“Elegy for Jane,” subtitled “My Student, Thrown by a Horse,” is a poem in free verse whose twenty-two lines are divided into four stanzas. The poem follows the elegiac tradition insofar as it mourns the death of a loved one. The first nine lines follow the custom of honoring the deceased by describing Jane’s delicacy and youthful exuberance. Roethke describes Jane as a light, quick animal, the epitome of the lovely in nature. Her neck curls are damp as plant tendrils, trailing, winding, and new. Quick and nervous in her movements, Jane’s smile was nonetheless wide as a fish’s (“pickerel”). Jane was also shy, for she had to be startled into talking. Once she started talking, however, she showed that she delighted in her thoughts. These lines may be alluding to Roethke’s calling on her in class and her corresponding pleasure in answering.
When she was happy, Jane was like a bird with its tail in the wind; her song was so energetic that small branches trembled. The courage and adventurousness that cause a tail to be immersed in wind imply a daring that might have resulted in Jane’s being thrown to her death by a horse. Jane’s vitality was so inspiring that all nature rejoiced in her exuberance, even gloomy natural items such as shade and mold. Jane’s happiness was so beneficent that the leaves turned to kissing.
The following stanza states that when Jane was sad, she plunged from a joy that even shade and mold reflected into an abyss of sadness so deep that “even a father could not find her” (line 11). The soaring bird suddenly fell to the rough earth and stirred its fundamental element, water. Jane, usually a joyous wren flying into the wind, sometimes dove into such unhappiness that her cheek scraped dried grass and stirred water.
The third stanza continues the bird metaphor, only this time Jane is a sparrow who is forever gone. The speaker also identifies himself with nature, not as a soaring or plunging bird but as a passive plant that can only wait, rooted in the earth. He is a fern whose thin leaves make thin shadows, implying that the speaker is grief-stricken to the point of being skeletal himself. The speaker’s grief parallels Jane’s deep sadness, for now that Jane is gone the speaker is no longer consoled by nature’s beauties, its wet stones and moss lit by twilight.
The last stanza again refers to Jane’s active but shy personality in birdlike terms; she moves from being described as a joyful wren to a lost sparrow to a skittery pigeon. Roethke longs to bring Jane back from death, but in addition to his powerlessness in the face of death, Roethke feels impotent in that his feelings are not legitimized because, being only her teacher and not a father or lover, he has no socially sanctioned right to grieve her loss publicly. Roethke mourns not only for the loss of Jane to himself and to all nature but also for his sense that no one will recognize his loss or console him.
Roethke is famous for inventing a new form, a long poem in parts, which seems borrowed from drama. In the relatively short poem “Elegy for Jane,” as in his other works, the parts are “fluid,” allowing him to swing back and forth through time. The first two stanzas are nostalgic, the third brings the speaker into the sorrowful present of Jane’s death, while the last combines a wish for Jane’s resurrection with the grim realizations that...
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Jane is gone forever and that Roethke’s own grief has no socially approved existence.
Roethke interlaces his dramatic stanzas with long, leisurely lines followed by energetic short lines that punctuate his lengthy descriptions with cogent, staccatoed points (as line 7, “The shade sang with her,” and line 22, “Neither father nor lover”). “Elegy for Jane” uses Roethke’s typical juxtaposition of opposing elements. The metaphor of Jane as a bird joyfully darting into the sky, then thudding to earth in sadness and in death, also symbolizes a soul’s ascent and descent. Images of energy and life contrast with those of stasis and death. Jane darts, skitters, startles, casts herself down, even scrapes her cheek when she is sad, all active images that contrast powerfully with those of immobility: “waiting like a fern,” “sleep,” and “damp grave.”
Another juxtaposition of opposites is the contrast between water images and those of land and sky. Water also symbolizes flux, perhaps beyond or undergirding life and death. Jane’s smile is like a pickerel, presumably swimming in water, and her grave is damp. Water is the element in which Jane swims and lives, and it is the element in which she is buried. Dampness itself is not ominous, and the speaker implies that ordinarily he would be consoled by “wetness on stones.” The use of water as the ground of both life and death evokes Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking,” in which the sea is the “old mother.” Roethke’s images of stasis—waiting, stones, moss, sleep—are not portrayed as undesirable but as a backdrop for movement, vitality, and light. Roethke suggests that were it not for Jane’s death, even the light fleeting on moss would delight him. Her death has not only robbed him of herself and all pleasure but also turned him into a shadow, not a being of light. Light in this and other Roethke poems symbolizes life. Jane’s syllables were light, her thoughts were delightful to her, and her pickerel smile evokes a fish whose scales glimmer in water.
Roethke uses iambic, trochaic, anapestic, and sprung rhythms in “Elegy for Jane.” He mixes these varied metrics with lists of varied images, marked by three elements. Stanza 1 is marked by images of rapid movement, and stanza 2 by images of stasis. The concluding stanza is shaped by the vitality of fantasy juxtaposed with a moribund actuality—vital fantasy and deathly reality are balanced. The long lines and repetition of water and movement images control the poem’s pacing, giving it the deliberateness of a dirge. The short, terrible last line is as final in its loneliness as the lowering of a casket into a grave.
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