Laden with Cares

The house cemented their friendship. Or perhaps it was the mouse.

In 1954, the Pulitzer prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke, recently married, rented the house of Morris Graves. Roethke had just accepted a teaching position at the University of Washington, and through various social gatherings and a number of mutual acquaintances, he and his wife Beatrice were introduced to the region’s most famous ‘mystic’ painter.

Graves had called his house, north of Seattle, Careläden; the umlaut was his—the artist anointed the name with the same ‘dramatic’ flair with which he embraced life. Situated on dozens of acres, forested with old growth cedars and maples, Careläden—the diacritical mark regardless—had for Graves been a load of cares. Reportedly the costs, the time, and the labor it took to erect the place had weighed down the painter; Graves himself had leveled the land and pitched in to help with the construction. The house was one of the first to have been built straight out of cinder blocks; the inside, ‘graciously proportioned,’ was completely of wood that Graves and his companion, Richard Svare, ‘rubbed with lye and waxed by hand.’ W.H. Auden, Roethke’s close friend, said it was the ‘most beautiful’ house built in America.

Roethke and Beatrice were thrilled to lease Careläden when, in an angry response to the chainsaws and bulldozers ripping up the earth nearby, suburbia creeping, Graves took off to Ireland. The time seemed to have been idyllic for the poet who suffered from occasional bouts of depression. People would remember Roethke sitting out on the lawn, with a clipboard on his lap, drinking tea. The couple kept a goose and named her Marianne, after the poet Marianne Moore. In the fall the mice moved in. One evening Roethke was writing at his desk when a mouse ran across his foot. In a knee jerk reaction, he clobbered the mouse, clobbered the mouse again, killing him. According to the biographer Allan Seager, Roethke ran to his wife to be comforted, “tears streaming down his face.” As if in reparation, when he later found a baby mouse—His absurd whiskers sticking out like a cartoon-mouse/His feet like small leaves—in the grass, he picked him up and put him in a box; he fed him cheese and gave him water. And he penned “The Meadow Mouse.”

But this morning the shoe-box house on the back porch is empty.
Where has he gone, my meadow mouse,
My thumb of a child that nuzzled in my palm?—
To run under the hawk’s wing,

Under the eye of the great owl watching from the elm-tree,
To live by courtesy of the shrike, the snake, the tom-cat.

All things innocent, hapless, forsaken.[1]

I can’t help thinking Roethke must have written Graves in Ireland about the mouse in their house; Graves drew a small rodent in crayon on brown paper; it’s dated 1954.


[1] Theodore Roethke, “The Meadow Mouse,” second verse, The Far Field, 1965, winner of the National Book Award, published posthumously.

Sources: Allan Seager, The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke, 1991; Linda Robinson Walker, “Theodore Roethke, Michigan’s Poet,” Michigan Today, Summer 2001; Sheila Farr, “The House that Morris Graves Built,” Seattle Times Magazine, 2001; Deloris Tarzan Ament, Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art, 2002; Deloris Tarzan Ament, “Morris Graves (1910-2001),” February 15, 2003.

(Image Mouse by Morris Graves, Crayon on brown paper, 3 x 4 inches, 1954, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)

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