Study Guide

Elegy for Jane Themes

  • Love

    "Elegy for Jane" certainly addresses Love, but it isn't quite what we might expect. We tend to put this big, complex emotion into three main categories: familial (the love felt between family members), romantic (often including a physical component—yes, we mean sex), and friendship (the love you might feel for a very close friend). So, which category does our speaker's love for Jane belong? Seems kind of tough to squeeze it into any these neat little boxes, which is precisely the problem Roethke wants us to consider.

    Questions About Love

    1. In the poem's last three lines, the speaker declares his love for Jane and then says that he has "no right" to love her. What was your initial reaction to this ending?
    2. How did this ending make you feel? What, if anything, do you feel for the speaker at the end of this poem?
    3. When the speaker says he has no right to feel love for Jane is he responding to societal rules governing love? If so, what are they and why do they exist?
    4. How would this poem be different if Jane was the speaker's mother or sister or daughter or lover? Do you think Roethke would have chosen different similes and metaphors if the relationship between the speaker and Jane had been different? In what way would the figurative language have changed?

    Chew on This

    The speaker doesn't love Jane, he's just a tree-hugger, hung up on nature.

    It is impossible to categorize, govern, or explain an emotion as powerful as love. As Emily Dickinson said, "The heart wants what it wants-or else it does not care."

  • Happiness

    In "Elegy for Jane," happiness is a delicate, but highly contagious state—kind of like mono. It is something that, once achieved, can disappear suddenly and completely. Roethke's memories of Jane happy are juxtaposed with his memory of her in sadness. It is almost as if the knowledge of that fleeting, delicate happiness is partly responsible for the "pure depth" of her sadness.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. To describe Jane in her happiness, Roethke compares her metaphorically to a wren. Does this comparison help the reader to understand or to "see" Jane's happiness, or does it just make her seem, well, flighty.
    2. When the wren is happy, she sings. When the wren sings, her song makes the twigs tremble and the shade and the mold join her in song. Considering the metaphorical connection between Jane and the bird, what is Roethke getting at here? 
    3. Roethke tells us about happy-Jane before he tells is about sad-Jane. How would the poem change if he told us about sad-Jane first? Does it matter which description comes first? Why or why not?
    4. What aspects of Jane's personality can you relate to? Is it easier for you to imagine happy-Jane or sad-Jane? Why? Would you want to hang out with Jane?
    5. Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Jane's happiness is fleeting because Roethke wants her to represent the natural world and suffering is our natural state. Good times.

    Sadness is no match for happiness. In "Elegy for Jane," even shade and mold (not happy guys) started singing a happy tune when they encountered the happy wren. In the presence of true happiness, sadness disappears.

  • Sadness

    We hate to be a Debbie Downer, but unfortunately sadness seems to be a much more persistent emotion than happiness. In "Elegy for Jane," once sadness shows up it seems to be just about unshakable. We expect an elegy to be sad, but traditionally they end with the speaker finding some kind of consolation. No such luck in "Elegy or Jane." In fact, by remembering Jane being happy in the first stanza, the gloom of sadness that shows up in the second stanza seems even darker.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. Roethke describes Jane "cast[ing] herself down" into the "pure depth" of her sadness. How does the description of sad-Jane compare to the description of the wren (happy-Jane)? For example, what kind of movement or direction comes to mind when you think of a bird? How does that compare to the movement or direction in the description of sad-Jane? 
    2. When Jane was sad, she seemed beyond the reach of anyone. No one could pull her up from the depths of her sadness: "even a father could not find her." Who or what helps pull you up when you're down? If you were Jane's best friend, what would you have done to cheer her up? 
    3. How many idiomatic expressions for sadness can you think of that involve the notion of down or falling?

    Chew on This

    Jane should stop waiting around for her daddy to save her and cheer herself up. All she needs to do is change her perspective. Change your perspective and you can change your mood.

    "Elegy for Jane" proves that Roethke believes sadness is a more powerful emotion than happiness. Crying for the win.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Roethke uses nature imagery to convey the grief and sense of loss in "Elegy for Jane." But he also uses nature imagery to show Jane's happiness. Roethke found answers and solace in the natural world. For him, nearly every aspect of life could be explained and demonstrated by carefully considering the natural world and our relationship with it.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What was your first reaction to all the natural imagery and figurative language in the poem? Did it make the poem more difficult or more accessible? Why?
    2. This poem has more birds than an Alfred Hitchcock movie (okay, that's an exaggeration, but you get the point). Do you think Roethke picked the right animal for his figurative comparisons to Jane? Why or why not? If you think the birds were the wrong choice, what animal would you suggest? How would that use of that animal change the poem?
    3. Imagine this poem without any natural imagery. Imagine it set in the middle of a city. What kind of urban imagery could be used to express Jane's sadness and happiness? Think of city sights and sounds.

    Chew on This

    Roethke believes that the only way to truly understand the human mind and human nature is to understand nature itself. Deep, dude.

    Roethke needs to give it a rest with the twigs, branches, and mold. There is more to the world than nature.

  • Death

    "Elegy for Jane" is, well, an elegy, so death is going to come up. Much of the poem is spent remembering Jane as she was in life. But the core of the poem deals with the speaker's feelings about the death of a young, vibrant woman, Jane, and his inability to reconcile his feelings for her with societal expectations.

    Questions About Death

    1. Jane was quite young when she died. Do you think this affected how Roethke felt about her death? Is there anything in the poem (aside from the subtitle) that indicates her youth?
    2. How would this elegy be different if it mourned the death of someone very old? How would the imagery have to change? Why?
    3. Is the speaker lamenting the death of Jane as an individual or is he really just saddened by what her death represents: the injustice, randomness, and cruelty of nature, to have taken someone so young and so vibrant?

    Chew on This

    Nice try, Ted. "Elegy for Jane" is less about mourning Jane's death than it is about Roethke's fear of death.

    Roethke tries to get over Jane's death by connecting her to all the living things he is surrounded with. It doesn't work.