The Poem

“Thinking of the Lost World” is a long (ninety lines) free-verse meditation that imitates the associative structure of reverie. The last poem in Randall Jarrell’s last book of poetry, it almost demands to be read with the three-part poem “The Lost World” in the same volume. “Thinking of the Lost World” begins with a deliberate echo of Marcel Proust and the madeleine pastry in A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931), partly because Proust was one of Jarrell’s favorite authors, but primarily because Jarrell himself is interested in a similar project: recovering the past through imagination. In this sense, the title becomes doubly evocative, referring at once to the 1925 film based on an Arthur Conan Doyle short story (“The Lost World”) and to the poet’s lost world of childhood, part of which he spent in Hollywood in the care of his grandparents and great-grandmother, “Mama and Pop and Dandeen.”

At this point in his career, partly influenced by his friend Robert Lowell’s autobiographical experiments in Life Studies (1959), Jarrell confronts his own past head-on in the poems, infusing them with an intensely personal tone, risking the charge of sentimentality. In a voice alternately diffident and emphatic, he invites the reader to undertake this trip through time to his childhood, assuming that even though the experience is singular, its universality will be...

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Forms and Devices

Jarrell aspires to a verse that is colloquial, emotional, and rooted in particulars. Especially in the poems of his last book, The Lost World (1965), the reader finds the dramatic monologue, the speech, as the dominant form. Rarely do the poems revolve around specific metaphors or strive for the imagistic concision so often attributed to the style of the high modernists. John Crowe Ransom, one of Jarrell’s early mentors, cannot recall Jarrell’s ever using the term “metaphor.”

Jarrell is, however, the poet of allusion and reference, not only as a way of calling to mind another context for his own poem but also of reminding readers that the context no longer exists. Whether it be a passage from the Gospel, a veiled reference to William Shakespeare (Hamlet’s “undiscovered country”), or a simple borrowing from a silent film, the allusion is a reminder of something absent; in a poem about recovering the “lost,” this strategy is indeed appropriate. The echo of Proust at the beginning of the poem is as much a quotation as the lines from Mark 9:24 (“I believe. Help thou/ Mine unbelief.”); both are “memories” that tinge the poem with a subdued ruefulness the poet works to overcome. At the same time, Jarrell’s speaking voice gives form to a playful, wide-ranging intelligence to which quotation comes naturally.

Some images, such as the “chicken’s body” going around in circles, are drawn from Jarrell’s other...

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