No rights in this matter


I have been thinking a lot recently about final lines of poems. I’ve always been fond of Seamus Heaney’s comment about Robert Lowell in this regard. It seems to me a kind of benchmark for what lyric poetry tries to achieve in these closing moments of ‘revelation’. Drawing a neat analogy with an arrow hitting its target he describes ‘a sense of something utterly completed [vying] with a sense of something startled into scope and freedom. The reader [is] permitted the sensation of a whole meaning simultaneously clicking shut and breaking open’ (The Government of the Tongue1988).

Theodore Roethke’s ‘Elegy for Jane’ is one such moment for me. I’m particularly interested in the statement of the poem’s penultimate line, that the speaker has ‘no rights in this matter’. I want to believe him, but I don’t, not completely. To be clear, I adore this poem, but I am more persuaded by the wonderful music of phrases such as ‘limp and damp as tendrils’, ‘sidelong pickerel smile’, ‘spiney shadow’, ‘maimed darling’, and ‘skittery pigeon’.

These are the forcefields of energy I want to sit and remain in while in the company of the poem, not an assertion of the speaker’s lack of ‘rights’, which in any case is disproved by the poem’s copious extemporary lyricism. The poet’s unstoppable obligation to speak is evident on every line.

On this basis I feel Roethke is slyly (not too slyly, as it happens) making an attempt to have his cake and eat it. It shouldn’t work, but it does. He gets away with it.

Heaney himself was not averse to such tactics, admitting, the story goes, in a workshop that getting away with it is one of the chief purposes of the lyric poem. If purposes is the right word.


  1. I just used this poem for the poetry writing class I teach. It’s one of the richest poems I know. The points you make are excellent, and you noted one of my favorite images in poetry – the pickerel smile. If there was ever a description that “nailed” a particular look, this is it.
    Molly Cook


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