Randall Jarrell was born in Nashville in 1914 and grew up in Tennessee and Southern California. He studied under poet and critic John Crowe Ransom at Vanderbilt University and followed him to Kenyon College, where he lived in Ransom’s attic with the young Robert Lowell and wrote his thesis on A.E. Housman. Encouraged by Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, Jarrell was the crown prince of the Southern poets and New Critics. During World War II, he washed out of flight school and became a celestial-navigation instructor at Army Air Force bases in Texas and at Chanute Field, near Champaign-Urbana, in Illinois. He married Mackie Langham in 1940 and (after his divorce) Mary von Shrader in 1952. He was literary editor of the Nation in 1946-47 and taught at the Women’s College of North Carolina in Greensboro from 1947 to 1965. He escaped from this provincial backwater to the Salzburg (Austria) Seminar in the summer of 1948 and to Princeton in 1951-52, and was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress in 1956-57.
Stephen Burt, uncritical when examining his subject’s statements, offers a derivative and shallow account of Jarrell’s life in his opening chapter. With characteristic self-pity, Jarrell exaggerated the “hellish” hardships of the ordinary school-boy job of delivering newspapers and learning the useful lesson that adults tell lies. And why did Jarrell find the intelligence, society, and vocabulary of teenage Army recruits to be “all surprisingly low”? Burt quotes Jarrell’s friend, who called him “faintly monstrous”—probably because of his streak of cruelty—without explaining what he meant, and he tamely notes that Mackie “inspired [his] warm feelings.”
Jarrell, who admitted “I am childish in many ways” and longed for someone “to come and make me [a] pet,” was domesticated and tamed by his second wife and submerged his identity in hers. Mary encouraged his regressive dependence on her as well as his cloying “little language” of endearments. One of his students recalled that, when Jarrell was invited to the girls’ dorm, he and Mary behaved like teenagers going steady: “[T]hey held hands or he stood by her, entwining his arm in the curve of her shawl.” In a New York hotel, they acted like “The Bobbsey Twins at the Plaza.” After his death, Mary made a mess of editing his Letters and then wrote a self-serving account of their traumatic marriage.
By following Mary’s party line, Burt curries favor in order to get her permission to quote unpublished material and ignores the facts of Jarrell’s suicide. Mary—in California at the time, eager to exculpate herself and keen to collect the insurance money—is no authority. The state trooper who investigated the incident could not explain why Jarrell—having dressed himself entirely in black shortly after slashing his wrist—was walking at night on a major highway. Burt writes that the trooper reported: “‘We are going on the assumption that it was suicide.’ He said witnesses reported that the victim ‘had lunged into the side of the car that struck him.’ No charges were placed against the driver.” In North Carolina, such an incident has to be ruled an accident if no certain evidence—such as a written note—indicates that suicide was intended. By 1965, Jarrell feared he had lost his poetic powers, was crushed by hostile reviews of his latest book, felt he had not fulfilled his brilliant promise, and had suffered a severe nervous breakdown and manic-depressive psychosis. His close friends—Lowell, John Berryman, and Peter Taylor—all believed he killed himself.
Burt discusses Jarrell’s poetry thematically rather than chronologically and tries to explain it in the context of sociological thought. But most of the sociologists he invokes are either obvious (“caring for pets . . . is free of gender-role as-sociations”) or opaque (“Equality provides to the self another who is an each”); exchanging one jargon for another fails to illuminate Jarrell’s poems. Burt’s third-hand method is to cite a supposed expert such as Melanie Klein, use Joseph Smith to summarize her thought, and then quote a literary critic—Alan Williamson—to make the putative connection to Jarrell. Burt pointlessly cites Nancy Chodorow’s leaden prose to show that an account of psychic life places its actors “in a relational world—both internally object-relational and interpersonally intersubjective.” Burt calls Jarrell’s novel Pictures From an Institution “comic” but somehow misses the hilarity when discussing the novel by quoting Chris Jenks’ Childhood, portentously following Talcott Parsons: “[T]he social norms . . . diminish the potential distinction between the self and the collectivity by engendering a coinciding set of interests.” As Byron, in the dedication of Don Juan, said of Coleridge: “I wish he would explain his explanation.”
This study—earnest, pedestrian, and dull—began as a misguided dissertation and still reads like one. Burt cites social theorist Eli Zaretsky, tin-eared critic Helen Vendler, and (again) Alan William-son to support the commonplace claim that “mid-century literature owed much to Freud.” Burt frequently mentions Marx’s influence on Jarrell but never defines it, is superficial on Rilke’s poetry, and never gets beyond Proust’s madeleine and lime-leaf tea at the beginning of Swann’s Way.
This university-press book is filled with errors. Burt does not know foreign languages and cannot correctly transcribe foreign words. He misspells Pietà, Bonassola, Salammbô (repeating Jarrell’s error), de la Tour, Musée des Beaux Arts, le Byron de nos jours, Hier bin i’ (ich), and wo die Zitronen blühn. He also misspells C.K. Scott-Moncrieff and Jarrell (with three l’s, on page 272) and has particular difficulty with the town in Ohio, variously but incorrectly printed as “Cinncinnati” and “Cincinnatti.” Katharine Hepburn has only one leopard in Bringing Up Baby. Saint Jerome did not “write” the Vulgate but translated the Hebrew and Greek texts into Latin. Orwell did not die “soon after,” but several years after, Jarrell asked him to write reviews for the Nation. Burt rightly states that Jarrell’s characters often “quote or allude to books they have read” and then misses many important allusions in his work.
When Burt abandons his sociological props and boldly ventures out on his own, his conclusions are weak, disappointing, and sometimes meaningless. He announces that Jarrell “uses ideas and categories that sort individuals by age”; that he views “the family as a refuge from the impersonal, instrumental ‘social’ world”; that the boy in “Field and Forest” is “described within psychology, most fully, by object-relations models”; and, most strikingly, that “A Girl in the Library” “finally appeals to familiar gendered binarisms.” What poetry needs, Burt suggests, is more “gendered binarisms.” It is sad to see the brilliant Jarrell subjected to this ham-fisted treatment.
Burt is woefully inadequate on Jarrell’s major poems on paintings. He does not seriously consider “The Knight, Death, and the Devil” and “The Old and the New Masters” and does not even mention Dürer when discussing “Jerome,” which uses several of Dürer’s engravings to suggest a series of parallels between the saint and the psychoanalyst. The deeply moving paintings that inspired these poems become the perfect vehicle for Jarrell’s union of Rilke’s and Auden’s great themes about the modern world: the loss of faith, the indifference to suffering, and the transcendent power of art.
Jarrell had interesting ideas, but he wrote many limp, prosaic, and unmemorable lines. He too often was fanciful and fey, precious and dreamy, whimsical and sentimental. His melancholy frequently merged with self-pity. He indulged in tedious repetition and rhetorical questions: “The flesh wishes itself back, wishes the wish / Unwished” and “Hunters, hunters—but why should I go on?” Jarrell lacked the lyrical sweetness of Ted Roethke, the technical mastery and poignancy of Elizabeth Bishop, the acetylene intensity of Lowell, Berryman, and Sylvia Plath. The unhappy irony of his career is that he wanted to be a great poet but now is remembered for his satiric novel and his savage criticism.
[Randall Jarrell and His Age, by Stephen Burt (New York: Columbia University Press) 291 pp., $29.50]
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