Elegy for Jane
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 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 1953
An elegy, as I am sure most of you know, is a poem written in memory of one who has died. I choose this particular elegy for its energy, precise images, and delicate tenderness. "Elegy for Jane" gracefully captures the real girl Jane; in 22 compact lines, we almost see this flesh-and-blood girl and the love she brought forth. In animating Jane, the poem allows us to recognize Jane's beloved characteristics in those around us. She is, like all of us, and individual with universal traits.
Roethke reminisces about her (yes I am muddling speaker/author) personally, leaving the universal recognition up to the natural images and the readers. The first line, "I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;" demonstrates a very personal and even intimate view of this girl. He regards the nape of her neck, connoting vulnerability, and talks of her curls as soft, delicate tendrils. The connection with plants here rehearses the consistent twining of man and nature. In the next line, Jane smiles like a pickerel, a fish with a wide, oblong grin. The assonance in "quick look" heightens the energy in the poem, which again appears consistently throughout the poem. This energy reflects Jane's energy, and makes the thought of her loss even sadder. As if a light has winked out in the sky.
The next several lines, "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" again display natural imagery and energy. Because it shifts almost fully into a natural metaphor, the poem's universality comes through especially clearly. Perhaps I should pause and explain why natural imagery is universalizing. Excepting a few cases, a wild animal is not named. That is, one salmon, to the human eye, looks no different than any other salmon. "Salmon" or "wren" or "tendril" is universal, encompassing all salmon, all wren, and all tendrils. The natural metaphors in "Elegy" are tailored for an individual, Jane, so they are at once broadly relevant and personally applicable. The choice of a wren gestures that Jane was light, energetic, and graceful. Even the word "wren" sounds small and nimble.
Jane doesn't just inhabit natural images, though; she works in harmony with them, evident in the lines "the leaves, their whispers turned to kissing; / And the mold sang in the bleached valleys under the rose." Here, the environment also expresses the love felt for Jane. It was everywhere, in the leaves, the brooks, the flowers and even the mold. For those good and bad, her presence delighted.
But she was not always effervescent. Roethke writes, "when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth, / Even a father could not find her." Her emotions were strong and clear; I believe that this characterization also makes her more real. She is a creature of pure emotion, sadness or happiness, which makes her easy to imagine and even empathize with. We all, I expect, experience straight emotions from time to time.
The speaker's affection begins to seep into the poem in the next lines, "My sparrow, you are not here, / Waiting like a fern, making a spiny shadow." Affection and nostalgia, really. Again, too, we note the tender, universal/personal images and Jane's bubbly grace. When Roethke writes, "If only I could nudge you from this sleep, / My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon," and I want to nudge her, too. I want to nudge everyone who has ever fallen. This poem, for me, is so beautifully and powerfully loving. And I suppose that an elegy should be a form of love poem, though I haven't read enough elegies to recommend examples or counterexamples. I like the idea of an elegy as a love poem.
The poem ends with a line that could be construed as problematic: with the implication that a father (male) or lover (stereotypically male) should have rights over remembering her. It sidesteps controversy, though, because the narrator is (arguably) male and her teacher. I think that he is only referring, in the end, to his possible position to her. He would usually love a girl because he is (a) her father or (b) her lover. How do we reconcile being neither of these things? Perhaps we don't have to, the poem suggests. Love exists outside our typical models. And indeed, it can be surprising to find that you love someone when you have no "right" to. My stepmother told me that she sometimes looks at a stranger working away at his life and imagines that he is her son. I found that so beautiful, and have tried it often. It's amazing how easy it is to love people, if you only see them as lovable. I try to look at girls as if they were one of my sisters or best friends. They become so clear and pure. I think that looking at Jane in this poem provides that same experience. She is a stranger, but looking at her through loving eyes, we love her as well. By seeing another that loves her, we may love her too, in a way. The narrator's affections, cloaked in natural imagery, guide us to affection and tenderness. Surprising, no?