Discuss the  narration in the poem "Elegy for Jane" by Theodore Roethke.   

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An elegy is a poem of grief, memorializing the dead or contemplating some degree of life’s melancholy.  The form of the elegy has evolved and expanded to follow no exact form but rather reflects a speaker’s solemn attention to aspects of grief and mortality.

Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane” presents the melancholy occasion of the death of the poet’s student.  The poet speaks despite his pain. This is the tragic reflection of the girl, Jane, who was thrown by a horse, resulting in her untimely demise.

Roethke’s premise is to explain the relationship between a teacher and his student.  Teachers are not allowed to fall in love with his students.  Teachers serve as the parent while the student is in his care.  Yet, teachers and students should not form close emotional ties and have no right to fall in love with a particular student.

Narration or speaker

The speaker in this poem is the teacher of the dead girl.  The elegy illustrates the nature of the relationship between the victim and the person telling the story.

The narration is first person point of view with the narrator the teacher or poet.  The reliability of the narrator should not be questioned.  He is speaking from the heart and paying his respects to dead girl. His demonstration of the relationship between himself and the victim epitomizes society’s views toward the relationship of a teacher and a student.  Because of this prejudice, the teacher had to remove himself from the friendship of the girl.

The elegy emphasizes the motif of a young girl’s innocence.  If the person who died is naïve, pure and perfect, it is so hard on the ones who are left behind. The poet describes the girl using references to animals and plants. Part of the poem characterizes her beauty and typical youthful personality.

He uses several unusual comparisons to describe his memory of the student:

  • her beautiful hair like tendrils
  • her smile to a fish
  • her form to a fern with a spiney shadow or a skittery pigeon
  • Apparently, she is an unusual beauty but has a lovely, enthusiastic personality. 

At times she was grief-stricken and no one not even her father could help her.

In the third stanza, the poet calls Jane, his sparrow. He, too, finds himself inconsolable and nothing can help him not even the beauty of nature.

"My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light."

In the last verse, the poet stands over Jane’s grave.  He reveals the love that he has for this deceased student.  Since he was just her teacher, he has “not rights in this matter.” He was close to her, as her teacher; however, he does not believe that he has the right to express his love since he is not her father or her lover.

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