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 dismissiveness of a smart-alecky sort that he for the most part outgrew. In his eulogistic mode, Jarrell was able, in at least one instance, to redirect the taste of his times. It is difficult now to imagine the condescension and even contempt with which Whitman was regarded in the Forties and early Fifties by a small but influential elite of poets and critics who were under the sway of the New Criticism and a set of rules derived, not always accurately, from T.S. Eliot. To this little band Whitman seemed impossibly loose, lacking in a necessary formal or moral stringency, deficient in irony and ambiguity, unlettered, embarrassingly naive—in short, a sentimental mess. Jarrell, who in erudition, wit, and taste could hold his own with the most exacting critics of his day, was able, in “Some Lines from Whitman,” to demonstrate, by quotation and brilliantly directed praise, just what it was that made Whitman extraordinary; the demonstration, so far as I know, has never had to be repeated. Similarly, Jarrell, along with Lionel Trilling, did much to rescue Frost from the webbing of corn-silk that had obscured, in the eyes of his popular following, the old man’s dark and terrific side.
There is nothing in the new volume really comparable to “Some Lines from Whitman” or the essay on Frost, “To the Laodiceans,” both of which were reprinted in what is still Jarrell’s most important collection of criticism, Poetry and the Age (1953). While the laments for lost literacy entitled “The Taste of the Age” and “Poets, Critics, and Readers” (both from A Sad Heart…) are good examples of what might be called Jarrell’s mode of witty heart-break, their message of cultural gloom is one to which we have become inured beyond the point of any possible freshness of insight or response. The three essays (originally prefaces) on Kipling are splendidly and discriminatingly eulogistic, but they can add little now to the claims made for him by Angus Wilson and other writers. Kipling has plenty of champions these days, though I suspect he still lacks—unaccountably—a sufficient body of adult readers; if exposure to the preface called “The English in England” sends a few of us back to the late, non-Indian short stories, then Jarrell’s praise will have done its work.
My pleasure in reading these reviews of yesteryear was sporadic but often intense, a pleasure derived as much from the exuberance of Jarrell’s style as from the accuracy of his judgments, which have been well sustained over the past decades. Auden, whom he adored with all the anguish of a frequently betrayed lover, inspired some of his best hyperbolic effects. Jarrell loathed The Age of Anxiety, denouncing it as the equivalent of Wordsworth’s “Ecclesiastical Sonnets” and maintaining that the poet, “who, during the Thirties, was one of the five or six best poets in the world has gradually turned into a rhetoric mill…a sack of reflexes.” Reviewing The Shield of Achilles, he insisted that two-thirds of the book is
…non-Euclidean needlepoint, a man sitting on a chaise longue juggling four cups, four saucers, four sugar lumps, and the round-square: this is what great and good poets do when they don’t bother even to try to write great and good poems, now that they’ve learned that—it’s Auden’s leitmotif, these days—art is essentially frivolous. But a little of the time Auden is essentially serious, and the rest of the time he’s so witty, intelligent, and individual, so angelically skillful, that one reads with despairing enthusiasm, and enjoys Auden’s most complacently self-indulgent idiosyncrasy almost as one enjoys Sherlock Holmes’s writing Victoria Rex [sic?] on the wall in bullet holes.
Later in the same review he observed astutely that perhaps
…Auden had always made such impossibly exacting moral demands on himself and everybody else partly because it kept him from having to worry about more ordinary, moderate demands…. But he seems, finally, to have got tired of the whole affair, to have become willing to look at himself without doing anything about it, not even shutting his eyes or turning his head away…. Auden, in most of this last book, lies back in himself as if he were an unmade bed, and every line in his sleepy, placid face seems to be saying: But whoever makes beds?
Jarrell’s scorn was regularly provoked by what he considered meretriciously ornamented or pretentiously empty in contemporary verse. In the case of José Garcia Villa (the poet who—remember?—put commas between each word) the scorn spilled over to include the poet-critics (Edith Sitwell, Mark Van Doren, Babette Deutsch) who encouraged his fatuous efforts—“What critics these mortals be!” Of Edith Sitwell’s later poems he remarked that
Her quite fantastic theories about what sounds do in verse, her absorption in her overwhelming new subjects, her sincere belief that she is a dedicated priestess of art—these must have kept her from realizing how grotesque and pretentious her style of writing had become: her phrases delude her, I think, exactly as they delude most of her readers. They are meant to have an apocalyptic grandeur, but they sound as if Madame Blavatsky (just after reading Yeats and the Prophetic Books and an anthology of Christian mysticism) had written them for a Society of Latter-day Druids.
Though he enjoyed bits of E.E. Cummings, whose work “is not a feast at all but a picnic,” he found him basically a monotonous poet, one “who sits at the Muse’s door making mobiles.” What he liked least about Cummings’s poems was “their pride in Cummings and their contempt for most other people…. All his work thanks God that he is not as other men are; none of it says, ‘Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.’ ”
While Jarrell was certainly associated with High Modernism in many of his enthusiasms (for Rilke, the early Auden, Allen Tate) and was perfectly at ease with the “difficult” aspect of the movement, a concurrent enthusiasm for the eighteenth century (Mozart, Pope) reinforced his allegiance to what is humanly central in art, his taste for luminosity, wit, and order. This double allegiance showed to his advantage when he was confronted with the task of reviewing the “Rock Drill” section of Pound’s Cantos. “What is worst in Pound and what is worst in the age,” he wrote, “have conspired to ruin the Cantos, and have not quite succeeded.”
He responded delightedly to those few passages of “pure and characteristic beauty” that he found but refused to be browbeaten by the mountainous heap of recondite fragments into accepting the poem as a work of accomplished art. After quoting a typically obsessive and chaotic segment, he cited Pound’s famous dictum that poetry ought to be as well written as prose and asked, tellingly, “…is this? Aren’t good notes, even, more organized than this?” And after another extensive quotation bristling with at least four languages, ideographs, dates, and numbers, he cheerfully admitted that he brought little knowledge to the reading and carried away little from it.
Yet, finishing, I seem to know…that all the Latin, Chinese, and Ancient History in the world wouldn’t make me think such a passage good poetry, good organization, or standing firm in the middle. Form, Kenneth Burke says, is a satisfied expectation; here, as in so much of the Cantos, it is only our uneasy expectation of disorder, of an idiosyncratic hodgepodge, that is satisfied.
Jarrell was not a systematic critic with an articulated theory of literature; nor was he merely an impressionist, a hovering sensibility. The sensibility is indeed appealing, nourished as it was by Shakespeare and Wordsworth, by Chekhov, Rilke, and the songs of Mahler, a sensibility at once darting, tender, irritable, and melancholy. But it was also sustained by tough sinews of conviction, a powerful sense of what really matters in good poetry. He insisted always upon poetry as a profoundly humanistic endeavor, concretely rooted in experience, employing language in all of its aspects: emotive, referential, aesthetic. Over and over again he made clear his detestation of rhetoric, of word-spinning, of heartlessness and frivolity; nor had he greater patience with the safe and commonplace. His anger, easily aroused, is nearly always that of disappointment, of the disappointed child (or lover) who is furious when what he demands isn’t forthcoming. But if there is a childish element in this insistence, it is fortunately mitigated by a far from childish awareness of the absurd, a comic sense that makes him perhaps the most reliably amusing critic since Peacock.
I am struck by something paradoxical in Jarrell’s total achievement. The qualities of wit, intelligence, verbal exuberance, grace, wistfulness, and wry compassion that inform his best criticism reach their perfect distillation in that wonderful non-novel of his, Pictures from an Institution—almost certainly the funniest prose ever written by an American poet. But curiously they do not find their way equally into his poetry. Intelligence, compassion, and wistfulness are there in abundance; many of the poems are admirable, moving. But wit, verbal exuberance, grace? I am tempted to suggest—very tentatively—that Jarrell may have been a more fully functioning artist in his prose than in his verse.
September 25, 1980