- Pictures from an Institution: A Comedy by Randall Jarrell
Chicago, 277 pp, £10.50, April 2010, ISBN 978 0 226 39375 9
Born in 1914, Randall Jarrell belonged to the first generation of American poets who found a ready home in the country’s burgeoning university system. Of the great modernists of the previous era, only Robert Frost assumed the role of pedagogue to undergraduates, taking his first job at Amherst College in 1917. Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane all lived by other means; though it’s worth pointing out that the poetry and criticism of Eliot in particular, and to a lesser extent of Pound, played a significant role in shaping the curriculum and methodologies these expanding departments adopted. Certainly those who fell under the sway of the New Critics, taking so many of their cues from Eliot, liked to present literary history as culminating in The Waste Land, a poem that required their expert professional guidance to be understood.
Jarrell once planned a study of Eliot that would have cut decisively across the grain of New Critical source-hunting and explorations of Eliot’s use of Grail mythology or Wagner or the Fisher King of the kind one finds in Cleanth Brooks’s 1939 study of The Waste Land. ‘T.S. Eliot and Obsessional Neurosis’, Jarrell planned to call it, and one can surmise the argument he intended to make from the paragraph he devotes to Eliot in a lecture of 1962 called ‘Fifty Years of American Poetry’. ‘Won’t the future,’ Jarrell exclaims,
say to us in helpless astonishment: ‘But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions? From a psychoanalytical point of view he was far and away the most interesting poet of your century. But for you, of course, after the first few years, his poetry existed undersea, thousands of feet below the deluge of exegesis, explication, source listing, scholarship and criticism that overwhelmed it. And yet how bravely and personally it survived, its eyes neither coral nor mother-of-pearl but plainly human, full of human anguish!’
Once you start quoting from Jarrell’s essays, it’s hard to stop. Such a passage exemplifies many of his virtues as a critic: his urgency, his unstuffiness, his mixing of the colloquial and the rhapsodic, his daring (‘human anguish!’), his scorn for orthodoxy and jargon, his indifference to cliques and party lines, his unwavering trust in his own intuition. Jarrell spent nearly all his adult life in academic departments whose raison d’être was the professionalisation of responses to literature, and yet he managed to retain the power to read, and to talk about his reading, with the excitement of a child.
‘Child Randall’, Lowell addresses him, inevitably, in the second of his sonnets for Jarrell, the one that restages his friend’s peculiar death (Jarrell was sideswiped by a car in the course of an evening walk):
black-gloved, black-coated, you plod out stubbornly
as if in lockstep to grasp your blank not-I
at the foot of the tunnel … as if asleep, Child Randall,
greeting the car, and approving – your harsh luminosity.
It was never decisively established whether or not he intended to commit suicide, but the coroner decided it was an accident. While the premature deaths of, say, John Berryman and Delmore Schwartz and Sylvia Plath seemed somehow implicit in the trajectory of their careers, there was nothing remotely maudit about Jarrell, until the last couple of years of his life, when the approach of his 50th birthday induced a bout of what he called, after Freud, Torschlusspanik – door-closing panic, as it were. This led to the prescription of a drug that converted his depression into manic fits of elation and erratic behaviour – on one occasion he tried to tip a waitress $1500 – as well as hospitalisation, the slashing of a wrist and his lonely, ambiguous death at the edge of a road near Chapel Hill in North Carolina, at the age of 51.