Roethke was born in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan. His father, Otto Roethke was an immigrant from Germany who owned a local greenhouse. Much of Theodore's child was spent in this greenhouse, which resulted in his use of natural imagery in his poetry. He attended the University of Michigan and Harvard University and became a professor of English. He taught at several universities, among them Lafayette College, Pennsylvania State University, and Bennington College. He taught last at the University of Washington, leading to an association with the poets of the American Northwest. In 1935, while teaching at Michigan State College in Lansing, he began to suffer from depression, which he used as a creative impetus for his poetry.
In 1953 Roethke married Beatice O'Connell. He had not told her of his mental illness, but after the marriage she remained dedicated to Roethke and his work, ensuring after his death that his final volume of poetry, The Far Field, would be published.
Theodore Roethke suffered a fatal heart attack and died in 1963.