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.