“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.