A college student falls from her horse and is killed. Soon after her funeral, her former professor stands at her graveside and declares his love for her. Sounds kind of scandalous, right? It could be the preview for a new Lifetime television movie. Well, sorry to disappoint. It's actually the narrative of Theodore Roethke's poem, "Elegy for Jane," and it turns out not to be as scandalous as it sounds (well, at least not as scandalous as Lifetime would make it).
The professor's love for his student isn't romantic. In fact, he doesn't really know the student, Jane, all that well. But her untimely death forces the professor to consider mortality and the fleeting nature of life. He loves what Jane represents. He loves her youthful vigor and curiosity, her vulnerability, qualities that he sees and loves in the natural world around him. Jane's death makes him acutely aware of the fact that, like Jane, like life, everything will come to an end.
"Elegy for Jane" was published as part of Roethke's book The Waking in 1953. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and help cement Roethke's place in the twentieth-century poetry canon (probably the reason you're reading him now). "Elegy for Jane" is one of his most anthologized poems and is a great example of the natural imagery that Roethke is famous for. He used nature to explore everything from relationships to the subconscious. The fact that his father owned elaborate greenhouses obviously had a huge impact on Roethke during his formative years. He even went so far as to call the greenhouse, "my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth." Yeah, he liked greenhouses a bunch.
As you might have guessed, Roethke was a pretty complex guy. He was prone to emotional breakdowns and was hospitalized more than once. He spent his professional life teaching at various universities, becoming a well-liked and highly influential teacher. His former students include poets who are well-known in their own right: David Wagoner, Richard Hugo, and James Wright.
Our feelings, our emotions, even our personalities don't always fit nicely and neatly into the boxes that society prescribes. On paper, things like happiness, sadness, and love all seem pretty straightforward. But in the real world, out there in the halls and classrooms of life, things get messier, edges start to get blurred, and suddenly things aren't so black and white anymore.
Theodore Roethke's "Elegy for Jane" deals with the complexity of love and all the personal and societal baggage that goes along with it. Society teaches us to compartmentalize love—to understand this extremely complex emotion in just a few, fairly narrow contexts. In "Elegy for Jane," Roethke presents us with a love that doesn't fit into the typical contexts. The speaker and Jane aren't related (they aren't, for example, father and daughter). They aren't lovers either. In fact, Roethke makes a point of telling us that the speaker is "neither father nor lover" to Jane.
In addition, pretty much the entire poem takes the form of outside observation. There really isn't any specific, personal information about Jane or details about the speaker and Jane together—the kind of stuff a very close friend would know or miss about Jane. So, it doesn't seem like they were BFFs, either. But the speaker clearly states his love for Jane. So what's the deal, Ted?
In "Elegy for Jane," Roethke challenges us to consider whether love outside the box is any less valid than the typical kinds of love society teaches us to value and pursue. If you've ever puzzled over the L-O-V-E—the who, what, when, where, and why of it—then this is the poem for you.