Terrible to be alive

Julian Symons

  • Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life by William Pritchard
    Farrar, Straus, 335 pp, $25.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 374 24677 7
  • Randall Jarrell: Selected Poems edited by William Pritchard
    Farrar, Straus, 115 pp, $17.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 374 25867 8

To look again at The Shores of Light, Edmund Wilson’s collection of his reviews in the Twenties and Thirties, is to marvel at his ability to discern, analyse and assess the American talents of the period as soon as they poked nose above ground. Hemingway was spotted with the first publication of In our time in 1924 (the edition 170 copies) as a writer of distinctive prose which had ‘more artistic integrity’ than anything else written about World War One by an American. Wilson’s piece about The Waste Land, written on its appearance, remains one of the most perceptive articles about the poem, and in it he remarks that the earlier Prufrock volume can now be seen ‘to stain the whole sea’ of modern verse. His advocacy of Scott Fitzgerald began with, or endured through, the appalling This Side of Paradise to the triumph of Gatsby. Stevens, Cummings, Pound, Crane, Dos Passos: their merits and possibilities of development were noted at an early stage in their careers. For two decades or a little more, Wilson was almost infallibly discerning about recent American writers, about their British counterparts much less so. He observed at one point that Louis MacNeice sometimes sounded like ‘a serious Ogden Nash’.

There has been no British critic so finely tuned to the sound of the modern as Wilson was in his two great decades. Neither Leavis nor Empson was conspicuously successful in discovering young talent: during World War Two Empson was for a time passionately enthusiastic about the mild romantic verse of Sidney Keyes. In America, Wilson seems in later years to have sensed that the youthful Randall Jarrell might emulate his discernment of the Twenties about a new generation of writers. In 1940 he gave Jarrell a run as poetry reviewer in the New Republic, and suggested to the New Yorker that they should publish his poetry: ‘His writing interests me more, I think, than that of the other younger people.’ Wilson’s sensibility did not fail him. Jarrell became critic, adviser and friend of the best poets in his own generation, Lowell and Berryman among them. ‘He was Randall Jarrell/ and wrote a-many books – he wrote well,’ run a couple of pretty bad lines in a Berryman ‘Dream Song’. Lowell also paid tribute to his friend’s passionately disinterested critical concern for the work of those he admired. Jarrell would not, though, have wished to be remembered simply as a critic. Poems, a work of fiction and critical books have been published in England, published and praised. The collected poems appeared in 1971. Yet Lowell and Berryman are famous names here, Jarrell’s not one to set beside them. Even in his own country, his biographer William Pritchard says, his reputation ‘is not nearly so firm and pre-eminent as I think it deserves to be’. This biography and a selection from the poems (a severe weeding, no more than a fifth surviving) are meant to put that right.

Pritchard’s book is both more and a little less than a biography. The facts of the life are here, but they are interlaced with commentary on the work and particularly on the poems, the one designed to illuminate the other. The approach is similar to that in his book on Frost a few years back, and on the whole works very well, although there are times when the biographer’s reluctance to speculate about the psychological basis of Jarrell’s split personality left this reader feeling short-changed. Pritchard’s reaction would probably be that the important, hence the truly interesting, thing about Jarrell is the poems and the way they work. It is Jarrell’s ideas and ideals, and how near he got to fulfilling them in poetry, that principally concern him.

That there was a crack in the personality from the beginning there seems to me no doubt. The crack widened to a split and led to some manic activities, a voluntary period in hospital, a half-hearted attempt at suicide, and then the death by accident or design when on an evening walk he was ‘sideswiped’ and killed by a car. To put it simply, the criticism and the fiction Pictures from an Institution seem to have been written by a different person from the one who wrote the poems. The prose writer is an aggressive, wonderfully witty intellectual, the poet a vulnerable character agonised by much he sees around him in the present and dreaming of a past when everything was better, especially of a lost childhood.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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