a poem about a mouse is the last thing you would want to read about, especially, if you consider mice pests that should be exterminated rather than be left alive. However, Roethke’s ability to create interest keeps us emotionally invested in the poem. He does this through expectation, suspicion, and discovery.

    The reader expects the persona to take care of the meadow mouse, the way a mother would take care of her baby. Roethke hints at this by using “parental” words like “baby, ” cradled, ” “puppy, ” and “child.”

    The reader suspects that the mouse will escape. Why? The persona could have put the mouse in a cage, but instead put the mouse in a box covered with a nylon stocking, something easy to chew through. Also, there are two possible outcomes. The persona states: “Do I imagine he no longer trembles / When I come close? ” In other words, “Is my meadow mouse now more comfortable with me than before? ” This hints the mouse might accept captivity, but it’s not certain. The mouse may yet escape.

    The reader discovers that the dangerous encounters of this particular meadow mouse concern us more than the dangerous encounters of his fellow meadow mice. This is obviously due to the fact that the persona has had a close encounter with this mouse and not the others, and in turn, we, the readers, have encountered this mouse through the poem, and not any of the other mice. This realization strikes us when Roethke describes the real dangers of the mouse’s own natural environment—hawks, owls, shrikes, snakes, and tomcats, not in respect to all mice in general, but only to the persona’s meadow mouse. However, Roethke takes it one step further.

    Roethke makes a human correlation, a discovery about human conditions and parental worries over a child. Even though the world is fraught with danger, in the natural scheme of things, every parent knows their child will leave the safe environment of home to seek his or her own fortune in this dangerous world; and even though the dangers are real, a parent must let the child go. And yet, Roethke takes it even one step further.

    In the last verse, Roethke broadens the focus of his poem by narrowing his discovery down to three examples that embody vulnerability: fallen nestling, gasping turtle, and stunned paralytic. The first two, fallen nestling and gasping turtle, retain the animal element, and the fragile nature of a baby animal in the wild, but the third, stunned paralytic, is the one example that drives home the message. It is the human element that makes the poem about a meadow mouse relevant. In the end, it is the human element (the paralyzed person on the verge of drowning helplessly in the bathtub) which places the reader on the level of “all things innocent, hapless, forsaken.” (Report) Reply

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