Influences and Sources of Theodore Roethke's Elegy for Jane
In "In Memoriam A. H. H.," a new kind of elegy with roots in the elegiac tradition, Tennyson writes, "For words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within" (1045). The truth of Tennyson's statement appears in Theodore Roethke's "Elegy for Jane: My Student Killed by a Horse." Roethke conceals much about himself as a person yet reveals much about himself as a poet when he puts his grief into words.
Without knowing something of Roethke's personal and professional life, one would think that a student named Jane was the sole inspiration for this moving elegy; however, in The Glass House, the poet's biographer, Allan Seager, reveals more than one possible source of inspiration for the poem. At the University of Washington, as at Roethke's other teaching posts, students liked him, and he frequently formed close relationships with his students--in fact, he married one of his former students; however, this was not the case with Jane Bannick. Seager reveals that "Ted had not known her [Jane] very well." She " was a student of Ted's for only one quarter. She was thrown from a horse and killed" (193). Yet another one of his students may also have had an influence on this elegy.
According to Seager, Roethke "may have been influenced also by Lois Lamb, who had fallen from a horse the previous summer and described the attendant fears to him in detail" (193). Seager also mentions that [the poet] and Lamb conducted a series of `experiments' with a flock of turkeys on the sanitarium [Pinel] grounds" (187) during the poet's 1949-50 hospitalization of manic-depressive illness. These visits by Lamb indicate a closer relationship between Roethke and Lamb that would be more likely to create an awareness in the poet of the intense grief that might result at the tragic severing of an exceptionally close teacher-student bond. Furthermore, Ross-Bryant points out that Roethke expresses his loss in terms of a unique human relationship: "neither father nor lover" (75). The reader can only guess at what emotion may lie behind the poet's statement in regard to the relationship--and after reading his biography, which relationship.
Although Seager may leave us uncertain about the source of inspiration for the elegy and the emotion behind it, a Roethke scholar, Jay Parini, notes definite cultural influences that create a counterpoint in "Elegy for Jane." According to Parini, Roethke follows a Hellenic tradition when he associates Jane with "the elemental aspects of nature: the plant tendrils, the pickerel, the wren"; this association of death with rebirth defuses the poignancy of the girl's death. Roethke, Parini believes, pushes the technique of association to the "extreme"...