Randall Jarrell 1914-1965
American poet, critic, novelist, translator, essayist, and author of children's books.
Jarrell is among the foremost figures of the so-called “Middle Generation” of twentieth-century American poets. This group, which includes such noted authors as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Delmore Schwartz, displays in its verse the influence of the Modernist movement of the first half of the twentieth century as exemplified by T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. While borrowing from the Modernists the theme of cultural decline, the Middle Generation poets adhered to no set artistic credo and developed styles as original and diverse as their Modernist predecessors. Often praised for the lucidity and erudition of his verse, Jarrell is chiefly remembered for his skilled poetic evocations of the dehumanizing forces of war and for his sympathetic, psychological portrayal of a diverse range of narrative personas, many of them women and children, in his dramatic monologues. In addition to poetry, Jarrell is regarded as an insightful literary critic, noted for his astute evaluations of such American poets as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman. His critical writings are generally considered to be his most significant contribution to twentieth-century literature.
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1914, Jarrell was reared by his grandparents in Hollywood, California. The family's proximity to the center of the U.S. film industry helped nurture Jarrell's later interest in the relationship between fantasy and reality. He attended Vanderbilt University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and a graduate degree in English while studying under such prominent Fugitive poets as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate. Although he never completely adopted their tenets, Jarrell often employed the forms and psychological content characteristic of the Fugitives in his subsequent writing. Prior to the second World War, Randall taught English at Kenyon College and at the University of Texas. In 1940 his first poetic work to received significant critical attention, a short collection titled “The Rage for the Lost Penny,” published in Five Young American Poets. The work was later reprinted in his initial solo volume of verse, Blood for a Stranger (1942), a collection he dedicated to his former teacher Allen Tate. Jarrell enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and spent most of his tenure as a flight and navigation instructor. He resumed his academic career following his discharge in 1946 and taught and lectured at numerous American colleges and universities, including Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, and the Women's College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. At the same time, he continued to write and publish collections of poetry and literary criticism. In his later years, Jarrell was beset by physical and emotional problems that resulted in at least one suicide attempt. He was killed when struck by a car while walking near his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1965.
Jarrell's poetry is frequently divided into three distinct periods: his early verse is largely derivative of Modernist experimentations and employs the heavily metered lines and metaphysical themes typical of Fugitive poetry of the post-World War I era; his volumes published after World War II reflect the alienation and loneliness of both children and adults during the war, and his later compositions, often rendered in colloquial language, display his extensive knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and children's literature, especially the German märchen, or folktale. Representative of Jarrell's early work, many of the pieces of Blood for a Stranger focus on the moral and cultural bankruptcy Jarrell perceived to exist in the twentieth century, while other compositions, including “Children Selecting Books at a Library,” examine relationships between art and life, childhood and adulthood. Jarrell's next two volumes, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948), explore serious themes derived from his experiences of war, while revealing a more relaxed style than that of his previous works. Reflecting his impressions of World War II, such frequently anthologized pieces as “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and “Eighth Air Force” are noted for their vivid images of the effects of war and are widely considered among the best poems inspired by the conflict. Jarrell's verse following World War II focuses on more esoteric intellectual themes and calls attention to his fascination with German culture. The Seven-League Crutches (1951) and The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Poems and Translations (1960), the latter of which won the National Book Award for poetry, chronicle the paradoxes and contrarieties of an increasingly commercial society. In one of his most famous pieces, “A Girl in a Library,” Jarrell's narrator structures a dialectic between educated and uneducated states of mind as well as between past and present cultures. “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” and “Seele im Raum” utilize the dramatic monologue form to develop sympathetic psychological portraits of lonely, middle-aged women. The Lost World (1965) features autobiographical poems inspired by Jarrell's often pessimistic reflections on his own discontented childhood.
In addition to poetry, Jarrell also produced a number of notable accomplishments in fiction and criticism. His novel-length prose work, Pictures from an Institution (1954), which derives from his experiences as a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College, presents a comic and satirical portrait of life in modern academia. Several critical volumes, such as Poetry and the Age (1953), A Sad Heart at the Supermarket: Essays and Fables (1962), The Third Book of Criticism (1969), and Kipling, Auden & Co.: Essays and Reviews 1935-1964 (1980), reveal Jarrell's witty, perceptive, and often acerbic opinions of modern writers. Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection (1985) also features numerous examples of his literary preferences. Among his other works, Jarrell labored near the end of his career on a translation of Goethe's Faust, Part I (1976), considered a commendable version of the famous German drama notoriously difficult to render into English. Finally, as a noted children's writer, Jarrell produced a series of juvenile books, such as The Bat-Poet (1964) and Fly By Night (1976) with illustrator Maurice Sendak.
Jarrell's reputation as a poet has generally suffered in comparison with his extraordinary career as a scholar and literary critic. While his critical writings have been almost universally admired—except by those who have been the subject of his frequently mordant remarks—his poetic collections have generally met with mixed reviews. Many commentators on his verse have accused him of sentimentality and self-indulgence or have disdained the so-called “femininity” of his writing, whereas others see Jarrell's imaginative ability to sympathize with female personas to be one of his strengths. Still other critics have noted that a tendency to lose dramatic focus in favor of empty abstraction mars many of Jarrell's poetic works. Most agree, nonetheless, that Jarrell's war-inspired poems are among his best, and that his experience and understanding of World War II contributed to a clarity and power in his writing. Hayden Carruth has asserted of Jarrell's war poetry: “When the war came he already possessed a developed poetic vocabulary and a mastery of forms. Under the shock of war his mannerisms fell away. He began to write with stark, compressed lucidity.” Following Jarrell's tragic death—an event that some who knew him believe was a suicide—a number of his former friends and colleagues honored him with the publication of Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965, a collection of tributes, reminiscences, and republished reviews edited by Robert Lowell, Pete Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren, which offers a testament to the brilliance of Jarrell's critical capacity and the degree to which he had earned the respects of his peers, critics and poets alike. Subsequently, many more of Jarrell's diverse writings in prose and poetry appeared posthumously, including his Complete Poems (1969).