Elegy for Jane
by Theodore Roethke
Everything Under the Sun: Nature Imagery
We've talked about the birds, but that's just the tip of the nature-berg that Roethke unleashes in this poem. This poem has fish, twigs, leaves, rocks, moss, and even mold. It seems as if Roethke was desperate to squeeze the entire natural world into this elegy. It certainly is a lot of life and nature for a poem about a death. Hmm. That sounds like it could be significant.
When we look closely at Roethke's comparisons of Jane to nature, we get the sense that he was not drawn to her by traditional notions of physical beauty, but rather by her spirit. For Roethke, Jane represented all the surprise and complexity of the natural world. By comparing the dead Jane to all the living, natural things of the world, Roethke attempts to remember and hold onto this spirit that he loved, to give her new life, to "nudge [her]" from death's sleep.
- Line 1: In the very first line, Roethke uses a simile to compare Jane to natural elements. In line 1 her hair is limp and damp as the long stems of a plant. Shampoo adds tell us that limp hair is not what we should want—perhaps they are wrong, it seems to have made an impression on ol' Ted.
- Line 2: This time, Roethke compares Jane's mouth to a fish—we're not talking a cute little tropical fish here. A pickerel is not much of a looker. Not many girls would be thrilled with this comparison. So, what's up Roethke? Shmoop's mom always says, if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all.
- Lines 5-9: Okay, hold onto your hats. In these lines a Roethke connects Jane metaphorically to a wren. So, this bird that represents Jane is singing her song and the song is so compelling that the shade starts to sing along too—then some mold joins in to round out the group. (Singing mold. Weird.) In the context of the metaphor, Jane takes on the characteristics of a bird. The shade and the mold are personification (the leaves too), taking on human abilities. Roethke is erasing the line between humanity and nature. We are nature and nature is us.
- Line 15: This section starts with another simile. This time, Jane is "like a fern, making a spiny shadow." Ferns have intricate, delicate looking leaves. Jane might have liked being compared to a fern. But Roethke doesn't let us enjoy the fern leaf very long. He takes our attention away from the green, living, leaf and focuses on the "spiny shadow" that the leaf casts. This shadow is intricate and interesting in its way, but it lacks the vibrancy of the living leaf. Roethke takes the leaf away from us the way Jane was taken from the speaker—the cast shadow from the living leaf like a memory of Jane.