The Professor and the Profession

By Robert Bechtold Heilman | Go to book overview

7
Theodore Roethke

Anyone who has listened to or read descriptions of Theodore Roethke cannot have failed to notice that one image is used repeatedly to portray the physical being: “great bear of a man.” It is good enough down to a certain point, but not below it. Around the middle he was expansive, even fat if he let his stomach get away from him. He had a barrel-like upper trunk, widening out still further into great shoulders that made a vast prominent mound because the head, large and striking as it was, was forward and slightly low, as if fixed there like that of a very tall woman always trying to seem, even on a grand scale, petite. A man over six feet in height, he seemed to be slightly hunching; and he could easily and quickly squeeze into a crouch in those moods when, with self-critical humor or a challenging earnestness, he liked to fancy himself the prize-fighter. His walk was rather ungainly; it had an uneasy swaying effect, as if the feet were heavy. If he wanted to hurry, his motions reminded one of a person in a dream, making great efforts but held back by some intangible weight or marshy ooze.

So much for the bear. What that image, useful as it is, does not reveal is that, for all of a kind of sad laboriousness in the walk, the legs were long and relatively slender. They were far apart, and his feet toed in a little. This, together with the characteristic loose and baggy clothes that had the effect of extending his general paunchiness downward, helped disguise the fact that in his physique there was as much of the ostrich as of the bear. He had to be in shorts for this to be seen. One might have guessed it, though, even without seeing him specifically at tennis or badminton (in which he was an intense competitor without mercy for others or, more significantly, for himself). For along with his heaviness, sometimes that of the sack of vegetables, sometimes that of the monument, was a remarkable latent agility, a capacity for high-speed controlled movement, an instantaneous motor response to stimuli. Once, when Roethke was in

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