The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

“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.”

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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 enhanced by the very act of memory. The poem, therefore, like the life it describes, “meander[s],” starting with a moment in the poet’s present and drifting by associations back through one memory after another, “world after world.”

As he sits with his wife and cat, in a scene of domestic bliss, Jarrell’s taste of chocolate tapioca sparks a recollection of childhood, which in turn sparks the desire to remember even more. He recalls how they had returned to Los Angeles at one time to find it changed utterly; that scene dissolves, over the span of an ellipsis, into an even more remote time. Change and death are confronted and defeated through a series of vignettes in which the poet remembers and, in some cases, addresses such figures from his past as the mad girl whom he drove with her mother to the hospital in Daytona: “If I took my eyes from the road/ And looked back into her eyes, the car would—I’d be—.”

An element of irony attaches to the “Lost World” in the title. Jarrell recovers his Lost World through an asserted imagination, almost an act of faith: “. . . All of them are gone/ Except for me; and for me nothing is gone.” Finally, he is able to see the changes wrought by time as “miraculous” rather than as the “pain” the speaker feels in the much earlier “90 North” (from Blood for a Stranger, 1942).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

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 poems, in this case “The Lost World,” and cannot be explained without them. In the earlier poem, the young boy’s grandmother wrings a chicken’s neck, and, in his first encounter with the reality of death, he looks on horrified as the creature flops about. In the present poem, that moment produces one of Jarrell’s rare metaphors as the chicken’s body becomes “a satellite” bearing the mad scientist of science fiction lore (also present in the earlier poem). The horror of his youthful reaction has been transformed by the older poet’s imagination into an image that both recalls a fantasy that once thrilled the boy and suggests a far grimmer reality of which the older poet, in the midst of the Cold War, must be aware.

The fleeting narrative recollections give the poem its movement, the act of “thinking” its action. For example, when the now gray-bearded poet hears a boy call him Santa Claus, he waves back, pleased, because “It is miraculous/ To have the children call you Santa Claus.” When his hand drops back to the steering wheel, however, he is perplexed: “Where’s my own hand? My smooth/ White bitten-fingernailed one?” That simple gesture seems to span the years between youth and age, and the poet recognizes that the passing of time is partly responsible for miracles.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 112

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.

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Themes