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 afraid no longer….”
If Jarrell’s death was an accident, then its relation to all these phrases is also an accident, the product of sheer hindsight, a pattern created by the final fact, not a design waiting for it to happen. But there are two truths here, surely, not entirely compatible with each other. One is that the way we lose our lives is not life but only the brutal end of it. “Death is not an event in life,” as Wittgenstein put it, at least not in the dead person’s life. Poems can’t reach up to this death, can’t explain it, can’t even touch it. This death is by definition no one’s, impersonal, unowned, generic, death and nothing else. The other truth is that we imagine our death many times, even if it happens only once, and that our real and imagined deaths do not inhabit entirely separate universes. They don’t cause each other, or even, necessarily, comment on each other, but taken together they make up a story, and not every story happens to everyone. When Rilke prays that each person be given his or her own death, he is asking for a “dying that comes out of that life,” a particular life of “love, sense and sorrow.” Our death can be our own only by relating to our life in some way—even an absurd and inappropriate death would contain the shadow of what a fitting death, our own death, would have been. Jarrell’s was not a death anyone would want for his own, but it spoke his language, or one of his languages.
Jarrell is one of the most various and engaging figures in modern American literature, but his reputation is a little cloudy. His Complete Poems were published in 1969, his Letters in 1985. Posthumous gatherings of criticism (The Third Book of Criticism and Kipling, Auden & Co.) appeared in 1969 and 1980; his translation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters appeared in 1969, and of Part I of Goethe’s Faust in 1976. Strong collections of essays about him were published in 1967 and 1983, and there are intelligent critical studies of him by Suzanne Ferguson (1971), Sister Bernetta Quinn (1981), J.A. Bryant Jr. (1986) and Richard Flynn (1990). There are some fine pages about Jarrell in Eileen Simpson’s Poets in their Youth (1982), and some sensible comments in Bruce Bawer’s The Middle Generation (1986). Pritchard’s biography appeared in 1990. This is substantial, but it is not a rush. The general feeling seems to be that Jarrell’s poetry is not quite as good as we should like it to be (Helen Vendler memorably said that he “put his genius into his criticism and his talent into his poetry”), that the criticism is wonderful but we’re not sure why, and that we don’t know what to do with his one novel. Everyone agrees that his children’s stories are charming. In such a situation it is an unusual pleasure to have two attractive books, one about Jarrell and one by him, to prompt and help a reexploration.
In his lifetime Jarrell published six volumes of verse (Blood for a Stranger, 1942; Little Friend, Little Friend, 1945; Losses, 1948; The Seven-League Crutches, 1951; The Woman at the Washington Zoo, 1960; and The Lost World, 1965); two volumes of criticism (Poetry and the Age, 1953; and A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, 1962); one novel (Pictures from an Institution, 1954); and two children’s books (The Gingerbread Rabbit, 1964; and The Bat-Poet, 1964—The Animal Family and Fly By Night appeared after his death, in late 1965 and 1976 respectively). He was born in 1914 in Nashville, spent much of his childhood in Long Beach, California, finished high school back in Tennessee, and attended Vanderbilt University, starting out as a student of psychology but moving into English as a pupil of John Crowe Ransom. He began a thesis on W.H. Auden, a figure who in various ways fascinated him all his life, but then he prudently switched to A.E. Housman.
Jarrell taught at Kenyon briefly, where he played a lot of tennis and met his lifelong friends Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor. He served in the Air Force during World War II, although he didn’t see action and didn’t leave America. For a year (1946-1947) he worked in New York as literary editor of The Nation, and then accepted a post at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where, apart from stints as a visitor in other places and two years (1956- 1958) in Washington as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, he taught for the rest of his life. He and his first wife, Mackie Langham, were divorced in 1952, and Jarrell married Mary von Schrader in the same year.
Remembering Randall is an affectionate memoir which feels like a set of fragments of a longer work, a fuller biography. There are chapters on, among other topics, “Ideas and Poems,” “Libraries,” “Washington,” “Faust:Part I,” with anecdotes and reflections arranged in a roughly chronological order, except for the last chapter, which traces the whole relationship of husband and wife from their meeting (“the never-to-be-forgotten day Randall and I met”) to his death, including what she describes as “our bewildering sad phase toward the end.”
Mary Jarrell makes life with Randall, “Old Ramble” as he called himself, seem (almost always) enormous fun, and even the potentially embarrassing chatter of intimacy, faithfully recorded, becomes charming. But this marriage was obviously a full-time job for her. “What I did was put my sensibility at his disposal…. When I found Randall, I found what I was programmed for.” “To be married to Randall was to be encapsulated with him. He wanted, and we had, a round-the-clock inseparability. We took three meals together, every day. I went to his classes and he went on my errands. I watched him play tennis; he picked out my clothes. Sometimes we were brother and sister…and other times we were twins….” Pritchard makes a very astute comment on a remark by Beatrice Garton, the younger of the two daughters Mary von Schrader brought to the marriage. Beatrice called Jarrell an “ideal father,” and Pritchard says the phrase is apt “in the sense not only of perfect but of unreal; he was not a ‘real’ father who made demands on, suffered through, and was thoroughly implicated in the life of his child.” Mary Jarrell herself writes of Randall’s “ideal of a beautiful consort who, for love of him, would forsake her family and friends, learn a new and intellectual language, be dear and funny always, put him first, and never turn into a Wife or Mother.” The project has its appeal if you’re setting the terms, but it must be hard going if you have to be a lower-case wife and a mother as well.
Mary Jarrell is not complaining, though, and we don’t have to complain on her behalf, only note what she let herself in for. She writes informally and well, and evokes the charms even of Jarrell’s mild vanity. “He had favorite and unfavorite mirrors but I believe he looked into all he ever saw.” Of Jarrell standing and listening to the sound of the engine of their Jaguar XK-120, she writes, “I could glimpse his tilting, thoughtful face transfixed—as if hearing Elektra—by the elegant hum of the costly valves and cylinders.” The portrait of the two of them in London in 1963 is both intimate and funny.
While the Wimbledon matches were televised, we set out early to do a gallery or a museum in the mornings. Then, propped in bed with our tea trays and sultana cake, we watched in bliss the mounting Australian sweep that year, before those hushed outdoor stands, with only the bup-bup cotton bubble sound that tennis makes.
Mary Jarrell’s description of their time in Vienna later the same year offers a revealing commentary on Jarrell’s poem “The Old and the New Masters,” and indeed catches the flavor of ordinariness, one of Jarrell’s signatures as a poet, which he couldn’t quite get into that work because he was so busy arguing with Auden. “About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters,” Auden wrote in “Musée des Beaux Arts.” Jarrell rather solemnly corrects him: “About suffering, about adoration, the old masters/Disagree.” Mary Jarrell writes,
We sat among the Brueghels often, and in silence got free of ourselves and into those scenes in water, in snow, in fields, where the least crow flapping home was intended and where man’s small, coarse, mystical, frantic efforts in his world took place.
“Small” and “coarse” are perfectly placed. Best of all, Mary Jarrell reminds us that the poet who so often, following Rilke, wrote about change, perhaps longed even more for permanence: “Permanence is what we all want when we can love and can be loved; Change is what we want when we cannot.” “We can’t tell our life from our wish,” Jarrell wrote in a late poem about Mary:
Really I began the day
Not with a man’s wish: “May this day be different,”
But the birds’ wish: “May this day
Be the same day, the day of my life.”
It’s easy to be too judicious about Jarrell’s poems, to like them without falling for them. Pritchard makes persuasive claims for “90 North,” “Absent with Official Leave,” “A Girl in a Library,” “Aging,” and a number of poems in Jarrell’s last volume, The Lost World. But Pritchard himself thinks that “if a real case is to be made for the permanent interest and value of this writer, it must not be made on the basis of the poems alone—good as they often are, and undervalued at present as I take them to be.” The striking thing about many of Jarrell’s good poems, it seems to me, is how much like Auden they sound—or like Auden in a certain register. Jarrell admired the early Auden immensely, but thought the middle Auden was too busy preaching, and the later Auden was just pampering himself. By 1940, Jarrell felt, Auden had “gone in the right direction, and a great deal too far.” The next year Auden’s ideas were “less colorful but far more correct,” and New Year Letter had about it “a faint sugary smell of tout comprendre est tout pardonner: everything is going to be all right in the end.” By 1947 Auden had turned into “a sack of reflexes,” although he “was, and is potentially, one of the best poets on earth.” And in 1955 Jarrell was reading Auden with “despairing enthusiasm,” and wickedly wrote:
In the real dark day or white night of the soul, Auden seems to feel, it is always three o’clock in the afternoon…it is the hour when you used to despair and, now, take your nap. It is the hour of an accustomed disenchantment, of an anticlimax which smiles indifferently at its own old absurd climaxes….
But whose voice is this?
Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.
And nothing but the statues kept the smile
The waltzers wore once: excluding, innocent,
The face of old and comfortable injustice.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.”
They said, “Here are the maps”; we burned the cities.
The Auden lines running in my head here are “Many have perished; more will”; “And still all over Europe stood the horrible nurses/Itching to boil their children. Only his verses/Perhaps could stop them: He must go on working”; “When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,/And when he cried the little children died in the streets”; and a number of others. Jarrell is usually assumed to have outgrown Auden quite early in his poetic career—and he did abandon the open imitation of the Auden he most admired. I’m not suggesting Jarrell was simply derivative, and his voice is not Auden’s, of course, even when it sounds a lot like it. Jarrell has other voices in his poetry too, ampler and looser, terser and funnier, as in “I hold in my own hands, in happiness,/Nothing: the nothing for which there’s no reward,” or “Twenty Years After, thirty-five years after,/Is as good as ever—better than ever,/Now that D’Artagnan is no longer old,” or “You can’t break eggs without making an omelette/—That’s what they tell the eggs.” Jarrell’s most famous poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” doesn’t resemble anything by Auden, and a number of his dramatic monologues, sympathetic pre-sentations of sad or bewildered women, are even further away.
But in his best poems Jarrell shares a great deal with the Auden he kept attacking: clean diction, simple syntax, subdued imagery, outrage distilled into irony, and above all a recurring note of depressed wisdom and modest morality, the weathered mind commemorating our deceptions. Jarrell was not despairing, but then neither was Auden except in Jarrell’s disappointed vision, and Jarrell was plainly seeking to be a master of disenchantment. Pain is pain, the lines quoted above suggest, whatever we call it; old injustices are best; wars are waged by children upon children, at the instigation of grown-ups. The interesting point is not that Jarrell should dislike in Auden what he liked in his own work, or—a Freudian version of the same thing—that he should disavow in Auden what he was pursuing himself, but that Jarrell’s poetry should live in such isolation from his criticism.
It’s true that Jarrell was always saying that poets are not supposed to know what they are doing, and that he was a great believer in luck and inspiration. “A poem,” he said, “is…a way of making you forget how you wrote it.” But his inattentiveness to his own ideas, even to his own virtues, seems extreme. With few exceptions, Jarrell’s good poems are uncomplicatedly quiet and earnest—this wouldn’t be surprising, and wouldn’t matter too much, if it wasn’t so unlike him. Pritchard writes of lines which have “the force of wit,” and this is well observed. But Jarrell in person and in his prose had wit itself in abundance, and the poems, by comparison, seem sworn to sobriety, as if poetry, in order to be poetry, had to narrow into sheer seriousness.
What is missing in the poetry is the extraordinary gaiety of the prose, handsomely present throughout No Other Book, and very well evoked in Brad Leithauser’s remark, in his introduction, that we “can wind up longing to read not the actual book under examination but the ideal version located in Jarrell’s head.” This takes us a long way into understanding the attraction of Jarrell as a critic, and also into understanding why he wasn’t always the critic he thought or said he was. The volume is divided into three sections: essays on poetry and poets, an assembly of short hits called “A Jarrell Gallery” (“favorite excerpts from essays I didn’t think could be or needed to be included in entirety”), and essays on criticism, taste, Kipling, Abstract Expressionism, and Chris-tina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, along with the title piece of A Sad Heart at the Supermarket. It’s an admirable selection, and it’s hard to imagine this tricky job done better.
In evoking Jarrell’s gaiety I don’t mean simply that as a critic and novelist he was wonderfully, incessantly funny, although he certainly was. Everyone who has ever read him has a whole anthology of favorite jokes in his or her head. Here’s a tiny sample of mine. Of Ezra Pound: “He has taken all culture for his province, and is naturally a little provincial about it.” Of Yvor Winters: “He writes as if the last three hundred years had occurred, but not to him.” Of Robert Lowell: “Among the usual rout of Catholic converts, he looks like another John the Baptist, all zeal and hair.” About Allen Tate and all those who resist modernity in the name of an ancient Christian culture: “The movement has had two wings, both right…. It has been later than they think for four hundred years.” Pontius Pilate was such a typical liberal, Jarrell said, that he was “at that time the only regular subscriber to The Nation in all Palestine.” “It is hard to remember, hard to believe, that anyone ever called Henry James Harry, but if it had to be done, William James was the right man to do it.” “Auden’s laundry list would be worth reading—I speak as one who’s read it many times, all rhymed and metered.” “I think George Washington would be extremely afraid of the traffic on the Merritt Parkway, but I think that we would be afraid of George Washington.”
Jarrell’s gaiety is present in his prose even when he is not being funny. And it is different again from his gift for the memorable phrase. Jarrell was good at giving new clothes to old thoughts, and even better at giving glitter to what were scarcely thoughts at all. His most famous remarks sound fabulous, but tend to crumple or slink away when you look back at them, like party-goers in the early morning light. “When you have read Paterson you know for the rest of your life what it is like to be a waterfall.” What can this mean, even as flight of fantasy, and a nifty tribute to William Carlos Williams? Does the waterfall know what it is like to be a waterfall? Not if it hasn’t read Williams.
Brad Leithauser applies the phrase to Jarrell himself, “a phenomenon that flows, coruscates, sings, and revitalizes,” which still sounds like the watery background to a cigarette advertisement, but makes clear where the energy is. When you have read Jarrell’s sparkling sentence you know for the rest of your life what it feels like to write sentences like that. Wonderful, as long as you don’t linger. “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” This is a vivid evocation of two of Jarrell’s favorite themes: the scarcity of good poems at any given time, past or present; and the violence of the poet’s luck or unluck. “Writing good poetry is only occasionally difficult,” Jarrell said in one of his cooler throwaways; “usually it is impossible.” But does a poet really do anything resembling standing out in a thunderstorm? Does inspiration have to come in this form, and does it have to be inspiration? How does the poet survive these repeated bolts from heaven? What about the poets who are struck by lightning and never get up? Jarrell is thinking of Wallace Stevens, and the lightning is securely, even sedately metaphorical. If he had been thinking of Hölderlin or Nerval, terminally struck by madness, he wouldn’t have been so jaunty about the visitation.
Jarrell’s gaiety is a mood rather than a voice or an idiom. It might even be a principle, or an unformulated theory of pleasure. Hannah Arendt, remembering Jarrell, wrote of the “precision of his laughter,” and Jarrell himself spoke of “the uncaring unconscious quality…that only a real style has.” Jarrell’s laughter, in its swift and inventive written version, was a style and a method, was itself a form of criticism. Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, hints at this when he speaks of Jarrell’s tone (“criticism being not a slot machine of judgment but a tone of voice, a style, the promise of a whole view of life in a few pregnant sentences”), but there is something more than a promise here, and something less than a view of life.
Leithauser nicely suggests that Jarrell is “missed” in a way we don’t miss other critics (Gopnik says that on first reading Jarrell he “realized that he had already written everything I had intended to write, ten times better and forty years before”), but it’s not his opinions we miss, and not even, I think, his interpretations, “what Jarrell would have made,” as Leithauser says, of Merrill, Walcott, and the later Berryman. What we miss is Jarrell’s richly amplified and illustrated sense of what literature and language could be—also what they have been, and in part currently are. Poets dream of a public, Jarrell argued,
that reads with the calm and ease and independence that come from liking things in themselves, for themselves. This is the kind of public that the poet would like; and if it turned out to be the kind of public that wouldn’t like him, why, surely that is something he could bear. It is not his poems but poetry that he wants people to read; if they will read Rilke’s and Yeats’s and Hardy’s poems, he can bear to have his own poems go unread forever.
Jarrell then speaks of how much people miss when they “cannot read poetry easily and naturally and joyfully,” but says that poets wouldn’t even mind their missing all that “if only they read widely, naturally, joyfully in the rest of literature.” “If people read this prose—read even a little of it—generously and imaginatively, and felt it as truth and life, as a natural and proper joy, why, that would be enough.” It would be rather inhuman for poets actually to feel this—that they didn’t mind not being read as long as people read Rilke, that they wouldn’t mind people giving up Rilke as long as they read Chekhov—and the words “natural” and “naturally” seems a little underexamined. And think of the mixture of coercion and Southern civility in “why, surely,” and “why, that would be enough.” This seems to be the stylistic equivalent of what Robert Fitzgerald called Jarrell’s “Confederate look” (“old-fashioned and rural and honorable and a little toothy or hungry”).
But Jarrell’s dream of a generous company of readers dedicated to liking things in themselves and for themselves is an appealing vision of what the life of literature might be, and in our minds at least, some of the time, must be. We don’t always read like this, but it would be awful to think we never could. This is the positive side of our longing to read a book in “the ideal version located in Jarrell’s head.” We (quite often) want the books we read to look their best—better than we can make them look ourselves, and perhaps better than they are. The negative side of the longing would confirm Jarrell’s worst fears about criticism: caught up in his performance, we would be reading him instead of the book.
Jarrell’s whole emphasis is not on what literature will do for you, but on what you lose if you don’t have it. He can sound like a cultural snob, particularly when he’s moaning about television and other media and the fact that American children don’t know who Charlemagne was. And his Europhilia can seem a little raw: “We Americans stand with our noses pressed against the window of the world.” “The world” here is European culture, Klee, Claude, the Coliseum. But Jarrell is really a galloping cultural democrat. If he (probably) doesn’t want everyone to have a Jaguar, he certainly wants everyone to read Frost and Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Art is life, Jarrell says, and shows us truths we can find in no other form. “One can almost define literature as the union of a wish and a truth, or as a wish modified by a truth”—as distinct from what Jarrell calls “Instant Literature” (“a wish modified by a cliché, a wish proved by a lie”).
If we are satisfied to know these things ourselves, and to look with superiority or indifference at those who do not have that knowledge, we have made a refusal that corrupts us as surely as anything can. …If…we say: Art has always been a matter of a few, we are using a truism to hide a disaster.
“All our ways lead back to the world,” Jarrell wrote in a poem. He was acutely aware of his culture’s fear, which he shared, of being “left at the mercy of actuality, of the helpless contingency of the world.” His writing was a way of recognizing that fear without caving in to it. In a lecture given in 1942 but rediscovered relatively recently, and published in The Georgia Review in 1996, Jarrell, writing against a number of then-reigning orthodoxies, made an eloquent case for the disunity rather than the unity of poems, for their capacity to inhabit contradictions. The argument was a little glib—Jarrell was showing off, refuting his mentors Ransom and Tate, taking on Winters—but the moral and critical position is one he never abandoned. “We can learn more about poetic structure from logical fallacies than from logic” is an argument that owes a lot to Empson’s ideas about ambiguity. But Jarrell, I take it, is going one step further, suggesting that poems deal not only in tension and complexity, but in proliferating human error, the many forms of need that make our fallacies so irresistible. When Jarrell writes that “what is worst in Pound and what is worst in the age have conspired to ruin the Cantos and have not succeeded”—earlier Jarrell had written “not quite succeeded”—he is commemorating both contingency—the poem could (easily) have been ruined—and the poem’s resistance to it. Or more precisely and less evenly, Jarrell is laying bets on the darker possibilities of history and then celebrating poetry’s lucky win. It’s true that Pound doesn’t get much credit for this, but poetry gets a lot.
“The rest is criticism,” Jarrell used to murmur. “The words,” he says, “have a dull uneasy sound; they lie on the spirit with a heavy weight.” He was thinking of the literary magazines of his day and the disproportionate space they gave to criticism and commentary, as compared to poetry and fiction. “There has never been an age in which so much good criticism has been written—or so much bad; and both of them have become, among ‘serious readers,’ astonishingly or appallingly influential.” This was—in 1952—“an age of criticism…not an age of writing, nor an age of reading.” Writing, Jarrell explained, meant writing “stories, poems, or plays.” The easy response to this is to nod one’s head and say things have probably got worse. Another response would be to wonder whether it makes any historical sense—didn’t Pope and Swift live in an age of criticism, didn’t Nietzsche say the rot started with Socrates?—or is it just a hyperbolic shot in the day before yesterday’s culture war. A third response would be to think this view of writing is rather narrow, too addicted to an old idea of the creative—I recall Lionel Trilling’s lifelong regret that he was so much more a critic than a novelist. But when you remember Jarrell’s altruistic poets and their hoped-for public, you realize just what he is doing. He is trying to protect the reader from temptation.
The critic, for Jarrell, comes between the work and the reader, sometimes helpfully, usually not. The authoritarian critic begets submissive readers, who know how to read commentary but not how to read poems, which turn into elaborate safaris. Some “constant readers” of criticism, Jarrell says, “are so serious, responsible, and timid about reading a great work that they start out on it with a white hunter, native bearers, and a $10,000 policy they bought from the insurance-machine at the airport. The critics got back, but who knows whether they will be able to?” So criticism usurps the place of the work, and robs readers of their confidence and pleasure. This is true of criticism in all areas, Jarrell thinks. We look at statues in Reims or Bamberg, and we read Malraux’s Voices of Silence. “While we read Malraux, we understand; while we look at the statues we do not understand, but we are looking at the statues.”
Should we ditch our Malraux and trust to our ignorance? Jarrell is not really suggesting this. Would the readers of criticism pick up their Rilke if they couldn’t lay their hands on a copy of Partisan Review? It’s not likely, and Jarrell knows it’s not. But the question reveals his underlying preoccupation. He is not attacking criticism so much as our piety about criticism. Critics are “the bane of our age, because our age so fantastically overestimates their importance and so willingly forsakes the works they are writing about for them.” “Fantastically” and “willingly” are the key words. Ruin is bad enough, without our rushing to embrace it or exaggerate it. “Readers, real readers, are almost as wild a species as writers.”
Jarrell is also attacking our impatience, our eagerness for the short cut, for what he in another context deplores as rapid understanding (“So rapid an understanding can almost be called a form of stupidity”). Jarrell was a pretty rapid understander himself, but he believed in slow, hard takes, and better still, in not understanding at all, if by understanding we mean the terminal domination of a work, a critical clean sweep. There are times, Jarrell forcefully says, when “criticism seems not only unnecessary but absurd.” The lines (by Whitman) he is discussing “are so good that even admiration feels like insolence, and one is ashamed of anything that one can find to say about them.” Of course you couldn’t say this if criticism was always absurd, and the voluble Jarrell has earned his right to silence by talking so much and so persuasively.
Jarrell’s criticism is a one-man campaign to keep the reader alive. This is why we miss him. Not, I think, because the species is as wild or as rare as Jarrell says it is—how could I be writing about him if there were no real readers?—but because the species often seems more endangered than it is, and because while we read Jarrell it is impossible to believe in this danger. The gaiety of his prose refutes every morbid claim he makes and enhances every pleasure he names, as if the child in the photograph had grown up without losing a flicker of his appetite for magic.
We speak of criticism as if it were a single thing, and so did Jarrell. Well, two sets of things: “helpful remarks” and “thoughtful and disinterested judgment.” But this is a fairly skimpy account of what people have been doing since Aristotle, and it’s a very casual account of what Jarrell himself was doing. Jarrell was several kinds of critic. He was a lethal reviewer, sorting out the chaff from the worse than chaff (“Arnold Stein is an innocent, academic, giftless poet”); he was an appreciator of what he saw as important new work (“Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems seems to me one of the best books an American poet has written”; “You feel before reading any new poem of [Lowell’s] the uneasy expectation of perhaps encountering a masterpiece”); he was a terrific, synoptic summarizer of movements and mannerisms (those of modernism, of Yeats, of Auden); he was a celebrator of great writers, a critic who could make whole essays out of quotations, with very little commentary (of Whitman’s doubts about whether he has done anything well, Jarrell says, “ah, there is nothing he does better,” and quotes an instance of Whitman doing doubt). He was a gifted and sympathetic explicator (his extended commentary on Frost’s “Home Burial,” while attentive to the language of the poem, is largely a psychological paraphrase, a telling of the story of the poem as if it were a miniature novel whose implications needed spelling out); and he was (although not as often as you might expect) a brilliant close reader of the words on the page, able not only to say that Kipling is “one of the great stylists of his language, one of those writers who can make a list more interesting than an ordinary writer’s murder,” but to show that this is so by pointing to exact details of syntax and punctuation. Jarrell also thought that criticism can “establish that atmosphere of interested respect which gets…poems a reasonably careful reading,” and you might need more than a few helpful remarks to do that.
He has other critical modes which are a little harder to place. The writer who evokes Frost’s “willingness to admit both the falseness in the cliché and the falseness in the contradiction of the cliché,” or who suggests that pessimism, in Frost’s poems, is “a hopeful evasion,” or who says about Lowell, with a remarkable mixture of assurance and skepticism, “it is possible to tell part of the truth about the world in terms that are false, limited, and fantastic—else how should we have told it?”—this writer is not exactly doing any of the things I have listed above. Prompted by works we can all read if we want to, he is saying something about the world we share. Criticism as Jarrell practiced it is a form of thinking, and even he is prepared to admit that “pieces of criticism are frequently, though not necessarily, works of art of an odd anomalous kind.” “Frequently” is very generous, and all but upskittles Jarrell’s argument about criticism entirely. It probably overstates the case as well, but it points to realms of writing—imaginative criticism, critical fiction—that we perhaps do not have to separate too eagerly.
Is Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution a novel? It is certainly a work of fiction, and a dizzying and brilliant work of social and literary criticism. Not only “a unique and serious joke-book,” as Lowell called it, but also a meditation made up of epigrams. Even the jokes have a lyrical pace to them. Just listen to the rhythms of these sentences.
Were Memory truly, as the Greeks feigned, the Mother of the Muses, she would long ago have traded all nine of her daughters for Gertrude. Gertrude was as knowing as Time. All clichés, slogans, fashions, turns of speech, details of dress, disguises of affection, tunnels or by-passes of ideology, gravestones of rationalization and cant lived in Gertrude as though in nutrient broth; and Gertrude nourished them, unharmed, knowing all, believing none.
The novel is set during a single year in the life of a women’s college called Benton, a place so progressive and unworldly that when the world shows up there, in the shape of memories of history or possibilities of life in other places, it looks like madness or a faded old novel. Not that Benton is idyllic. It is merely a place so caught up in its own fictions that it can’t imagine anything else. As Jarrell’s narrator says of the president of the college, in what is perhaps the most often quoted line in the whole book, “President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.”
The book proceeds by a series of portraits, which seem quite static, but collectively create a sense of the passage of time as well as a gallery of characters. We meet an innocent and engaging (but smart) young woman called Constance Morgan; Miss Batterson, a spinster teacher of creative writing (“She had never married; neither had her mother, her grandmother, any of the Battersons—one felt that”); the Whittakers, an “almost famous” sociologist and his well-meaning wife (“She was, surely, the least sexual of beings; when cabbages are embarrassed about the facts of life, they tell their little cabbages that they found them under Mrs. Whittaker”). Most important, at least in the narrator’s view, we meet a German couple, a composer and his wife, a former singer. They are the Rosenbaums, all accent and history, and the narrator is deeply in love with them as a pair, and never comes within an inch of being funny about them. He’s not all that funny about Gertrude Johnson, the other chief character, and it is in the narrator’s depiction of her that the book takes on its strangest coloring.
In its strangeness is a clue, I think, to the mystery of the gap between Jarrell’s poems and his prose, between the solemnity of the one and the gaiety of the other. The narrator is a poet and a translator of Rilke, and like Jarrell he served in the air force in Texas during World War II. Gertrude is a novelist whose hardness of heart is paralleled only by the dogged rationality of her mind. “She was a continually witty and occasionally humorous woman,” the narrator says. “Her vision was too penetrating. She showed that anything, anything at all, is not what it seems.” She looks more like Jarrell’s idea of the critic than like anyone’s idea of a novelist. She sometimes, indeed, sounds like Jarrell himself as he might picture himself in the minds of his cowering victims. President Robbins, never one to refuse a ready-made phrase, says Gertrude’s bark was worse than her bite. “This was foolish,” the narrator comments. “Gertrude’s bark was her bite; and many a bite has lain awake at night longing to be Gertrude’s bark.” On the subject of Gertrude’s smile the narrator is remorseless, operatic in his delight at its horror:
Her smile was…like a skull, like a stone-marten scarf, like catatonia, like the smile of the damned at Bamberg; the slogan of the company that manufactured it was “As False as Cressida”; torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile.
At this point we may feel the narrator is scarier than Gertrude, and Adam Mars-Jones, in his introduction to the Faber reprint of the novel (1987), says, “It’s easy to feel that being in Jarrell’s company would only be tolerable if you were a fly on the wall—and not just a fly, but a fly without vices.” And what’s truly interesting about the narrator of the novel is the mixture of his comfortable self-admiration, and the mounting moralizing of his attacks on Gertrude. The narrator, the very source of so many corrosive wisecracks, talks solemnly about forgiveness and acceptance, and, sounding like Auden himself, earnestly remarks that “it seems to us so hard to be even fairly good.” Gertrude, he tells us, “was not, alas, a good woman; Gertrude had a style in which you couldn’t tell the truth if you tried—and when, except when it was a shameful one, had Gertrude ever tried?”
But as a writer, Gertrude had one fault more radical than all the rest: she did not know—or rather, did not believe—what it was like to be a human being.
What is striking about these attacks on Gertrude is not only their frequency, but their flatness, their direct, unamused assertiveness. Yet a little later the narrator is telling us that “in a funny way” he is “fond of Gertrude.” What is happening here?
I don’t think Gertrude is merely a portrait of what Jarrell feared for himself, of the writer he was worried he might become. Gertrude is a portrait of what Jarrell thought literature would become if it was too intelligent, and his anxious alternative, in his poems and in parts of this novel, is too soft-centered, all heart. There is a lot of turbulence beneath these smooth surfaces, and Gertrude is effectively given the guilt of the narrator’s cruel jokes, as if she and not he were making them, so that he can trot around the novel in genial and creepy innocence. Pictures from an Institution is a wonderful book because of these denials rather than in spite of them; an un-forgettable representation of, among other things, a writer who couldn’t put his jokes and his niceness together, or a poet who couldn’t listen to the music of his criticism. The places where those elements came together for Jarrell were in the happy parts of his life—and there were many of them, according to Mary Jarrell—and in much of his prose, fiction and nonfiction. In the prose there is a version of Gertrude who knows what it is like to be human but still barks. In the poetry, Gertrude scarcely talks at all.
December 2, 1999