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...
(The entire section is 1932 words.)