Randall Jarrell Jarrell, Randall (Vol. 1) - Essay

Jarrell, Randall (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jarrell, Randall 1914–1965

American poet, novelist, critic, and author of books for children, Jarrell is remembered for his World War II poems and for his critical work, Poetry and the Age. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

One of the salient qualities of Randall Jarrell's poetry is a freshness of observation, a sense of direct and immediate and unhackneyed response. Doubtless this quality is related to a kind of innocence in Jarrell as a person, an innocence that one would be tempted to call childlike except that Jarrell was preternaturally articulate and thoroughly tough-minded. It was this or a related quality that made his critical essays so bright and refreshing. Yet his spontaneity and innocence (whether turned toward lyrical freshness or satirical acerbity) could, because they are so prominent in his poetry, blind the casual reader to the presence of other important qualities, qualities that one tends to associate with another kind of mind and with another order of talents. I am thinking of Jarrell's architectural quality, his ability to build the lofty rhyme, or—since we don't need to limit ourselves to Milton's precise phrasing—to build other sorts of rhyme, but in any case, to give us poems that are intricate and rich in their varying tonalities.

Cleanth Brooks, "Jarrell's 'Eighth Air Force'," in Literary Opinion in America, edited by Morton Zabel, Harper & Row, 1951.

Behind the witty, passionate intensity of Jarrell's style there is always a huge, half-rhetorical, half-shocked question: How can any human being in his right mind disregard the power and the glory of poetry? It is as if someone asked: How can you disregard the Atlantic Ocean, the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls? Poetry has the overwhelming reality of these natural phenomena, and it is certainly far more interesting. Hence Jarrell is always speaking to the reader as a dedicated, possessed poet. But at times he is speaking only as a poet and purely as a poet. Poetry is one of the most important things in the world to him, as it should be; but at times it is the most important thing in the world, which is surely too close to poetry as the only important thing in the world. The result is a certain narrowness of perspective.

Delmore Schwartz, "On Poetry and the Age" (© 1953 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), in New York Times Book Review, August 16, 1953, p. 1.

Jarrell has constantly stretched himself to find a language commensurate with his affectionate sadness for the human condition, and his reserved belief in human joy. His imagination has, from the beginning, been flawless; but his full concern for speaking no less than the truth has sometimes (almost prosaically) flattened his lines, and (because the truth was ever complex) his poems have sometimes seemed confused in their always dramatic structure.

Philip Booth, "The Poet Fulfills the Man" (© 1965 by The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission of The Christian Science Monitor), in The Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 1965, p. 7.

Randall Jarrell was in many ways the wonder and terror of American poetry during the late 40's and early 50's. Like Shelley, as Robert Lowell fondly describes him after a friendship of thirty years, in his "harsh luminosity," he could glide for days against the sun, swooping down every so often with murderous effect on the warblers and thrushes…. He reached maturity at the climax of the New Critical era, whose excesses he both relished and deplored with brilliant finality, and could not have been the kind of poet he was had he not been an equally good critic…. He made his debut as a war poet of astonishing poise and fullness for so young a man; for several older critics who had recognized his quality immediately and done it justice, but who lost him in the radical-pastoral, romantically nostalgic, bittersweet idylls of his middle career, Randall Jarrell remained the poet of the war.

R. W. Flint, "On Randall Jarrell," in Commentary, February, 1966, pp. 79-81.

[In] all of [Jarrell's poems] a new and original voice is speaking. The earlier ones display a more formal music than the later ones, and have a greater dignity. They do not have so much "true-to-life" and prolix detail, nor resort to sprawling long lines, and broken lines, and words and phrases in capital letters. I suppose these are trifles and I am too dainty about them, but I prefer poems of ordinary length to be so compacted that their meanings overflow their spaces. They will expand enormously in the mind of the reader, who as his taste requires finds himself working precisely to that end, and becoming a sort of individual proprietor having special rights in the poet's legacy.

John Crowe Ransom, "The Rugged Way of Genius," in The Southern Review, Vol. III, No. 2, Spring, 1967, pp. 263-81.

Jarrell has a wonderful feeling for dreams and for the children who attend them, for those countries to which a child creeps "out of his own life." He wrote many poems to chart those countries, planting them with their proper vines. In the nightmare poems the proof of desolation is the thought that the dream things are just the same as daily things.

Denis Donoghue, "The Lost World," in Randall Jarrell, 1914–1965, edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren, Farrar, Straus, 1967, pp. 49-62.

There is a certain irony in insisting that, after all, Randall Jarrell was a good critic, even if one hastens to quality by adding a good critic, too; for one of his most admired essays was an attack upon criticism and his own age, which had come to admire that art almost more (Jarrell said simply "more," being accustomed to eschew "almosts") than poetry or fiction. But precisely the irony of the observation would have redeemed it for Jarrell, who was a lover of the double tone, the tongue in the cheek, the wry joke on oneself…. So, perhaps, we should settle for saying that Jarrell was not quite a critic finally, but rather a "real reader" joined in a single body to a compulsive talker, who could never resist any editor's invitation to turn his conversation into an article, a "piece," even an "omnibus review," though without ever losing the sense of breathlessness or the intimacy of the human voice. It is, at any rate, that conversational voice which lives again in our ear….

Leslie A. Fiedler, "Jarrell's Criticism: A Footnote," in Randall Jarrell, 1914–1965, edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor, and Robert Penn Warren, Farrar, Straus, 1967, pp. 63-9.