“Long Live The Weeds”- By Theodore Roethke

Long live the weeds that overwhelm
My narrow vegetable realm! –
The bitter rock, the barren soil
That force the son of man to toil;
All things unholy, marked by curse,
The ugly of the universe.
The rough, the wicked and the wild
That keep the spirit undefiled.
With these I match my little wit
And earn the right to stand or sit,
Hope, look, create, or drink and die:
These shape the creature that is I.

Taking off from where Hopkins left in his poem Inversnaid, Theodore Roethke , now spending his time in a greenhouse is hugely occupied by weeds that force the gardener to work so hard ! Hopkins asked what would the world be if bereft of the wet and wilderness and said let them be left and long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. Roethke’s own vegetable realm is narrow and small but one is a monarch of all that one surveys(realm),but his rights there is somebody to dispute. The weeds make one toil like the son of man, struggling with a barren wild and a red rock under whose shadow you see fear in a handful of dust.The bitter rock .The barren soil. You have to make it alive. Do we need the weeds? Why does one have to struggle to keep them away from the narrow garden?Because the struggle is worth it. It is because of the weeds that the spirit is alive. We try to pit our limited wit against their enormous capacity to grow and flourish without any external support.We earn our right to stand or sit ,hope look,create drink or die and they shape the creature that is I.

Overwhelm/narrow vegetable realm is not a rhyming music. The metaphor inside is music. The garden (garden of Eden?) is overwhelmed by weeds . The weeds ,like the bitter rock and the barren soil, are the ugly and unholy things of the garden. Haven’t the evil forces represented by the fallen angel forced the Son of God to toil all the harder for it ? It is the rough and the wicked that keep the spirit undefiled. We do need the weeds . Not the way Hopkins said we needed them. Hopkins looked at the beauty of the world made by the wet and wilderness and the weeds that grow in the wild adding to the raw beauty of the landscape . Roethke is glad weeds make him toil hard to keep his garden beautiful.But for them we would not work hard to keep our garden beautiful. The way the weeds make us toil shapes our personality, giving us the strength to fight the forces of adversity.

The Biblical metaphor takes us back to the story of the Garden of Eden:

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse…

Paradise Lost by John Milton

The narrow vegetable realm is the Garden of Eden, that was lost to Adam and Eve on account of their first disobedience. The weeds are the unholy things that abound in the garden and need to be removed for the good and the holy to flourish.The greater man , son of God appears and restores the pristine garden but he must toil in the barren soil and the wild rock , with the weeds that overwhelm the vegetable realm. The struggle with rough and the wicked keep the spirit undefiled. Faith in the Holy Trinity-God , Son of God, and the Holy Spirit shall keep the garden free of unholy things, the wild and the wicked.

Interesting usages :

Overwhelm : Overwhelm means inundate, bury or drown under a great weight. The weeds overwhelm the beautiful plants of the garden, both in the sense of choking them and not allowing them to grow but in the sense of depriving them of the essential nutrients from the soil. Imagine masses of weeds as a great flood, a deluge that will eventually drown all life in the universe.

The bitter rock: Recall the allusion to the red rock in T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land

Come in under the shadow of this red rock
I will show you fear in a handful of dust

Son of man : The offspring of Adam and Eve. Recall Eliot’s allusion to the Son of man

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Marked by curse
: The curse of god by which the rebellious angels fell and became the permanent denizens of Hell. The weeds , the wild rock and the barren soil are in such contrast to the verdant beauty of the original Garden of Eden which man lost due to his first disobedience. And he inherited the unholy things , marked by curse but all that is designed to make him toil harder and regain the original beauty of the garden.

With these I match my little wit : The poet has to be all the time on his toes because the weeds grow phenomenally faster than the regular plants and it takes quite a bit of struggle to keep the garden free of them. He has to exercise all his puny intellect to ensure they are eliminated.
Metaphorically the son of man has to stay away from the vile things of the universe and the temptations that the devil has to offer all the way.