Randall Jarrell: A very tender and gracious terror

by dollydelightly

I never realised what a treasure trove an Oxfam bookshelf can be until I snagged myself a brand new copy of Randall Jarrell’s Letters for the exiguous sum of £4. The letters, thoughtfully selected, edited and annotated by Jarrell’s second wife Mary, span three decades and chronicle the life of a man whose “work-and-amusement” revolved around literature. In writing to Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, John Crowe Ransom, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and other contemporaries Jarrell speaks habitually of the vertiginous peaks and dells of professional life, most often through a sustained colloquial effulgence that allowed his imagination to roam discursively not only over matters of literary interest but also on issues of social and historical importance.

The general consensus about Jarrell is that he was a better, more emphatic and puissant, critic than poet. I am inclined to agree and although his academic brilliance, intellectual dexterity and critical acumen were largely unmatched, his poetry has often been described as “derivative” and “technically lacking”. Admittedly, his verse does not appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities (perhaps with one or two exceptions), but this cannot be said of his collective missives, studded and spiced with humorous musings, clever cogitations and spiffy apophthegms, often vacillating in tone and resulting in a quaint mixture of swagger, reticence, irreverence, coyness and superiority. If there is one aspect that defines Jarrell’s epistolary prose, however, it is his tendency to dash-off quick philippic sentences that strike the reader like a riding-crop. While this device repeatedly buoys the witty, jokey and affectionate argot of his letters, it also comes to the fore in his professional undertakings – most notably his critiques which saw him soar as an important, if formidable, arbitrator of American cultural climate from the 1930s onwards.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that Jarrell was feared among a smattering of garreteers, who ducked like frightened mergansers each time he poised his fountain-pen, much like a rifle, in their direction, since his astringently veracious outbursts went some way to making-and-unmaking reputations. I think it is important to point out, however, that this critic did not discriminate in favour of his friends, nor mind their lepidopterous egos, accosting them in print whenever he felt necessary. Ironically, he did not enjoy this vital sideline, once quoting George Bernard Shaw’s remark about the critic’s fate in reference to himself: “His hand is against every man and every man’s hand is against him.” Endowed with infallible taste and a daunting acuity, he often quipped about his subjects but avowed that he would never sacrifice a poet for the sake of a witticism (while the word “never” may not be entirely accurate, the statement is essentially true). “It would be a hard heart,” Jarrell once said “and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe.” Yet condemn he did, quite frequently if without much pleasure, and thereby earned himself a reputation as a “terror”.

The letters give us the man behind the polemic, behind the poems and the public-face which he himself at times detested. As such they are a priceless offering providing an extraordinary plenitude of biographical, archival and personal information which plays a vital part in revealing the polarity between Jarrell’s private and professional persona. And so it seems that Lowell, who once described Jarrell as “very tender and gracious” but also as someone whose “frankness” was often thought “more unsettling than the drunken exploits of some divine enfant terrible, such as Dylan Thomas,” was right because in the end, irrespective of how you look at it, the truth is always the same: “People ask you for criticism but they only want praise”.