He Had What It Takes

Kipling, Auden & Co. Essays and Reviews, 1935-1964

by Randall Jarrell
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 381 pp., $17.95

The title of this fourth and final collection of Randall Jarrell’s essays and reviews excited my expectation of being at last able to read the remarkable lectures on Auden that I, as a graduate student, heard him deliver at the Gauss Seminars in Princeton in the early 1950s. The title excited memories too—memories of a lean, sunburned man with a mustache, a poet in sports clothes who roared around town on a motorcycle, played tennis with rich local ladies, and, when he lectured, quoted Whitman, Auden, and Frost in a high, twanging, nearly lachrymose voice. I recall the salvo of laughter that greeted his complaint (voiced this time in a hilarious, deep-country Southern accent) that the attitude of most high-brow critics toward practicing poets was, “Go away, pig! What do you know about bacon?”—a line that subsequently appeared in the essay called “The Age of Criticism.” And I remember overhearing one of his tennis partners remarking that she found him moody, difficult to make conversation with.

But if memory was happily stimulated, expectation was disappointed. The Auden lectures, according to a prefatory note in the collection, “were not left in a form that justifies their appearance alongside Jarrell’s published work”; they will, however (we are promised), be made available in a scholarly journal. Thus the title, Kipling, Auden & Co., proves somewhat misleading, despite the fact that Auden makes a number of appearances in the book. Even the inclusion of Kipling in the title creates a questionable impression since two of the three essays on that writer had previously appeared in earlier collections, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962) and The Third Book of Criticism (1969).

The bulk of the collection consists of reviews dating from 1935 to 1964. Many of these are brief, amounting to little more than a page, while others, from little magazines and The Nation, are of the omnibus or verse-chronicle variety, with a paragraph or two or three devoted to as many as fourteen writers in a single article. Wallace Stevens, Frost, Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings, Willa Cather, Adrienne Rich, Pound, and of course Auden figure in these reviews, along with many others (Conrad Aiken, Witter Bynner, John Frederick Nims, Francis Golffing, etc.) who are little read nowadays or else forgotten. Then there is a scattering of occasional articles on subjects as diverse as Ernie Pyle, abstract expressionism, and sports cars. Four of the more substantial essays are (like “On Preparing to Read Kipling”) lifted from A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, which is out of print. One senses a certain desperation on the publisher’s part to create a marketable package.

But if Kipling, Auden & Co. has, inevitably, a scrappy, catch-all quality about it, the book is none the less welcome as a reminder (perhaps more than as an example) of Jarrell’s exceptional gifts as a critic. The glory of his criticism, as Robert Lowell pointed out, was eulogy. Its chief weakness, particularly in the early pieces, was a tendency toward summary…

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