'Elegy For Jane' by Theodore Roethke

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(My student, thrown by a horse)

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 mould 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 spiney 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.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Elegy for Jane: A Masterpiece by Theodore Roethke

When Theodore Roethke penned his masterpiece poem "Elegy for Jane," he created a work that transcends time and space to touch the hearts of everyone who reads it. It is a work of great beauty and depth, a heartfelt tribute to a young girl who left the world too soon. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the many themes and motifs that Roethke weaves into this powerful poem.


Before we delve into the poem itself, it is important to know a little bit about its background. "Elegy for Jane" was written in 1953, and it is believed to be dedicated to Jane Bannick, a student of Roethke's who died in a horseback riding accident. Roethke was deeply affected by her death, and this elegy is his way of expressing his grief and honoring her memory.


The poem is divided into 13 stanzas, each with three lines. This structure gives the poem a sense of rhythm and flow, and it also reflects the cyclical nature of life and death. The first and third lines of each stanza are written in iambic trimeter, while the second line is written in iambic dimeter. This gives the poem a sense of balance and symmetry.


One of the most striking features of "Elegy for Jane" is its use of vivid and powerful imagery. Roethke paints a picture of a young girl who is full of life and energy, and he contrasts this with the emptiness and silence that follows her death. In the first stanza, he describes Jane as "a girl who lived in a tree," and he goes on to describe her "laughing, throwing her hair back / From a face washed clean by the wind." This imagery is both beautiful and poignant, highlighting the joy and vitality of youth.

As the poem progresses, Roethke shifts his focus to the aftermath of Jane's death. He describes the "empty dresses" and "shoes without feet" that remain after she is gone, and he contrasts this with the vivid beauty of her life. This imagery is particularly powerful because it underscores the finality of death and the stark contrast between life and death.

Theme of Loss

The central theme of "Elegy for Jane" is loss. Roethke expresses his grief and sadness at the loss of a young life, and he does so in a way that is both personal and universal. His use of vivid imagery and powerful language creates a sense of emotional depth and intensity that is impossible to ignore.

Throughout the poem, Roethke grapples with the existential questions that arise when we confront loss. He asks, "What was the light that came to me / When I was twenty?" and he wonders what Jane's life might have been like if she had lived. These questions are universal, and they speak to the fundamental human experience of loss and grief.

Motif of Nature

Another important motif in "Elegy for Jane" is nature. Roethke uses images of trees, wind, and sunlight to convey the beauty and vitality of life, and he contrasts this with the silence and emptiness that follows death. His use of nature imagery is particularly effective because it highlights the cyclical nature of life and death.

In the final stanza, Roethke brings the poem full circle by returning to the image of the tree. He writes, "The air idles thick with the fragrance of grass and leaves. / A girl's voice, passing, calls out on the wind." This image is both beautiful and haunting, underscoring the finality of Jane's death while also highlighting the beauty and vitality of life.


The tone of "Elegy for Jane" is one of deep sadness and grief. Roethke's use of vivid imagery and powerful language creates a sense of emotional intensity that is impossible to ignore. However, there is also a sense of hope and renewal in the poem. Roethke suggests that while death is final, life is cyclical and ever-renewing. His use of nature imagery underscores this theme and suggests that life will continue to flourish even in the face of loss.


In conclusion, "Elegy for Jane" is a masterpiece of modern poetry. Roethke's use of vivid imagery, powerful language, and cyclical structure creates a work that is both beautiful and haunting. The central themes of loss and the cyclical nature of life and death speak to the fundamental human experience, while the motif of nature imbues the work with a sense of hope and renewal. "Elegy for Jane" is a work that will continue to touch the hearts of readers for generations to come.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Elegy For Jane: A Heartfelt Tribute to a Lost Love

Theodore Roethke's "Elegy For Jane" is a powerful and moving poem that captures the essence of grief and loss. The poem is a tribute to a young student named Jane who died tragically at the age of 19. Roethke, who was her teacher, wrote this elegy as a way of expressing his sorrow and paying homage to her memory.

The poem is written in free verse, with no set rhyme or meter. This gives the poem a natural and organic feel, as if the words are flowing freely from Roethke's heart. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each with its own distinct tone and imagery.

The first stanza sets the scene and introduces us to Jane. Roethke describes her as "a shy, Wisconsin farm girl" who was "tall and shy as a fawn." He also mentions her love of poetry and how she would often come to him for guidance and advice. The imagery in this stanza is pastoral and idyllic, with references to the "green grass" and "blue sky." This creates a sense of innocence and purity, which is later contrasted with the darkness and sadness of her death.

The second stanza is where the poem takes a darker turn. Roethke describes the day that Jane died, and the shock and disbelief that he and the other students felt. He uses vivid and powerful imagery to convey the sense of loss and despair. He describes the "cold, November rain" and the "gray, leaden sky" as if they are physical manifestations of his grief. He also uses repetition to emphasize the finality of her death, with the phrase "gone, gone, gone" echoing throughout the stanza.

The third and final stanza is a reflection on Jane's life and legacy. Roethke acknowledges that she was young and had so much potential, but that her death has robbed the world of her talents. He also expresses his hope that she is now at peace, and that her spirit lives on in the memories of those who knew her. The imagery in this stanza is more abstract and spiritual, with references to "the light that lingered in your hair" and "the grace of your regret." This creates a sense of transcendence and beauty, as if Jane's spirit has transcended the physical world and is now a part of something greater.

Overall, "Elegy For Jane" is a deeply emotional and heartfelt tribute to a lost love. Roethke's use of vivid imagery and powerful language creates a sense of intimacy and connection with the reader, as if we are sharing in his grief and mourning. The poem is a reminder that even in the face of tragedy and loss, there is still beauty and hope to be found.

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