Elegy for Jane Poem by Theodore Roethke Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English for Students


Elegy for Jane is a poem written by the famous American poet, Theodore Roethke. The poet wrote this poem after the death of his student, Janne Bannick, a young woman who fell off a horse and tragically passed away. This poem appears in  Rothke’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, The Waking, which was published in 1953. The anthology is based on themes such as introspection of the self, the natural world, and psychological and metaphysical elements. 

About the Author 

Born on May 25 1908, in Michigan, Theodore Roethke is an American poet. He is often known for his introspective and autobiographical verse. Roethke grew up in a greenhouse business owned by his family which had a profound influence on his poetry, and the themes of nature, identity, and the human psyche permeate much of his work. He received critical acclaim for his collections such as The Lost Son and Other Poems (1948), Praise to the End! (1951), and The Waking (1953), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Roethke’s poems are known for their rich imagery, emotional intensity, and deep introspection. His work reflects influences from Romantic poets, as well as his interest in psychological and spiritual themes.


As the title suggests, the poem is written in the form of a modern elegy. It does not follow the rules and constraints of the traditional English elegiac form. The poem comprises 22 lines that are divided into 5 stanzas of varying lengths. 

Lines 1- 4

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,


The speaker recalls specific details about Jane, his student, who tragically died after being thrown by a horse. He vividly remembers her neck curls, which were limp and damp as the tendrils of a plant. The speaker paints a picture of her by mentioning her quick look and  “sidelong pickerel “ smile. According to the speaker, Jane would talk with quick syllables leaping out of her mouth. 


From the first stanza itself, the speaker aims to paint a detailed image of his student, Jane. rather than talking about superficial details about her appearance, the speaker indulges in an in-depth description. This aims to show how he knew her well. We can see how this elegy serves as a vehicle for the speaker to express the deep emotions associated with the absence of someone dear.

Lines 5-9

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.


The speaker further reminisces about Jane’s moments of happiness. Jane would balance in the delight of her thought just like a wren balancing its tail in the wind. Jane’s voice and words were just like the song of a bird that trembled the twigs and small branches. Even something as still as the shade is described to be singing with Jane. The speaker comments how the sound of the leaves swishing felt like whispers and kissing. And the mould would sing into a valley. All this would happen as a reaction to Jane’s presence and her happiness. 


Here, we see that the poet has used a lot of natural imagery to describe Jane’s persona and her existence. She is portrayed as a wren with a happy song that trembles the twigs and small branches. Nature becomes an active participant, with the shade, leaves, and the landscape itself singing with her. This stanza captures the essence of Jane’s vitality and the way her presence seems to harmonize with the natural world.

Lines 10-13

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.


The speaker then changes the subject to address and portray Jane’s sadness. The speaker describes her descending into a “pure depth” of sorrow, almost to the point where not even a father could reach her.  Jane is compared to a natural creature in the wild, who scraps its cheeks against the grass and stirs water when it feels down. 


As the speaker describes Jane’s behaviour during sorrowful times, this indicates how the speaker knew her very well. The speaker had witnessed her not only as a happy person, full of zeal and vitality but also as someone who inhabits within themselves a profound amount of grief. The phrase “…Even a father could not find her” also suggests that the speaker had tried consoling Jane in her distress, just like a father would. These lines suggest that Jane was a sensitive and emotional person. She was a figure of vulnerability, especially in moments of sadness. 

Lines 14-17

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.


It is here that the speaker addresses Jane’s absence. The speaker remarks that Jane no longer exists. He calls her a sparrow and says that she no longer waits like a fern or makes a spiney shadow. The speaker sadly says that neither “wet stones” nor “the moss, wound with the last light” can bring him peace or consolation. 


Here, 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. The emotion of nostalgia is strong throughout the poem. The poet aims to shape this poem in the likeness of Jane’s memory. 

Lines 18-22

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.


Here, the speaker directly addresses Jane and expresses a longing to wake her up from the sleep of death.  The speaker calls her his “maimed darling” and his” skittery pigeon” and tells her that he speaks these words of love over her grave. The speaker lastly acknowledges his lack of rights in the matter, neither as a father nor a lover.


The final stanza intensifies the emotional impact as the speaker longs to somehow awaken Jane from her sleep. The speaker feels a sense of helplessness as he is unable to bring Jane back from the dead. Thus, there is a strong desire for reconnection that the speaker feels. The speaker also  clarifies at the end that he is not entitled to his words or feelings, as he was “Neither father nor lover” to Jane