One of Jarrell’s books is titled Losses (1948), and that single word could be his statement of theme. The losses are of loved ones, innocence, consolation, belief, and hope. He writes of young men lost to the war and other lives lost literally and figuratively. His poems express a deep sense of the inner void that comes from being able to rely on nothing, to keep nothing. His poems explore the various ways one can try to fill the inside emptiness, almost always unsuccessfully. His war poems were controversial when they first appeared, though later they were highly valued. In the poems of his 1945 collection Little Friend, Little Friend, Jarrell stresses the ironic contrast between the tough, hard war machines of the state and the vulnerable young men who are forced to serve them. Thus, the villain was not the Germans or the Japanese but the war situation itself—a message not universally appreciated during and right after the war.
Jarrell had a lonely childhood in which his only reliable companions seemed to be books; this sense of isolation and the contrast between fictional and real worlds dominates his poetry. Even his earliest work is haunted by books. Throughout his poems, libraries, books, fictional heroes, and the act of reading figure prominently. The wounded, baffled speaker may seek validation in books, but always the books let him down by seeming to make promises that the world will not keep. This is part of the message of “90 North.”
Jarrell often centers the poem on a woman’s consciousness, whether she is the speaker or whether the poem is in the third person. The women he creates are not blinded by a desire for progress or conquest or by the need to participate in the causes of men. Rather they see their helplessness and powerlessness over the forces that control them and those they love. Thus, the women’s voices or perceptions speak of the futility of all human goals or endeavors, especially those related to war. (One of his major women figures of the poems does not seem to feel this hopelessness, and that is the nameless subject of “Girl in a Library”; but it is her ignorance-innocence that prevents her from seeing the futility of her plans and projects, and her innocent optimism is given the lie by the sad wisdom of the fictional woman who looks down at her.)
Jarrell’s use of form is unusual because the style of his poems is so casual, so colloquial, that the fact that they are often in traditional forms often passes without notice. He uses patterns and forms subtly and without insistence, and the flow of reverie is often gently controlled by an underlying metrics. He often uses a flexible blank verse that allows for modulations and sometimes uses rhyme without regular rhythm. The normal patterns of speech hang gently on their formal frames to produce an effect of effortlessness. He uses the combination of plain speech and formal pattern favored by Robert Frost and by his favorite British contemporary poet, Philip Larkin. This style sets him apart from the intellectually and verbally dense Modernists such as T. S. Eliot. However, Jarrell’s forms are more flexible than those of Frost or Larkin.
His poems all seem to speak, whether they are in first person or not. This is their charm—the voice, the consistent, easily recognizable voice that recounts irreparable losses in a tone of bemusement that this is how the world could be. His perspective is one of mild surprise, a pained realization that the world is full of horror and injustice, when childhood vision and the books that shaped it promised otherwise. Often his poems rise to an exquisite climax of longing and loss, a point at which the speaker knows that what he desires to have back is something he never had and never could have had. This is especially true in the poems of his last book, The Lost World, which appeared posthumously; the title poem is a stunning elegy to everything that passes, perhaps to himself as well.
First published: 1941 (collected in Blood for a Stranger, 1942)
Type of work: Poem
This early poem shows the grief caused by awakening from the ideal and imaginary to inescapable reality.
“90 North” is a poem of pained disillusion, one of Jarrell’s early poems which makes vividly real the distance between the imagined world and the real one. The poem has two settings, the past, in which the child dreamed of discovering the North Pole, his dreams perhaps based on reading of Admiral Richard Byrd and his adventures. However, as an adult, he realizes that the child’s dreams of conquest were meaningless. He revisits his child self arriving there at the imagined summit, surrounded by his dogs and the corpses of his frozen companions. Sheltered from the ice by his furs, he can only ask, “And now what? Why, go back.” His steps now must always be “to the south,” toward bitter awareness of the emptiness of his life. Only in the “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land” of dreams could he make a meaningful discovery; where he is in reality there is only darkness, ignorance, and pain. The last four lines have the word “darkness” repeated four times, and what comes from the darkness, according to the poem, is not enlightenment but pain. “And we call it wisdom. It is pain.” All dreams fail; all effort comes to nothing. This is one of the starkest of Jarrell’s disillusionment poems, in which the reality of pain and darkness is contrasted not with what might have been but what he once dreamed might be.
“Second Air Force”
First published: 1944 (collected in Little Friend, Little Friend, 1945)
Type of work: Poem
“Second Air Force” shows the waste and futility of World War II through the meditations of a woman.
One of Jarrell’s war poems that slants the issue through the eyes of a woman, this poem tells the story of a woman come to visit her son one afternoon at a bomber training field. She sees the landscape, the hangars, and the men working on the planes as an alien world.
Jarrell comments that the womanremembers what she has read on the front page of her newspaper the week before, a conversation between a bomber, in flames over Germany, and one of the fighters protecting it: “Then I heard the bomber call me in, ’Little Friend, Little Friend, I got two engines on fire . . . .’ I said, ’I’m crossing right over you. Let’s go home.’”
The woman feels the night coming on and she fears for the young soldiers, innocent and purposeful, so vulnerable next to the arms and equipment they have to trust. She is not able to buy into their purpose—but they are not able to look beyond it. “For them the bombers answer...
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