Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Janet Waking” is a metaphor for her initiation into knowledge of grief, loss, and the irreversibility of death. After a pleasant sleep, nothing seems amiss in Janet’s world, but her true awakening begins when she decides to see how Chucky (a “dainty-feathered hen”) has “kept” (a colloquial expression referring to its well-being). As she pauses to give each parent a dutiful morning kiss, it is obvious that she usually gets her way. Next Janet runs “across the world upon the grass” to Chucky’s house. In running from her home (where she is in control) to Chucky’s house, she figuratively runs “across the world” because her world is about to be completely changed, as she moves from innocence to knowledge. (The speaker may also be punning with the Southern colloquialism of ’run across’ meaning ’inadvertently discover.’)
Janet discovers that “alas” Chucky has died. “Alas” both suggests the depth of her shock and loss and, by its very extravagance, creates a mock serious tone that undercuts and balances her grief. Chucky has died from a bee sting on its bald head. The “venom” (a term usually associated with evil) has caused a large purple knot on Chucky’s head and rigor throughout the hen’s body. The speaker observes that now Chucky’s “poor comb” stands straight but Chucky does not. This flippant understatement seems intended to distance the speaker from Janet’s emotions and remind the reader that a pet hen’s death may not be taken very seriously by adults.
This initiation poem, which begins with literal sleep, ends with death (a sleep from which Chucky cannot be awakened). Janet attempts to “wake” Chucky, but the hen is “translated” beyond the reach of earthly power. Weeping so hard that her sobs seem inseparable from her breathing, Janet then turns to the adults, begging them to intervene. When they try to explain the concept of death, Janet simply rejects this idea that she is not ready to comprehend.