Commentary on the Bat by Roethke
Fezoua My Expert Commentary ‘The Bat’ – Theodore Roethke: By day the bat is cousin to the mouse. He likes the attic of an aging house. His fingers make a hat about his head. His pulse beat is so slow we think him dead. He loops in crazy figures half the night Among the trees that face the corner light. But when he brushes up against a screen, We are afraid of what our eyes have seen: For something is amiss or out of place When mice with wings can wear a human face.
Theodore Roethke’s poem ‘The Bat’ clearly focuses on the animal the bat and effectively conveys through the latter an important message to the reader. One could interpret this poem in various ways; however a prominent theme would be that every being on earth has a ‘dark side’ which is often overlooked. The speaker’s tone in the poem varies and seems to have two very distinct sections; at the beginning it is light, playful and appreciative of the animal, however as the poem progresses one can sense the tone becoming mysterious, calm and increasingly alerting.
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This shift in tone has an impact on the reader and emphasizes the importance of the message conveyed. As previously mentioned, there could be various themes for the poem, however if taken literally the subject is of a bat’s life and its morbid depiction. Another way of analyzing the poem could be by imagining the bat as a shy person who does not like to be seen and only goes out at night, “his fingers make a hat about his head” (Roethke, 3), “by day…He likes the attic of an aging house” (Roethke, 1-2).
Theodore Roethke may also be trying to portray the bat as what it really is. He includes both day and night in his poem; during the day the bat is a mundane animal resembling a mouse. However, at night, “when he brushes up against a screen, we are afraid of what our eyes have seen” (Roethke, 1). Of course, the word “screen” could be interpreted differently; one could picture it as an insect screen found in houses and another could think of a cinema screen.
If the latter interpretation is taken into account, the bat could be considered as a favored subject matter of Hollywood; where (in movies) the animal is usually portrayed as a vile blood-sucking creature. By comparing the bat’s depiction during both day and night, Roethke may be trying to convey that the bat is actually no more than a simple and peaceful being, which has been wrongly portrayed for years. From another point of view, the author could be wanting to convey, through the image of a bat, that everyone has a ‘dark side’.
Roethke ingeniously does so in the final line of the poem with the latter’s twist metaphorical ending; “when mice with wings can wear a human face” (Roethke, 10). As previously discussed, bats are usually associated with slyness and darkness, by making the bat “wear a human face”, Roethke is trying to express that bats can sometimes resemble humans and vice versa. Ultimately, humans can also sometimes ‘wear a bat face’ and have a darker side. The author also gives the poem a very descriptive tone through a significant amount of imagery.
For example, the metaphor; “his fingers make a hat about his head” (Roethke, 3), provides a detailed description of the bat’s upper body in such a way that the reader is able to picture the bat as what Roethke wants him/her to picture it as. One could also infer that the author may again be trying to make the connection between bat and man; since men wear hats and not bats. Another metaphor would be; “by day the bat is cousin to the mouse” (Roethke, 1).
Of course, mouse and bat cannot be cousin, however Roethke uses this metaphor to, again, connect with his audience and ensure that they are seeing the bat through his eyes; which in this case alludes to the mouse. The rhyming scheme and meter also play a major role in this poem. The poem clearly rhymes at every stanza, thus has five rhyming couplets, and follows a pattern of AABBCCDDEE. This rhyming scheme resembles that of a nursery rhyme which gives an eerie feeling to the poem itself; since the latter therefore seems to be disguised as a joyful and merry text but only towards the end starts to shed its mask and reveal its true ‘face’.
The meter, which follows the iambic pentameter, also gives life to the poem, and if read aloud has an even bigger impact on the reader. Roethke ingeniously not only appeals to the reader’s sense of sight but also to his sense of hearing. In essence, Theodore Roethke effectively conveys the thematic message of everyone’s darker side through the seemingly simple yet truly complex representation of a bat and its common associations.