Life as a Mouse
A Read of “The Meadow Mouse,” by Theodore Roethke
The world can be harsh, and the narrator of The Meadow Mouse knows this. He finds a mouse hiding under a stick in a meadow, and believes he will help it by taking it home. He keeps the mouse in a “shoe box stuffed in an old nylon stocking,” and feeds it various kinds of cheeses, and milk from a bottle cap. He believes that he is making life better for the mouse, but his actions prove his naivety. He takes the mouse against its will, “trembling.” He sees the mouse as a pet, almost as a joke.
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 miniscule puppy.
The words absurd and cartoon-mouse seem to show a childish view of animals as toys for humans. His comparison of the mouse to a puppy is more proof of his naivety, because a mouse is a wild creature, while a puppy is an animal domesticated at birth. His care of the mouse may actually prove to have negative effects because the mouse has to learn survival methods, and being spoiled by human hands may turn out to be fatal. The narrator wants to believe that the mouse has actually become his pet, and wants to imagine that it no longer fears him. This says more about the narrator than the mouse. He wants the mouse to trust him, and to feel like he is a care-taking figure to it, when perhaps he realizes that it can not perceive him as such.
When the mouse disappears, the narrator is upset. He feels protective of the mouse, fears for its safety from hawks, owls, snakes, and cats. He sees these as threats and negative influences, but they are also good influences in the mouse’s life, for the fear of them teaches the mouse how to survive. The “hawks” are an essential part of life; even humans can not live without the existence of threats. The bad in life is what makes the good parts so sweet, and makes life worth living.
There is a darker tone to the last stanza, however. This last line is, at first, a shock, but after closer reading, its message becomes clear.
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.
The point made here is that all of these are innocents, left to die by the society humans have created. At first the narrator speaks of animals crippled at the hands of humans, but then he mentions a paralyzed human left alone in a bathtub with the water rising, which seems to say that not even humans are safe from the dangers they have created. All of us are hapless and innocent, forsaken by the world around use, left to our own devices which can not always save us. This is a common theme in Roethke’s work.
In several other poems, such as Moss Gathering, the poem begins with a single event and turns to a more universal statement at the last line. While seeing the beauty in one event or being, Roethke can also see its relationship to himself and the world.