Roethke is a real rhythm master and he wrote many poems following strict forms. Despite the fact that "Elegy for Jane" is written in free verse, his ability to subtly manipulate sound and tempo is part of what gives this poem the hypnotic feeling it has when you hear it read aloud.
Roethke employed repetition to get the sound he was after. Check out the first word in lines 2-4: "And," "And," "And." This repetition gives the first stanza a kind of incantatory feel—almost like someone saying a prayer. It also mirrors how we remember things: that kind of and then, and then, and then structure of how one memory leads to the next. This section of the poem sounds like the way memories materialize.
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing
You can really hear how those repeated sounds tie everything together in a subtle, musical way (musical as in awareness of sound, not Broadway). This mirrors how everything in nature is connected. All those different natural elements out there are all part of one big interconnected system that all works together. It's a bit like the way that the speaker's love of Jane seems to connect him to his love of nature. Having all those similar sounds ties the poem's words together in much the same way.
The title of this one seems pretty straightforward, initially. The word "elegy" is right in the title and it lets the reader know that the poem is going to be a remembrance of someone or something lost. In this case, we even have the name of the person the elegy is written for: Jane.
In the case of "Elegy for Jane," there is also an epigraph that lets us know just how Jane died and her connection to the speaker. We know Jane was a student and we know the speaker was her teacher.
At a basic level, this title functions as a heads up, letting the reader know the poem's type, whom the poem is about, and what their connection is to the speaker. By the time we get to the poem's first line, we feel like we have a pretty good sense of what kind of poem we are in for. But do we really get what we are expecting?
When we read "Elegy" in the title, we figure Jane is the speaker's wife, or lover, or, perhaps, daughter (more traditional elegy subjects). Then, the epigraph tells us Jane is the speaker's student. "Okay," we think, "maybe these two had an unusually close, personal teacher/student relationship." But there isn't any clear evidence of a close personal relationship in the poem. It seems more like the speaker has just observed Jane from a distance (like part of the landscape, really).
So, the title works on a couple of levels. First, it gives us some important information about the poem's situation, subject, and speaker. But then, the poem itself presents us with a relationship that is unexpected in the context of an elegy. So, Roethke was setting us up to question our expectations regarding the nature of love right from the start. Pretty smooth, huh?
We don't really get a clear sense of where the speaker is until the poem's final stanza, so it's pretty easy to overlook setting in this one. That said, don't overlook the setting in this one. Knowing where the speaker is when he declares his love for Jane makes this a far more meaningful and poignant poem.
In line 20 the speaker says, "Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love." It's in this line that the poem's setting becomes clear: the speaker is outside, at Jane's grave. We are also told the grave is "damp." This gives us the sense that it is, or has been, raining. Even though the setting only gets one line, it creates a chilly atmosphere that seems fitting for an elegy. We can almost see the speaker, collar turned up against the damp cold, standing at the gravesite remembering Jane.
It's usually a good idea to consider a poem's speaker separately from the poet. However, in this case, there is no reason to believe the speaker is anyone other than the Roethke himself. Roethke was a teacher and one of his students, Jane Bannick, died in an equestrian accident.
It is clear that this poem's speaker has strong feelings about Jane's death. After all, he wrote an elegy for her. The speaker "speak[s] the words of [his] love" at Jane's graveside, but the nature similes and metaphors don't praise or idealize Jane's grace or beauty as we would expect, and he tells us that his relationship with Jane is "neither father nor lover." We are left to consider the nature of the speaker's love for Jane, why he feels it, and how we feel about such a strong emotion attached a platonic, teacher/student relationship, a relationship we usually perceive as relatively casual.
A good place to start looking for the answers to these questions is in the speaker's gaze. We know that the elegy is for Jane. Roethke tells us it is right there in the title. He also tells us that he loves Jane. But paying attention to what the speaker notices, what he sees and how he describes it, can give us some real insight into what his love for Jane is all about.
Every description of Jane becomes a description of nature. Jane is never just Jane. She's a bird or a fish or a plant. When the speaker declares his love for Jane, he's really declaring his love for the natural world. His love seems to be less for Jane the girl and more for what Jane represents to him: the embodiment of youthful vigor, curiosity, and vulnerability—many of the things Roethke himself seems drawn to in nature. Sorry Jane.
This is a pretty straightforward climb, but beware—even though the altitude probably won't be a problem, it's easy to get lost in the forest of figurative language and veer off the trail.
Roethke was a nature lover and his poems are filled with the stuff. There are the things you'd expect: birds, trees, flowers and the like. But his poems also employ the less poeticized, less sentimental aspects of nature like mold, mildew, and weeds. For Roethke, looking at nature was a way to understand and explain life—from our physical existence to deeper, more psychological aspects.
Heads up Shmoopers—it's about to get technical up in here. But never fear, Shmoop has a wicked good decoder ring.
A traditional elegy is written in elegiac stanzas, often in lines of iambic pentameter that have a rhyme scheme of ABAB. (Each letter represents the end sound of the line, so line 1 would rhyme with line 3, line 2 with line 4.) Not this one. And elegies typically end with a feeling of consolation; but we don't get that feeling from the end of "Elegy for Jane." Roethke doesn't follow these traditional elements, but that doesn't make "Elegy for Jane" any less an elegy.
There are still things about this poem that make it an elegy (besides the fact that Roethke called it one in the title). An elegy should lament the loss of someone or something: "My sparrow, you are not here." Check. Elegies often idealize the deceased: "I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils." Okay, most girls probably aren't dying to have their hair compared to a wet plant, but Roethke's nature comparisons throughout the poem do count as idealizing the deceased—so, check.
So, why did our pal Ted follow some of the elegy-rules and not others? Was he just a slacker? Perhaps it was his rebellious nature? Maybe it was just an oversight? As you probably have already guessed, it was none of these things. Roethke's chooses to deviate from some of the more traditional elegiac conventions to mirror the poem's content.
For instance, the teacher/student relationship between the speaker the deceased is not the traditional bond explored in elegy. His choice to use free verse lines rather than a regular meter reflects this. He is exploring a broader interpretation of love in the poem—one less rigid, not confined by societal expectations or norms: more Twin Peaks than Love Boat. The speaker feels society does not understand the kind of love he felt for his student, and this makes finding consolation more difficult. He is an outsider whose intense grief seems strange or inappropriate, as he is "neither father nor lover."
One of Ted's favorite tricks is mirroring content in sound. He does this in "Elegy for Jane" by being very aware of how stressed and unstressed syllables interact in the poem.
Take a look at line 3:
And how, once start-led in-to talk, the light syll-a-bles leaped for her
The line refers to the sound of Jane's voice. The sound of the line mirrors the light leaping syllables that are described. If you are wondering to yourself, "Hey, how'd he do that?" Shmoop is impressed: you're still awake. Talk of stressed and unstressed syllables has, for most people, the sleep inducing power of warm milk. Anyway, here's what Roethke did. He begins the line iambically (an iamb is a two-sylalble pair that stars with an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable and making this sound: daDUM), but at the end, with the words "syllables leaped for her," he changes the line metrically with two dactylic (three syllables together, with the first stressed and the others unstressed: DUMdada) feet. It wasn't enough to tell us that her voice was musical. Roethke wanted us to hear the music, to hear the light syllables leaping.
We know all this talk of dactyls has energized you to press on and dig deeper into form and meter. Well you're in luck. There's plenty more to discuss.
Another trick Roethke keeps up his big puffy poetry sleeves is using back to back, single syllable stressed words to slow us down and get our attention. Check out these examples:
Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth
The two, stressed, single syllable words at the end of the line get a lot of attention. The way we form the P and D sounds with our mouths forces us to slow down a bit and give the words emphasis. Say the line aloud and you will see what Shmoop is talking about. Really. No one is listening. If they are, just give them an icy Shmoop stare and tell them to keep their nose out of your dactyls.
Here are a couple more examples:
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.
Same trick, different line, same effect.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love
"Damp grave" is yet another example of back-to-back single syllable, stressed words. In the context of this line the stress helps make "damp grave" stand out and adds some weight to this important setting description. In both cases, and throughout the poem, Roethke's using the meter here to highlight key elements that he wants us to focus on as readers.
Got it? Then, congratulations. You made it through "Form and Meter." Now you can reward yourself with the "Speaker" section. Who says Shmoop doesn't know how to have a good time?
Even if you're an avian enthusiast, 3 birds in 22 lines is a lot of feathers for a relatively short poem. Roethke was certainly a nature lover, but this seems a little over the top. It's also worth noting that Roethke doesn't just give us generic birds; he gets specific (wren, sparrow, pigeon, Big Bird—just checking to see if you're still awake). He chose specific birds to use metaphorically to help us understand Jane and his relationship to her. Let's take a closer look and see what all the flapping is about:
"Father" is the only reference to another person in the poem, so it is worthy of some discussion. It really stands out surrounded by so much non-human life—birds, fish, plants, mold. It would appear that Roethke wanted "father" to get our attention. Now that he's got it, let's dig a little deeper into this daddy stuff.
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.
Roethke is capable of some steaminess, but this one isn't going to fog any windows.