Elegy for Jane Summary
Roethke's "Elegy for Jane" is, well, an elegy (a poem reflecting on someone's death). In short, the poem's title and subtitle let us know that things ended badly for Jane and that her demise was due, in no small part, to her inability to stay on a horse.
The speaker begins by remembering Jane—connecting her physical characteristics and personality traits to a variety of natural imagery. He goes right on remembering throughout the poem's first three stanzas.
In the poem's fourth and final stanza, the speaker wishes he could bring Jane back, to wake her from the eternal sleep of death. Spoiler Alert: He can't. The poem ends with the speaker's declaration of platonic love for his fallen student and we are left to consider the impact of one human life on another outside the context of romantic or familial love.
Epigraph, Lines 1-4
Elegy for Jane
My Student, Thrown by a Horse
I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
- Okay, here we go. Take a big swig of your caffeinated beverage of choice and let's get to it.
- The title and epigraph let us know that this poem is a remembrance of the speaker's student, Jane, who died after falling from her horse. So, the poem's opening, "I remember," seems fitting enough.
- The speaker begins by recalling physical aspects of his dead student. He recalls her hair and her smile. Pretty standard stuff, right?
- While the act of recalling someone's appearance in this context (in the beginning of an elegy) is hardly unusual, how Roethke describes the dead student is noteworthy.
- Her hair is described as limp, damp tendrils (sounds more plant-like than hair-like). We have a "pickerel" smile. (You know, pickerel, like the fish—they kind of look like they are smiling).
- Basically, we're talking nature here.
- Roethke introduces this nature imagery from the get-go and you should get used to it. He's going to be throwing these nature similes ("damp as tendrils") and metaphors (pickerel smile) at you right through the poem's last stanza.
- In line 3, the speaker recalls some of Jane's mannerisms and how she spoke. She sounds like she may have been a bit shy or skittish, almost like a small animal, easily startled. She is "startled into talk" like a bird might be startled into flight.
- But once she started speaking, her words, "the light syllables," leap. It almost sounds musical, like a bird's song, perhaps.
- And once she began to speak, even if it took some prompting, she enjoyed the language and the song. She "balanced" there, like a bird on a branch, enjoying her thoughts, her song.
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
- These lines compare Jane, happy in her thoughts, to a bird (a wren) with the wind at her back, singing. Yes, it's another nature metaphor. Shmoop wasn't kidding—get used to it.
- The bird's song (and, metaphorically speaking, Jane's thoughts) makes the twigs and branches shake slightly.
- The bird, in the act of singing her song, flapping and hopping as birds do, has an impact on her surroundings (the bird moves the branches and twigs), just as the student, delighting in her thoughts, made an impact on her teacher.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing;
And the mold sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.
- In these lines, Roethke takes the metaphor he established in the previous lines a bit further. This turns out to be one powerful, far-reaching song our little bird-student sung.
- The "shade" decides to join in and sing along. Um, what?
- Remember folks, this is poetry. Anything is possible. Just go with it. You don't have a problem when an entire high school breaks into song in a Glee episode, right? Just embrace it and move along.
- It is kind of surprising to see the word "shade" pop up here. After the little birdie singing on the branches, we expect this stanza to continue with sunshine through the leaves, and maybe a rainbow or two.
- The shade feels a little, well, shady at this point in the poem, a bit too dark perhaps. But even this slightly negative element is overcome and joins in the song.
- You've probably all heard the personification of leaves whispering in the wind. The song turns the sound of the leaves from whispers to the sound of kissing. (No, not that kind of kissing. Think more along the lines of a chaste peck on the cheek kind of kissing sound.)
- Shmoop loves poetry because, just when you think you've seen it all, something unexpected comes along to give you a good literary slap in the face. This time, the slap comes in the form of singing mold. Gross? Yes, but you have to admit, you didn't see it coming.
- What could be more representative a death and decay than mold? Okay, maybe a corpse or a zombie (Yes. we know zombies are technically UN-dead. Shmoop is just trying to make a point here.)
- The mold has grown on the moist ground at the base of the rose bush. The "bleached valley" likely refers to the way the mold has lightened the dark soil in the shallow depressions around the planted rose bush.
- So, even this powerful symbol of death and decay is overcome by our little bird's song. It's just like those dancing zombies in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video (skip ahead to the 8 min 20 sec. mark for the dancing zombies).
- They just couldn't stay hungry for human flesh once they heard that groove. Same thing here, sort of.
- Keep in mind that the speaker is using the bird and the song as a point of comparison for Jane. In life, her happiness seemed capable of cheering just about anything.
- Well, here we are at the end of stanza 1. Roethke has already accomplished quite a bit. In just 9 lines, he has compared aspects of Jane to a plant, a fish, and a bird singing an infectious song that touches and impacts her surroundings and changes perceptions of the natural world—and we still have 13 lines to go.
- Who knows what ol' Theodore is going to get up to next.
Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw;
Stirring the clearest water.
- The second stanza transitions to a different aspect of the speaker's remembrance of Jane: her sadness.
- Starting the stanza with the emphatic, "Oh," helps to signal this transition from remembering Jane happy in her thoughts to remembering her in the depths of sadness.
- By using the phrase, "she cast herself down into such a pure depth," it almost makes it sound as if she took an active role—as if she willing plunged herself into the "pure depth" of her sadness.
- It sounds like she embraced her sadness, accepted it as a part of her life to be considered and explored just as much as the other thoughts she delighted in.
- She lost herself in this sadness. She disappeared into it. No one could reach her.
- Roethke's choice of the word "father" accomplishes a couple significant things.
- It introduces a familial element into the poem. Is this speaker Jane's father? Hmm…
- Also, partly because Roethke chose the article "a" rather than the possessive pronoun her, "a father" also brings to mind fatheras in priest. This gives us the sense that, in sadness, Jane was not only beyond the reach of family and loved ones, but also beyond even the reach of religion, or God.
- We're talking some serious sadness here.
- The next two lines function as an imagistic description of her sadness. You guessed it—more nature imagery.
- The speaker describes her "scraping her cheek against straw." This doesn't strike Shmoop as a typical behavior for a sad, young woman.
- It sounds more like the action of a sick, or sad, animal. Maybe you've seen a dog or cat or even a horse that is having some problem or discomfort in the ears or head, they will rub their head on the ground to deal with it, perhaps as a way to comfort themselves.
- The next description is a little puzzling. The speaker describes her, "stirring the clearest water." Clear water sounds pretty nice, right? But we are talking about sadness here. So, what gives?
- One way to read this line is to consider the action and the consequence in a natural setting.
- Let's imagine a pool of clear water, a pond or a lake. The water is so clear that we can see right to the bottom. Now, what happens if we start stirring that clear water? Yup, it stirs up all that stuff on the bottom and it isn't so nice and clear anymore.
- Her sadness muddies even the purest, most pristine waters of the world. It darkens everything. Like we said, serious sadness.
My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow.
- For the first time in the poem, the speaker addresses Jane directly, but not by name, calling her instead, "My sparrow."
- The third stanza begins with a return to the bird metaphor. This time she is a sparrow, but she is gone and the speaker laments her absence.
- The speaker acknowledges that she (the bird/Jane) is not there, "waiting like a fern."
- Roethke builds on the bird metaphor with the addition of a simile, comparing the bird/Jane to a plant, a fern, casting a spiny shadow.
- Spiny sounds a little prickly, but the delicate, complex pattern of the fern leaf would cast a beautiful shadow. See for yourself.
- This description gives us, perhaps, more insight into Jane's complexity of character: she is, at times, dark and aloof, but she posses a complex beauty in form and personality.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.
- There is nothing that will help ease the speaker's pain over the loss of Jane.
- Roethke uses very descriptive, tactile lines to let us feel and see the depths of the speaker's sadness.
- We can almost feel the smooth, cool, wet stones. We can imagine how, on a hot day, the wet stones would offer welcome relief from the hot sun. But they do nothing to console the speaker.
- The description of the delicate moss, dappled with rays of light from the setting sun, is a moment of true, unusual, natural beauty; but it still cannot distract the speaker from his grief.
If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
- The last stanza begins with the speaker wishing he could bring Jane back, wake her from death's permanent sleep.
- As he does in the beginning of stanza 3, the speaker addresses Jane directly, but this time he refers to her as, "My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon."
- Yes. More birds.
- Keeping in mind the metaphorical connection between Jane and birds, the description of the "skittery pigeon" gives us, perhaps, additional insight into Jane's personality and mannerisms.
- Think about how pigeons move and behave. They are aloof, until you get one step too close and then they get, well, jumpy, twitchy, edgy, you know… skittery.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.
- In the poem's closing lines, we see the speaker at Jane's grave. It seems plausible that everything the speaker has said up to this point, "the words of [his] love," has been spoken here.
- It is a new grave. The recently dug soil is still damp. Perhaps it has been raining.
- The poem seems to take an odd turn in the last two lines. After declaring his love for Jane, the speaker says that, since he is neither Jane's father nor her lover in a romantic sense, he has, "no rights" in the matter of her death. So, the solves… well, pretty much nothing about their relationship. Let's dig deeper.
- The word "rights" stands out in this context. We usually associate this word with laws and legalities, not with feelings and emotions. Rights makes us think about what we are entitled to, what we are allowed, right and wrong, and rules.
- The speaker seems to be saying that, without a familial or romantic connection to Jane, society doesn't really acknowledge his intense feelings of grief. He has no right to be so moved and so touched by her death if she was simply his student and he simply her teacher.
- So, what gives? He loves her, right?
- Well, when we take into consideration all the natural imagery and nature metaphors that Roethke associates with Jane, it seems that this speaker's love for Jane is like the love someone feels for the natural world, for life, or for beauty: the way we love a sunset or the smell of a favorite flower.
- For the speaker, Jane made the world a brighter, more beautiful place. This is what he loves and misses about Jane. She was part of the beauty and complexity of the natural world and, without her, the world itself feels, for the speaker, incomplete.
- Roethke challenges us to consider whether this kind of love is any less significant than any other kind of love.