Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden

Sutured together from existing manuscripts, typescripts, and notes, and expertly introduced by Stephen Burt, these six lectures by Randall Jarrell from the 1951-1952 Princeton Seminars in Literary Criticism are now available in print for the first time. They provide further welcome insight into Jarrell's complicated relationship to W. H. Auden, the poet he admired perhaps above all others—certainly the poet whose influence was strongest on him as a young writer and whom he fought most against as an older one. Since Jarrell never completed his long-planned book on Auden, these lectures—incorporating as they do key ideas from the several well-known and controversial articles he did publish—constitute Jarrell's most sustained critical view of poetry's dominant mid-century voice. That this view was by then largely a negative one, does not diminish the exhilaration of his criticism nor destroy his pleasure in what Auden had accomplished before taking what Jarrell considers a wrong-turning.

It is a collection of high spirits and sprightly language even while busy indicting Auden's transformation from unconsciously expressive poet to self-consciously rhetorical technician. No one would seriously dispute this turn in Auden's practice, though not many have shared Jarrell's assessment of it. Indeed, the ferocity of his objection to this new stage in Auden's development suggests something like the disappointment of a betrayed disciple—as well, Burt shrewdly points out, as the Oedipal struggle of a poet who was himself no stranger to rhetorical and self-conscious gestures. Fundamentally Jarrell wants poetry to be an obscurely impassioned art that springs darkly and powerfully from the unconscious, a thing of dense private preoccupations not clear political positions. His detailed anatomy here shows that the poetry Auden wrote in the 1940's no longer fits such a description and is hence a failure. Evidence is assembled, arguments and assertions made, and yet Jarrell's conclusions can seem singularly unpersuasive unless one shares his poetic credo to begin with.

But if often wrong-headed, he is never flat-footed: phrase after phrase implants itself in the mind as fresh, surprising, deft. And he can be very funny too: it is a shame that a voice print cannot accompany the text since the sheer glee or obvious mischief in some passages suggests Jarrell's delivery must have been hugely entertaining. This volume may be slim, but it is substantial, a happy addition to Jarrell's criticism.