Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
This poem reveals attitudes that conflict in its narrative of a female student who is following a course of study that the poet obviously does not believe in—it is both tender and condescending about its subject. The girl, half asleep in a library where the books are mostly beyond her comprehension, is represented as more body than mind, less than a scholar as she pursues her education—a degree in home economics and physical education. She is far from the ideal student; her language is plebian and her goals are simplistic. She lacks both the wisdom and the experience to understand the life she is living. She is mocked by Tatyana Larina, the woman from Alexander Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin (1825-1832, 1833; Eugene Onegin, 1881), one of Jarrell’s favorite books. The speaker engages in a conversation with Tatyana about the student, considering the differences between the subtle and wise Tatyana and the real girl.
It is the student’s healthy physical being that leads to the double vision of the poet, which is composed of affection and disdain: “This is the waist the spirit breaks its wrist on,” comments the disembodied, unidentified speaker. However, in spite of her intellectual limitations, her vitality and her physical verve give her qualities of the mythic. The double vision comes in an implied comparison of the girl and her library setting—she is studying but lacks wisdom; education is lost on her. Yet the poem’s conclusion shows that she has her value as a female archetype, a fertility queen:
The firelight of a long, blind, dreaming storyLingers upon your lips; and I have seenFirm, fixed forever in your closing eyes,The Corn King beckoning to his Spring Queen.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Chappell, Fred. “The Indivisible Presence of Randall Jarrell.” North Carolina Literary Review 1, no. 1 (Summer, 1992): 8-13.
Cyr, Marc D. “Randall Jarrell’s Answerable Style: Revision of Elegy in ’The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 92-106.
Flynn, Richard. Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Hammer, Langdon. “Who Was Randall Jarrell?” Yale Review 79 (1990): 389-405.
Jarrell, Mary. Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic, and Teacher Randall Jarrell. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.
Pritchard, William. Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. New York: Farrar, 1990.
Quinn, Sr. Bernetta. Randall Jarrell. Boston: Twayne, 1981.