Root Cellar Poem by Theodore Roethke Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


The poem “Root Cellar” was written by Theodore Roethke. The poem was first written in 1943. The poem was first published as “Florist’s Root Cellar” in November 1943 of Poetry magazine. Later, in 1948, it was included in Roethke’s second collection of poetry, The Lost Son and Other Poems. The poem describes the life of plants in a cellar. 

About the Poet:

Theodore Roethke was a great American poet. His collections of poetry are critically admired. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1954 for his collection named The Waking (1953). He also won the National Book Award twice for his works Words for the Wind (1958) and The Far Field (1964). Roethke is one of the highly influential American poets of the 20th-century. His work has been praised by many poets worldwide.

Historical Background:

Roethke was raised in his birthplace Michigan. Here, towns and cities are woven into rivers, streams, and lakes. The idea behind the poem “Root Cellar” is from his own birthplace, Michigan.Roethke lived in a 25-acre greenhouse jointly owned by his father Otto Roethke and his uncle. He spent most of his time around the greenhouse.


The poem “Root Cellar” is a free verse poem that does not contain a regular rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. However, there are a few slant rhymes in the poem. It is a short eleven line poem.

Poem Analysis:

Lines 1-5:

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.

The speaker of the poem starts the stanza with a description of a cellar. The poem is set in an old dank cellar or greenhouse that belonged to the speaker’s father. He refers to the cellar as “dark as a ditch”. The speaker says no one would choose such a place even for one night. The term “bulbs’ ‘ refers to plants that come out in search of light from the narrow gaps of the boxes.The next two lines talk about how the plants are struggling in the suffocated place. The speaker is trying to describe the dark atmosphere in the cellar. In the next lines, he says that the long shoots of the plant and the dark atmosphere look like a tropical snake. Here, the speaker compares the green stem of the plant to the snakes which hang their evil neck for a hunt. 

Lines 6-11:

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.

The speaker continues the description of the cellar. He evokes the olfactory imagery when he talks about the different kinds of odours out of the cellar. The speaker compares the roots to the old baits. Here  the roots condition is so worse as it has ripened. The stems also ripened. The phrase “silo rich” indicates the storage where the grains are kept. Now, it is infected with pests. All the organic substances began to rote and it turned into a manure. The speaker says that the cellar is filled with leaf-mould, manure, and lime. All these substances made the cellar slippery planks. Not even a single plant is ready to quit in the cellar. They are passing their days with hope and determination. The speaker says even the small dirt is breathing with a hope. So, the speaker wants the readers to live their life with hope a d determination.