For me, this tender poem by the American poet Theodore Roethke captures the fragility of life. It moves from the rescue of a tiny creature to the escape of that creature into its natural habitat, where it is fatally vulnerable. The protective instincts of the “I” in the poem, so anxious for the mouse and so eager to believe that it feels calm and safe in its captivity, are foiled by the mouse’s instinct for freedom. As the authorial “I” accepts the fact that the mouse has gone, the poem turns into a meditation on the ruthlessness of circumstance. It invites profound empathy. I cannot read it without my eyes filling with tears.
“The Meadow Mouse” by Theodore Roethke (1908–1963)
In a shoe box stuffed in an old nylon stocking
Sleeps the baby mouse I found in the meadow,
Where he trembled and shook beneath a stick
Till I caught him up by the tail and brought him in,
Cradled in my hand,
A little quaker, the whole body of him trembling,
His absurd whiskers sticking out like a cartoon-mouse,
His feet like small leaves,
Whitish and spread wide when he tried to struggle away,
Wriggling like a minuscule puppy.
Now he’s eaten his three kinds of cheese and drunk from his
So much he just lies in one corner,
His tail curled under him, his belly big
As his head; his bat-like ears
Twitching, tilting toward the least sound.
Do I imagine he no longer trembles
When I come close to him?
He seems no longer to tremble.
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.
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.