In one of his most moving poems, “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) presents a woman of no particular accomplishment who—feeling her life drab and colorless—looks at the caged animals, “these beings trapped / As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap.” Given the banality of her life, it is her foreknowledge of impending death that preoccupies the poet. The routine, the ordinary, the humdrum have become too much for her. She seeks deliverance, even at the price of some imagined violence. In the end, thinking about the vulture, tearing at “the white rat that the foxes left,” she begs it to transfigure itself and step down to her “as man.” And the poem concludes, “You know what I was, / You see what I am: change me, change me!”

This longing for change is Jarrell’s most emotionally intense, most highly charged theme. To transformation, to metamorphosis, even to transmogrification in its more grotesque forms Jarrell returned, again and again, in poem after poem. That in some profound way he was always dissatisfied with himself seems inescapable. And the shocking news, in October 1965, that this distinguished poet had been struck by an automobile on a dark highway in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, raised an ambiguous question as to whether it had been an accident or whether he had thrown himself in front of the speeding car. I shall return to this question in a moment, and to the sense of the event as given by William H. Pritchard in his new biography, Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life.

But first it is worth remembering that, as a poet, Randall Jarrell had the good luck to have gone to Vanderbilt and to have taught at Kenyon College during the first flowering of the Agrarian poets and critics and to have known closely John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor, among others. His education led him into a career of teaching, which was interrupted by World War II, in which he served as an airman. Afterward, with the publication of his impressive volumes Blood for a Stranger (1942), Little Friend, Little Friend (1945), Losses (1948), The Seven-League Crutches (1951), and Selected Poems (1955), he won several prizes for poetry, attained national recognition, won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and gained appointment to literary posts at the Nation and Partisan Review.

His novel Pictures from an Institution (1954) was a hilarious satire on progressive education as offered by a school like Sarah Lawrence, where he had taught in the late 1940’s, before moving on to the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Setting aside some scathing literary criticism—collected in Poetry and the Age (1953), A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962), and The Third Book of Criticism (1969)—as well as some children’s books and anthologies, Jarrell is perhaps best remembered for the surprising power of a pair of late volumes of verse, The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960), which won the National Book Award, and The Lost World (1965).

I had the good luck to meet Randall Jarrell in Chapel Hill in 1961. Even before these final two volumes, however, it was apparent to me that Jarrell—a splendidly bearded yet trim, fit, and athletic figure—was transfixed by the sensibility of the child, whose primitive terrors he knew and understood so well. Many of his World War II poems had made him seem the best of the war poets, and his most wellknown poem—”The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner”—has been so frequently anthologized that it virtually stands for a whole generation’s war verse. But it was Jarrell’s vignettes of childhood—the oppression of the mother, the confusion about what adults thought and did in secret, the fear of getting lost, the rage to run away—these poems, always invoking the atmosphere of Grimm’s fairy tales as seen through the Oedipal lens of Freud, that seemed his strongest or at least most characteristic. It was as if his sensibility lived in the world of Hansel and Gretel; thus it came as no surprise to me, but it was in fact a discovery, to learn from Pritchard that Jarrell had Maurice Sendak do the illustrations for his children’s books, which I had not seen. Oddly enough, Jarrell never had any children himself, though he appears to have been a splendid stepfather to the two daughters of his second wife, Mary von Schrader Jarrell (who edited his letters in 1985).

Toward the end of his life, in 1962, Jarrell’s mother returned to him the letters he had written her during a childhood period he had spent in California with his grandparents. Out of these come the remarkable ubi sunt poems of The Lost World, where evil is first encountered in childhood and death most terrifyingly discovered. Mr. Pritchard is loath to agree with other critics that these poems slide into sentimentality, and he is fain to point out that, if Jarrell’s poems are grim, his life and his correspondence were generally upbeat and genial. But I am inclined to think that these childhood letters, returned to him just as age came upon him most unexpectedly, must have triggered the depression and the suicide attempt that landed him in the hospital at Chapel Hill. At the time Jarrell went out onto the highway where he was struck by the car, he was an outpatient at the hospital and undergoing therapy for the wrist he had slashed some months before. The passengers in the car said that Jarrell had “turned” or “lunged” toward it. Pritchard poses all of the possible questions about what might or might not have been on Jarrell’s mind that dark night and responsibly concludes that we simply cannot know. Nor could the doctor conducting the autopsy, who ruled with the coroner that “it was an accidental death, ‘reasonable doubt about its being a suicide’ being present in their minds.”

Somehow, accident or suicide, the event was not surprising to me, as if the poems said in their way that the man who composed them expected not to die in his bed at a great old age. Mary Jarrell has always insisted that it was an accident. Yet Randall’s friends Peter and Eleanor Taylor and Robert Lowell felt that the death was a suicide. Certain it is that Jarrell knew what he had been, saw what he was. And he always knew—as the poem “The Marchen” makes clear—that disaster for Hansel lay in not learning how “to change, to change.”


[Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life, by William H. Pritchard (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 338 pp., $25.00]