Elegy in Free Verse
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?