The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In order to understand Randall Jarrell’s “The Old and the New Masters,” one must look first to English poet W. H. Auden’s “Musée de Beaux Arts,” which begins: “About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters.” Auden’s poem claims that the master painters—his primary exemplar is mid-sixteenth century Dutch painter Pieter Brueghel—recognized and depicted humankind’s callous indifference to the suffering of others. Their depictions are endorsed by Auden, not as the way things should be but as the way they are, and the title implies that art at its best presents this view. In “The Old and the New Masters,” Jarrell initially challenges this assertion by means of example, a series of paintings elaborately and lovingly described. As readers move through his argument, they see that in order to dispute Auden’s glib characterization of the old masters, Jarrell has created a gallery of his own, made up of other artists for whom the suffering in the world is the single most important fact of human existence.

Jarrell has little interest in formalistic constraints on his poetry. He intends for the subject and the dramatic occasion to determine the shape of the verse. This sixty-one-line poem is constructed of three parts. The first section sounds the Auden echo and posits Jarrell’s own poem as response. It goes on to describe French Renaissance painter George de La Tour’s Saint Sebastian Mourned by Saint Irene in such...

(The entire section is 502 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This poem is fueled by allusion, and to grasp the full import of this device readers should remember that an allusion does not merely force another text into their consciousness; rather, it borrows a mood, announces a debt, calls up another context that no longer exists, reminds the reader of an absence, and interjects a tone of pity for the reader’s loss. Another term for this effect is “intertextuality,” the acknowledgment that no text can be read outside its relations to other, already existing texts. In this case, the poem begins by calling to mind another poem (therefore another poet) that, by its title, declares as its subject the whole realm of fine arts. Jarrell then follows Auden’s lead in calling forth the exemplary works that will make his case. His careful choice of examples—religious subjects, emphatically Christian—brings into his poem the very elements that Jarrell fears are disappearing from more contemporary art: respect for the human being and for human suffering. Through such depictions of an art with a “human center,” Jarrell points beyond the poetry and beyond the painting to the world of spiritual and moral value.

In Jarrell’s poetry, the sentence is often more important than the line, and the sentences in this poem are built upon simple declaratives that are then embellished and extended by additional details, all connected by semicolons. By means of such sentences, the poet focuses the readers’ attention on a...

(The entire section is 496 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

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.