The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Randall Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” is a free-verse monologue of thirty lines that reveals the alienation and frustration of an isolated speaker. Indeed, since the “woman” is so detached, the words of the poem are no doubt simply thought rather than spoken aloud. Composed when Jarrell worked in Washington, D.C., as poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, the poem is set at the national zoo in Rock Creek Park.

The female speaker is an anonymous clerk in the massive, impersonal federal bureaucracy. In an essay about how he composed this poem, Jarrell described her as “a kind of aging machine-part” and said she is “a near relation” of countless women he observed on the streets and in government buildings of Washington. The zoo suggests both sharp contrasts and revealing parallels with the woman’s condition. In a place that is colorful, exotic, and teeming with energy, she sees herself as drab, plain, and lifeless. Like the once-wild animals, however, she too is imprisoned behind bars.

Although the poem has no regular stanza pattern, several line breaks do indicate the progression of the woman’s thoughts and feelings. The poem proceeds from calm description to an outburst of fervent desire. It begins with deprecation but becomes a prayer.

In the first three lines she notices other visitors at the zoo—women in saris whose intense colors make the speaker appear even more bland and...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The power of this poem (described by one critic as Jarrell’s most visual) derives mainly from its rich images and metaphors. First, the poem uses clothing images as correlatives for the people inside. As viewed by the speaker, the colorful saris are not merely fashions from a foreign country. In contrast to her mundane clothing, they seem like garments—and lively people—from a completely different world. The speaker’s whole wardrobe is mentally reduced to one drab navy dress because both her attire and her entire life are so morbidly uniform. Line 11 confirms that the speaker’s dull dress is perfectly analogous to her vacuous body and soul. No sunlight dyes her pale body; “no hand suffuses.” Presumably, in the right context, light could animate and a loving touch could fill the empty container.

Along with this image of lifeless clothing, Jarrell uses several other images to suggest the woman’s diminished status. Since this is a poem of self-examination, the speaker repeatedly studies her reflection in mirrors. Looking into fountains, she sees an evasive, wavy image. Furthermore, that image is not on the surface but beneath the water, suggesting that she is drowning. Later she observes her reflection in the eyes of caged animals and, like her self-image, it is small and far-off. Such simulacra show that the woman is far removed from real life. Her failed attempts to engage it produce images that are shimmering, miniature, and remote.


(The entire section is 470 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.