Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although Roethke can usually find transcendent happiness even in melancholy images, such as mold or stones or moss in the last light of day, Jane’s death has silenced the speaker’s joy in any of nature’s light or dark aspects. That society does not sanction his right to grieve in front of others forces him to mourn only to the elements over Jane’s “damp grave.” His sense of abandonment and loneliness finally diminishes him to a shadow. Both Jane’s physical death and society’s prohibition against his open expression of grief leave the speaker alienated from nature and humans. Although “Elegy for Jane” gives the impression of being a classical elegy, it is not. The standard celebration of the vegetative god, Adonis, contains regeneration. “Elegy for Jane” contains no regeneration, unless it is in a mysterious diffusion of Jane’s darting energy into the windy, scattered movements of nature.

“Elegy for Jane” can be seen as Roethke’s comment on the finality of nature’s cycle. Jane is presented as one of life’s small, treasured creatures, whose death is a violation of the natural order in that she died before flowering. Although Roethke’s lengthy, cadenced lines with his layered images are reminiscent of Whitman’s long lines, they are different. Whitman simply cataloged images of all kinds. Roethke’s detailed, meticulously described small things imply value—the tiny things of this world are at least as significant as the large. That Roethke acknowledged death as part of nature’s cycle is seen in his juxtaposition of damp neck hair that sprawls like young plants with the “damp grave.” This interruption of the natural cycle by the demise of a girl who made the leaves kiss violates the cosmic order of birth, growth, aging, and death. Jane’s death is also terrible on a personal level. It has disrupted the speaker’s connection with a creation that he found exhilarating in all its aspects, in its mold as well as in its birds, in its stones as well as in its trees. Jane’s ups and downs reflected the light and shadows of nature in which the speaker once reveled. Her premature death and the lack of social ritual available to the speaker result not only in grief but also in a hopeless acceptance of a devastated outer and inner landscape.