The boy, leaning slightly forward, looks eagerly out of the frame, as if waiting for the next move in a game he likes, or for the next hypnotic gesture of his favorite magician. The eyes gleam; the smile is full of excitement. The photograph is in one sense quite conventional, a studio portrait of a boy in a sailor suit, circa 1916. But the look is extraordinary. The child’s happy expectation, the sense that he has seen something delightful and is about to see more, is unmistakable. The child is Randall Jarrell, aged two and a half years, and by all accounts this look stayed with him for another forty-eight years or so. There was always something delightful to see, and he was the person to see it. Soon after he turned fifty Jarrell went into a severe depression, with extravagant manic episodes. He tried to kill himself, but seemed to be on the mend when he was struck by a car while walking on a road in North Carolina, and died as a result of the blow.
“And yet, the ways we miss our lives are life,” Jarrell wrote in a poem. The ways we lose our lives are life too—or are they? Was this death an accident? His widow thinks so, and that was also the coroner’s opinion. But it must have been hard for anyone to say with confidence what Jarrell meant to do or not do—since he himself was not the person he had been. Jarrell’s friends Robert Lowell and Peter and Eleanor Taylor were convinced his death was a suicide. There are other possibilities, because as we all know, among the instigations of any event, there are many stages, many slips and stumblings and half-wishes, to be found between pure intention and pure accident.
Jarrell as a poet was certainly interested in accidents—almost as much as the little boy is interested in whatever is just outside the picture. “I die or live by accident alone” is a phrase whose aptness was noted by Christopher Benfey in a review some time ago, and which William Pritchard, in his shrewd and sympathetic biography of Jarrell, glosses carefully with an emphasis on the word “alone,” repeated at the end of Jarrell’s next line, “living or dying, I am still alone.” But Jarrell also wrote, “The accidents are too much in the end,” and in a fine translation of a poem by Rilke, he gave these words to an imaginary widow:
Wasn’t even my misery
Only lent me by fate?
Fate wants back not just the joy,
It wants back the torture and the screaming,
And it buys the wreck second-hand.
Much earlier Jarrell had written:
On country roads, in blood and fur,
My trunk repeated like a stammered word
Says, Driver, think too well of me
And feel your made world break like ice.
Later in the same poem, he says, “Die while you can die. Tomorrow/You will be …