Elegy for Jane
(My student, thrown by a horse)
By Theodore Roethke

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 turning to kissing;
And the mold sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

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.

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.

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.

Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane” describes the speaker’s mournfulness at the death of his student, Jane. In the first two stanzas, the speaker, a man who is Jane’s teacher, is speaking to a general audience about his memories of Jane as a youthful, emotional girl. This reminiscence juxtaposes with the last three stanzas, in which the speaker, while standing over Jane’s grave, expresses to her the sorrow he experiences due to her death. Additionally, the contrasting imagery between the speaker’s memories of Jane and the imagery when he visits her grave on a rainy day further show the death’s impact on the teacher. In this elegy, through contrasting visual and auditory imagery, figurative language, and juxtaposition, the speaker reveals the pain he experiences from the death of a student he admired and cared for.

The first two stanzas of the poem detail Jane’s youthful and highly emotional nature. The speaker describes her as capable of being at the extremes of sadness and joy. For example, in the first stanza, the speaker reminisces on the power of her joyfulness. Many vivid verbs are used to describe her actions, such as how the “syllables leaped for her,” and how she “balanced in the delight of her thought,” highlighting her vitality and life. The speaker even uses a simile to compare Jane’s hair to tendrils, a living plant. Another simile comparing Jane to a wren shows her propensity to sing. Furthermore, her voice modified the environment around her, causing the branches to tremble and the leaves to kiss her, underlining the power of her voice; however, the shade and the “mold…under the rose” also sang with her, foreshadowing her unforeseen death. However, the speaker states that Jane was not only a exuberant person, but also was a person who dived into melancholy. At the beginning of the second stanza, the speaker states that when she was troubled, she threw herself so deep into depression that “Even a father could not find her.” In her depression, Jane would lie in straw and cry strongly, evoking images of extreme emotion. These first two stanzas serve to detail the speaker’s memories of Jane during her short life in which she was filled with emotion, oscillating between extreme joy and depression.

In the last three stanzas, however, her teacher contrasts the energy of her life to her death. Additionally, he laments the loss of the energetic Jane and proclaims his love for her, underlining the pain he feels at losing someone he admired and cared for. For example, the metaphor comparing Jane to a sparrow evokes images of Jane’s vitality. However, in the next line, the speaker compares her to a fern making a spiny shadow, indicating that the speaker only has memories to remember Jane by. He visits her grave on a rainy day, as he says that the wet stones and moss near her grave cannot console him. The visual imagery of Jane’s grave juxtaposed with the imagery of a life-filled environment in the first two stanzas highlights the impact of Jane’s loss. Furthermore, the contrast between “maimed darling” and “skittery pigeon” underline the difference between Jane in life and Jane in death.

The speaker in “Elegy for Jane” presents a portrait of his thoughts as he stands at the deceased Jane’s grave on a rainy day. First, he nostalgically recalls images of Jane in her youthful life, followed by laments about her death. Additionally, although he is not her father or lover, he was her teacher who cared for her and admired her. Throughout the poem, the speaker laments the loss of a person who was filled with energy and life by detailing her emotional extremes and telling of his pain due to her death.

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