Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1932
The Lost World is the last book Randall Jarrell prepared for publication, and it is considered his finest work. The lost world of the title is, first of all, the world of childhood, inevitably lost as the child grows into adulthood. Innocence is lost to experience, ignorance to knowledge, and immediate reality to habit and routine. Childhood can be recovered only in memory and can be given limited immortality only in works of art. Individual consciousness is extinguished in death, the final loss of the world for everyone. The earth, too, is finite, but this knowledge brings wisdom, which also depends on recovering the child’s way of viewing the world with what Jarrell calls “interest.” It evokes what he calls “adoration” for life and empathy for all things that die.
In the title poem of the collection, “The Lost World,” Jarrell remembers his own childhood, when he lived for a while with his grandparents, Pop and Mama, and his great-grandmother, Dandeen, in Hollywood, California. The poem is divided into three sections. In the first, “Children’s Arms,” Jarrell recalls himself as a boy of twelve, coming home from school on Friday to begin his weekend. He passes a Hollywood motion-picture lot, where a papier-mâché dinosaur and pterodactyl look over the fence of the set for the film The Lost World. When he gets home, the boy arms himself with his homemade bow and arrows, ready to climb to his tree house and begin his real life of make-believe.
At the beginning of adolescence, the boy is already losing his innocence. He wakes up Saturday morning trying to remember his dream of a wolf and a tall girl. Then he accompanies Pop to the adult world of work, where he realizes that “the secret the grown-ups share, is what to do to make money.” That evening the boy escapes back into childhood when he listens to Pop’s stories about his own childhood. In “A Night with Lions,” the second part of “The Lost World,” Jarrell remembers his young aunt, who took him with her when she visited a friend who owned the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion. He confesses his “dream discovery” that his breath comes faster whenever he hears someone with her voice. She gives him the image he will seek to find in the woman he marries, compelling him into adulthood.
In “A Street off Sunset,” the third part of “The Lost World,” Jarrell recounts the boy’s growing knowledge of good and evil. On Sunday evening, he is reading a book about a mad scientist who is planning to destroy the world. Forced to go to bed, he puts his arms around Mama, Pop, and Dandeen, and they put theirs around him. Caring for one another is the good that contrasts with the evil of the scientist. The boy claims not to believe in God, but in bed he listens to a woman preaching on the radio. He imagines her holding out her arms to release people from the “bonds of sin, of sleep.”
The next morning he finishes his book as he gets ready for school. Good is victorious over evil. After school, however, he learns that issues of good and evil are not always clear. Dandeen tells him her memories of the Civil War, and he watches Mama wring the neck of a chicken, its headless body “lunging and reeling” in “great flopping circles.” He realizes this could happen to him. With renewed worry about the mad scientist, he asks Pop if someone could really destroy the world. Pop reassures him that no one can.
In contrast to the focus on childhood in “The Lost World,” Jarrell portrays adulthood in “Hope.” The child has grown up to become a husband and the father of his own child. It is two o’clock in the morning of Christmas Eve. The man’s wife and son are asleep. Noticing the fir tree, covered in artificial snow, on top of a pile of presents, he says, “a man is a means.” He works to make money for his family. Dissatisfied with his life, he says he would rather live in the squirrel’s nest in the dream his son is having. He remembers wanting to tell his wife his nightmare about “the God Fish,” who told him the story of Sleeping Beauty. In their version, however, she wakes when the prince kisses her, only to turn over and go back to sleep. She sleeps inside the wife/mother. The boy, the prince, inside the husband/father would like to recover the girl in his wife. He considers waking her, but he imagines she would only tell him that he is dreaming. Then he thinks—“later on, who knows?”
Like the wife in “Hope,” most of the adults in The Lost World sleep through life, unless something wakes them to the repressed knowledge of their own mortality. Such is the speaker of “Next Day.” An affluent, middle-aged housewife, she has everything she wished for as a girl: a husband, a house, and children. Having attended the funeral of a friend on the previous day, she has become acutely aware of her age. She is bewildered that the boy putting groceries in her car does not see her. She remembers when the world looked at her and its “mouth watered.” She realizes now that she is not “exceptional.” Her dead friend’s face and body could be her face and body. Even though her life is “commonplace and solitary,” she is afraid it will change, like her friend’s.
Anxiety about death is also the subject of “In Montecito.” When the speaker, who lives in this fashionable suburb of Santa Barbara, is “visited” one midnight by a “scream with breasts,” he thinks of the recent death of an acquaintance, Greenie Taliaferro. In his nightmare, the scream comes from a billboard that contractors are tearing down. They strip off the “lips, let the air out of the breasts.” Greenie’s life is as temporary as the billboard, and Montecito is a place of death-in-life. In spite of money, or because of it, existence there is static, sterile, and suffocating. When the inhabitants pass from their sleep of life into the annihilation of death, they disappear into the “Greater Montecito” that “surrounds Montecito like the echo of a scream.”
In “The One Who Was Different,” Jarrell reveals that staying awake in life depends on the acceptance of death. The speaker is attending the funeral of Miss I——, who considered herself different from others but who has suffered the common human fate. Having been around the world twice, she lies in her casket, ready for the next trip—the trip to the grave. She has lived in the “earnest expectation” of life after death, but the speaker states that life is only a “temporary arrangement of the matter.” At this point, the speaker notices a child waiting “eagerly” to look at death, another secret that grown-ups share. The child looks not with “sympathy or empathy” but with “interest”—“Without me.” Interest is objective and reveals what is, rather than being subjective and revealing what one wishes. The speaker knows this. He wishes he could have made Miss I—— see that those who make up their minds about death, if they accept mortality, could live in a state of “interest” and experience life as what it is and as it is—a kind of dream, or poem.
Most of Jarrell’s adults have lost the capacity to experience the immediate reality of life because they have repressed or denied the reality of death and gone to sleep in the habits and routines of adulthood. Two poems in The Lost World, taken from one of Jarrell’s children’s books, The Bat-Poet (1964), represent the child’s way of experiencing life with “interest.” “Bats” is a verbal rendition of a mother bat flying back and forth at night feeding on insects, while her baby clings to her. At dawn, she returns to her rafter, where she sleeps with her wings folded “about her sleeping child.” In a similar poem, “The Bird of Night,” an owl flies back and forth while all living creatures “hold their breath.” Both poems re-create immediate reality.
In “The Mockingbird,” also from The Bat-Poet, Jarrell relates the child’s way of experiencing life to that of the poet; the poet, the adult who has stayed awake, recovers life from death in memory and re-creates it in imagination. All day the mockingbird, an image of the poet, drives away other birds and even a black cat. Then, as the sun goes down and the moon rises—that juncture of life and death—the mockingbird imitates life. A thrush, then a thrasher, then a jay is heard, as well as the meowing of a cat. The mockingbird has made “the world he drove away” his “own.” The listener cannot tell which is the mockingbird, which the world. Art and reality are one.
In order to recover and transform experience—the “cheeping” and “squeaking” of experience become “singing” in “The Mockingbird”—the poet must see life not only with “interest” but also with “sympathy or empathy.” These feelings are the subject of “In Galleries,” which portrays three museum guards. The first represents indifference, the opposite of interest; the second represents sympathy and feeling for someone or something; and the third, who is a mute, represents empathy, the feeling with, becoming one with, someone or something. With a “rapt smile,” the third guard takes out a magnifying glass and shows the museum visitor that in the painting of the woman holding the death of the world in her arms the “something” on the man’s arm is “the woman’s tear.” Under this guard’s guidance, empathy occurs. The visitor “and the guard and the man and the woman are dumbly one.”
In “The Old and the New Masters,” Jarrell speculates as to the likely result for the earth, and the life it nourishes, if the human race fails to develop empathy. He refers to Georges de La Tour’s painting St. Sebastian Mourned by St. Irene to illustrate the old masters’ view of suffering: “no one breathes/ As the sufferers watch the sufferer.” Everyone has empathy with the sufferer because everyone is a sufferer. Jarrell refers to Hugo van der Goes’s Nativity to illustrate the old masters’ view of “adoration.” In this painting, everything is fixed on the world’s “small, helpless, human center”—the Christ child. For Jarrell, Christ represents the living, suffering body of the world.
Without adoration, the pure joy of beholding the miracle of being, there can be no empathy. The new masters paint a world that has lost adoration and empathy. At first, they put the Crucifixion in a corner of the canvas. Then Christ disappears from their paintings altogether. Finally, in a painting of the universe, the last master places a “bright spot” in a corner to represent “the small radioactive planet men called Earth.” This passage is Jarrell’s prophecy of the final loss of the world.
In “Thinking of the Lost World,” Jarrell returns to the scene of his childhood in Hollywood, where he finds smog instead of sunshine. His bow and arrows are lost, and the planks of his tree house have been burned as firewood, but he realizes that age is like childhood and that the lost world still lives in his memory. In happiness, he holds in his hands “Nothing: the nothing for which there’s no reward.” Life is a dream, a poem, that ends.