Study Guide

Elegy for Jane Quotes

  • Love

    And the mold sang in the bleached valleys under the rose. (9)

    The rose is a common symbol of love (if you don't believe us, take a good look around next February 14th). But here, our attention is drawn not to the beautiful rose, but rather to the "mold" singing underneath the rose. Roethke doesn't focus on the socially accepted, stereotypical symbol of love. He wants us to look elsewhere at something not usually associated with love or beauty at all.

    Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love: (20)

    There's an element of conflict in this line. The setting seems to be fighting with the content. Can't we all just get along? When we think about someone speaking words of love, we usually don't picture them next to a grave. A nice restaurant, the deck of a cruise ship— these are the kinds of places for declarations of love.

    I, with no rights in this matter,
    Neither father nor lover. (21-22)

    The sense of conflicting ideas and emotions continues in these lines. The speaker declares his love in one line, and then says he has no right to this love in the next. Do you think the speaker really believes that he has "no rights" in the matter or is he just caving in to societal expectations?

  • Happiness

    And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
    A wren, happy, tail into the wind, (4-5)

    With words like "delight" and "happy," and with the image of the wren, these lines certainly have a positive, cheerful vibe. The word "balanced" also stands out. When we think of balancing, it usually brings to mind things that are a little difficult: a balance beam, balancing many responsibilities, balancing your finances. Perhaps it is a little tricky for Jane to maintain the sense of delight and happiness that these lines discuss.

    Her song trembling the twigs and small branches. (6)

    The wrens song causes some "trembling." Remembering that the wren is the metaphorical equivalent of happy-Jane, it is Jane's happiness that is causing this trembling. Trembling is a very delicate, fragile kind of movement. It is certainly possible to tremble with happiness (think back to Christmas morning when you were 5 or 6), but it is an action more associated with fear or sadness (piano recital, scary moving, sad movie, take your pick).

    The shade sang with her; […]
    And the mold sang in the bleached valleys under the rose. (7-9)

    Here's where we can see that contagious nature of happiness at work. Shade is nice in the summer time. A nice shady spot is a great place for a nap (as opposed to napping with your head on the keyboard when you should be trying to finish your paper on "Elegy for Jane." Plus, drooling on your keyboard can wreck your laptop. Believe us. We found out the hard way). While shade is great in the summertime, this poem doesn't have a very summer-y vibe. That "damp grave" setting feels a little more winter-y. Shade is often associated with darkness or the cold—the opposite of warm sunlight. So, we have shade and we have mold (representing decay and, perhaps, even death) and yet both of these negatives are moved to join in when they hear the wren's happy song. Happiness might be fleeting, but it's some pretty powerful stuff.

  • Sadness

    Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth, (10)

    Jane's sadness is no joke. The description of Jane, "cast[ing] herself down" echoes the action of someone throwing themselves off a cliff into the "pure depth" of an abyss. Bummer. It is as if Jane participates in the sadness—she goes into it. She isn't just sitting there being sad, she throws herself into it.

    Even a father could not find her; (11)

    Jane's sadness is so profound, she's beyond anyone's help. No one has the power to cheer her up. By using the phrase, "could not find her," Roethke makes being desperately sad kind of like being lost. Why do you think Roethke chose "a father" to describe just how unsavable Jane was? Would it have been different if it had been a mother, or sister, or brother who was unable to find Jane?

    Scraping her cheek against the straw;
    Stirring the clearest water. (12-13)

    Ever had straw in your shirt (or, worse yet, your pants)? Pretty uncomfortable. It's scratchy, irritating stuff. Rubbing your cheek against it isn't going to feel very good at all. This line gives us a physical sense of Jane's painful psychological state. Why would someone stir up nice clear water? Well, maybe they don't want to see themselves reflected in that crystal clear water—kind of like when someone can't look at themselves in the mirror. Stir up the water in a pond or lake, and all the mucky stuff that has settled down to the bottom comes up to the top and makes the water murky, the way sadness can cloud the way we see things.

    The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
    Nor the moss, wound with the last light. (16-17)

    Our speaker's sadness seems to be as stubborn as Jane's was. We have a couple beautiful (albeit unusual) natural images, but even the cool, smooth, shiny wet stones and the delicate moss, caught in the light of the setting Sun, can't lift the spirits of our grieving speaker. Bummer.

  • Man and the Natural World

    I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils; (1)

    From the very first line, Roethke draws a direct connection between Jane and the natural world. We can really see him blending her characteristics with natural imagery. The line starts off with "neckcurls," an immediately recognizable physical description of Jane's hair. By the end of the line, Roethke transforms her hair, through the magic of figurative language (a simile simile), into the "limp and damp" tendrils of a plant. Neat trick, Ted.

    The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing; (8)

    Leave it to Roethke to take a fairly common personification of leaves (that they whisper in the wind) and turn it up a notch. Our perception of leaves in the wind, how we experience them, is changed by Roethke's unexpected personification. He is able to marry his perception of the natural world to his internal, psychological world. For the speaker, remembering Jane's happiness changes how he experiences the sound of the leaves.

    Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow. (15)

    Roethke doesn't just compare Jane to any old plant or bush. He's specific. Roethke knows his foliage and he picks a fern because he knows that connecting Jane to this plant will help us connect with her. Fern's have long, lush, complex leaves. They cast intricate shadows. But their beauty and complexity are easy to miss. They're kind of like the wall-flower of the plant-world. They blend in. They don't have bright, colorful flowers or a sweet scent. With his extensive knowledge of flora and fauna, Roethke is able to find a plant that gives us a sense of Jane physically and emotionally. If he had decided to compare Jane to an apple blossom we would have gotten a very different sense of her. Connecting Jane to the natural world makes her easier for us to understand and see.

  • Death

    Elegy for Jane: My Student, Thrown by a Horse (title)

    We know right away, just from reading the title, that this poem is going to deal with death. We also know that the person who has died is fairly young and a student of the speaker. The fact that Roethke gets pretty specific about Jane in the title (he doesn't just give us her name, he lets us know she was young and that he was her teacher) tells us that he wants us to keep these facts (her age and their relationship) in mind as we read the poem and consider death and mortality.

    My sparrow, you are not here, (14)

    This line does more than meets the eye. At first glance, it is just a simple statement recognizing the absence of the deceased. But wait, there's more. Remember, metaphorically speaking, that sparrow is Jane. So, the speaker is talking to Jane when he says, "you are not here." With this in mind, the statement actually gives us some more information about our speaker. He must believe (or at least he wants to believe) in some kind of afterlife where Jane still exists and can hear his words.

    If only I could nudge you from this sleep, (18)

    The speaker is wishing he could wake Jane from death's eternal "sleep." What word jumps out in this line? If you said "sleep," go get some coffee. "Nudge" seems a bit unusual in this context. It brings to mind the image of, perhaps, a mare nudging her newborn foal to stand with her nose just after birth. It's another example of Roethke mingling human and natural realms.

    Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love: (20)

    Being an elegy, it seems reasonable that we would end up at a grave. But Roethke gets a little more specific: it's a damp grave. Including the word damp gives us a better sense of the setting—perhaps the ground is wet because it is, or has been, raining. The word "damp" also furthers the mingling of the human and natural realms that has been going on throughout the poem. The soil above at the gravesite has been dug up to bury the coffin. Imagine the dark, damp, freshly dug soil contrasting with the green grass of the cemetery plots surrounding it. What else comes to mind when you think about damp, freshly dug soil? Buried treasure? Okay, maybe if you're in the fifth grade. How about a garden?