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What is the best way to honor the memory of someone who died too young? Is it to grieve their loss or to celebrate their life? In the poem 'Elegy for Jane,' the poet Theodore Roethke honors the memory of one of his students, Jane. The poem pours Roethke's distraught emotions into words that illustrate the simplistic magnitude of Jane's life and the inconsolable grief he feels after her death. 'Elegy for Jane' presents the complexity of human life and emotions through vivid natural imagery, exploring themes of love and death.
|'Elegy for Jane' Information Overview|
|Type of Poem:||Modern elegiac poem|
|Literary/Poetic Devices:||Simile, metaphor, imagery, personification|
|Key Themes:||Death, nature, love|
'Elegy for Jane' (1953) is a poem written by the acclaimed American poet, Theodore Roethke (1908‐1963). The poem was originally published in Rothke's Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, The Waking (1953).
Theodore Roethke is most famous for his poem, 'My Papa's Waltz' (1941), which is about a young boy's memories of his alcoholic father.
Theodore Roethke pursued poetry and teaching concurrently throughout his life. He was a professor of poetry at notable schools such as Michigan State College, Pennsylvania State University, and Washington State University. As a teacher, Roethke was known for actively engaging with and challenging his students.
In the poem 'Elegy for Jane,' Theodore Roethke writes an elegy—a poem of remembrance for the dead—dedicated to his student Jane, who died after falling off of a horse. Roethke reflects his sentiments, admiration, and sadness for Jane through imagery of the natural world.
Some of Theodore Roethke's poetry students include the famous American poets Richard Hugo, James Wright, Carolyn Kizer, and Jack Gilbert.
'Elegy for Jane' begins with an epigraph informing readers of the poem's context. The poem is written for Theodore Roethke's student, who died after being thrown off of a horse. Due to this context clue, it is understood that Roethke is the speaker in the poem.
An epigraph is an introductory phrase, poem, or quotation used to present a text. An epigraph helps provide context and often hints at the themes that will be explored in the text.
While reading 'Elegy for Jane,' notice the similes and metaphors Theodore Roethke uses to paint a picture of Jane. Why do you think Roethke describes Jane through natural imagery?
|Line||'Elegy for Jane' by Theodore Roethke||Notes|
|My Student, Thrown by a Horse||An epigraph indicating the poem's dedication|
|188.8.131.52.184.108.40.206.9.||I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,And she balanced in the delight of her thought,A wren, happy, tail into the wind,Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.The shade sang with her;The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,And the mold sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.||tendrils: the spiraling stem of a climbing plantpickerel: a small pike fish wren: a small songbird|
|10.11.12.13.||Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,Even a father could not find her:Scraping her cheek against straw,Stirring the clearest water.||*animals often scrape against objects to scratch an itch|
|220.127.116.11.||My sparrow, you are not here,Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow.The sides of wet stones cannot console me,Nor the moss, wound with the last light.||fern: a flowerless plant with feathering leaves|
|18.104.22.168.22.||If only I could nudge you from this sleep,My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:I, with no rights in this matter,Neither father nor lover.||maimed: wounded skittery: nervous, skittish|
Here is a stanza by stanza summary and analysis of the poem.
Theodore Roethke begins the poem with flashes of memories and images of Jane. The tone of the poem is nostalgic and lamenting. He recalls the curls down her neck, comparing them to the thin vines of a plant to suggest their natural delicacy. He then recalls her smile, comparing it to the mouth of a young pike, which is a fish. Roethke describes Jane as a small songbird who is easily startled, but when prompted to speak, she speaks as a songbird sings—in beautiful and powerful harmony with the natural world. He emphasizes her natural beauty and presence by showing how nature sings in accord with her speech.
Fig 1: A "pickerel" 1 is a young, small pike. Pike are typically viewed as unattractive, and they have wide lips (Line 2). Rotheke characterizes Jane's smile with this fish's smile in order to suggest that there is an endearing awkwardness to her smile and startled wide-eyed glances.
Theodore Roethke describes Jane's deep capacity to feel sadness. He says that nothing could rescue her from her sadness—not even "a father" 1 (Line 11). The use of the article "a" 1 as opposed to the pronoun "her," suggests that no protective figure or even God the father could save her from her despair. Roethke emphasizes Jane's helplessness in her sad state by describing her as a poor farm animal who cannot scratch an itch on its own, so it must brush up against hay. He describes her emotions as "Stirring the clearest water," 1 suggesting that her characteristic clarity and purity are being disturbed and disrupted by the stir of sadness (Line 13).
Roethke again refers to Jane as a songbird and emphasizes her absence through dark, lonely imagery of nature. He describes her shadow as the "spiny shadow" 1 of a fern and says neither "wet stones" 1 nor "the moss, wound with the last light" 1 can bring him peace or consolation (Lines 15, 16, and 17). Roethke evokes an atmosphere of darkness and death through the mention of shadows and the fading light. He suggests that not even nature can temper the immense grief he feels, and the stones and moss on the ground only remind him of graves and Jane's death.
Theodore Roethke speaks to Jane, saying how he wishes he could wake her from her "sleep" 1 (Line 18). The word choice of sleep is much softer than death, and it reflects how Roethke can hardly believe Jane is not alive. He refers to her in odd terms of endearment, describing her as a wounded, "skittery pigeon" 1 (Lines 19). Though pigeons are not perceived as the most beautiful or desirable birds, Roethke uses this description to suggest Jane's unique nature. He ends the poem speaking words of "love" 1 over Jane's "damp grave" 1 clarifying that he does not feel entitled to his words or feelings, as he was "Neither father nor lover" 1 to Jane (Lines 20 and 22).
'Elegy for Jane' is an elegy because it expresses grief and remembrance of the dead. However, the form of Theodore Roethke's poem departs from the traditional English elegiac poetry. 'Elegy for Jane' is a modern elegiac poem, which is an elegiac poem with a freer structure, rhyme, or rhythm. While traditional English elegiac poetry is typically written in four-line stanzas with a set rhyme scheme and meter, 'Elegy for Jane' is written in free verse with four stanzas of varying lengths.
Free verse is a poetic form that does not adhere to a set meter or rhyme scheme.
Traditional English elegiac poetry is also characterized by the speaker finding consolation in the end. Theodore Roethke defies the traditional structure and ending of elegiac poetry by noting that he finds no consolation after Jane's death. The poem suggests that honest experience of grief does not come in a neat and tidy package. Rather, it is raw, confusing, and unending.
The poem 'Elegy for Jane' is built up with layers of similes and metaphors that characterize Jane through the imagery and personification of nature.
'Elegy for Jane' is a perfect poem to practice identifying similes from metaphors, since Roethke uses an abundance of comparative language.
Remember, a simile is a figurative comparison using the words "like" or "as," while a metaphor is a direct comparison. "She is like the sun" is a simile, while "She is the sun" is a metaphor. Read through the poem and try to pick out the similes and metaphors on your own.
"I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils" 1 (Line 1)
The opening line of the poem uses a simile to compare Jane's "neckcurls" 1 to "limp" 1 and "damp" 1 thin, curly vines of a plant. The adjectives "limp" 1 and "damp" 1 suggest a weariness, which reflects the speaker's state and indicates that Jane has a bit of a sad, worn appearance when she is not speaking. Her curls are not tight coils, but are loose, weighted down, and natural.
Fig 2: The tendrils of a plant resemble the curls of Jane's hair.
"you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow." 1 (Line 14-15)
In the poem, Roethke describes Jane's absence through a description of her lacking shadow, which he compares to the shadow of a fern. A fern is a flowerless plant with large, feather-shaped leaves. Although it is not a spiny or spikey plant, its shadow can be perceived as spikey. This simile is used to suggest that Jane may appear strange or harsh when you do not know her, but she is actually gentle and delicate. The term "spiny shadow" 1 also evokes the imagery of bones, suggesting that Jane is quite thin.
In the poem, Theodore Roethke uses many metaphors to describe Jane, but the most notable are his comparisons of Jane to different birds. He refers to her as "A wren, happy, tail into the wind," 1 and with the terms of endearment, "My sparrow" 1 and "my skittery pigeon" 1 (Lines 5, 14, 19). Roethke uses these metaphors to illustrate Jane's demeanor and mannerisms. She is delicate and appears hesitant and nervous. However, she comes to life or soars and sings like a bird when she speaks and expresses her thoughts. Roethke compares Jane to common birds in order to describe her appearance and unassuming beauty, which nonetheless resonates like a bird's song.
Fig 3: Small songbirds, such as sparrows are often hard to spot but their songs are clearly heard. Jane is like a sparrow; she is shy and does not aim to be attention-grabbing, but her words resonate when she speaks.
Theodore Roethke's description of Jane is developed through the imagery and personification of the natural world.
"Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing;
And the mold sang in the bleached valleys under the rose." 2
In the example above, Roethke uses personification by characterizing nature through human actions such as "trembling," 1 whispering, singing, and "kissing." 1 Roethke's poetry uses aural and visual imagery to paint a picture of the trees and their leaves blowing in the breeze and casting shadows in harmony with the sound of Jane's voice. Roethke implies that Jane's speech is natural, beautiful, and powerful. Everyone and everything agrees with her words.
The poem also contrasts imagery of life and death to represent Jane's life and death. While the initial imagery in the passage is full of the life and movement of nature, line 9 presents an image that evokes death. The words "mold" 1 and "bleached valleys" 1 paint a bleak picture suggestive of death and decay. Roethke evokes the image of a graveyard, with a rose lying on the ground in remembrance of the dead and the "mold" 1 and the earth crying out beneath it. "Mold" 1 is associated with decomposition and decay. The mention of "bleached valleys" evokes an empty valley's eerie, echoing sound. While nature sings along with Jane, it also cries out for her death.
In 'Elegy for Jane,' death is presented through Rotheke's memory of Jane. The poem is not about how Jane died, but how she lived and how the speaker tries to cope with her death. Death is not presented as glorious, nor gruesome, but rather anticlimactic. Jane was once there, so alive in her speech and bringing life to the world with her words, and now she is gone and the speaker cannot fully process it. Rotheke presents death as something beyond human reason and comprehension. However, he also cements Jane's connection to nature through her death and burial in the ground.
In 'Elegy for Jane,' nature is used to describe human characteristics, actions, and emotions. Jane's happiness is described as the joyousness of a bird with its tail fluttering in the wind, and her sadness is presented in the image of a disturbed body of clear water. Roethke creates a depth to human emotions and characteristics by showing them rather than simply stating what the person feels. The extent of Roethke's despair over Jane's death is presented in the fact that not even nature can console him.
Theodore Roethke makes a unique proclamation of love for Jane. His vivid fond memories of her, his empathy for her sadness, his terms of endearment for her, the image of a rose, and his expressed desire to bring her to life again. However, Roethke presents an interesting angle to his love, as he deems it unjustified, as he is not Jane's family nor a romantic interest. Rather, he was her teacher. Roethke's love is lost somewhere between the clear-cut definitions of familial and romantic love. His words suggest that he thinks he should not feel as strongly about her loss as he does, yet he cannot help but be devastated.
1 Theodore Roethke, 'Elegy for Jane,' The Waking, (1953).
The poem 'Elegy for Jane' is about Theodore Roethke's grief and memory of his student, Jane, who died after being thrown off of a horse.
The speaker most frequently uses the visual metaphor of a bird to describe Jane. He refers to her as a wren, a sparrow, and a pigeon.
The tone of 'Elegy for Jane' is nostalgic and lamenting.
The speaker of 'Elegy for Jane' is the poem's author, Theodore Roethke.
'Elegy for Jane' was written in 1953.
Who is the author of 'Elegy for Jane'?
What does the epitaph of the poem say?
My Student, Thrown by a Horse
What does the poet compare the curls on Jane's neck to?
Tendrils of a plant
What animal does the poet compare Jane's smile to?
A pickerel, a fish
"The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing" is an example of what literary device?
What is the tone of 'Elegy for Jane'
Nostalgic and lamenting
The poet mentions Jane's great capacity for which of the following?
Which of the following birds does the poet not metaphorically compare Jane to?
Why does the poet say he has no right to speak his words of love to Jane?
He is neither her father nor her lover
What are three prominent themes in 'Elegy for Jane'?
Death, nature, love
Where is the poet when he is speaking his words of love to Jane?
Over her damp grave
True or false: the speaker feels consolation at the end of the poem.
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