The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 528 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Bogen, Don. Theodore Roethke and the Writing Process. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1991.

Bowers, Neal. Theodore Roethke: The Journey from I to Otherwise. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Kalaidjian, Walter B. Understanding Theodore Roethke. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Kusch, Robert. My Toughest Mentor: Theodore Roethke and William Carlos Williams (1940-1948). Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1999.

Malkoff, Karl. Theodore Roethke: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Seager, Allan. The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Stiffler, Randall. Theodore Roethke: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1986.

Wolff, George. Theodore Roethke. Boston: Twayne, 1981.