Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Jarrell’s war poems show the cost of war in terms of losses; one of his poetry books is even entitled Losses (1948). Critics have complained that Jarrell’s World War II poems diminish heroic participants to a metaphor of lambs to slaughter—“killable puppets,” as author James Dickey put it. However, Jarrell saw the soldiers as victims indeed, children to become blood sacrifices. In other poems Jarrell juxtaposes the open-hearted expectations of children with the grim reality of war in a variety of ways; sometimes the children are not soldiers but simply real children who believe in the goodness of adults, and whose innocence will be destroyed by the exigencies of war.

However, the innocents are frequently the soldiers themselves who seem randomly chosen to kill or be killed, without their having a voice. Jarrell never lets the reader forget that these are people, individuals with their own potentials, who are being sacrificed to the machine of war. Often his method is to focus on the clear, childlike perceptions of the speaker and his ignorance of the machine that has him in its grip. There is certainly something of a child’s voice in this speaker, who from beyond the grave describes the mechanics of removing his body from the turret. He never does understand what controlled his fate; he never does truly awaken to anything but the fact that he was born to be a victim. The device of having the dead soldier speak owes something to...

(The entire section is 529 words.)