The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Knight, Death, and the Devil” by Randall Jarrell is a carefully organized forty-line free-verse poem inspired by an engraving from the sixteenth century German artist Albrecht Dürer. The poem’s title is the same as the traditional title given to the engraving, but in German it is simply called “Der Reuter,” “The Rider,” making reference to the knight, its central figure.

In anthologies, the two works, one verbal, one visual, are often presented together. Thus the poem is an example of ekphrasis (Greek for “to speak out”), the verbal representation of a visual work of art. Its technique of alternating description and interpretation can be compared with the pure ekphrasis of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” in which the art object exists solely and wholly in words, and with W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which uses several paintings but centers finally upon Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with Fall of Icarus.

In an ekphrastic poem such as Jarrell’s, description of the art object complements interpretation. Indeed, the very choice of what to describe, and in what order and in how much detail, itself constitutes an element of interpretation. Each choice suggests a thematic priority. The titles for the poem and the engraving suggest that first the knight, then Death, and finally the devil will be described, but Jarrell begins with Death (lines 1-8), moves next to the devil (lines 9-20), and concludes with the knight (lines 21-40). Ultimately the poem is about the resolute knight, symbol of all humanity, journeying with Death ever nearby while beset with trials and tribulations from the devil.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Jarrell opens with a description of Death “cowhorn-crowned, shockheaded, cornshuck-bearded,” compound adjectives that seek to capture the way Dürer has drawn him. Participles and strings of adjectives throughout the poem mimic a German extended adjective construction, appropriate diction since the inspiration for the poem is a German work of art. As Jarrell likens Death’s scraggly beard to cornshucks, he decides Death is but a “scarecrow” such as one might find in a cornfield, but his head “trimmed with adders,” poisonous snakes, is sinister nevertheless.

The artist has placed Death upon a pale horse that, Jarrell notes, “crops herbs beside a skull,” evidence of Death’s work. The pale horse is dictated by a biblical passage, Revelation 6:8. The skull and other imagery in the engraving suggest to the poet metaphors for the brevity of life. For example, in the engraving, Death holds up “the crossed cones of time,” an hourglass filled with sand. Death is “warning” the knight that his time is running out. Indeed, the sands of time “narrowing into now, the Past and Future/ Are quicksand” that will trap the knight, symbol of all humanity.

With a line break, Jarrell shifts his attention to the devil, but he does not name him until line 19. He is “the hoofed pikeman [who] trots behind,” for as the Book of Revelation says, “There was Death on a pale horse, and Hades [the devil] followed close behind.” In the...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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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.