Two Poems by Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell, introduction by Stephen Burt

These two previously unpublished poems by Randall Jarrell (1914– 1965) can be found at the major repository of Jarrell’s papers, the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library. “When, lit as in a painting of Latour’s…” exists there only in typescript, untitled, in a folder of poems considered for inclusion in the set of unpublished poems which concludes Jarrell’s posthumous Complete Poems.* Its concern with the visual arts and its loose, expansive line mark it as probably a very late poem, composed between 1963 and 1965, and linked closely to “Man in Majesty” (published in the Complete Poems). The French painter Georges de la Tour, or Latour (1593–1652), also comes up in Jarrell’s 1963 poem “The Old and the New Masters” and in his earlier essay “Against Abstract Expressionism” (sometimes given its original title, “The Age of the Chimpanzee”).

Looking back into the prehistory of visual art, the poem also looks back over Jarrell’s career: the lost “shard” recalls the “broken” knife in his “Thinking of the Lost World” (and the broken cup in Frost’s “Directive”). And the biblical language, traced to its source (Ecclesiastes 3:21), becomes a question about survival and mortality: the surrounding passage reads (in the Authorized Version):

All go unto one place: all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man shall rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?

“Anacharsis Cloots” exists in typescript and in manuscript drafts, in folders of as-yet-uncatalogued Jarrelliana; drafts bear the alternate title “Let History Be My Judge.” Its tightly rhymed stanzas (unusual for Jarrell) and its interest in historical upheavals suggest that Jarrell wrote the poem sometime in the 1940s. The Prussian aristocrat Anacharsis Cloots (1755–1794) was born Jean-Baptiste du Val-de-Grâce, Baron de Cloots. In France from 1776 to 1784 and again from 1789, he became a radical democrat and a noted orator, joining the Revolutionary National Convention in 1792; he was guillotined during the Terror. “Witenagemot” refers to the Anglo-Saxon parliament or national council (witan), and by extension any parliament. Neither poem could appear without the generous assistance of the poet’s widow, Mary von S. Jarrell, and of the Berg Collection’s Steven Crook.


When, lit as in a painting of Latour’s
The first man—

but he is imaginary.
Our perspective vanishes into a point
Or trace that is subterranean, a grave
Upon whose ceiling, if one looks for stars
And has brought the light to see them by, one sees still
Animals seen by an animal.
A miner
Of natural graves, a painter of natural
Objects, he is unnatural. It is unarguable:
Whether he names in gardens, paints in…

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