Discuss the images of war and/or soldiers and/or the military in Jarrell's poems.

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

After Randall Jarrell's lonely death, his friend Robert Lowell spoke of him as the most "heartbreaking" poet of his time; another friend, and also his teacher, John Crowe Ransom attributed to Jarrell a "a great flair for the poetry of desperation." Certainly, Jarrell's war poems are touched with nostalgia and an ambiance of deep emotion amid the disturbing tales of man's inhumanity to man.

In "The Death of a Ball Turrett Gunner"(1945), Jarrell creates the image of the gunner circled around the gun in a fetal-like posture, only to be paradoxically born into a gruesome death. "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose."

Of "Eighth Air Force" (1948), Jarrell remarked that it expressed best how he felt about war. In this poem Jarrell uses Biblical allusions and images to compare the criminals and murderers to the most despicable of those of the New Testament: Pilate, who traded the thief Barabbas for Jesus. Before the fighter planes go on their mission, a puppy laps water beside the drunken sergeant, who whistles an operatic aria, Paradiso. After his mission, he will wash his hands of the affair, but he washes them in the blood of those killed by his fighter plane.

The other murderers troop in yawning
Three of them play Pitch...

This is a war...But since these play, before they die,
Like puppies with their puppy...
I did as these have done, but did not die--....

Men wash their hands, in blood, as best they can.... 

Another war poem, "Second Air Force," describes a mother who has come to visit her son who will fly in one of the fighter planes. When she first sees him she notes " heavily," "My son has grown." This fearful realization is following by images of the death-machines on the "bubbling asphalt,"

The armorers in their patched faded green,
Sweat-stiffened, banded with brass cartridges,...
Stand wrong and flimsy on their skinny legs....
The engines rise to their blind laboring roar,
And the green, made beasts run home to air.

As she watches, noting the unnaturalness of the color green, the bleakness of the landscape, and the monstrous threat of the planes, the mother comprehends the threat to her beloved boy-turned-man.

...The hopeful cells
Heavy with someone else's death, cold carriers
Of someone else's victories, grope past their lives
Into her own bewilderment: The years meant this? 

In the shadows, a metaphoric shadow falls upon her heart as she thinks of all her labors of love and sacrifice for her son to only watch as he may go to his death. Then, Jarrell sardonically writes his final line, much as Crane wrote in "War is Kind":

But for them the bombers answer everything.

Indeed, "Second Air Force" is a poem of "desperation" and "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" is "heartbreaking."

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