When I first met Randall, he was twenty-three or four, and upsettingly brilliant, precocious, knowing, naive, and vexing. He seemed to make no distinction between what he would say in our hearing and what he would say behind our backs. If anything, absence made him more discreet. Woe to the acquaintance who liked the wrong writer, the wrong poem by the right writer, or the wrong lines in the right poem! And how those who loved him enjoyed admiring, complaining, and gossiping about the last outrageous thing he had done or, more often, said. It brought us together—whispering about Randall. In 1937, we both roomed at the house of John Crowe Ransom in Gambier, Ohio. Ransom and Jarrell had each separately spent the preceding summer studying Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and had emerged with unorthodox and widely differing theories. Roughly, Ransom thought that Shakespeare was continually going off the rails into illogical incoherence. Jarrell believed that no one, not even William Empson, had done justice to the rich, significant ambiguity of Shakespeare’s intelligence and images. I can see and hear Ransom and Jarrell now, seated on one sofa, as though on one love-seat, the sacred texts open on their laps, one fifty, the other just out of college, and each expounding to the other’s deaf ears his own inspired and irreconcilable interpretation.
Gordon Chalmers, the President of Kenyon College and a disciple of the somber anti-Romantic Humanists, once went skiing with Randall, and was shocked to hear him exclaiming, “I feel just like an angel.” Randall did somehow give off an angelic impression, despite his love for tennis, singular mufflers knitted by a girl-friend, and disturbing improvements of his own on the latest dance steps. His mind, unearthly in its quickness, was a little boyish, disembodied, and brittle. His body was a little ghostly in its immunity to soil, entanglements, and rebellion. As one sat with him in oblivious absorption at the campus bar, sucking a fifteen-cent chocolate milkshake and talking eternal things, one felt, beside him, too corrupt and companionable. He had the harsh luminosity of Shelley—like Shelley, every inch a poet, and like Shelley, imperilled perhaps by an arid, abstracting precosity. Not really! Somewhere inside him, a breezy, untouchable spirit had even then made its youthful and sightless promise to accept—to accept and never to accept the bulk, confusion, and defeat of mortal flesh…all that blithe and blood-torn dolor!
Randall Jarrell had his own peculiar and important excellence as a poet, and out-distanced all others in the things he could do well. His gifts, both by nature and by a lifetime of hard dedication and growth, were wit, pathos, and brilliance of intelligence. These qualities, dazzling in themselves, were often so well employed that he became, I think, the most heart-breaking English poet of his generation.
Most good poets are also good critics on occasion, but Jarrell was much more than this. He was a critic of genius, a poet-critic of genius at …