Jarrell, Randall 1914-1965
American poet, essayist, critic, translator, editor, and author of fairy tales and children's poetry.
The following entry presents an overview of Jarrell's career through 1994. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volume 6.
Jarrell is among the foremost figures of the so-called "Middle Generation" of twentieth-century American poets. This group, which includes such noted authors as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Delmore Schwartz, displays in its verse the influence of the Modernist movement of the first half of the twentieth century as exemplified by T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden. Throughout his career, childhood and folklore remained two of the most frequently recurring thematic motifs in Jarrell's poetry, and in 1964, the poet released his first volume of juvenile verse, The Bat-Poet, which was illustrated by the renowned children's artist Maurice Sendak. Combinations of prose and poetry, Jarrell's works for young audiences are often concerned with the search for self-expression and inner peace, characterized by the poet's trademark lyrical language and emotional honesty. Jarrell is also known for his original translations of several editions of European fairy tales by such authors as the Brothers Grimm and Ludwig Bechstein. In addition to his poetry and folktales, Jarrell is regarded as an insightful literary critic, noted for his astute evaluations of such American poets as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Walt Whitman.
Jarrell was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on May 6, 1914, to Owen and Anna Jarrell. Shortly after his birth, Jarrell's parents moved from their home in rural Shelbyville, Tennessee, to Long Beach, California, where they resided until 1925 when his parents separated. Anna Campbell was given custody of her two sons, moving them back to her home in Tennessee. Shortly thereafter, Jarrell spent a few months at the home of his paternal grandparents in Hollywood, California, in the summer and fall of 1926 before returning to Tennessee. Upon graduating high school, he attended Vanderbilt University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in psychology and a graduate degree in English while studying under such prominent Fugitive poets as John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, and Allen Tate. Although he never completely adopted their tenets, Jarrell often employed the forms and psychological content characteristic of the Fugitives in his subsequent writing. Prior to World War II, Jarrell taught English at Kenyon College and at the University of Texas. In 1940 his first poetic work to receive significant critical attention, a short collection titled "The Rage for the Lost Penny," was published in Five Young American Poets. The work was later reprinted in his initial solo volume of verse, Blood for a Stranger (1942), a collection he dedicated to his former teacher Allen Tate. Jarrell enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and spent most of his tenure as a flight and navigation instructor. He resumed his academic career following his discharge in 1946 and taught and lectured at numerous American colleges and universities, including Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, and the Women's College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. At the same time, he continued to write and publish collections of poetry, children's verse, and literary criticism. In his later years, Jarrell was beset by physical and emotional problems that resulted in at least one suicide attempt. He was killed when struck by a car while walking near his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on October 14, 1965.
Jarrell's poetry is frequently divided into three distinct periods: his early verse is largely derivative of Modernist experimentations and employs the heavily metered lines and metaphysical themes typical of Fugitive poetry of the post-World War I era; his volumes published after World War II reflect the alienation and loneliness of both children and adults during the war; and his later compositions, often rendered in colloquial language, display his extensive knowledge of psychology, philosophy, and children's literature, especially the German märchen, or folktale. Jarrell's first children's book, The Gingerbread Rabbit (1964), is also his most conventional. Featuring graphic art by famed children's illustrator Garth Williams, the story is a parodic deviation of the classic story of the Gingerbread Man who runs away from his maker. However, in Jarrell's approximation of the story, the Gingerbread Rabbit finds the happy ending that eludes the Gingerbread Man. While it differs from his later efforts in children's literature, The Gingerbread Rabbit features all of the nascent elements that link Jarrell's juvenile canon—happy endings, the individual quest to find identity, and the search for family and, predominantly, a maternal figure. Released the same year as The Gingerbread Rabbit, The Bat-Poet is a significantly more sophisticated work, a children's verse collection featuring an impressionable young bat intrigued by the poetic utterings of a mockingbird. Set outside of Jarrell's own home, the bat-poet is different from his nocturnal kin in that he wonders about the daylight world and its hidden wonders. A free-thinker who is introduced to poetry by the mockingbird, the bat-poet expresses his evolution into an adult with an understanding no other bat has, or even cares to learn. His evolution from young bat to learned adult is expressed through poetry, from the predatory fears of "The Owl" to the unfinished autobiographical "The Bat." But before the bat-poet can complete this ultimate expression of self, his instinctual animal compulsions betray him, and he begins the hibernation already begun by his brethren.
The poems in The Animal Family (1965) feature a hunter haunted by his lost family, particularly the mother he still regularly dreams about. In short order, he meets a mermaid with whom he falls deeply in love, and together they begin a family. However, their inter-species relationship prevents the conception of children, so they adopt a bear, a lynx, and finally a young boy they find drifting in a boat next to his deceased mother. Overcoming the unnatural difficulties of such an unlikely unit, they form a complex portrait of family that is nevertheless harmonious and happy. But beneath this lovely texture lies the more serious issues of love and death; the hunter's cabin is filled with love, but with that love comes the potential for grief. Yet the book ends on a positive note: the boy has become so much a part of the family that it seems to him, as well as to the hunter and the mermaid, that he has been there "always." In Jarrell's posthumous poetry collection, Fly by Night (1976), the protagonist, a young boy named David—one of the few named characters in any Jarrell book—flies at night, floating above his parents and the animals outside, examining their dreams. Jarrell's illustrator Maurice Sendak drew David naked for these scenes, despite the lack of any such reference in the text, to highlight the boy's full embrace of the flying experience. The next morning, when David goes into the kitchen for breakfast—almost, but not quite able to remember his experiences of the night before—"his mother looks at him like his mother" and begins to prepare the pancakes that David has seen her making in his dream the night before.
Jarrell's reputation as a poet has generally suffered in comparison with his extraordinary career as a scholar and literary critic. While his critical writings have been almost universally admired—except by those who have been the subject of his frequently mordant remarks—his poetic collections have generally met with mixed reviews. Jarrell's children's verse has been widely lauded by scholars, though some have debated the quality of the poet's mixture of prose and poetry. While many have found The Bat-Poet to be insightful and lyrical in its animal characteriza-tions, others have faulted the volume for being overly didactic and moralistic. In his review of The Bat-Poet, Hayden Carruth has lamented that, "of the points of the story is that writing, any writing, should be enjoyable, but here is Jarrell himself, preaching. The kids won't like it and I don't blame them." Conversely, several critics have acclaimed Jarrell for not talking down to his young readers and have lauded his earnest expression of childhood. John Updike has commented that, "All successful children's literature has a conspiratorial element; but the conspiracy is not among equals, one side is pretending. With Jarrell there is little pretense; he shares with his young readers as one child shares with other a guilty secret, and imparts his own unease." However, despite their generally positive reviews, the only volume of Jarrell's juvenilia that ever found popular success was The Bat-Poet. Still, The Animal Family and Fly by Night have remained critical favorites, and J. A. Bryant has acclaimed Jarrell's ability to "capture and present an innocent, unprejudiced view of the process of the world like the one that comes immediately to the senses, without preconceived values, preordering, or limited directions and goals. They are adult versions of the stories that children themselves often make up when adults are not close by to correct them."
Though Jarrell received the bulk of his critical accolades for his adult poetry and literary criticism, in 1966, The Animal Family was named a Newbery Honor Book.
The Golden Bird and Other Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm [translator; illustrations by Sandro Nardini] (fairy tales) 1962
The Rabbit Catcher and Other Fairy Tales of Ludwig Bechstein [translator; illustrations by Ugo Fontana] (fairy tales) 1962
The Bat-Poet [illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (children's poetry) 1964
The Gingerbread Rabbit [illustrations by Garth Williams] (fairy tales) 1964
The Animal Family [illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (children's poetry) 1965
Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs: A Tale from the Brothers Grimm [translator; illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert] (fairy tales) 1972
The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm [translator; edited by Lore Segal and Maurice Sendak; illustrations by Sendak] (fairy tales) 1973
Fly by Night [illustrations by Maurice Sendak] (children's poetry) 1976
A Bat Is Born [illustrations by John Schoenherr] (children's poetry) 1977
The Fisherman and His Wife [translator; illustrations by Margot Zemach] (fairy tales) 1980
Blood for a Stranger (poetry) 1942
Little Friend, Little Friend (poetry) 1945
Losses (poetry) 1948
The Seven-League Crutches (poetry) 1951
Poetry and the Age (criticism) 1953
Selected Poems (poetry) 1955
The Anchor Book of Stories [editor] (short stories) 1958
The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Poems and Translations (poetry) 1960
The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling [editor] (short stories) 1961
A Sad Heart at the Supermarket: Essays and Fables (essays and fables) 1962
Selected Poems Including The Woman at the Washington Zoo (poetry) 1964
The Lost World: New Poems (poetry) 1965
The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner [illustrations by Robert Andrew Parker] (poetry) 1968
Complete Poems (poetry) 1969
The Third Book of Criticism (criticism) 1969
The Achievement of Jarrell: A Comprehensive Selection of His Poems [edited by Frederick J. Hoffman] (poetry) 1970
Jerome: The Biography of a Poem [illustrations by Albrecht Dürer] (poetry) 1971
Goethe's Faust, Part I [translator; from the original by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe] (play) 1976
Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection [edited by Mary Jarrell and Stuart Wright] (correspondence) 1985
Selected Poems [edited by William H. Pritchard] (poetry) 1990
No Other Book: Selected Essays [edited by Brad Leithauser] (essays and criticism) 1995
Bernard Horn (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: Horn, Bernard. "'The Tongue of Gods and Children': Blakean Innocence in Randall Jarrell's Poetry." Children's Literature 2 (1973): 148-51.
[In the following essay, Horn contrasts the presentation of childhood in the works of Robert Blake and Randall Jarrell, and praises Jarrell by stating that, "No poet since Blake has brought off so well that quality of 'innocence,' that matter-of-fact acceptance of the supernatural, of magic and mystery, that we call 'childlike.'"]
To prefer the nest in the linden
By Apartment Eleven, the Shoreham
Arms, to Apartment Eleven
Would be childish. But we are children.
"Hope" (p. 305)
For Randall Jarrell, while we are all, like children, powerless victims of a destructive time, we are also unlike children because our imaginations have been victimized. Consequently, the freshness of perception, the naive hope, and the poignancy of childhood and childish things pervade his poetry. Only in William Blake's Songs of Innocence do we find so rich an exploration of these matters, but before I explore this quality of "innocence" more fully, I shall first make distinctions among the various ways childhood creeps into Jarrell's poems. First, there are "The Owl's Bedtime Story" and the Bat-Poet's poems: lyrics, narratives, and descriptive poems primarily directed at an audience of children. Next, there are poems like "The Marchen," "The Sleeping Beauty: Variation of the Prince," and "Cinderella," that contain subject matter from "children's literature" but are directed at an adult audience. Finally, there is the largest group of poems—some directed at adults, some at children, many at both—poems either about childhood or narrated by children.
(1) When the swans turned my sister into a swan
I would go to the lake, at night, from milking.
"The Black Swan" (p. 54)
(2) Never again will Orion
Fall on my speller through the star
Taped on the broken window by my cot.
My knee is ridged like corn
And the scab peels off it.
We are going to live in a new pumpkin
Under a gold star.
"Moving" (p. 94)
(3) At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe's impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.
"90 North" (p. 113)
(4) Sometimes as I drive by the factory
That manufactures, after so long, Vicks
VapoRub Ointment, there rises over me
A eucalyptus tree.
"The Lost World" (p. 289)
(5) All night in the womb I heard the stories.
My brother was a fish, began, "O fish!"
And I listened till my gills began to fall.
"A Little Poem" (p. 362)
Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child
And he laughing said to me:
The last quotation, of course, is from Blake's "Introduction" to Songs of Innocence. Juxtaposing Blake's stanza with the fragments from Jarrell demonstrates the kinship between the two poets. No poet since Blake has brought off so well that quality of "innocence," that matter-of-fact acceptance of the supernatural, of magic and mystery, that we call "childlike." Children's tales, Jarrell writes,
are full of sorcerers and ogres
Because their lives are: the capricious infinite
That, like parents, no one has yet escaped
Except by luck or magic.
"Children Selecting Books in a Library" (p. 106)
Magic. No roll of a snare drum. No blare of rhetorical trumpets. But simply, "On a cloud I saw a child," or "When the swans turned my sister into a swan."
Of course Jarrell is no mere Blake imitator, though that in itself would have been quite an accomplishment; he is rather a modern partly disillusioned counterpart. Even in "The Black Swan," the poem closest to Blake, a quite un-Blakean literal dream intrudes before the swan's song restores the magical world of the child's imagination. In "Moving," my second example, Jarrell locates the girl's monologue within a third person narrative. In "90 North," the Blake-like opening turns out to be the stimulus for a bitter meditation in which an adult speaker rejects the richly meaningful "Cloud-Cuckoo-Land" of childhood in the face of existential woe "at the actual pole of my existence, / Where all that I have done is meaningless." Similarly, "A Little Poem" ends:
I said, "O speak!" My brother smiled,
And I saw Nothing beckon from his lids,
The heart in his oiled breast was dumb as Time,
And his skill crackled with its empty blood.
In "The Lost World" and in "Thinking of the Lost World," poems explicitly about his own childhood, childlike perception or sensation stimulates a Proustian collapsing of time. Finally, the matter-of-fact childlike mind can perceive the monstrous as well as the beautiful: in "A Nursery Rhyme," suddenly, with almost no preparation.
The orphan laterals the warden's head
To a manic who gains eleven yards,
Runs to the stands and assaults a nurse,
Is beaten to shreds by the fretting guards.
Kafka, like Proust, lived between Blake and Jarrell.
In Jarrell, as in Blake, this innocence of perception is accompanied by naive faith and matter-of-fact acceptance of the natural as well as the supernatural. Innocence involves belief as well as perception. Both poets locate innocence within the minds of their speakers, not within the world, and both achieve some of their most poignant and powerful effects because of the discrepancy between a speaker's naiveté in both belief and desire and the state of the world—compare "The Chimney Sweep" and "The Little Black Boy" of Blake to "The State," "The Truth," and "Protocols" by Jarrell. The "Lament of the Children of Israel in Rome" has some of the power of "Holy Thursday":
Then we chorus, with the tongues
Of our fathers, to the harps,
In harmonies our sorrow sharpens,
David's Psalms, still unforgotten:
Till the tears begin to flow—
And once more, from our hearts,
The pain of a thousand years
Melts into hope for the Messiah.
Jarrell also employs a matter-of-factness of tone, particularly with respect to death, to intensify pathos in such well-known adult poems as "The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner," "When I Was Home Last Christmas …," and several poems with a woman narrator, like "The Lost Children" and "The Player Piano."
Jarrell understands, perhaps too well, that because of our powerlessness and vulnerability, tragic feelings have given way to pathos as the emotion of our time—our ogres, if we can even locate them, seem omnipotent. It is not surprising then, that in two poems about patients—that is, vulnerable adults—Jarrell reveals why he is so preoccupied with childish and childlike subjects. Writing about the faith of patients in doctors, Jarrell writes,
And their childishness is natural; here is this office
The natural perplexities of their existence,
The demands they can neither satisfy nor understand,
Are reduced to the child's, "I hurt," the bare
Intention of any beast to go on being.
"A Utopian Journey" (p. 110)
All the patients in "The X-Ray Waiting Room in the Hospital"
miss our underwear
And the old days. These new, plain, mean
Days of pain and care, this routine
Misery has made us into cases, the one case
The one doctor cures forever …
It is in the context of days like these that Jarrell evokes in his poems a world in which it is possible, through luck or magic, to defeat or escape from "that sick dream the waking call a world" (p. 357).
1. This and subsequent page numbers refer to Randall Jarrell, The Complete Poems (New York, 1969).
Leo Zanderer (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: Zanderer, Leo. "Randall Jarrell: About and For Children." Lion and the Unicorn 2, no. 1 (1978): 73-93.
[In the following essay, Zanderer characterizes Jarrell's children's stories as ultimately solitary searches for identity by unconventional figures.]
It is not surprising that Randall Jarrell would be a writer of children's stories. Throughout his poems, we find again and again the subject matter of childhood. There are the poems derived from well-known fairy tales and other works for children: for example, "The Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella," and "The Marchen." Then there are the poems which tell of the daily lives of children: "A Girl in a Library," "A Sick Child," "The Girl Dreams That She Is Giselle." The most important literary figures of his time—his friends and admirers—recognized Jarrell as the poet of childhood. Robert Lowell said that the subject of childhood was for Jarrell, "what it was for his two favorite poets, Rilke and Wordsworth, a governing and transcendent vision."1 He was, "Monstrously knowing and monstrously innocent—one does not know just where to find him … a Wordsworth with the obsessions of Lewis Carroll."2 Reflecting on the "literary commonplace that American literature is essentially a child literature," Karl Shapiro observed that, "Our poetry studies behavior and leads us back to the child. With Jarrell, too, the child becomes the critic and center of value." He was, "the poet of the Kinder and the earliest games of the mind and heart. All those wounded soldiers and shot-down men turn back again into children, for a wounded man is again a child."3 Shapiro is specifically thinking of Jarrell's war-poems here, but he rightfully suggests that all his poetry shows an over-riding concern not only with the experiences of childhood but with a general theme of childhood as a human experience continuing well into maturity. As James Dickey notes:
The poems are one long look … into a child's face, as the Things of modern life happen around it, happen to it, so that you see the expressions change, and even feel the breath change over you, and you come to be aware that you are staring back in perfect centered blindness, in which everything to pity is clear as death, and none of the reasons for any of it.4
While helping us note the central place a childlike experience of the world has in Jarrell's poetry, it must be admitted that Dickey's reading makes us a little leery about what we might expect to find in his children's stories. There seems little reason to want to show a child that aspect of the world which is amorally brutal and dumb, and which renders even us adults impotently childlike ourselves. Yet the stories, The Bat-Poet (1963), The Animal Family (1965), and Fly by Night (published posthumously in 1976), are wonderful, filled with life and hope. Perhaps coming at the end of his poetic career and life, they reflect the culmination of the long struggle for selfhood going on in the poems. Perhaps they are merely an escape. Nonetheless, the vision is generally hopeful; for the heroes of the children's stories, life is a negotiable condition.
However, before turning to the stories, it would be useful to briefly survey the poems, and in so doing, recognize more fully the rich meanings and values which the stories are meant to have, despite their matter-of-fact evocations of reality and seemingly limited sense of what defines the heroic and triumphant. The victories of the stories' heroes may seem small, but they are clearly an advance over the plight of the poems' protagonists, who are, in the main, passive victims, oppressed by outside forces, at best naive makers of their fate.
The earliest poems are the bleakest. The war-poems of Little Friend, Little Friend (1945), Losses (1948), and Seven-League Crutches (1951) make us wonder whether life was meant to be lived at all. In "Port of Embarkation," we face the horrors of a soldier's existence: "Who will believe the blood curled like a moan / From the soaked lips, a century from home."5 In the famous "The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner," the war experience is a metaphor for our condition: at base we are shamefully naked and dependent. The gunner is trapped in a glass bubble, fatally exposed to attack. Positioned at the posterior of an anonymous bird of war, he is a symbol of impotency and defeat:
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
In the fifties and sixties, Jarrell's interests moved to the problems of adjusting to middle-class American life, to encounters with reality that have less of the do-or-die immediacy of war-time, and which give us more chances to think about whether or not we can determine our fates. In The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960) and in The Lost World (1965) the theme is again victimization but with the victimized more conscious. Now we hear the trapped American woman asking things of life, turning to face her misery. In the title poem, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," the speaker recognizes the deadly monotony of "this print of mine, that has kept its color / Alive through so many cleanings; this dull null / Navy I wear to work, and wear from work, and so / To my bed, so to my grave" (p. 215). At the end of the poem she cries, "You know what I was, / You see what I am: change me, change me!" (p. 216). In such poems as "Next Day" and "The Lost Children" from The Lost World, Jarrell aims at the heart of American life; the personae are mothers. They are awakening to discover that they feel abandoned by their husbands and children, betrayed by the choices they made years before. The first laments:
No one has anything, I'm anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.
In "The Lost Children" another resents her daughter's growing up:
Little by little the child in her dies.
You say, "I have lost a child, but gained a friend."
You feel yourself gradually discarded.
She argues with you or ignores you
With extraordinary directness, Jarrell's women admit how much adult life is still dominated by and burdened with the longings of childhood. Somehow these have not been left behind or worked out; instead they generate resentful and competitive feelings toward children and families. In these poems, it is too late to start again.
In other poems from The Lost World there is more hope because there is more time. In such poems as "Street Off Sunset" a child tells us how it really is with him. He dutifully announces his happiness, shows us his wondrous toys, but in the long run is lonely and terrified. The marvels of our age—the radio, the Hollywood landscape—are revealed as dangerous diversions, obfuscations of reality. The child who lives in their midst is taken away from himself, becomes a highly sensitive but frenetically played instrument. He does not see a natural landscape of trees, grass, hillocks, but "a windmill, a pink sphinx, an Allbran / Billboard." For warmth, he snuggles up to a bear rug, holds tight … "To its front tooth and thinks / I'm not afraid" (p. 289). By bedtime, titillated but not fed, the boy is overwrought, unready for sleep, and announces with ill-placed pride that, "I go in breathless joy" (p. 290). When his parents rub in a salve to soothe a cough, he feels instead "the nails go in" (p. 289). And before going to bed he turns to
Mama in her gray
Silk, to Pop, to Dandeen in her black
Silk, I put my arms around them, they
Put their arms around me. Then I go back
To my bedroom; I read as I undress.
The scientist is ready to attack …
How mechanical it all is. The boy names the trappings of love, but he feels little happening between him and the silk-robed strangers who are his family. It is with a double irony that Jarrell suggests that the boy has been forced out of life into bed and understandably must lie "comfortless / In the blank darkness" (p. 290). He cannot be alone with his thoughts. He escapes by putting on earphones and tuning in his crystal set:
Each bed has its earphones—and the uneasy tissue
Of their far-off star-sound, of the blue-violet
Of space, surrounds the sweet voice from the Tabernacle
Of the Four-Square Gospel …
In this passage we have reached a nadir, the individual trading in his own experience of self, albeit a nervous and alienated one, for a detached and invisible universe. It is clear, however, that there are better choices, more simple and natural. The stories for children present us with such choices, and the more worthy challenges—fears and obstacles—that they create.
Chronologically, the stories do not at first suggest an absolute progress. In some ways they may be seen as a gradual turning away from a real world and an entry into a private, phantasmagoric realm. In The Bat-Poet the hero confronts the everyday problems of making friends while simultaneously discovering what it means to make poems and find an audience. The Animal Family seems more escapist. It is a fairy tale world in which a hunter catches a mermaid, takes her as a mate and adopts animal children. In Fly by Night, the familiar daylight world dissolves completely. The rudiments of plot are replaced by a midnight ride of pure happenings—a ride of sights, sounds, feelings which are purely for their own sake.
But all in all, the course of the main characters is upward. The bat-poet is abandoned by his brothers and sisters, but he does brave the strange and some-what unyielding world of daylight, and, despite a sinister suggestion about it, makes it back into the barn for a winter's hibernation with his natural family. If we are told that the hunter-hero of The Animal Family still nostalgically yearns for his long-dead parents, he does manage to make a mate of the mermaid, and with her becomes a loving and responsible parent of a bear, a lynx, and a real-life boy. And while the hero of Fly by Night is a lonely child, in his dreams he is able to lift off for a wondrous flight with a powerful mother-substitute, a great Owl, who leads him through the otherwise unfathomable night, assuring him of its beauty and safety. She is light years ahead of the inaccessible silk-clad elders of "Street Off Sunset." In the boy's dream, at least, the problem of the negligent parent has been resolved.
The path through the poems and into the stories is an existential one. Left behind more and more is the image of man fatally anchored to his role in society; what emerges is an explorer, a seeker. The heroes of the children's stories want least to hide themselves from pain, want most to discover what the great out-side consists of. When we read the stories, we experience as much uncertainty and doubt as we feel a coming through. But the uncertainty and doubt and the coming through are necessarily and intricately linked. We learn through trial and error, and Jarrell does not spare us the details. Matter-of-factly we are introduced to circumstances that are often disturbing and threatening. But, with his heroes, we survive and even profit from them. And when the story is over we accept life.
The Bat-Poet opens with a quietly revealed but essentially traumatic abandonment.
Towards the end of summer all the bats except the little brown one began sleeping in the barn. He missed them, and tried to get them to come back and sleep on the porch with him.6
But they of course don't change their minds. Unlike the strangely nonconformist little bat, they must do what comes naturally and move to more protective quarters for a winter's sleep. Jarrell is non-committal in communicating this; the little bat hardly seems to mind. This silence on the part of the bat and his author is an example of what James Dickey has commented on above. The events which shape our destinies are often absurdly circumstantial, undeniably unfair. There is nothing we can do: we can only accept and go on. Yet it is this that makes a difference. Bereft of the comfort and company of his brothers and sisters, the bat begins to "hang there and think" and contemplates the difficult but dazzling world of daylight. It fascinates him, and, despite a poor response from his brethren—"the sun hurts" (p. 5), they complain—follows the lead of the mockingbird and begins to translate it into poetry.
The bat's experience with the mockingbird and a family of cardinals restates the underlying assertion that growing up means getting used to living with mixed blessings and partial victories, as well as inevitable defeats here and there. The mockingbird whom he so admires and emulates is a disappointment. Beyond his natural gift for imitating life, he pays notice neither to the world which gives him his material, nor the bat who appreciates his talents.
The mockingbird had bad days when he would try to drive everything out of the yard no matter what it was. He always had a peremptory, authoritative look, as if he were more alive than anything else and wanted everything else to know it; on his bad days he'd dive on everything that came into the yard—on cats, dogs, even—and strike at them with his little sharp beak and claws.
When the bat compliments the mockingbird he looks "pleased but modest; it was easy for him to look pleased but hard for him to look modest, he was so full of himself" (p. 10). And when the little bat tries out his own poetry—strongly felt, an original and striking evocation of the owl's menacing power—the mockingbird is pedantic, restrained, impersonal. "'Why, I like it,' said the mockingbird. 'Technically it's quite accomplished. The way you change the rhyme-scheme's particularly effective.'" After this kind of response, the bat can only feel a mixed satisfaction: "Partly he felt very good—the mockingbird had liked his poem—and partly he felt just terrible. He thought: 'Why, I might as well have said it to the bats…. The owl nearly kills me and he says he likes the rhyme-scheme!'" (pp. 14-15).
The bat's efforts to describe a cardinal and his family represent another problematic step into the world; again the world resists, denies satisfaction. Although the baby cardinals are "old enough to feed themselves" their father still has to "fly down and stuff … the seed" (p. 24). In truth, it seemed wrong for him to be a father at all.
The father was such a beautiful clear bright red, with his tall crest the wind rippled like fur, that it didn't seem right for him to be so harried and useful and hardworking: it was like seeing a general in a red uniform washing hundreds and hundreds of dishes. The babies followed him everywhere, and kept sticking their open mouths up by his mouth—they shook all over, they begged so hard—and he never got a bite for himself.
Before this the bat-poet is rendered impotent. "I watch him and he's just beautiful, he'd make a beautiful poem; but I can't think of anything" (p. 25). Perhaps the bat suffers this strange case of writer's block because he cannot separate the beautiful bird from the trying circumstances in which he is found, and he isn't capable just yet of completing a total portrait of all that is before him. Perhaps the subject matter is too painful. It is difficult even for us the readers to identify what is going on among the cardinals. We may be disturbed because we are seeing a painful moment in a weaning process that will turn out well in the long run. Or we may indeed be viewing an unfit parent struggling to fulfill an impossible assignment. Whatever is the truth, the bat is facing a world which can only be partially rendered and imperfectly understood.
In its entirety, The Bat-Poet depicts the kind of simple learning we all have to do from day to day. The young bat wins some, loses some, and gets enough of what he needs out there to return home for a long winter's rest. Yet there is something heroic in the journey, an experience of life that is mysterious and deep. In his very first poem, "The Owl," the bat tells us about a life-experience which is real but in no way commonplace. A poem of three stanzas, it opens suddenly with an image of sinister power.
A shadow is floating through the moonlight
Its wings don't make a sound.
The shadow in the second stanza becomes a frightening bird of prey whose presence, once recognized, brings knowledge of death.
The ear that listens to the owl believes
The owl symbolizes what is really to be feared in life, a more certain danger than the darkness, the unknown.
The owl goes back and forth inside the night,
And the night holds its breath.
The poem thus brings together fact and symbol—the owl as predator and truly dangerous to the bat; the owl as the natural representative of the deadly nature of biological existence—to provide an existential ground for the whole story. It is within the very real limits of a hazardous existence that the bat will grow. The night can be overcome, but death—as an every-day possibility, as an ultimate fact—cannot. Such knowledge must simply be taken in.
The last poem, "The Bat," affirms that the bat has come to a new awareness of self. He recognizes that he is limited and dependent by nature:
A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him….
However, the bat later recognizes that the poem is not a complete portrait of a bat. Returning to the barn to begin his own period of hibernation, the bat is troubled by the omission. It is hard to keep out of mind Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" as the drowsy bat tries to pick up the poem and include what he has left out.
He went back to the beginning. He said,
A bat is born
Naked and blind—
but before he could get any further he thought: "I wish I'd said we sleep all winter."
There is something disturbing about the bat's need to certify that the very sleep he is now on the verge of entering is clearly defined and included as part of a bat's life. Perhaps he is not certain just yet that the normal processes of renewal do not lead to death.
The Animal Family introduces another alienated figure, a lonely hunter, who culls a family and happiness from the forest world around him. From a nostalgic yearning for his dead parents, well into his maturity, it is they he thinks about before sleep. He "would lie in his bed, warm under the bearskin and listen to the great soft sound the waves made over and over. It seemed to him that it was like his mother singing."7 One day the sound of the waves is replaced by a real voice, that of a mermaid who cannot speak or understand human speech. He brings her home with him and so begins a difficult dialogue of love and understanding in which each becomes more fully conscious of the other and their needs and value.
What the presence of the mermaid brings to the hunter, admittedly, is a far more striking experience of life, an existential one. He no longer dreams of his long-dead parents, but finds out instead about a more basic emptiness—in life itself. As he teaches the mermaid to speak, he as well as she learns that a house as well as a log is "hollow," and that his human water is more hollow than her sea-water. Thus a new perspective is added, one that stresses what is not there, as a definition of things—negativity. We can know ourselves according to what we don't have, according to what we are not. And it is language which permits such new and difficult knowledge. For a few marvelous paragraphs in The Animal Family the narrative becomes a meditation on thought and language as problematic essentials of being human. It is words and their boundary-making—the saying of what is light and dark, edge and impasse—which invents the hollow and dry spaces. Only with words can there be the experience of nothing, of negative space. Yet it is only with words that such experience can be transcended and the somethings found which can adequately fill the void. For the hunter the possibility of nothing is found to replace the self-defeating and sentimental longings for others, e.g. his parents, that he is burdened by. For the mermaid the "other"—a feeling, a care and concern for—is found to fill the void she had been taught to create when loss was imminent.
When it storms for the people, no matter how terribly it storms, the storm isn't real—swim down a few strokes and it's calm there, down there it's always calm. And death is no different, if it's someone else who dies. We say: "Swim away from it"; we swim away from everything.
She is by definition a cold creature; the closeness and warmth that are natural for humans are unnatural for her. She slept by the hunter "every night, but on top of the bearskin, not underneath it—she was used to the cold sea" (p. 33). Her limits are not completely unfamiliar to us, nor unhuman. When she brings the hunter a necklace which he affirms as "the best gift he ever had" her reply emphasizes her prowess, a chauvinism about her race, rather than a pleasure in his pleasure. "You can find anything down in the sea. The ships sail over us for a while but at last they sink—in the end everything comes to us" (p. 39). True or not, it is a chilling statement to human ears; a show of absolute power, not of love.
In The Bat-Poet growth comes as the bat enters more and more into the forest world outside the family nexus. In a sense, the process is reversed in The Animal Family. The hunter, who knows the forest-world well, grows through entering into family life. The development of his relationship with the mermaid is solidified through their finding and caring for the bear, the lynx, and finally, an orphaned boy. Caring for these foundlings enlists the couple in common cause, and gives them less reason for dwelling on the differences between them. In this regard, the boy provides a resolution to the issue of the mermaid's natural discomfort with the hunter and his world. She is charmed by the boy's beauty. But most important she sees at last the hunter, once a boy too, from a new perspective: "I never knew what it was like when you lived here with your mother and father, I never had seen a little one. He's half like a little man and half—oh, different!" (p. 142).
Whatever the boy's charms and meaning for the hunter and mermaid, the best of Jarrell can be found in the long and leisurely middle section of the story; the antics of the floppy-clumsy and every place bear and the gorgeous and sinewy lynx call to mind Marianne Moore's observation that, "In Randall Jarrell, we have an author who somehow unshackled himself from self and could have a good time."8
The bigger the bear got, the wetter the bear got; and there is nothing so noticeable as a wet bear. It rained on the bear, the bear forded streams, the bear fished—he would sit or stand in the little river that came down to the sea, with the water boiling over his back, and snap or bat at the fish swimming up through the white water.
And after being attacked by the bees:
Evidently he had ended in the water himself: he was sodden. But the water hadn't washed away the big gummy smears of honey and beeswax on his head and shoulders—there were dead bees caught in his fur, even. He sat down and began to lick his right front paw; the bare palm had several swollen places on it where the bees had stung him. "Just look at his poor nose!" said the mermaid. It was so swollen that, like a man with the mumps, the bear didn't even resemble himself.
About the lynx Jarrell writes:
"Watch!" The mermaid went over to her chair, sat down, and watched. The hunter held out his hand to the kitten in a way that was neither fast nor slow, careless nor careful, but that seemed to take it for granted that the little lynx wanted the hunter to touch him; and the lynx didn't hiss, didn't shrink back, but let the hunter scratch him under the chin—in a moment he was purring.
Usually he jumped from the floor to the top of the chest, and then jumped to the rafters; but if he had to, he could tense himself all over, make a couple of false starts, and then shoot up to a rafter in one soaring, unbelievable bound…. The lynx went comfortably from rafter to rafter, and then lay with his big serious head—after the first month or two he stopped looking like a kitten—stretched flat on his outstretched paws, watched, thought, dozed. The bigger he got, the stranger it was to see him in the rafter: set there in the air above their heads like a cloud by moonlight staring at them with his big steady silver eyes, he looked magical, a spell the forest had cast on the house.
Bringing these two up involves more than indulging occasional minor accidents such as that with the bees. The hunter and the mermaid do have to provide room and space, have to accommodate. But by and large the bear and the lynx grow quickly, learn by themselves, are soon self-sufficient. The bear hibernates all winter, and the lynx makes his own way to the bureau-drawer set aside for him. The boy, the human element, demands much more.
The lynx finds the boy in a shipwrecked boat, huddled next to his dead mother. Suddenly bereft of love and security, he naturally turns to the hunter and the mermaid, and they do not fail him. This way of responding to their foundling son's questions about his origins is a demonstration of the subtlety and humor we must call on in bringing up the human child, and, as at the end of The Bat-Poet, brings the reader face to face with some of life's imponderable issues. The hunter does not wait for his son to ask about where he came from, but instead challenges the boy directly:
One day the hunter smiled back and said, "You must think you've lived with us always." The boy didn't know whether to say yes or no, and gave a laugh of confused joy, so that the mermaid smiled and said, "Yes, you think you've lived with us always."
The boy's heart beat faster, but he said, "No, the lynx found me." And this got to be a game of theirs. Because he knew it wasn't so, the boy enjoyed saying the lynx had found him; and the hunter and mermaid enjoyed saying that the boy had lived with them always, because of—because of many things.
The "game" is, of course, not thoroughly enjoyable. The subject-matter is discomforting. The ultimate answers, for the adopted or natural child, must carry the disturbing news of man's essentially lonely place in the cosmos. For even if the boy is really his parents', he must gradually recognize that he and they are not and never can be absolutely secure, safe from adversity and death, the human condition. The most we can do is to bridge the gap gracefully between the time when the questions are posed and that time when the total discovery about our place in things can become known. The boy in this story is all children who need to know the truth, but only when they are ready; until then they want it withheld out of love. The boy's "joy" is his pleasure in knowing he can risk the truth without it having to become too soon a part of his life. The Animal Family closes with the boy stepping more fully out into the realm of truth, and his parents, cautiously using "the game," holding him close still with love. When he and his father spy the lynx down on the beach, it is the boy who bravely picks up the game and playfully alludes to his beginning.
The boy looked and saw [the lynx] and said laughing, "That's where he found me!"
"Oh, we just told you that," said the hunter, starting their old game. "The very first day your mother and I came to the house, there you were in the corner, fast asleep."
"That's right, fast asleep with him," said the boy, giving the bear a push.
"Oh no," said the mermaid, "that was years before the bear came. We've had you always."
With such a sense of security, a boy might dare to dream, to seek new adventure, new worlds. Fly by Night provides a boy, David, with such an opportunity.
It would be wrong to speak of Fly by Night without at least mentioning Maurice Sendak's contribution. Sendak also did the "Pictures" for The Bat-Poet and the "Decorations" for The Animal Family, but only in the last work's "Pictures" do we have to recognize the demands of a collaboration, an integrity of words and music. The narrative needs the marvelously substantial and provocative drawings. The full publication of David's pubescence, his delicately formed yet full-bodied nakedness, helps keep the work from being too narrowly a tone poem, a meditation. For this is Jarrell's most poetic story, not dream-like but literally a dream of a young boy and a poem for one fifth of its content.
Yet, beginning it, one might think quite otherwise. More than the previous stories, the opening is mundanely realistic, deceptively like a popular novel, or even a formula Hollywood movie of the forties.
If you turn right at the last stoplight on New Garden Road and go north for a mile and a half, you come to a lake on a farm. Beyond, at the edge of the forest, there is a house …9
The theme of loneliness is more immediately felt here than in the previous works. For David, the hero, "there aren't any children … to play with." And animals, pets, do not provide relief. When he takes it into the tree with him, "the cat never stays long." Each morning David waits, "so that the mailman can hand the mail to him instead of putting it in the box" (p. 4). When we consider David's predicament, we can perhaps adjust to Jarrell's recourse for him:
At night David can fly.
David can fly because he must. He needs a perspective, a way of understanding his loneliness; he needs to try out a new way of being, and he needs to be where he has the chance to create the things and crea-tures which can help him "work it out." It becomes so much easier for us to do it with him because of the brilliance—the sheer perfection, the simple clarity and balance—of the writing. This is the way we have always lifted up from our beds and into the stratosphere:
He looks out into the moonlight. Then he stretches his legs out as far as they will go, with the feet together. He can feel the sheet and the blanket and the counterpane pushing down against his toes. He presses his hands against the sides of his legs, with the fingers together, and stretches his head back as far as it will go. Then he takes a deep slow breath, and shuts his eyes and holds his breath; and after a minute he feels himself float up from the bed. He is flying.
Soon the world of David is magical. He floats over his parents, merging briefly with a Bergmanesque dream of his father, "looking very small … running back and forth with David on his back, only David is as big as ever. His father is panting" (p. 6). Then he is a master of the sky, admired by appreciative forest animals.
What's that great big black thing in the sky?
One of the others says:
It's little David—he can fly.
A rabbit out of Lewis Carroll is diverted from his recital of "A squash for me, a beet for you / A beet for me, a squash for you" and scampers off, becoming a "white tail bobbing" (p. 13) in the night. He sees the dreams of sheep, he sees ponies who dart away from him. By sight he owns the world.
The climax of the story, and perhaps of all Jarrell's work, occurs when he encounters a powerful owl, who is really the same awesome creature of The Bat-Poet, but more accessible and supportive—a mother-owl in real fact. David can get close enough to see "its big round brown eyes" (p. 17) and to make out how "the rings come together and make big brown and white rings around its whole head" (p. 17). He hears a poem telling of its having flown the night to catch fish "for my nestlings' sake" (p. 18) and feels how it protects him by gliding "around and around him" (p. 18). This portrait answers the doubt raised by the cardinal-father of The Bat-Poet. David notes that although the baby owls have a "sad absurd look" (p. 19), and are ugly little things, he cannot deny that their mother's "eyes look loving" (p. 19).
"The Owl's Bedtime Story" (pp. 20-24) seems to be an optimistic version of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." A young owl is sent out into the world by its mother, finds an orphaned female owl, and brings her home with him where they are both taken in by the mother-owl. "She opened her wings, they nestled to her breast" (p. 24). But as such it seems precious and forced, and not really as true to the nature of the owl as the portrait in The Bat-Poet. While there is something truly lovely about this last view of the owl, the happy ending is unconvincing. Friends and mates are not so easy to find, nor mothers so receptive to additional burdens.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the by now predictably uncertain quality of Jarrell's conclusion to Fly by Night seems so satisfying. On the one hand, the owl in this story does represent the resolution of a loss-of-mother theme we recognize in the poems and stories. When David returns to his own world, he is full of an awesome experience with a soaring, majestic, yet nurturing presence. Home in the kitchen, his real mother offers him breakfast, and David almost discovers in her the wondrous substitute he had been with. His mother, he considers
looks at him like—
"Like—" thinks David, "like—"
The owl? No, not quite.
… his mother looks at him like his mother.
Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz David has flown so high only to come down to earth and discover that his dreams are not unlike his own real world. But it would take powerfully wishful thinking to say that it is as good as the one just visited.
Here, as in the two previous stories, Jarrell cannot deny the difficulty and disappointments of "reality." All these stories fulfill his commitment to a particular personal perspective. He is a modern; the world is existentially flat. In responding to it, we must resist the desire to color what we cannot change, to embellish or invent new worlds which deny the real. If life thus experienced is sometimes a little empty—in the nights and even the days of the bat, in the days of the hunter and David—such an emptiness is part of a complex human reality. Beginning to know it as early as we can will insure that we make good use of it sooner, and be less tempted to evade what is our only life.
2. Lowell, "On the Seven-League Crutches," Randall Jarrell, p. 114.
3. Karl Shapiro, "The Death of Randall Jarrell," Randall Jarrell, pp. 222-23.
4. James Dickey, "Randall Jarrell," Randall Jarrell, p. 48.
5. Randall Jarrell: The Complete Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), p. 197. All quotations from the poems are from this edition and subsequent page references will appear in the text.
6. The Bat-Poet (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1963), p. 2. All quotations are from this edition and subsequent page references will appear in the text.
7. The Animal Family (New York: Random House, 1965; rpt. New York: Dell, 1974), p. 7. All quotations are from this edition and subsequent page references will appear in the text.
8. Moore, "Randall Jarrell," Randall Jarrell, p. 130.
9. Fly by Night (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), p. 3. All quotations are from this edition and subsequent page references will appear in the text.
Mary Bernetta Quinn (essay date 1981)
SOURCE: Quinn, Mary Bernetta. "The Original Bat-Poet." In Randall Jarrell, pp. 92-109. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1981.
[In the following essay, Quinn examines the autobiographical aspects of Jarrell's children's works, particularly with regards to his recurring thematic search for a mother figure.]
The preceding chapters on Jarrell's poetry intimate rather than exhaust his multifaceted genius. A third could readily follow on those lyrics that involve the Old and the New Testaments, the most interesting being the autobiographical mask entitled "Jonah," as well as others on different themes. Since he himself constructed list after list of preferences in his reviews, there is excuse for singling out some favorites not treated in detail ahead: "Losses," "Hohensalzburg: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Romantic Character," "The Carnegie Library, Juvenile Division," "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," "The Sleeping Beauty: Variation of the Prince," "The Girl Dreams that She Is Giselle," "A Soul," "A Sick Child," "Cinderella," "Nestus Gurley," "The Black Swan," "Deutsch durch Freud," "The End of the Rainbow." Like his own "top-billings," the catalog is no sooner ended than seen as flawed by omissions. Yet its concreteness highlights the power of this poet to change.
On The Nashville Tennessean's literary page, where fifty years earlier Donald Davidson was acquainting the South with the Fugitives, Thomas Inge has called for a study to reveal Jarrell as the supreme poet he was: "But the time is ripe for someone to come forth and state with the proper justification and support—a careful analysis of his style and technique as an inspired craftsman—that Randall Jarrell was one of the two or three at the very top of his generation as a contemporary American poet."1
Meanwhile, a self-portrait of Jarrell the poet emerges from the triad of children's books on which he had the good luck to collaborate with another "poet," Maurice Sendak.
Sendak, in his remarks to a session of the National Council of Teachers of English, meeting in New York in November 1977, made the same suggestion, recognizing how self-revelatory of the writer was this triad for which they had planned the "decorations." He reported that his own original books, especially Where the Wild Things Are, were "super-personal"; so he regarded Randall's, unified by the theme of the search for a mother and rising from that "primitive place," the subconscious, locus of a child's paradise which is "truer than time." Despite the war lyrics, Jarrell by temperament was no hawk, but "a small, furred animal," like the little brownish bat he chose as his symbol in the best-known of his children's books.
No partnership could have been more felicitous than that of Jarrell and Sendak. At first, the artist objected to the proposal that he illustrate Randall's The Bat-Poet, feeling that the lyrics were illustration enough entirely apart from the exquisitely pictorial effects in the prose. Finally he agreed, but only on the terms that his contributions be announced as "pictures by Sendak," as they are on the dust jacket. In Jarrell he found a keen graphic sense (in his earlier years, the poet had executed representational paintings in warm colors), together with that music which he confesses most stimulates his own work.2 Their business rela-tionship grew into friendship, shared by Mary Jarrell, with whom they went places in New York when not working: "I loved Randall Jarrell," Sendak told the English teachers at the meeting mentioned above.
After the poet died, Maurice Sendak continued "decorating" (his own word) Jarrell's books. An example is his posthumous designs for The Golden Bird and Other Tales from Grimm. Four stories had appeared in 1962 in a volume also containing Lore Segal's renditions of others. Introducing a different version of the Grimm tales, that by Sandro Nardini, Jarrell noted: "I know a poet who has written poems about Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, the Frog Prince, and Cinderella."3 The poet was, of course, himself.
Jarrell used at least thirty-six of the Grimm fairy stories in his lyrics. "Cinderella" casts into symbol an unhappy marriage in the way that moderns tend to use the Medusa myth, as Samuel French Morse did in "Beyond Medusa."4 Had Sendak decorated Randall's prose translation of "Cinderella," he might have put in an enormous cat with fierce eyes, glowering from the hearth at the maiden and her newly met godmother, a pair who, smiling like two old women, "lapped in each other's looks, / Mirror for mirror, drank a cup of tea." In the tales he did do, the images seem suggested by Jarrell: the dog with his stern disapproving stare at the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" (more prominent than the children); the owl as ominous center of Snow White's story; the puppy in bed with his fisherman-master as the greedy wife stands over them to pronounce her final wish. In fact, Maurice Sendak affirms he can still hear Randall Jarrell's voice in the room with him whenever he works on one of the stories.
I. The Bat-Poet
No one knew more intimately than Mary Jarrell the blessedness of the Sendak-Jarrell team. Reviewing The Animal Family, she comments thus:
Mr. Sendak's unique illustrations are a kind of music you hear while you read. It is a strange music made of pines and shells and misshapen cliffs and it comes from moonlight and ocean waves and deserted places. They belong with the book as much as the book belongs with the sentence of Gogol's that my husband quotes for the preface: 'Say what you like, but such things do happen—not often, but they do happen.'5
And no one guessed more wrongly about children's reactions to the initial book, The Bat-Poet, than Hayden Carruth: "The kids won't like it and I don't blame them."6 The fact that it is still going strong in paperback as well as hard cover editions is proof enough of his error. While the charm and depths of The Bat-Poet dawned gradually on reviewers, some acclaimed it at once, such as Lavinia Ross, who attributes to it the immortality that Ingmar Bergman felt his films to possess: she quotes Bergman as saying, "After seeing my pictures, I hope people will see a little more—the light will change—the landscape will look a little different."7 It did, after Jarrell.
When The Bat-Poet appeared, dust jacket and fron-tispiece showed a "solitary singer," not the thrush with which Whitman identified himself in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," but a small creature "like a furry mouse with wings." The simple adventures of this "little light brown bat" are those of Jarrell himself, in their essence. No sensitive child or adult would mistake the Bat-poet for just a bat, any more than the Mole as only mole in The Wind in the Willows. Shortly after Jarrell's death, this identity was acknowledged by a North Carolina journalist: "But The Bat-Poet, like Alice in Wonderland, is more than a children's story. It is the story of the Bat-Poet who for a long time to come, will remain one of America's greatest living poets,"8 the second adjective ironical but accurate.
Beginning the bat-parable "Once upon a time" lifts it out of the ordinary. As Thomas Noesen says in "Fairy Tales and the Gospels," this standard opening causes time to disappear in favor of an eternal dimension: "Whether we say 'once upon a time' as in the fairy tale or 'in the beginning' as in John's gospel, we have expressed the same point in history: no point."9 The story goes beneath sequential "facts" into something more important: a totality of message. The use of "you" introduces an auditor, perhaps Mary, to whom the book is dedicated. Like a doppelgänger, Jarrell goes in and out of the little house, studying the bats over his head and occasionally turning a flashlight on them to watch them screw up their faces in the painful glare. His presence as character and audience in the drama achieves aesthetic distance.
When the fable begins, the coffee-colored bat is as wingless in daylight as the others in the bunch hanging upside-down from the porch rafters, but gradually, unlike the rest, he experiments with the sun. With summer's end, the other bats having retreated to the barn, he finds himself alienated; pleading with them to return but meeting refusal, he no more succumbs to following them than did his creator to following the popular tastes he deprecated in A Sad Heart at the Supermarket. Like Jonathan Seagull, he decides to "go it alone."10 Loneliness often afflicted Randall Jarrell. Autumn having arrived, the bat-poet is seized with this emotion: "So he had to sleep all alone. He missed the others." But he bravely accepts his fate of nonconformist.
In the hitherto unknown daytime world, he makes friends with other animals and birds, the most satisfactory being the chipmunk, a parallel to Mary Jarrell in its appreciation of his poetry. Jarrell's interest in Marianne Moore, translator of La Fontaine and deviser of many original fabulae, shines forth in the types of persons represented by the bat's new acquaintances.11 In Poetry and the Age, he compares her lyrics to animals that rescue "the foolish heroes of fairy tales—which can save only the heroes, because they are too small not to have been disregarded by everyone else" (p. 166).
As the bat-poet admits into his ken the squirrels, chipmunks, possums, and owls whose lives he has previously slept through, his vision is extended, as poets' must be before their readers' vision can be. He comes to "see" in the sense of "understand" how shadows can be "bright as moonlight" and how the "black-and-gray turns to green-and-gold-and-blue," knowledge locked away from his somnolent bat-relatives. In the "blurred and golden" light he perceives how the chipmunk's tail is rosy and in his poem likens the color to maple leaves and fox fur. In short, as he comes to live a multicolored existence, his poetic ability strengthens ("the sunlight and the shadows and the red and yellow and orange branches made a kind of blurred pattern …"). Arrived at the gift of thinking in landscapes ("In the west, over the gray hills the sun was red"), he discovers the sunset forever hidden from the other bats.
In "The Obscurity of the Poet" Jarrell laments over how most persons of his age, having read neither the poetry of yesterday nor of today, cannot understand "the mockingbird's song," nor have they any wish to try (Poetry and the Age, p. 3). The bat-poet's plea to the polite but uninterested other bats that they listen to the mockingbird (a good poet, despite a difficult personality) reminds one of Jarrell's desire that everyone enjoy the poetry he enjoyed: "Once you get used to [the mockingbird's song] it sounds wonderful." In real life, whether in a conference with a student or in letters to friends like Taylor and Lowell, he would say about their original verse "It's wonderful … Wonderful!" just as the little bat does, listening to the virtuosity of the mockingbird. In the fable, the mockingbird, possibly representing the New Critics, offers only dry comments on line-lengths and metrical dexterity as response to the timid bat's first song.
The bat's imitative period, patterned on a number of poets as recapitulated in the mockingbird's music (Auden, Yeats, Tate, Warren), coincides with Blood for a Stranger, its words often too derivative to be united in an original "tune." As his apprenticeship continues, he sees in a flash of insight that "If you get the words right you don't need a tune." The poetic career of the bat-poet is not all advances, any more than was Jarrell's: there were times when only translations were possible and when the dread of never recovering poetic powers was heavy upon him. His own misgivings appear in The Bat-Poet : "But sometimes the poem would seem so bad to him that he'd get discouraged and stop in the middle, and by the next day he'd have forgotten it." Sometimes too he began a prose work he found impossible to complete: the way the cardinal resisted the bat-poet's Muse as a subject has its parallel in Hart Crane, on whom Jarrell once undertook to do a small book, financed by a Guggenheim grant. Though he greatly admired Crane, difficulty after difficulty intervened, until finally he had to give up the project and return the money. In The Bat-Poet his friend the chipmunk encourages him about the verse-portrait he is struggling to do on the cardinal: "Why, just say what he's like, the way you did about the owl and me," yet try as best he can the bat-poet cannot put into words the beauty of the cardinal.
The villain of this Jarrellian fable enters the action early, in an episode which almost resulted in the demise of the "hero": one night an owl swoops toward him, coming so close that the little bat would have been caught had not a refuge offered itself in the hole in the old oak growing beside the little house in the wood, a symbolic salvation by the Sacred Wood of Sir James Frazer and Robert Graves. This owl provides the subject for "The Bird of Night," possibly the most suitable lyric in The Complete Poems for introducing Randall Jarrell to high school or college students. Its context, The Bat-Poet, while helping as motivation, is not indispensable: the lyric floats free from the fable, as free as its owl-hunter floats over and through the woods. Robert Penn Warren's "The Owl," one of his lesser-known pieces, and his "Time as Hypnosis" make excellent comparative studies, since all three are initiations into the problem of evil, along with Warren's "Blackberry Winter." "Thinking of the Lost World" is another such initiation, the grandmother attacking the chicken taking the place of the owl.
Jarrell's traumatic exposure to the "murder" of that chicken haunted him throughout life, nor is it absent from the owl-poem (p. 12) that the bat-poet, inspired by the mockingbird, composes:
A shadow is floating through the moonlight.
Its wings don't make a sound.
Its claws are long, its beak is bright.
Its eyes try all the corners of the night.
It calls and calls: all the air swells and heaves
And washes up and down like water.
As in Warren's "Bearded Oaks," an Atlantis metaphor prevails: floating, swells, heaves, washes, water. The liquidity of the consonants heightens the effect, as does the undulating imitative not only of the ocean but also of easy flight. The moonlight itself is the "water."
Moonlight is used so often in Jarrell that it might be thought of as a character binding the lyrics together in a narrative way, just as the same person appears throughout thirty feet of a Chinese scroll on life along a river. In "Hohensalzburg: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Romantic Character," the invisible vampire, who says "I am here behind the moonlight," may be nothing but the moonlight. Other examples that significantly employ moonlight are "A Girl in a Library," "The Märchen," "The Rising Sun," "Windows," "A Ward in the States," "Mother, Said the Child," "Hope," "Dreams," "A Ghost Story." Sendak's double-page picture (pp. 6-7) closest to "The Bird of Night" shows owl and moon prominently in conjunction.
To imagine the bird as a floating shadow with wings is original and beautiful. In the line drawing opposite the poem, Maurice Sendak suggests in the wings the headdress of an Indian chief, silhouetted against the disc of moon and centered in the only clear area in the wilderness, with its ivy, gnarled trees, leafy branches, ferns, grasses. The polysyllabic meter of "A shadow is floating in the moonlight" gives way in the second line to the retardation of the three strong stresses "wings don't make." In the third, the shadow has not only wings but claws and beak; the doom of small furry creatures hiding below is not ameliorated by the adjective bright, alliterating with beak, since the brightness may be blood. The caesura, part of the leisurely flight, helps the hunter to scrutinize his terrain.
Besides claws and beak, this shadow is equipped with eyes that "try" all the corners of the night, turning the forest from huge seaweed clusters and coral to a new metaphor, a prison from which there is no escape, the "corners" implying its rectangular shape. The onomatopoeic identical rhyme—"It calls and calls: all the air swells and heaves"—is common in Jarrell. When the mockingbird evaluates the bat's poem he does not mention the repetition of the letter I here, leading up to and away from all, that word so common in Jarrell lyrics, though it is the sort of thing he does notice, to the author's dismay, instead of the fright at the heart of the composition.
No ear, of itself, believes in death; to say so is metonymy. But poets do and none more so than Randall Jarrell, from Blood for a Stranger through The Lost World. Although not specifically occurring in this stanza, as in "Lady Bates," the hooting of the owl vibrates so threateningly through the air that it seems to own it: the night becomes "the owl's air," meant on a secondary level as mournful melody ("If you get the words right you don't need a tune"). "Still as death" could be trite, but next to "stone" and when attributed to the scared little mouse and the even more scared (because more aware) bat, it is no cliché. The quiet ocean of moonlight become a prison, now as if in a Charles Burchfield painting, turns into a living creature that can hold its breath in terror, the cutting off of the final line dramatizing this tear, as the mockingbird notes: "And it was clever of you to have that last line two feet short" (p. 14). The mood is unlike the calm acceptance of the companion-piece ("The Breath of Night" ) from a 1947 Kenyon Review, though even this poem detects beneath the joy of the forest's beauty at night "the Strife that moves the stars." The universe itself in "The Bird of Night" trembles before the owl.
Maurice Sendak's theory, alluded to above, is that the "search for a mother" ties together The Bat-Poet, The Animal Family, and Fly by Night. This motif was already present in The Gingerbread Rabbit, 12 illustrated by Garth Williams. Its most direct elucidation in the first Sendak volume is the fourth poem: "Sleepily, almost dreaming, the bat began to make up a poem about a mother and her baby." Like W. C. Williams, Jarrell believed the unconscious to be the place where poems are born: in "Dreams" "The darkness puts to its lips its finger. / The children spell in their sleep." In the magical state of dream the bat recalls the story of his own infancy: "It was easier than the other poems somehow: all he had to do was remember what it had been like and every once in a while put in a rhyme," like Wallace Stevens striking the silver chime of a rhyme at will.
Jarrell's mother died shortly after he did, early in 1966, the following year. Although very close when he was a child, they grew apart. Yet there was a time when as a young boy in California he wrote affectionate, funny, "sharing" letters to her in Tennessee, enjoying a relationship he idealizes in that of the little bat and his mother, one quite different from the estrangement described as early as "The Bad Music," which must have been written in the 1930s. Here, he remembers his mother as crying; the son asks, "… how many know or love at all / You, Anna?" about her present status and answers himself, "Enough." The Animal Family underscores that happy memories of Anna were not dead; in fact, one is recalled in "The Player Piano," where Jarrell, disguised as a feminine speaker, writes, "I remember how I'd brush my mother's hair / Before she bobbed it."
The bat's birth is in human terms, "Naked and blind and pale." The poem he makes up about himself, like "The Bird of Night," simulates flight: "Doubling and leaping, soaring, somersaulting…." The baby bat hangs on underneath the mother's body. About a third of the thirty-four lines rhyme, and about a third are in pentameter, but shorter line-lengths dominate to give the illusion of flying. The figures of speech—for example, "Like shining needlepoints of sound"—make up in quality for quantity. In the embroidery image (the synesthetic needle of the "high sharp cries" of the mother bat weaving in and out of the moonlight-and-shadow fabric) the poet "complicates" in the way that the original bat-poet loved to: it is a compass reference, a variant of the Christ Child toward which everything is pointed in "The Old and the New Masters" ("The naked, / Shining baby, like the needle of a compass"). The seventeenth line is followed by a pivot, the "echo" trick Jarrell had praised in Paterson, here "In full flight; in full flight." In Sendak's picture for the poem, love stands in antithesis to death: "Their single shadow, printed on the moon / Or fluttering across the stars, / Whirls on all night." Home again, the mother like a guardian angel "folds her wings about her sleeping child."
In H. W. Suber one sees a reviewer who early detected the personal revelation that Sendak was to note: "Randall Jarrell, in his book The Bat-Poet, left an autobiography of sorts."13 But this children's tale also serves as a literary memoir, Suber believes, a critique of the age itself, alluding obliquely to Robert Frost ("After Apple Picking"), to Dylan Thomas ("Fern Hill"); besides being "an annotated anthology of the Bat-Poet's [Jarrell's] own poems" and "a textbook on contempoetics," it can also be taken as "an introduction to Ezra Pound." The author of Personae may well be the mockingbird, assuming one voice after another (Daniel, Browning, Villon). In the lyric on the mockingbird which the bat sings to the chipmunk, he may be satirizing Pound's youthful role among fellow-writers from his posts as foreign editor in Europe: "On the willow's highest branch, monopolizing / Day and night, cheeping, squeaking, soaring," and again, "All day the mockingbird has owned the yard" and "fighting hard / To make the world his own" (p. 28). If this be true, the genuine admiration with which Jarrell regarded The Cantos nevertheless comes through at the end:
A mockingbird can sound like anything.
He imitates the world he drove away
So well that for a minute, in the moonlight,
Which one's the mockingbird? which one's the world?
If Randall Jarrell wrote little about il miglior fabbro ("the better maker"), he did consciously benefit from Poundian technique in such dramatic monologues as "Jonah." As a teacher Jarrell thought each of his Greensboro students better than they were. Similarly he may have been presenting in his generous and persistent eulogies of the mockingbird (Pound?) to the other bats, as well as in his bat-poet discipleship, a much more positive than negative estimate of the poet whom some critics were accusing of vanity, arrogance, over-concern with technique.
II. The Animal Family
Despite its title, the protagonist of The Animal Family is a human being, a hunter who finds a mermaid by following a mysterious song to the ocean near a cabin made of logs which he, like Robinson Crusoe, has chopped down himself. Yet even before he begins to collect his "family" about him, this hunter's garments identify him with animals: deerskin trousers, shirt, and shoes; cloak of a mountain lion's hide; cap of a sea-otter's skin. Moreover, he has ornamented the walls and chairs of his house with foxes, seals, a lynx, a mountain lion, as if to prepare the right kind of home for those who will occupy it. This classic has often been likened to The Little Prince, its central character at home amidst the nonhuman. Margaret Sherwood Libby wrote "Not since St.-Exupèry's Little Prince have I found a book of this kind that I wanted to share with everyone."14
Mary Jarrell relates the setting to their residence on South Lake Drive in Greensboro, though at the same time picturing it as a collage of Randall's memories of drives along the Pacific, scenes from Coos Bay to Big Sur.15 Mixed in with these recollections are visits to Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C. But more important than these is the ivied Greensboro house, present also as setting in the other two Sendak books, with its seat under the large eastern window made of stained and clear glass combined. The hunter's possessions in The Animal Family were actually Randall's: the brass horn, ship's figurehead, animal pelts, wooden table utensils. The fireplace is the fireplace of the home where this prose-poem dream was dreamed, in the tranquillity of the North Carolina evenings.16
The projected essay mentioned above on Randall Jarrell and music could deal not just with the operatic and orchestral, but also with nameless melodies like the one that brings out the mother-motif as the hunter, warm under his bearskin, hears it in the song of the waves: "the great soft sound the waves made over and over. It seemed to him that it was like his mother singing." When he falls off to sleep, it really is the mother, sitting by his bed singing. In The Animal Family, which opens with the same four words that The Bat-Poet does, one is conscious that this lullaby is "once upon a time, long, long ago," partly through the reference to his dead father, who sits repairing bow and arrow at the fireplace. The same dream returns in the summer: when sleep comes, "his thoughts changed to dreams, and his mother was singing to him." When he awakens in the moonlight the mother-figure singing changes to the seal-like creature in the waters, not yet classified as a mermaid. It might be the moonlight itself: in that strange little design by Sendak on the title page the moon is wreathed in leaves, the symbol of the mermaid whose hair and skin Jarrell describes as "the same silvery blue-green, the color of the moonlight on the water." As if she were truly only the moonlight, the mermaid, unlike the personalities in The Bat-Poet, never appears in the decorations.
The bat, once he has discovered the joy of poetry through the mockingbird, goes on to original composition; the hunter remains a "mockingbird." He courts the mermaid by memorizing a tag of the song from the sea and interspersing it among all the other tunes he can recollect. The speech of human and ondine are mutually unintelligible, but not hopelessly so, any more than the children's after a taste of dragon's blood in "Children Selecting Books in a Library" :
… The children's cries
Are to men the cries of crickets, dense with warmth
—But dip a finger into Fafnir, taste it,
And all their words are plain as chance and pain.
(C.P. [Complete Poems], p. 106)
Gleefully they begin to teach each other, she making many an amusing mistake in language though a quicker learner than he. When she asks what "mistakes" are, Jarrell the hunter replies in a manner applicable to his own poetic practice: "The wrong word—the wrong sound, one you don't mean to make." She puzzles over the ambiguities in human speech, such as "legs" in reference to the hunter and to his table, but readily adds the word leg to her vocabulary, like the mermaid in "A Soul," who touches the man's legs as she and her lover sit near the shore: "Yes, here is one, // Here is the other … Legs … / And they move so?"
"A Soul" features in its initial line a bat as nonconformist as the furry winged protagonist of the child's tale: "It is evening. One bat dances / Alone, where there were swallows." These sentences could serve as epigram for the entire Sendak "trilogy." Written ten years earlier than the fable about the mermaid, it is a tender little dialogue in six stanzas, in which the mermaid's thou approximates the German du. That happy "dailiness of life" with which "Well Water" ends characterizes this couple, the "once more" disclosing their habit of meeting at night even though the "thin air" is dangerous to her. Exceptional among mermaids as the bat-poet among bats, she has scales on her breast as well as tail, unlike the ondines of art, but she is even more exceptional in that she has gained a soul by winning the love of a human. The same legend, out of Hans Christian Andersen, forms the groundwork of The Animal Family, and as implied in her domestication, the same blessing comes to its mermaid, as their love (the love of friendship) matures.
From time to time the sea-creature of The Animal Family returns to her former home under the waves, where she finds it as difficult to tell the other mermen and mermaids about a fire as the bat-poet did to communicate to the other bats what bright shadows were. Their problem can be related to "The Obscurity of the Poet." Like the chipmunk, she has a natural understanding of poetic images, shown by her reaction to the branch of red maple leaves the hunter gives her: "The mermaid looked at it as if she couldn't believe it; she carried it, and stroked it, and said to him lovingly, 'It's the best thing I've ever had in all my life.'" Reading The Animal Family, Jarrell's former student Sylvia Wilkinson recalled the day she and others brought him a gift: "I remember how excited he was when we carried him a bunch of red berries we had stolen off a campus branch."17 If he is the Hunter in the fable, he is also the Mermaid.
The fire, after it burns her, becomes an object of fear like the owl to the chipmunk, bewildering but beautiful. She compares it to a red shell just as she has the meadow flowers to white shells. Sendak has chosen for his cover a shell ringed with leaf-tendrils, as the moon is inside the book. The necklace of gold and green and blue stones from the bottom of the sea that the mermaid presents to the hunter is a "poem," received as such when he repeats to her what she has said to him about the red maple branch.
The theme of the lost mother never vanishes: "The hunter would tell her about his father and mother and the years the three of them had lived there, showing her a little square of lace, his mother's handkerchief; to the hunter and the mermaid it was a great treasure" (p. 49). Since the mermaid is not able to imagine a woman, he carves a statue of his mother for her, and she exclaims at once: "'Why, she's like me!'" (p. 50). Thus through fantasy the hunter recovers the mother for whom has he never ceased to shed invisible tears.
The wealth of fairy tales that the hunter shares with his mate (if one can call her that) comes from his dead mother. It is the mother remembered so fondly from boyhood that Jarrell intends in the wish: "Whenever anything reminded him of his father and mother, you could see that he missed them and longed to have them alive again." (In the last of the series, Fly by Night, he does resurrect them.)
Since they cannot be parents without a child, the man and mermaid add to their household a bear cub. Sendak's leafless branches reach out as if in love, under the title of Chapter Three, "The Hunter Brings Home a Baby." As always in his decorations for this book, the members of the animal family do not appear. Nothing seems unusual about the bear's entrance into their household circle, though his coming occasions some funny incidents, such as the mermaid's consternation at his hibernation, which recalls to her the mother's Sleeping Beauty story as told her by the hunter. In Chapter Five the man steals a lynx as brother for their son, no doubt a compliment to Elfie, Jarrell's tortoise-shell cat, to whom this volume is dedicated. The newcomer destroys with his sharp claws the mother's lace handkerchief, but it is marvelously repaired, as if in a Hawthorne myth. At the end of this chapter comes a deft foreshadowing of the next when the hunter tells the mermaid how his mother used to admonish their cat "Velvet" to get him to tuck in his claws: "That's what my mother used to say on the boat.'"
The child Jarrell is externalized in the shipwrecked boy found one day by the lynx: "A woman was lying at the other end [of the unlucky vessel], half in and half out of the water that filled the bottom of the boat": huddled against her was a little boy who was crying. Between lynx and bear the boy is installed in the seaside Eden which the cabin has become. When the mermaid and hunter return, they seem scarcely even surprised at finding the sleeping child snuggled up to the bear beside the fireplace. The child's first word to the mermaid when he awakens is "Mama." The burial of the mother that same day by the hunter reawakens in him his own desolation at being parentless. Suspense continues to build as to whether the mermaid will go back to the ocean, as Matthew Arnold's does in "The Forsaken Merman," a poem referred to in "The End of the Rainbow," where a cynic calls mermen only seals and mermaids manatees (aquatic animals with rounded tails). When the mermaid chooses the land as her home, Jarrell uses the decision to say something important about Life, that it is struggle as indeed it is for her—just the opposite of the convent in Hopkins's "Heaven Haven," which is "out of the swing of the sea," where "storms not come."
The Animal Family ends in a lie, told to the child by his parents, who have so confused dream and reality in their own minds that they believe their insistence he has always been their child; it is a lie in the sense that art itself is a lie. "We've had you always," are the last words of the book, said by the mermaid to the boy. The symbolic source of this "lie," standing in Jarrell as in Yeats for the creative process, is the seashell and the strange music dwelling within its ivory spiral.
This story offers details from Jarrell's life in the manner that trobar clus poetry did in regard to the troubadours. Its most profound autobiographical sense is the whole enchanted world that the family inhabits, the straw of reality spun into gold: "It is not a sentimental happiness. The lynx is stolen from his mother, the boy is cast up by a storm in which his mother has died; each of the characters in the fable knows the meaning of pain, and sadness, and fear. But the happiness is there, all the same, though it has to be won."18 The mermaid must exert effort beyond the usual as she travels without legs to and from the ocean and so does the husband as he tries to decipher her tongue or puts up with her ineptitude in cooking, but somehow they manage, like the young couple in Steinbeck's The Pearl who have been driven out of their first paradise only to enter into a more realistic one.19
In The Complete Poems, the nearest analogue to their marriage is "A Man Meets a Woman in the Street." Sunlight, gingko trees, the wife's hair of coarse gold above her champagne-colored dress all conspire to make the husband happy, though he recognizes mutability. ("if only … If only …"), especially toward the end:
After so many changes made and joys repeated,
Our first bewildered, transcending recognition
Is pure acceptance. We can't tell our life
From our wish. Really I began the day
Not with a man's wish: "May this day be different,"
But with the birds' wish: "May this day
Be the same day, the day of my life."
(C.P., p. 353)
If Jarrell's tales begin "Once upon a time," they do not finish "And they lived happily ever after." Yet, as in this poem celebrating conjugal love, they are illuminated with what Robert Penn Warren calls delight.
III. Fly by Night
Fly by Night, concluding the "spiritual autobiography" decorated by Maurice Sendak, did not appear until 1976. The dust jacket shows a mother-figure holding a huge placard on a pole which announces title, author, artist; later in the volume the same woman cradles against herself a child, in the forest "where the wild things are." Never having met Anna Campbell Jarrell Regan, Sendak constructed her out of recollections of his own mother as he drew the dreams of this third "chapter." Also on the jacket, high over the mother's head, the floating David, whose story it is, is pictured face down resting against the air, as if it were the water implied in "The Bird of Night."
The locale is Greensboro, as in the other two books: "If you turn right at the last stoplight on New Garden Road," Fly by Night begins. The Jarrells had lived on Spring Lake Drive, which does turn off the New Garden Road cutting through Greensboro. The hero's chow dog is Reddy, the name of the pet rabbit Jarrell had in California as a child (the poet in Part III of "The Lost World" begs his grandmother, "'Mama, you won't kill Reddy ever, / You won't ever, will you?'" but cannot believe her when she says she would never even think of such a thing). Reddy's worried expression in his prominent righthand corner of the Sendak frontispiece is a transference of the owner's anxiety. David also has a cat named Flour; cats were always indispensable to Jarrell, even in his Nashville days, as remembered by the Breyers.
Nocturnal flying is just the opposite of the accomplishment of the bat-poet, who learns to fly by day, but of course that a boy should fly at all is amazing, like a tree walking. The fact that David is naked, Sendak told the NCTE audience, is to emphasize that there is nothing between him and the experience. After Randall's death, Sendak used the same symbolism in his book In the Night Kitchen (New York, 1970) where on the third page Mickey falls through the dark, "out of his clothes," jumping back into them at the end. Randall's devotion to Wordsworth's "Intimations" Ode accords with David's conviction when beginning to float that could he only remember he would have the power always, by day as well as night. The visualization as in comic strip balloons of the dreams of father, mother, dog, sheep is a touch any child-reader would adore. "The End of the Rainbow," possibly Jarrell's own favorite among his lyrics,20 closes with a similar effect in Su-Su's dream, where like one sheep in Fly by Night the animal dreams that he is dreaming:
The little black dog sleeping in the doorway
Of the little turquoise store, can dream
His own old dream: that he is sleeping
In the doorway of the little turquoise store.
(C.P., p. 229)
The father's dream, wherein he is "running back and forth with David on his back, only David is big as ever, "hints that the son during waking hours may have felt a burden to his father. But it also symbolizes how the child within Jarrell never died. The mother dreams of making pancakes, in a snow of pillow feathers.
As in a Grimm story, or the Acts of the Apostles, the door opens of itself for the hero, who does not seem in the least surprised to have the cat address him in poetry: "Wake by night and fly by night, / The wood is black, / the wood is white." Circling within view but out of reach of the cat, three mice also talk in rhyme: "What's that great big black thing in the sky? … / It's little David—he can fly." Menaced by the cat, they scamper away into a hole, calling back in an echo of Tatyana's farewell to the girl in the library: "It's time to go—goodbye, goodbye!"
The hypnotic trance of "Lady Bates" returns in the boy's inability to say a word or move, even to yawn or close his eyes. Both trance and dream also recall "Hohensalzburg." Floating over the sheep, he is mingled in image with the girl and her brother of "The Night before the Night before Christmas" ("She and her brother float up from the snow"), though here the only "snow" is fleece in the moonlight.
The main character, outside of David, in the fable is the owl: "It glides towards him silently—then it gives two big slow strokes of its wings, but not a single feather makes a sound." Though the description tallies with the Bat-Poet 's ("Its wings don't make a sound"), the bird's symbolism is no longer sinister, as if death were taking on a less terrible significance for Jarrell. A silvery fish writhes in its beak, no longer bright with blood but "yellow," the hunter's booty here nothing but a good mother's provision for her nestlings. (The fish as sketched by Sendak for the back cover of the jacket does not look too resigned; rather, it does for the tri-part tale what the skull does for a medieval painting.)
The "search for a mother" motif receives further evidence in the first of the owl's songs, an invitation to David to become for the night one of her offspring. When they arrive at the tree home where the two owlets are waiting and the big silvery fish has been disposed of, the mother owl tells them and David an irregularly rhymed story which takes up five pages of the slender book. This is a fantasy-autobiography of the author, based on the need for a mother: "He'd stand on tiptoe / Staring across the forest for his mother / And hear her far away"; the desire for a brother or sister must also have existed in the poet (though Randall did have a brother, Charles, the relationship was severed, except for rare occasions, once their Tennessee boyhood passed, and he had no sister). "The Owl's Bedtime Story" crystallizes remembered loneliness—"Sometimes it seemed to him his heart would break." The cycle comes around to the beginning, the poet as night-creature, bat or owl, in the dreamed white owl's promise of a sister-friend (the mermaid?) if he will fly from the nest "into the harsh unknown / World the sun lights."
After a series of severe trials, as in the fairy tales, his perseverance in daylight-flying is rewarded by a real owl-sister, not a blood-sister but a beloved substitute ("… her face looked dear / As his own sister's, it was the happiest / hour of his life." Now he must teach her too to fly in the bright sun. Relevantly, Mary Jarrell is rather clearly meant by "The Meteorite" : "Breathe on me still, star, sister";21 according to her own account she read poems avidly under his tutelage. Imperilled by crows, they wait in a tall tree for rescue by the mother owl: "How strong, how good, how dear / She did look! 'Mother!' they called in their delight."
The poem about bats in The Bat-Poet (p. 37) ends with a mother as guardian angel: "She folds her wings about her sleeping child"; and so does "The Owl's Bedtime Story" : "She opened her wings, they nestled to her breast." The next morning David realizes that the shining eyes of the dreamed-owl, as he had suspected the night before, are those of his human mother. The eyes fade into the daylight world, a world in which "his mother looks at him like his mother," the end of Fly by Night. It is an echo of "They look back at the leopard like the leopard" in "The Woman at the Washington Zoo."
Sendak's autobiography through his work for children also has its "David" in Max of Where the Wild Things Are, who after a night of wild dreams, begun in a bedroom transformed into a forest, sails "back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room." In Sendak the longing to be the object of a unique affection is phrased thus in the last line of his fantasy: "And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all." Being loved "best of all" was more important to Jarrell than it is to most of us. In the "Jerome" work-sheets at UNCG,22 the doctor reaches out for one patient, just one, who will love him for himself and not as surrogate. One likes to think that the poet's loneliness is over now, like the dog Jennie's in a Sendak story Higgelty Piggelty Pop, published in 1967 two years after Randall's death. Arrived in the Castle Yonder, Jennie sends back a letter to her former master: "As you probably noticed, I went away forever. But if you ever come this way, look for me" (p. 69). The subtitle for this book is "There Must Be More to Life." That "more" was what Randall Jarrell always wanted.
1. November 2, 1967. Inge himself is well qualified to undertake such a study for he was already published, with Vanderbilt's Thomas Young, a book-length examination of worksheets of Donald Davidson, Jarrell's graduate mentor.
3. The Golden Bird and Other Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York, Macmillan, 1962.
4. "Rehearsal against Time" in Poetry 48, no. 3, June, 1936, 124-25.
5. Greensboro Daily News, November 28, 1965. In his Caldecott tribute Sendak writes: "… this, of course, is what the illustrator's job is really about—to interpret the text as a musical conductor interprets a score" (p. 13).
6. Poetry, December, 1964, p. 105.
7. Publisher's Weekly, December 13, 1965, p. 63.
8. Durham Morning Herald, October 31, 1965.
9. The Religion Teacher's Journal, April, 1978, p. 15.
10. Loneliness as a Jarrell affliction is explored in my Shenandoah essay (Winter, 1969, 49-78) listed above; as well as in "Jarrell's Desert of the Heart," Analects, Spring, 1961, pp. 24-28.
11. Jarrell prefaces his 1942 parody of Marianne Moore, "The Country Was": "I hope that it is accurate, admiring, and a little critical." The poem is a witty personification of sheep, imitating Miss Moore.
12. In a more pessimistic manner, Rosenthal interprets "The Skaters" and "The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" as "the symbolic search for the irretrievably lost mother," p. 369.
13. Durham Morning Herald, October 31, 1965.
14. Book Week, April 17, 1966.
15. Greensboro Daily News, November 28, 1965.
16. The young lawyer, L. Richardson Preyer, who shortly after passing the bar took a course from Jarrell, writes in an elegy a year after the death: "He loved Greensboro, and it was interesting to find references to our town in his work" (Greensboro Daily News, October 31, 1965).
17. Letter to author, May 21, 1979.
18. Alan Pryce-Jones "More than Just Child's Play," Book Week, October 31, 1965, p. 7.
19. What Sendak attributes to Caldecott in the eulogy cited above is equally true of Jarrell's children's books: "There is no emasculation of truth in his world," p. 14.
20. Higgelty Piggelty Pop! (New York, 1967).
21. Cf. 152.
22. As reproduced in Jerome: The Biography of a Poem (New York, Grossman, 1971), pp. 58-84. These worksheets hold fascinating revelations, for instance, that "A War," mentioned by at least one critic as his nomination for the best war poem by Jarrell, is included in them, although it was published in a volume earlier than The Woman at the Washington Zoo, which contained "Jerome."
J. A. Bryant (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: Bryant, J. A. "The Children's Stories." In Understanding Randall Jarrell, pp. 118-29. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Bryant examines how Jarrell defies the normative conventions of children's literature, creating his own stylistic interpretation of the genre.]
The Children's Stories
Toward the end of his life Randall Jarrell began writing children's stories. At the time that new direction for his work surprised some of his friends and dismayed others, but hindsight suggests that Jarrell was probably following the same daemon, or set of daemons, that had guided his course from the outset. Old themes continued to appear: the special perceptions of childhood, the epiphanic character of dreams, the loneliness of the creative spirit, the complementarity of the sexes, and the dignity of all creatures in the animal world. Some of the subjects were different, but not all of them; and the work as a whole in these stories exhibits compassion and modesty combined with the conviction that had guided all his other work: namely, that any representation of the universe, whether reported or presented in a fiction, must bear the impression and shape of a personal vision. Jarrell once observed playfully that no one could write better Kipling stories than Kipling. In the same sense no one could possibly write better stories of Jarrell's distinctive kind than Jarrell himself, and Jarrell wrote virtually nothing that did not bear a distinctive personal stamp from the beginning of his career to the end.
The label "children's stories" is misleading. Some critics inclined to be hostile said that children would never like these books. That is probably not true. Jarrell certainly expected The Gingerbread Rabbit to appeal to children and delighted in giving readings of it whenever groups of them could be assembled. The Bat-Poet, which came out in the same year, was not so successful when read aloud; but a great many adults bought it, presumably for children, in both hardback and paperback. The Animal Family and Fly by Night, both published posthumously, have not fared so well. But all four of Jarrell's last books are stories that capture and present an innocent, unprejudiced view of the process of the world like the one that comes immediately to the senses, without preconceived values, preordering, or limited directions and goals. They are adult versions of the stories that children themselves often make up when adults are not close by to correct them.
Of the four, The Gingerbread Rabbit most closely resembles a conventional children's book. One reason is the illustrations by Garth Williams, who had already served as illustrator for children's stories by E. B. White; another is the use of the gingerbread character, long associated with children's stories, particularly in America. The story begins with a series of events reminiscent of the old New England story of the gingerbread man, a story that most children know. The children who hear or read Jarrell's story are probably expected to have the other one in mind for ready comparison—at least to remember that the original figure hopped out of the oven and rushed out into the world to escape capture by a cow, a horse, and a group of threshers, only to fall victim to the manipulations of a clever fox. Jarrell's rabbit is not much wiser, but he is luckier. The woman who creates him gets her idea from a very large rabbit who wanders into the yard and stares at her without apparent fear until suddenly he startles both her and himself with a loud sneeze and then runs away. Thereupon she decides to make a rabbit out of gingerbread, exactly like the real one, for her little daughter, who has just gone off to school. The rabbit in Jarrell's story comes to life when the sunlight dries and warms him prematurely. Being precocious, he promptly engages the cooking utensils in conversation and learns that his destiny is that of all gingerbread: to be eaten. Thus he too runs away, to be chased by the woman, whom he takes to be a giant, and by the fox, whom he escapes only because the real rabbit comes along just in time to warn him. From here on the developments in the story are pure Jarrell. The woman eventually catches up with the fox, who loses all interest in his quarry when the woman explains that he is made of flour. Then, on the advice of a friendly squirrel, she returns home to make a rabbit doll for the little girl. The gingerbread rabbit goes home with the real rabbit and meets his wife, who is so charmed with her visitor that in no time at all she accepts him as a member of the family. The three of them live happily ever after in their home in the forest.
The most interesting thing about this story is Jarrell's repudiation of the moral embedded in the uncluttered succession of parallels in the original. The gingerbread man belonged to a world in which his destiny was clearly to be eaten by somebody; and because he tried to be something he wasn't, he had the misfortune to be eaten by a fox when he might just as easily have been eaten by a respectable housewife and her family or by a more congenial domesticated animal. The gingerbread rabbit is under no compulsion of any kind. It is the sunlight itself, not the woman or her oven, who has put life into his veins. He runs away not out of pride but in order to become what he legitimately may be, and his near disaster at the hands of the fox is the consequence of pardonable naïveté rather than cockiness (he thinks the fox is a special kind of rabbit). Moreover, in Jarrell's world one doesn't create figures of art in order to consume them. The woman apparently has not thought of eating the rabbit, and the fox abandons all notion of eating him when he learns that he isn't a real rabbit. The logic of the piece is one that almost every child who has ever loved a stuffed rabbit or teddy bear can readily understand: the icon loved achieves an independent life. One may repudiate the myth of Galatea as fancy and note that the statue that somes to life in The Winter's Tale is really the aging wife herself, but one cannot reject entirely the faith in the miraculous that this complex story invokes and does not repudiate. At least, it would not occur to a child to repudiate it.
The Bat-Poet is a different kind of story altogether. Here the child has no analogue in his head for comparison, and by the time he comes to the story he may very well have been prejudiced against bats by elders who see them in a category with snakes, spiders, and scorpions. It begins with a narrator telling about finding a cluster of bats on his front porch, much as Jarrell himself told of a similar experience dozens of times to any friend or colleague who would listen; but the narrator soon disappears, leaving only the story of the bat, who for reasons he does not fully understand declines to do as young bats are expected to do. That is, he will not abandon the sanctuary of his infancy (a front porch) and retire to the barn with his brothers and sisters to begin communal bat life. Jarrell then sketches a credible and (for those who keep the analogy of the poet in mind) highly meaningful account of the young bat's discovery of day with all its activities and colors, things most bats are congenitally insensitive to. After a time the little bat begins to understand why during the night he has always been fascinated by the night-singing mocking-bird, who fills his song with imitations of all the things he has seen and heard during the daytime, and he rushes to tell his brothers and sisters in the barn of the new delights he has discovered by way of the bird's song, or poem; but the bats in the barn are unimpressed.
By this time he has begun to devise poems of his own and accordingly feels a need for someone to recite them to. It occurs to him that he might recite them to the mockingbird; but when after tactful maneuvering he manages to get the bird's ear, he finds that the mockingbird-poet listens as a professional and can only compliment the young rival on his scansion. Gradually the bat-poet begins to recognize that true poets do not write for fame or for the approval of other poets, even if they be mockingbirds. Poetry for them is a way of telling the truth about the world; and sometimes for that, he suspects, they find no audience at all. Then he thinks of the poems he has written about the owl and the chipmunk, both true representations of parts of his own daytime world and both satisfying; but he thinks especially of his poem about the mockingbird, how he wars with jays, thrashers, and cats during the day and at night in his singing imitates his exploits so skillfully that hearers have difficulty telling which is bird and which is the world. Here he raises the question that for Jarrell had to be asked about any art that lays claim to significance and truth. For Jarrell the answer was, as he once said of Cézanne's painting of the mountain, that the realization of one necessarily involves the realization of the other. The bat-poet slowly comes to see that this must be his answer, too, and undertakes to write a poem about bats.
The result is the high point of the book, an attractive piece of thirty-four lines, which Jarrell included in The Lost World as "Bats." For this composition the bat-poet does achieve a proper audience, for the chipmunk on hearing it is speechless. He forgot he was listening to a poem, he says, and simply thought how queer (meaning also wonderful) it must be to be a bat. But the bat is still not entirely satisfied. Rejoicing that at last he has something that his fellow bats can understand, he flies off to the barn only to discover that they have all gone into their sleep of hibernation. He begins to recite the poem anyhow but falls asleep himself in spite of his intention, being at last both bat and poet, the poem and the world. Jarrell's third children's book, The Animal Family, came out shortly after his death in October 1965. It is the longest of the works for children and in some respects the most ambitious. The influence of Hans Christian Andersen is patent both in the nucleus of the story, that of the mermaid who married a human being, and in the development that Jarrell gave it. He had used the story once before, in the poem "A Soul," which first appeared in The Seven-League Crutches, but there he represented the relationship between sea maiden and man as an uneasy one at best. Here the man is a hunter, who has spent his life with animals, and the relationship between the two flourishes, once the mermaid overcomes her initial shyness.
One might read Jarrell's story as a metamorphosis of the Edenic myth; for the man, like Adam, lives happily in a paradise of wilderness and animals, over which he has complete dominion, and only belatedly comes to recognize that something necessary to his happiness is lacking. When he finds the mermaid, or rather when she finds him, he proceeds to exchange words with her—his land words for her sea words—but, like a child, she learns so rapidly that soon she is adopting his language and he is abandoning his efforts to learn hers. Then she consents to move a hundred and fifty steps from the ocean and live with him in a house, where she learns about furniture, fire, and clothing (which she considers an amusing affectation). Eventually the hunter begins to think of his parents and shows the maid a lace handkerchief that had belonged to his mother. She, however, has never seen another human being, so he carves figures of his parents for her out of wood. Immediately she sees the mother, who is wearing a long skirt that hides her legs, as someone exactly like herself and the image of the father as simply an image of the hunter. At this point the two are ready for parenthood.
Their first attempt to create a family, by adopting a bear cub, is not entirely satisfactory; so they adopt a lynx as well, but this too fails to fill their need. At last one day the bear and the lynx find a real boy sleeping beside a woman who lies dead in a boat that has drifted ashore. In time the boy becomes as much a part of the household as the two nonhuman animals, and the mermaid proceeds to instruct him in human ways, much as the hunter once instructed her. The story comes to a conclusion when the boy, having heard that he was found in a boat, takes that as a true account of his origin; but the hunter and the mermaid disabuse him. That is just a story for a child, they assure him; they have had him with them always.
Edenic myth or not, this story ends in a paradise of Jarrell's devising, or dreaming. One might call it uniquely his were it not for the matching dream that it has received in the drawings by Maurice Sendak. Jarrell's handling of the story produces resonances that find a complementary response in many readers, old as well as young. The Gingerbread Rabbit may remain for some at the level of folk tale; The Bat-Poet may pass as a fable about the situation of the poet. The Animal Family, however, approaches the level of universal symbol, as Jarrell's better poems do; and given its skill of execution, it deserves to stand with these.
Fly by Night was the last of Jarrell's children's books. He completed it in 1963, but the book did not appear until 1976, when it was published with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, who had done the remarkably complementary illustrations for The Bat-Poet and The Animal Family. The illustrations for Fly by Night, however, all but overshadow the text, which is thin in comparison with the two previous books, though it has the same relevance to significant aspects of Jarrell's life. Like them, it reflects his affinity with all forms of nonhuman animal life; and in addition it makes explicit his lifelong fascination with flying creatures and with flying in general. Moreover, it reveals, as poignantly as anything Jarrell had written before, a sometimes suppressed but never entirely resolved yearning for the comfort of a stable mother figure in his life.
Like The Bat-Poet this story begins by citing a tangible connection with the Jarrell home in Guilford College, North Carolina, here in the form of a brief set of directions for the traveler coming there from nearby Greensboro. This is where the boy David lives, with his parents, a dog named Reddy (the name of the pet rabbit in Jarrell's childhood), and a cat named Flour. In the daytime David is like any other boy. At night he can fly, or thinks he can, for on some nights he seems to rise up from his sleep and soar or float past his sleeping parents, whose dreams he can see, past Reddy, whose dreams he can almost see, and out into the night world. There the animals speak to him in rhyme; the cat and three dancing mice use tercets; a rabbit eating vegetables in his father's garden uses a quatrain. Farther on he encounters six woolly sheep and three ponies; and finally he meets another flying creature, a female owl, who hospitably invites the flying David to go along with her to the nest and be "an owl till morning." There in the top of a hollow oak he meets three owlets, watches them eat the fish their mother has brought, and listens while the owl tells her charges a bedtime story of some eighty-eight lines, for the most part in terza rima, about a lonely owlet who found a sister to play with.
This story within the story is, in effect, a dream within a dream and a story about the flying David who has become "an owl till morning;" but it introduces elements (the dead owl and the newly found sister) that have no parallel in the main story and remain unexplained at the end to tease and trouble our minds. When she has finished her story, the female owl guides David back to his own bedroom, where he drifts into a sleep that lasts until the sun wakes him. Then he runs to the kitchen to find his mother making pancakes. Embracing her, he tries unsuccessfully to tell her about the adventures of the night; but as he looks into her face, he thinks for a moment that she looks like the mother owl of his dream, if it was a dream.
The echoes of earlier poems are obvious here. One thinks of the flying sequences in "The Night before the Night before Christmas," of the bird imagery and the longing for a sister in "The Black Swan," and of the ambiguous dream transformations of the mother in "A Quilt-Pattern." Numerous explications might be made of this poem in prose, but Fly by Night is primarily a self-sufficient symbol, one that brings into orderly relation needs, desires, and fears that were Jarrell's, certainly, but never his alone. The universality of the work, with or without the Sendak illustrations, becomes apparent as one reads and finds that his own needs, desires, and fears have been set concretely before him.
Alan Williamson (essay date fall 1994)
SOURCE: Williamson, Alan. "Jarrell, the Mother, the Märchen." Twentieth-Century Literature 40, no. 3 (fall 1994): 283-99.
[In the following essay, Williamson argues that, throughout Jarrell's career, many of the author's poems were "stories about childhood" and gives credence to the theory that these works reflect Jarrell's antagonistic feelings towards his mother.]
"There is one story and one story only," Randall Jarrell was fond of quoting, from Robert Graves, about those poets whose enabling obsessions he felt he had penetrated to their depths. It was true of many of them, but truest of all of himself. Appropriately, since he was the most consciously psychoanalytic even of the poets of the "confessional" generation, his is a story that resonates with the earliest, most forgotten experiences of life, and with the senses of identity, relationship, and gender that begin to be formed there. To understand it is to understand why Jarrell's poetry has been accused of sentimentality, and why, at its most incandescent moments, it completely transcends that accusation.
Jarrell's story is, first and foremost, a story about our loneliness in the world, or about the world's failure to keep us: how to see things is not to be joined with them; how close, beyond the little circle of warmth our bodies cast, begins the unimaginably dead space that does not know us; how all the beauties, the fables of return, the talking animals, are a web of illusion cast over these unacceptable, irrefutable facts. The aging Marschallin, looking at her own face in the mirror, says "If just living can do this … It is terrible to be alive." The bomber calls "Little Friend!" to the fighter it can already see going down in flames. The adolescent girl in "The Night before the Night before Christmas," falling asleep "under the patched star-pattern / of the quilt,"
warms a world
Out slowly, a wobbling blind ellipse
That lengthens in half a dozen jumps
Of her numb shrinking feet,
but, beyond that world almost assimilated into the self, she feels the other "world … no longer hidden … By the day of the light of the sun," where
nothing moves except with a faint
Choked straining shiver;
Sounds except with a faint
Choked croaking sigh
and where "There is not one thing that knows / It is almost Christmas."1
Even a seemingly reportorial war poem like "A Pilot from the Carrier" derives much of its strength from its underlying metaphysical preoccupations. The airman, having ejected from his burning plane, finds in his narrow escape, its renewed guarantee of a complete future, a momentarily "steadie[d]" relation to reality. He
falls, a quiet bundle in the sky,
The miles to warmth, to air, to waking:
To the great flowering of his life, the hemisphere
That holds his dangling years. In its long slow sway
The world steadies and is almost still
Though still "Slight, separate, estranged," he experiences the mastery of "Reading a child's first scrawl." But what he reads are, in fact, the signs of something he does not see and cannot control, that can still destroy him—first "The traveling milk-like circle of a miss," then the "little blaze" of the carrier's guns,
Toy-like as the glitter of the wing-guns,
Shining as the fragile sun-marked plane
That grows to him, rubbed silver tipped with flame.
The beautiful world is, read correctly, the malign or indifferent one; toy-scale to the ego's false perceptives, it will soon reduce the ego itself to the dispensable toy.
The other story Jarrell tells obsessively—really it is only a variant of the first one—has to do with our failure to keep each other; our inability to find, even in our loved ones, even in ourselves, a trustworthy "good" that can be categorically opposed to evil. It comes up in the War, as the poet looks around at the lovable, frightened men who have destroyed cities:
If, in an odd angle of the hutment,
A puppy laps the water from a can
Of flowers, and the drunk sergeant shaving
Whistles O Paradiso!—shall I say that man
Is not as men have said: a wolf to man?
It seems almost part of the nature of things that there are only semantic solutions to these problems: a "puppy" is good, but a "wolf" is evil; and there are only "men" to say which of these "man" resembles. The problem comes up earlier, in childhood, in one of the most memorable scenes in Jarrell's poetry—the grandmother of "The Lost World," who "looks with righteous love / At all of us, her spare face half a girl's," then goes into the chicken coop and wrings a chicken's neck. As the chicken's body tries "to run / Away from something, to fly away from Something / in great flopping circles," the grandson thinks "Could such a thing / Happen to anything?" And the grandmother, the "farm woman," has to
tr[y] to persuade
The little boy, her grandson, that she'd never
Kill the boy's rabbit, never even think of it.
He would like to believe her.
And I think—without diminishing their reality as stories about the world—these are all, in a sense, stories about childhood. They take us back to the very earliest stages, when the knowledge of separateness does indeed bring "death into the world, and all our woe," but is necessary for the very existence of an individuated self. And then the complex angers of separation, as psychoanalytic writers from Melanie Klein to Jessica Benjamin have charted them: anger at the parent for abandonment, anger at the parent for being so powerful to begin with, anger coming from the parent but inextricably confused with the anger coming from the child—all that the "good" and "evil" of fairy tales try so hard, and unsatisfactorily, to sort out.
Jarrell knew his Freud thoroughly—and intuited much that object-relations theory was only beginning to explore—and I think we can see him, consciously or unconsciously, returning to these primary feelings for his deepest sense of the crises or the potential horror in life. Looking back at "A Pilot from the Carrier," how inescapably "And falls, a quiet bundle in the sky" suggests birth, or "In its long slow sway / The world steadies" the sensuous blurring, and precarious triumph, of learning to walk. Or take Jarrell's most famous single poem, "The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" :
From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
This poem may have succeeded so well as an elegy on the indifference of war precisely because it is really an elegy for the primal separation. The "State" itself is only a hopeful, if colder, womb (a fact, of course, that totalitarian States have known very well how to manipulate). But by the third line, the metaphor has become cosmic: the earth itself, in its capacity to support life, is, from the point of view of outer space, only another womb, another contingent "dream." Nothing ultimately cares for us; so that the waking to inevitable mortality, when it comes in the fourth line, is only the last in a series of destructive births. It is the grief and anger about this that give the brutal journalistic details—the loss of the shape that constitutes an "I," the body reduced to a thing—so much more power than the detailed brutalities of many war poems. The feeling about death, technology, the State, the Universe becomes the primal angry grieving of Wallace Stevens's great poem "Madame La Fleurie": "His grief is that his mother should feed on him, himself and what he saw."
In the German fairy tales, of course, Bad Mothers do eat their children. Jarrell was fascinated with the Märchen partly because they recall a harsher time in the history of the species, when we were more at the mercy of the surrounding forest, the conditions of being (see the poem "The Märchen" ); but even more because they recall a harsher time in the history of the psyche. The child driven into exile or setting out on a heroic quest—it hardly matters which, at age one or two they are so profoundly the same event. The Good Mother, the stepmother, the Witch—that triangulation that so clearly suggests the way of handling very early feelings of anger that Melanie Klein calls "splitting." I quote Dorothy Dinnerstein's explanation, as more succinct than any I was able to find in Klein herself:
[The child's] hateful feelings are sharply dissociated from its loving ones; the menacing, vengeful aspects of the mother (as she exists in the child's mind) are walled off from her comforting, providing aspects. The child comes to feel "that a good and a bad breast exist." The good breast remains intact, unsullied by badness, but it disappears from time to time and a bad breast is there instead.
Hansel and Gretel was Jarrell's favorite of the Märchen, I think because in it the mechanisms of splitting are so perfectly articulated—as well as the transformation of the lost oral unity into an engulfing horror. Jarrell draws on the loneliness of the story for the girl's predicament in "The Night before the Night before Christmas," and makes Hansel a type of questing humanity in "The Märchen." But the quirky locus classicus for his psychoanalytic understanding of the story is "A Quilt-Pattern."
The poem is taken from the point of view of a sick child—threatened with the ultimate abandonment of death, but also subjected to a level of maternal ministration which, in his healthy state, he would have outgrown. He falls into a troubled sleep, and redreams the fairy tale. The dream shows, among other things, how strong his longing is for the lost infantile unity:
Here a thousand stones
Of the trail home shine from their strings
Like just-brushed, just lost teeth.
"Home" is the place the milk teeth lead back to, the original undifferentiation. The witch's house is the place where we go when that is not only no longer available, but has become a threat. There, to need the mother is to eat the mother—a guilty, dangerous act the child must deflect onto something smaller and weaker: "It is a mouse." But to accept that the mother wishes to feed is equally dangerous: no doubt she is fattening him up, to eat him in turn. Her yard is full of rabbits in cages. The reader who knows Jarrell's later work—as this poem's initial readers could not—will immediately make the connection to "Mama"'s rabbits and chickens in "The Lost World." And so the childhood issues open directly onto the largest moral issues, even of the war poems. Where does one find goodness, in this world of eaters and eaten? "His white cat eats up his white pigeon."
And so, both mother and child are split, in the child's mind. The "dead mother"—the unambiguously good mother of infancy—is buried underneath the witch's yard, her face "scaling." And the twins of the story become the compliant "good me," who represses his pain ("All small furry things / That are hurt, but that never cry at all"), and "bad me," whose oral aggressions are punished in kind: "My mother is basting / Bad me in the bath-tub."
Finally, splitting apart "good me" and "bad me" is not sufficient to contain these conflicts, and the terrible "Other" is born, what consciousness cannot acknowledge at all—both the murderous mother who deserves to be killed, and the child who wants to kill her.
If something is screaming itself to death
There in the oven, it is not the mouse
Nor anything of the mouse's. Bad me, good me
Stare into each other's eyes, and timidly
Smile at each other: it was the Other.
It is a disturbing poem, not least because the sources of the hatred of the mother remain mysterious. Jarrell himself, in a letter trying to explain the poem, seems unreasonably angry with her: "She is demanding and completely possessive and awful to him and he hates her."2 This is so out of keeping with the data within the poem that one is tempted to put it down either to some unexpressed personal memory or to the ready availability (as many writers have noted) of misogynist mother-hatred in the culture in pre-feminist days. Within the poem, the worst thing the mother does is to wash the child's mouth out with soap—not good, but hardly enough, in the context of the 1910s, to qualify her as "awful to him." What we hear most about is her intrusive tenderness. Her "humming stare" becomes the "hum[ming]" voice of the "house of bread"; "mouse" turns out to be her nickname for the child. But his reaction is as extreme as the poet's: hearing her voice outside his door,
He says to himself, "I will never wake."
He says to himself, not breathing:
"Go away. Go away. Go away."
And the footsteps go away.
In D. W. Winnicott's terms, he has killed off his True Self, or at least its outward manifestation ("I will never wake"), to put it forever out of reach of the mother's infantalizing care (140-52). "Never trust the teller, trust the tale," as D. H. Lawrence said. What Jarrell has written is not a story about an objectively "awful" mother, but about a child's fear of (and nostalgia for) maternal engulfment. For Melanie Klein such fears are nearly universal: the preoedipal mother is simply too powerful, the strength of the child's dependency on her, and consequent anger—which Klein calls "envy"—and guilt, are too great. But for later thinkers, from Winnicott to Alice Miller to Jessica Benjamin, there are less universal causes for the need to distance the mother so drastically.3 What is crucial, they argue, is that the child should feel loved and "recognized" as he or she moves into, and acts on, the sense of being a separate self. When this link is not maintained, then the theme takes on the full, terrible force we have seen in Jarrell's work generally. Separation is cosmic lostness; unity is engulfment, loss of self. This happens, Jessica Benjamin argues, through a failure of the "paradox of recognition," the need to enjoy another's independent existence in order to receive his or her confirmation of one's own, which can so easily be thrown off by too much, or too little, control on the parent's part. Alice Miller, in a more famous, drastic formulation, speaks of the "narcissistically deprived" parent, who needs "a specific echo from the child," because she experiences herself, still, as "a child in search of an object that could be available to her" (11). Such a parent is too involved in his or her own internal dramas to see the child as an other, and unconsciously forces the child to assume a role in those dramas—often with exquisite attunement, since it is the only way to get the parent's recognition at all.
Did Jarrell have such a childhood? William Pritchard's biography, though resolutely anti-psychoanalytic in tone, does provide some suggestive evidence. There was, first of all, the trauma of the loss of Jarrell's father, when his mother moved back from California to Nashville after the divorce. ("Presumably there is no father in this family," Jarrell writes in the letter about "A Quilt-Pattern." 4 This in itself might, in the Kleinian formulation, intensify resentment of the mother's power, by cutting off one of the traditional avenues of escape, identification with the father.) Pritchard's characterization of Jarrell's mother, though sketchy, does fit the broad outlines of Alice Miller's "narcissistically deprived" parent, needing always to "feel herself the center of attention":
Anna Jarrell was not only young but pretty and petite, with dark eyes, curly hair, and a skin so sensitive she needed to wear silk next to it and used only non-allergenic soaps and creams…. Furniture and rugs, draperies and dishes were constantly replaced, and no leftovers were allowed to accumulate in the icebox. When she made her angel cake, said to have been delicious, she flushed a dozen egg yolks down the commode. But Owen's salary as a photographer's assistant was unequal to such extravagances…. With money tight and no family of her own or Owen's to turn to, her health suffered and she became, in the ladylike phrase, "delicate."
Pritchard applies the adjectives "'sensitive' and histrionic" to her, and suggests that the "recurrent … scene called Mother Has Fainted," from the late poem "Hope," is autobiographical (12-13).
It does seem clear that the happiest phase of Jarrell's childhood was the year he spent away from his mother, with his paternal grandparents. Pritchard quotes a long, quite literary letter from that year, in which Jarrell seems to be trying at once to convince his mother that "I wish I could see you" and that California is very "exciting" and he should be allowed to stay:
We sure did see lots of buzzards on our trip. On one detour we saw four great big ones right in the road eating a dead chicken. They just stalked to the side of the road when we passed and then stalked back again. They sure are mean, ugly-looking birds. They just sail around in the sky, looking for some carrion to eat. They seem to say, "We'll get you someday, get you get you. We'll getyouyet, getyouyet, getyouyet. Just like choruses of songs that seem to run together.
To Pritchard this letter, "natural, untroubled, happily alert to this or that circumstance and expressive possibility," is evidence against "the assumption that Jarrell endured a lonely, unhappy childhood." But, as Alice Miller points out, the need to perform in this way for a parent is not necessarily evidence that the child feels accepted as and for his or her self; often, quite the reverse. The adult Jarrell is described—by students, friends, readers, even wives and lovers—as a continuously, and consummately, brilliant performer. But the voice of unexpressed grief, the voice of the buzzard saying "getyouyet," is heard obsessively in his poetry; and seems to have dominated in the desperation of his final year.
If Jarrell did, in fact, feel the ambivalence toward his mother that "A Quilt-Pattern" and some of the biographical details suggest, it is an interesting question why he was so obsessively sympathetic to women in his poetry, writing so many poems either in a female persona or essentially from the woman's point of view. Undoubtedly he projected the fragile, wistful side of himself, inclined to blame the universe when its absolute yearnings were not met, onto female characters partly because these traits were simply not acceptably "male" in the climate of the 1940s and 1950s. But we need, here, to remember another insight of Alice Miller's: that the narcissistic mother has, helplessly, the same kind of fragile, wistful personality that she generates in her child, and that her child is used to, having spent much of childhood "understanding" it. In projecting the "inner woman," the son is projecting both a feelingful self and a feelingful mother, who can be rescued together. This element of pure wish-fulfillment accounts, I think, for the sense of sentimentality and lack of depth of character many readers have when faced with such famous, because very clear-cut, persona poems as "Next Day," "The Face," or "The Woman at the Washington Zoo."
But could Jarrell write for very long about adult women without dredging up some of the resentments, the harsh judgments, directed, say, toward the mother of "A Quilt-Pattern" ? The ungiving characteristics of this "real" mother will often reappear, subtly understood and apparently forgiven, in the inner woman of the poems. If the speakers of "Next Day" and "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" seem wounded innocents in their expectations of life, what of the mother in "The Lost Children," whose sense of loss leads her to make no distinction between the child who has died and the child who has had the opportunity to distance herself in the normal way, by growing up? Is there no murderous undercurrent in this poem, simply because its manner is passive, wistful, metaphysical, the manner of the Marschallin saying "It is terrible to be alive"? Is it entirely an accident that, in "A Girl in a Library," both the bovine Home Ec. major and the hypercritical (projected) "Tatyana Larina" are embodiments of female narcissism, and it is the task of the male speaker to mediate between the two of them with compassion?
It is in these tensions, I would argue, that Jarrell's poems pass beyond sentimentality to profound psychological truth. The person who experiences herself, since it is so clearly the poet—as weak, yearning, never getting enough from life, is the same person who will be perceived by others as self-involved, lacking the resources to give. One of the greatest moments of moral insight in Jarrell's poetry, therefore, comes in "The Lost World," when he perceives himself as capable of inflicting the same kind of damage on the child-selves of others as they have inflicted on his. The story is, in a way, a classically Kleinian one—the Good Object punitively repudiated because it cannot be controlled. When Jarrell was forced to leave his grandparents and his great-grandmother to return to his mother in Nashville, he simply erased them from his memory: never answered their letters, never communicated with them again. In the poem, this memory intrudes into the present time of writing, just as he has finished recounting the story of how his great-grandmother was frightened by a Union captain during the Civil War:
She cries … As I run by the chicken coops
With lettuce for my rabbit, real remorse
Hurts me, here, now: the little girl is crying
Because I didn't write. Because—
I was a child, I missed them so. But justifying
And so, when, a few lines later, the "rabbit" becomes the potential object of "Mama"'s murderous indifference, the speaker himself is implicated in the crime, the universal cycle of victimizers and victims.
The way of handling these problems that the persona poems suggest has potentially tragic consequences if carried over into life. The man who comforts his own weaker, yearning side by projecting it onto a woman—thereby failing to recognize its destructive potential—may find himself back in the same situation of not being heard, not being understood, facing insatiable demands, that created the sense of weakness to begin with. Jarrell's love letters to Elisabeth Eisler, and particularly to Mary von Schrader, have at once a teacherly, protective quality and a sense of twinship, almost of alter ego, paralleled only in Rilke's letters to Benevenuta. "Truly we are one and were always one. As you know, there is no difference between us," he writes to Mary; and repeatedly addresses her as "sister" (Pritchard 201, 206). But in lasting relationships he never seems to have been quite sure whether he had gotten the Good Mother or the Witch. In his last year he apparently turned vehemently against Mary, wanting to divorce her, as he had his first wife, and to marry a younger woman. It is one of the grim, but not unfitting, ironies of his life that it is up to us to choose whether to believe Mary's conceivably self-serving account, that they were happily reconciled and that his death was an accident, or to believe with his close friends that he committed suicide.
There is one fairy-tale poem, "Hohensalzburg," that particularly explores the dark side of alter-ego relationships, and the underlying identity of the wistful and the destructive selves. Jarrell tried to distance himself from this poem, by the subtitle ("Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Romantic Character"), and by all the jokes that remind us he is writing about German culture, tourist response. Yet its composition was intimately intertwined with the unconsummated affair with Elisabeth Eisler; that, and the sheer intensity of the writing, suggest that it may tell more of the truth about his inner erotic life than he was used to telling, or entirely comfortable with.
"Hohensalzburg" is a variant of the vampire story. The (female) vampire is imagined with great sympathy, as a tomboy who does not want to grow up, knowing that gender, sexuality, relationship will comprise her freedom. She does not want to be the object of perception, of desire. When the old woman who serves her tea chides her for having "run, all evening, by the shore / Naked, searching for your dress upon the sand," and then asks her "What would you be, if you could have your wish?", she answers, "I would be invisible." And when the old woman says,
"What you do will do,
But not forever …
What you want is a husband and
her reply speaks for all of the Jarrell characters who despair of, and therefore mystically see through, the world that would in any way delimit their yearnings: "They will do, / But not forever."
And yet, for the male speaker of the poem, this elusive woman is so profoundly an alter ego—"Pure, yearning, unappeasable"—that she becomes the vehicle for a more primary, preoedipal, even Wordsworthian experience of cosmic interfusion:
I should always have known; those who sang from the
Those who moved to me, trembling, from the wood
Were the others: when I crushed on a finger, with a
A petal of the blossom of the lime, I understood
(As I tasted, under the taste of the flower, the dark
Taste of the leaf, the flesh that has never flowered)
All the words of the wood but a final word.
What both the speaker and the girl have in common, in short, is the impatience with phenomena, the longing to gain access to the essence beyond, the "final word" that includes all other words. But in relation to a finite other this longing has a vampiric potential. That this potential belongs to him as well as to her is made beautifully clear through the imagery of "taste," here and later in the poem:
Your cold flesh, faint with starlight,
Wetted a little with the dew,
Had, to my tongue, the bloom of fruit—
Of the flower: the lime-tree flower,
And under the taste of the flower
There was the taste of—
The unfinished sentence has to be completed, in the light of the earlier passage, by "the dark / Taste of the leaf," the "final word" it represents. But surely there is a burden of terror, guilt, repression in the incompletion. The reader who knows "A Quilt-Pattern" will remember that there virtually the same phrase was broken off, and asked to be completed with "his mother." Jarrell's canon remembers, if this particular poem does not, the connection both of the desire for oneness and of the guilt of vampirism to the infantile relationship.
The guilt of consuming the mother is, it would seem, both expiated and acted out by submission to the other person's "unappeasable" yearning. The broken sentence cuts directly to
I felt in the middle of the circle
Of your mouth against my flesh
Something hard, scraping gently, over and over
Against the skin of my throat.
It is a deeply disturbing scene, for more than just the obvious reasons. When he realizes that his blood is being sucked, he feels such a sense of sacrificial union, perhaps of goodness restored through punishment, that he assumes the posture of the crucified Christ:
I used my last strength and, slowly,
Slowly, opened my eyes
And pushed my arms out, that the moonlight pierced and
And this very action awakens his sexual desire, for the first and only time in the poem—a desire which the girl, in her perpetual virginity, must of course refuse.
I said: "I want you"; and the words were so heavy
That they hung like darkness over the world,
And you said to me, softly: You must not so.
I am only a girl.
Before I was a ghost I was only a girl.
But if his desire is bound up with the need to consume or be consumed, hers, for all her elusiveness, includes the desire to be recognized—for Miller and Benjamin the fundamental desire of the narcissistically deprived child. She wants to be found out in her invisibility; and despairs that it can never happen.
What shall I call you, O Being of the Earth?
What I wish you to call me I shall never hear.
Why did Jarrell refigure the alter-ego relationship of his Salzburg period in terms of the vampire story? Perhaps he intuited (it is a common enough psychological insight) that the very sense of lack that made the two sympathetic could lead to forms of dependence destructive to each other's autonomy. In the poem, "Something light, a life / Pulse[s]" in her face only after she has absorbed his blood. And perhaps, too, he understood that to try to make up for childhood is always, in some sense, to repeat childhood. But beyond this, the vampire story is itself, in its odd way, a love story. Because the vampire has never learned how to connect with the earth, in mutuality, without loss of self, she/he can never leave the earth behind, like the souls that go on to Heaven or Hell. That is why her only accessible name is "a dweller of the Earth." And she/he kills, in part, to create another vampire, an immortal/earthly companion. Strangely—and yet not so strangely, since the female voice, in Jarrell, is always the voice of grieving—in the poem it is the woman who sees through the limitations of this project: "In the end we wake from everything." And it is the male voice that continues to ignore its darkness in favor of its transcendent potential:
And yet surely, at the last, all these are one,
We also are forever one:
A dweller of the Earth, invisible.
But in the end Jarrell too had to face the darkness of his own meanings. His last poem on the Hansel and Gretel story, "The House in the Wood," is also the only poem that gives us an idea of how unendurable the depression of his last year must have been. It is a poem about the taking-back of projection; the moment when we see through the screens, splittings, denials that enable us to tell stories and live lives.
At the back of the houses there is the wood.
While there is a leaf of summer left, the wood
Makes sounds I can put somewhere in my song,
Has paths I can walk, when I wake, to good
Or evil: to the cage, to the oven, to the House
In the Wood.
But when the leafless winter wood "begins / Its serious existence," that has "no path … no story," and "resists comparison," the speaker makes the fundamental psychoanalytic discovery that the fairy tale was constructed to prevent:
If I walk into the wood
As far as I can walk, I come to my own door,
The door of the House in the Wood.
Such recognitions—in which there is no more Good Me and Bad Me, or Good Mother and Witch—should be the beginning of psychic health. But, as E. M. Forster said in another context, wait till you have one, dear reader! In this poem, consciousness is not strong enough to endure either the horror of the discoveries or the implication that one has lived—and might live forever—in a solipsistic universe:
On the bed is something covered, something humped
Asleep there, awake there—but what? I do not know.
I look, I lie there, and yet I do not know.
Instead of finding health, the self seems to fall out of adult time and space, into a primal amorphousness in which it is at once infinite and infinitely helpless:
How far out my great echoing clumsy limbs
Stretch, surrounded only by space! For time has struck,
All the clocks are struck now, for how many lives,
On the same second.
If this sounds like descriptions of infantile consciousness—in particular, the boundlessness, the seeming permanence, of infantile rage and despair—it is no accident.5 For what is discovered on the bed ("covered," "humped"—deformed, copulating, and pregnant) is not just the self but the merging, both oedipal and preoedipal, of the self and the mother—what the self fears and, at some level, has never stopped desiring. The last line of the poem makes this explicit: "In the House in the Wood, the witch and her child sleep." In this boundaryless state, monstrous crimes occur—monstrous actualizations of (and confusions of sexuality with) anger and pain—but neither their agents nor their victims can be located:
A scream like an old knife sharpened into nothing.
It is only a nightmare. No one wakes up, nothing
Except there is gooseflesh over my whole body.
All-powerful in one sense, the self is in another sense infinitely cut off, both from the male phallic identity that once enabled it to rise above the preoedipal needs and fears, and from the Good Mother whose almost organic continuity with the self could assuage them: "I lie here like a cut-off limb, the stump the limb has left." The continuity is rather with the Bad Mother, who, as so often in Jarrell's poetry, becomes reality itself, the reality that has permitted all this to happen:
Here at the bottom of the world, what was before the
And will be after, holds me to its black
Breasts and rocks me.
Perhaps it is only in hindsight that this union with the Dark Mother seems, as in Sylvia Plath's poems, a premonition of suicide. (Although, in the most chillingly premonitory passage in Jarrell's work, in "Thinking of the Lost World," it is when the driver-poet turns around to look into the eyes of the "mad girl" in the back seat that he is killed.) And, in any case, the deathly implications of that concluding "sleep" are strong. The grim lesson of this poem seems to be that splitting and projection are necessary to life itself; their distinctions give the adult ego its existence and its powers.
Here we would have to leave Jarrell, were it not for the strange fact that, at almost exactly the same time in his life as "The House in the Wood," he wrote his own fairy tale, in which these dark forces are conquered, in which mutuality between formed personalities does, just barely, hold the infinite expectations and fears at bay. His great children's book, The Animal Family, is a parable of what Benjamin calls the pleasure of recognizing the irreducible otherness of other people.6 A hunter courts a mermaid, eventually persuades her to live with him on land, and they adopt first a bear cub, then a lynx, then a shipwrecked boy. A great deal of the fun of the book lies in resolving the comic, but potentially harrowing, mistakes creatures make about other creatures' worlds. The mermaid wants to pick up a coal from the fire, thinking it a pretty shell; the "parents" fear the bear is dying the first time he hibernates.
No doubt it is significant that what Jarrell imagines is almost, but not quite, a fully human erotic family. There is plenty of sexual, and even oedipal, tension in the book; but the fact that none of the characters have actually emerged from each other's bodies gives them an ontological equality—in poignancy and independence—that is surely partly wish-fulfillment. (It also rhymes, curiously, with Jarrell's life; he was devoted to his stepdaughters, and dedicated his Selected Poems to them, as well as to Mary, but he had no children of his own.)
The connection of the mermaid to the "oceanic" memory of the original mother is, however, made clear in the book. The hunter has a dream of his dead mother singing, from which there emerges, as he wakes, first the wave-sound, then the mermaid's voice from the reefs. And she has just enough of the Dark Mother about her to make her a sister of the women in Jarrell's poems, and to make loving her a significant moral accomplishment. She has the indifference of "Mother Nature," which, Dinnerstein suggests, is a projection of the infant's feelings about the mother's unpredictable fulfillment of its needs.7
Whenever anything reminded the hunter of his father and mother, you could see that he missed them and longed to have them alive again. The mermaid would tell him about her childhood and her family and her sister, the dead one, but she never seemed to want any of it back. The hunter said, puzzled, "Don't you wish your sister were still here?"
The mermaid answered: "She was then. Why do you want her to be now too?" The hunter remembered that he had never seen the mermaid cry; he thought with a little shiver, "Do mermaids cry?"
(Animal Family 51-52)
Yet in other ways the mermaid's pure momentariness is a revivifying force in the hunter's life. And she, in turn, comes to realize that she loves her new family in a different way: "if you died, if he died, my heart would break" (170).
The theme of the lost mother does recur in its full darkness at one point in the book, when the boy is found in the lifeboat and has to be disentangled from the body of his dead mother. There is a dreamlike slow-motion quality to the passage, in comparison to the rapid conciseness of most of the book. Though the boy reaches out at once to the transitional object ("Nice kitty!"), the lynx, himself frightened, has to run back to the house, wake up the bear, and go through the whole approach all over again, before the boy will go with them, first falling, then taking "two or three uncertain steps" (137). Ambiguities of perception give the whole episode a haunted, a nightmarish tinge. "Inside the boat something was crying" (132). "The boy looked very small and pale and the bear dark as a mountain, as they went slowly up the beach; the lynx, gray-silver and shining, flowed back and forth ahead of them like the tide" (137). We are momentarily back to the dangerously unsteady, shifting world—the toddler's wavering steps, the ambiguity of good and evil—that runs through the poems, from "A Pilot from the Carrier" to "The House in the Wood." But here, instead of the Witch, the lost child finds the good-enough parents, who have faced the problem of separateness, and cannot be destroyed by it. Things regain their stable, though playful, shapes. The book ends with the boy accepting, and loving, his "parents"' difference ("The difference between the hunter and the mermaid was no greater, to the boy, than the difference between his father's short hair and trousers, his mother's long hair and skirts, is to any child" ); and even coming to believe that there is nothing to mourn for, no lack in his own ontological status, because he has "lived with them always" (158).
And so there are two stories: one in which "what was before the world / And will be after" has "black / Breasts," and one in which the only answer to "Do you like your life?" is "Can you not like it?" (162) Both are, in a way, perennial truths about life; and both depend, in another way, on different resolutions to very early psychological conflicts. Which was truer, for Jarrell, is an unanswerable a question as exactly what led to the events of his last day. The point is that he had the largeness, as an artist, to tell them both.
I am conscious, here, of having said far too little about why Jarrell seems to me a great poet, the equal, in his way, of his more famous contemporaries, Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. But surely a good part of "greatness" lies in giving some crucial nexus of general feeling, hitherto less fully explored, words that seem definitive. What some call sentimentality, and others human truth, in Jarrell is his closeness to areas our culture is anxious about: the "unappeasable" yearning, pity, and self-pity that are permissible in women but forbidden in men after the age of five, except in the protected wilderness of Romantic Love. Jarrell's poetry adumbrates the history of forgotten infancy behind these emotions, and suggests some of the consequences for the human psyche, and the male psyche in particular, when that history stays unresolved: the dread of female powers, the horror both of helplessly merged states and of isolation. The feminist implications of this state of affairs are beyond the scope of this essay. They are explored brilliantly in the books I have alluded to by Benjamin and Dinnerstein. Reading these books has only increased my respect for how much Jarrell got, intuitively and as an artist, by refusing, even in the limited, ambivalent way he did, his time's definition of masculinity; by continuing, throughout his work, to interrogate the "inner woman" and her grieving child. I hope this way of thinking about him may also rearrange his canon a little, away from the poems that merely act out these issues—the more naive of the war poems, "Next Day," "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" —and toward the ones that do, in a subtle, textured, troubled, at once richly metaphorical and reflective way, "interrogate" them, over a lifetime. These would include, besides the ones discussed in detail here, "The Night before the Night before Christmas," "The Lost World," "The Bronze David of Donatello." These poems make up, for me, one of the larger and more compelling of all those "one stories" American poetry has told.
1. All quotations follow the text of The Complete Poems.
2. Letter to Sister Bernetta Quinn, December 1951. Jarrell Letters 303.
3. Here I am, obviously, giving a mere gist of the arguments of some very complex thinkers. See Klein, Miller, and Benjamin (especially Chapter One, "The First Bond").
4. Letters 303.
5. On the "infinity" of infant despair, see Dinnerstein 165n.
6. See Benjamin 38-41 on Winnicott's concept of "destruction."
7. See especially Chapter 6, "Sometimes You Wonder If They're Human."
Dinnerstein, Dorothy. The Mermaid and the Minotaur. New York: Harper, 1976.
Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love. New York: Pantheon, 1988.
Jarrell, Randall. The Animal Family. New York: Knopf, 1965.
―――――. The Complete Poems. Boston: Faber, 1981.
―――――. Letters. Ed. Mary Jarrell. Boston: Houghton, 1985.
Klein, Melanie. Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946–1963. New York: Free Press, 1984.
Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York, Basic: 1981.
Pritchard, William H. Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. New York: Farrar, 1990.
Winnicott, D. W. The Maturation Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities, 1965.
THE BAT-POET (1964)
Hayden Carruth (review date December 1964)
SOURCE: Carruth, Hayden. "Daylight." Poetry 105, no. 3 (December 1964): 194-95.
[In the following review, Carruth offers a negative assessment of The Bat-Poet, arguing that the volume is too adult and moralistic for young audiences.]
A curious book. A symptomatic book, I think. Certainly a book of a type more and more conspicuous in recent years. That is, a book by a very gifted writer who for a long time has ridden the crest of a literary wave, and who attempts, as the wave crashes into its trough, a louder, less sophisticated call, perhaps in the hope that some ordinary landpeople will come to his rescue. Significantly, most such books fail. Significantly also, many of them are written for children.
Jarrell's The Bat-Poet does not carry the customary age-group recommendation that publishers of juvenile books put on their products, and I presume this is at his own insistence; he wishes his book to seek its audience unaided. Judging from the style, however, one can see the sort of children he is looking for: bright, reasonably advanced, but still receptive, free from the conformities of adolescence. The book is beautifully designed. The illustrations, which are intelligent and appropriate, are drawn in a style resembling the heavy copperplate etchings of late German romanticism.
One spring a young bat discovers within himself urges which separate him from the rest of the bat colony: he finds himself staying awake during the day, when the others are sleeping. He sees many novel and beautiful things, and since he has always admired the singing of the mockingbird, he attempts to make songs about them. He has no voice, however, and his songs turn out to be poems, rather Jarrellish poems. When he says his poems to the other bats, he is rejected as a bizarre and possibly dangerous fellow; when he says them to the mockingbird, he is snubbed. In the end his only friend is a rather simpleminded but impressible chipmunk. Choosing names only from the past, you could call the bat Keats, the mockingbird Southey, the chipmunk (stretching the point) Leigh Hunt. The writing is colloquial, vigorous, and precise, and the observations of animal life are acute, just the things that children see but that most adults, urban and suburban, have lost sight of. And Jarrell has taken extraordinary pains to insinuate the allegorical connections in such a way that they will not intrude.
Nevertheless, they do intrude, as they must. Isn't the idea of subliminal allegory a peculiarly modern contradiction in terms? An allegory, like any double entendre, needs to be openly acknowledged if it is to succeed; but here it is hidden, disguised, the author is trying to put something over on the reader. Very likely he must do this, since what he is attempting to infuse in the minds of his readers—a certain rationalization of culture—has few points of prior reference in their lives. But art is not a substitute for experience, and in any event the kids will see through it. After all, one of the points of the story is that writing, any writing, should be enjoyable, yet here is Jarrell himself, preaching. The kids won't like it and I don't blame them. I doubt I shall give the book to any children of my acquaintance, who have more interesting things to think about. Besides, can any author as calculating as Jarrell—which is to say, as calculating as a self-conscious artist must be—produce a book that kids will really enjoy? Granted, they like animal stories, but I think they want either the straight facts or something completely whacky. In my own case I remember taking equal delight in books by Seton and in Dr. Dolittle; but I loathed Uncle Remus. In spite of its sophisticated gloss, The Bat-Poet is only Remus again: sugar-coated esthetics instead of sugar-coated morality. What a bloody bore!
On the other hand, now that Stephen Dedalus has finally turned into a bat, maybe we can get rid of him and go on to the more important things that all of us—children, reviewers, and poets—have to consider.
THE ANIMAL FAMILY (1965)
Jerry Griswold (essay date September 1991)
SOURCE: Griswold, Jerry. "Preliminary Minutiae: The Holograph of Jarrell's The Animal Family." Children's Literature in Education 22, no. 3 (September 1991): 205-10.
[In the following essay, Griswold asserts that the editorial changes Jarrell made to The Animal Family—which was originally titled "The Witch's Child"—allow for a different interpretation of the volume.]
In the fall of 1989 I visited the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library and examined Jarrell's handwritten notes for and the manuscript of his classic children's book, The Animal Family. 1
In general, these documents seem to suggest what Mary Jarrell has said about her husband's work: "Handwritten in black ink on unlined typing paper, The Animal Family poured through Jarrell faster than he could legibly write it…. This prose came so smoothly it scarcely needed any revision." There are, of course, some revisions, but (as Mary suggests) fewer than one might expect. Jarrell did little rewriting, and his major endeavor at editing involved moving sizeable chunks of prose to earlier or later positions in the manuscript—apparently so the sequence would prepare for subsequent events.
Let me tell you, however, about some of the revisions that do appear in the manuscript and about some of the notes Jarrell made for a story before actually beginning the work. For me, at least, they provoked a new reading of The Animal Family.
The first page of the holograph in the Berg Collection is a single sheet of paper covered on both sides with a series of miscellaneous notes. Jarrell's phrases (some of which follow) suggest that he was toying with ideas for a story he tentatively called "The Witch's Child" :
witch turns boy into cat, old woman's house at edge of forest
a boy/animal who changes during the night
some sort of rhymed formula to turn into animal
chipmunk child who changes into human, animal forms
he doesn't know whether crows eat chipmunks
goes to find a family to live with, animal families are unsuccessful, human family that is right for him
Just before starting this new work, Jarrell had finished Fly by Night, and those familiar with the book will hear distinct echoes here. David, in that book, is "a boy/animal who changes during the night" and becomes, for a time, a owlet who is adopted by a mother owl. Her nest is, in a sense, the witch's house imagined here—but largely without witchy, sinister aspects. And David, too (figured in the owlet of "The Bedtime Story" ), does acquire a "sister" when he flies past the threatening "crows."
But "The Witch's Child" departs from Fly by Night in imagining a character who tries living with various families, finds that animal families are unsuc-cessful, and then concludes that a human family is "right for him." David's story does not end in this way. Instead of deciding in favor of his own family, the book ends, you'll remember, with David struggling to link the nocturnal adventures of his dream with his daytime life, his struggling to use the key word of Fly by Night and recognize how the Owl is "like, like—" his mother.
If "The Witch's Child" is the literary equivalent of the anthropologist's "missing link," we can also look ahead and note what ideas Jarrell did not carry forward into the writing of The Animal Family. There seem to be two. There is no witch, and in a sense, there is no child—since the protagonist of The Animal Family is the Hunter, an adult.
How, then, did Jarrell arrive at The Animal Family from Fly by Night? I think the answer is by inversion. Like a gunner in his ball turret, The Animal Family is Fly by Night upside down.
The Animal Family is, in a sense, Fly by Night told from the perspective of the Owl mother, that is, from the perspective of the would-be parent, the Hunter. The adoptive home, the Hunter's cabin, is now the central locus of the book rather than some distant place like the Owl's nest which the hero travels to. While David-as-owlet has to go out to seek a sisterly companion in Fly by Night, in The Animal Family the Hunter acquires his sisterly companion when the Mermaid comes to him. Likewise, instead of the child's going out to visit a parental surrogate, The Animal Family 's surrogate children come to the parent. Finally, instead of a child's experimenting with a different family, in this later book it is an adult who initiates this experiment. If the key word in Fly by Night is like, the key work in The Animal Family is the Mermaid's favorite: different.
Heretofore, I have always stressed how Fly by Night and The Animal Family are alike.2 Reading Jarrell's notes for "The Witch's Child," I came to my new reading and recognition of how they are different. But there are, among others, three further notes on the manuscript in the Berg Collection which I would like to tell you about because they follow upon this recognition.
One of Jarrell's notes reads: "hunter tells story of Snow White to mermaid: how she feels about it." As you know, in the book itself, the Hunter tells the Mermaid the story of "The Sleeping Beauty," as a way of explaining the Bear's going off to hibernate. But it's worth musing on this unused notion and what Jarrell might have had in mind.
The connections are easy to see. The Mermaid, like Snow White, comes to occupy a place in an adopted family in a house in the woods. A hunter appears in both stories, though in the fairy tale he seems more of a savior. On the other hand, two things are, by comparison, missing from Jarrell's story: the late-arriving and marriageable prince (though the Boy does arrive later and talks of marrying a mermaid) and, more important, the threatening and deceptive witch-stepmother.
By abandoning his notion and making no mention of "Snow White," Jarrell effectively did what he did in the transition from "The Witch's Child" to The Animal Family, that is, leave the witch out altogether. What Mary Jarrell says about The Gingerbread Rabbit seems applicable here: "Gone with the wind is Jarrell's old nemesis, the black-breasted witch-mother (of his poems 'The House in the Wood' and 'A Quilt Pattern' ) who fattens her boy to roast in the oven."3 In a fashion, once Jarrell decided to tell the story from the perspective of an adult rather than that of a child, once the Hunter came to occupy the place of the witch, the scene and issues changed. Instead of a child struggling to escape his parental nemesis, we see separation anxiety from the other side: a parent missing children.4 Or to say this differently, if David's problem in Fly by Night is (quite literally) the childhood dilemma of "leaving the nest," the Hunter's problem in The Animal Family is the parental dilemma popularly called "the empty-nest syndrome."
The second note on the manuscript is related to this. Jarrell wrote, "the child is his idea, not hers—she goes along." An inscription like this reminds us how much the whole idea of parenthood resides in the Hunter. He wishes to be a father. He dragoons the Mermaid into being a mother, and though she plays the part willingly (as Wendy does at Peter Pan's insistence), this social construct is something he imposes upon his loose confederation of animals and an orphan. It is the Hunter who feels a compelling need to structure what would otherwise be a group into a family. If the subject of Jarrell's three prior children's books is childhood wishes and problems, the subject of The Animal Family is, to some extent, the wish to be a parent and the problem of being an adult.
This leads to the final note on the manuscript that I want to tell you about. It involves a canceled passage. Near the end of the book, the Boy talks about marry-ing a mermaid and the Hunter responds, "I've thought of doing that same thing myself." In the manuscript, before it was struck out, the Hunter replied, "I've thought of doing that myself when I grow up."
This was a slip, of course, but a revealing one—especially because it comes in the very last pages of the book, when the characters have already been developed and the maturity of the Hunter has already been clearly established. What I think it shows, I will try to explain, is that throughout the book Jarrell was struggling with being an adult.
What sets The Animal Family apart from Jarrell's prior children's books is that it is the first where the principle character is an adult instead of a child protagonist. This isn't accomplished by fiat. Instead, the whole book indicates a struggle to achieve this role, and for the Hunter, being a grown-up means being a parent. That is how, I believe, we are to understand his extraordinary expense of energy in luring the Mermaid to his house and rounding up his animal "children"; his troubled dreams about what is missing and the great relief he feels when the Boy arrives to become a "son"; and his extravagant need to convert this loose group into a family, to tutor and coerce them into their roles, so that he can place himself in the role of the parent.
I have said that The Animal Family strikes me as the fruition of Jarrell's work as a writer,5 but now I believe I can add that this is true in another way. Jarrell, as you know, had a long and abiding interest in psychoanalysis; he once thought of becoming an analyst, and a picture of Freud always had a place in his homes, and psychoanalytic texts often appeared on the booklists of courses Jarrell taught. Given that, it's not surprising that (in terms of his other writing) The Animal Family can be seen as an experiment in and offers evidence of "integration."
One familiar practice in psychoanalysis is to encourage the analysand to identify with all the personae who appear in dreams, but especially with those figures who seem frightening or are rejected as "other." In this way, all facets of the personality are seen as contributors to the dream, are acknowledged, and are integrated. A shrewd reader, honest, and deeply familiar with psychoanalysis, Jarrell could not look back at his previous children's books and much of his poetry without recognizing what literary critics have identified as his dominant, recurring image: a child who (rightly or wrongly) feels threatened by a parent figure.6
Jarrell almost always identified with the child in this tableau, but with the Hunter in The Animal Family, he tries on the role of the other. By becoming the witch, the Owl mother, the parent (by becoming what Mary Jarrell calls his "old nemesis"), Jarrell was able, in my opinion, to do some healthy and see his recurrent image from both sides. He was also, incidentally, not identifying with a child but with a grown-up whose circumstances were closer to Jarrell's own at that time in his life.
To be sure, it was a struggle to do so, and The Animal Family is largely an account of that struggle. Still, when the Boy talks of marrying a mermaid, the Hunter does not respond as Jarrell first thought he might: "I've thought of doing that myself when I grow up." Instead, that passage was canceled, and the reply in the text now reads, "I've thought of doing the same thing myself." With that cancellation, we can say, an issue was made moot. Like Jarrell, the Hunter in the last pages of the book responds as someone who is sympathetic with childhood but who has already succeeded in growing up.
1. This essay was delivered as a lecture in May 1990 (in San Diego) at the seventeenth annual convention of the Children's Literature Association and on a panel devoted to Jarrell's The Animal Family organized by Professor Richard Flynn of Indiana State University. In 1988, the University of Georgia had published my study The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell, in which I discuss The Animal Family in some depth (pp. 96-131). In the following discussion, I am also indebted to Richard Flynn and his Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood.
2. Jerome Griswold, The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell, pp. 99, 119-121, 127, 130.
3. Mary Jarrell, p. 4.
4. The argument of my study is, essentially, that Jarrell's children's books are preoccupied with the childhood dilemma of separation anxiety: wishing to become independent of a parent but feeling ill at ease when that condition occurs, or, in the projected form, feeling that the parent is threatening and loving.
5. Griswold, pp. xii, 97-99, 128-131.
6. See, for example, Helen Hagenbüchle's The Black Goddess; Bernetta Quinn's Randall Jarrell; Alice Marie Rethinger's "'Slight, Separate, Estranged': The Child and His World in the Poetry of Randall Jarrell"; M. L. Rosenthal's Randall Jarrell; and Richard Flynn's "Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood."
Flynn, Richard, Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Griswold, Jerome, The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Hagenbüchle, Helen, The Black Goddess: A Study of the Archetypal Feminine in the Poetry of Randall Jarrell. Bern: Francke, 1975.
Jarrell, Mary, "Introduction," in The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell, Jerome Griswold, ed., pp. 1-22. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Quinn, Bernetta, Randall Jarrell. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
Rethinger, Alice Marie, "'Slight, Separate, Estranged': The Child and His World in the Poetry of Randall Jarrell." Ph.D. dissertation, Bowling Green State University, 1974.
Rosenthal, M. L., Randall Jarrell, University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, no. 103. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
Richard Flynn (essay date September 1992)
SOURCE: Flynn, Richard. "Randall Jarrell's Mermaid: The Animal Family and 'Semifeminine' Poetics." Children's Literature in Education 23, no. 3 (September 1992): 167-73.
[In the following essay, Flynn explores how the mermaid character in The Animal Family utilizes a form of poetry Jarrell called "semifeminine poetics," which functioned as an extension of Jarrell's relationships with women.]
Composed at the same time he was writing the poems collected in The Lost World (1965), Randall Jarrell's children's books feature (with the exception of The Gingerbread Rabbit, 1964) protagonists who are, in their various ways, poets. Unlike The BatPoet (1964) or David from Fly by Night (1976), the mermaid in The Animal Family (1965) seems to be the only poet who is entirely successful. By the end of the novel, the mermaid seems to have become the kind of poet Jarrell longed to be, one who could articulate the heartbreak of human experience to an accepting and understanding audience. But beneath the seeming heroism of the mermaid lurks Jarrell's own complicated poetics, in which he attempts to negotiate his ambivalence about gender, childhood, and a pronounced obsession with aging and mortality.1
Writing to Allen Tate in 1939, Jarrell engaged in a bit of self-analysis that indicates how his ambivalence about gender affected his emerging poetics:
I think all in all I've got a poetic and semifeminine mind, I don't put any real faith in abstractions or systems; I never had any certainties, religious or metaphysical, to lose, so I don't feel their lack…. I think my mind is really unsystematic; along with that or perhaps because of it, I can't help thinking the world (as such little animals see it anyway because I can't help think that) is too.2
This self-analysis by the poet who is thought of as the poet of women and children is revealing for a number of reasons. In its equation of the poetic with the feminine, the feminine with the animal, the animal with the child, the passage reveals, very early in his career, that Jarrell, to modify Helen Vendler's judgment, sought to put his masculinity into his criticism and his femininity into his imaginative writing.3
Some years later, Jarrell would come to see the cultivation of "semifeminine" poetics as crucial to his mature poetic project. Based as it was on a problematic definition of "masculine" and "feminine" discourse, Jarrell's attempt to define his poetics in terms of gender presented him with difficulties that would haunt him throughout his career, not the least of which was his tendency to divorce the corporeal from the intellectual in his poetry. Furthermore, his airing of his own obsessive (and premature) concern with aging and death in the dramatic monologues spoken by women presented him with problems so formidable that they may explain his long poetic silence during the 1950s.
Surely, Jarrell's choice of the adjective semifeminine in describing his concept of the poetic mind is unwittingly apt. As Christopher Benfey (1987) observes, Jarrell's dramatic monologues spoken by aging women reveal Jarrell's apprehensiveness about his own aging and fear of death and also his apprehensiveness about "confronting … his capacity to speak as a woman, to let the feminine speak through him, [which] may be as threatening as death." Benfey goes on to point out what many Jarrell critics have noticed, that Jarrell's poetic "transformation" into a woman "is not particularly sexual…. Jarrell rarely thinks of being a woman as having a woman's body" (p. 30). It seems that rather than confronting his own femininity, Jarrell sought to appropriate "feminine" discourse as a way of objectifying, and perhaps avoiding, his own highly personal concerns. Characterizing the speaker of "The Woman at the Washington Zoo" he said, "I wrote, as they say in suits, 'acting as next friend'; I had for her the sympathy of an aging machine-part,"4 and noted that she is related to his other female speakers. At least one of his close women friends, Elizabeth Bishop, found this unnerving and wrote to Robert Lowell, "I just never did like [Randall's] understanding and sort-of-oversympathizing with the lot of women."5
Jarrell's first dramatic monologues in women's voices were written during a period when he was conducting an epistolary romance with Elisabeth Eisler, a young Austrian artist he had met while teaching at the Salzburg Seminars in American Civilization in 1948. Mary Jarrell's edition of Randall Jarrell's Letters (1985) documents Randall's extensive appropriation of phrases from Eisler's letters for the poems that were eventually collected in The Seven-League Crutches (1951). Prior to meeting Eisler, Jarrell had written only one monologue spoken by a woman, "Burning the Letters" (1947). But from 1948 on, Jarrell's interest in writing from the point of view of women and children increased dramatically; as he said in a reading, his later poems were about animals, women, and children because "all the men got killed in the poems I wrote about the War."6 Among other examples of his appropriation of feminine discourse are his extensive use of Anna Freud and Dorothy Burlingham's case studies in War and Children (1943) for the poem "The Truth" 7 and, as Susan Schweik (1987) points out, his echoes of Marianne Moore's "In Distrust of Merits" in his poem "Eighth Air Force," a borrowing made more ironic by his rather negative 1945 review of Moore's poem.
In his poems, and to a certain extent in his personal relationships, Jarrell tended to idealize women as sisters, even those with whom he became romantically involved. The letters that he wrote to Mary during their courtship often depict her as an ideal sister (in one letter he suggests that he will give her a recording of Strauss's Elektra for a wedding gift).8 In another particularly revealing letter, he tells Mary about finishing the last volume of Freud's Collected Papers and speaks of
the case of a man who went around Swindling and Imposing on All because he wanted a good, kind rich mother to take care of him; after years all gave him up, and rightly so. But he recovered completely having met a good, kind, rich mother who married him.
I figure I've always been so difficult because I wanted a perfect sister named Mary von Schrader, now that I have her everybody'll say, "Why he's like a lemon chiffon pie, wouldn't hurt a fly."9
The complicated history of Jarrell's relationship with his real and fictional women sheds a great deal of light on The Animal Family, Jarrell's last realized imaginative work. Jerry Griswold (1988) points out that, in many ways, The Animal Family is "a tremendously complicated male fantasy" (p. 126). And Mary Jarrell (1988) notes that "the mermaid of the Animal Family was Jarrell'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."10 Particularly as it concerns the characters' relationship to language, The Animal Family may be read as an elaborate allegory about Jarrell's attempt to "feminize" his writing through the appropriation of what he thought to be "feminine" discourse. Unlike her precursor, Andersen's "Little Mermaid," Jarrell's mermaid does not give up her voice, but she does, in a sense, modify that voice by bringing the female language of the sea to the hunter's male language of the land—in order to create an ideal "semifeminine" poetic discourse. In becoming a poet, the mermaid creates what Jarrell considers an ideal poetic discourse, one that combines "masculine" and "feminine" discourse to "sing beyond the genius of the sea."
Though for Jarrell the mermaid is the ultimate poet, a true wish fulfillment, for readers she is the most problematic of Jarrell's fictional women. Initially, Jarrell seems to advocate a certain fluidity in gender roles. Thus, the mermaid learns to help the hunter with his cooking "as a husband helps his wife," and when the mermaid brings the hunter the gift of a necklace, "he was so surprised that he almost said 'Men don't wear necklaces'; but instead he kissed the mermaid, turned the necklace around and around in his hands, and told her it was the best gift he had ever had."11
But the hunter's unease at dressing himself in women's clothing makes it clear, almost from the beginning, that the hunter's wishes will take precedence. Having appropriated the mermaid's song in order to seduce her onto land, the hunter soon attempts to use the mermaid's difference to serve his own purposes. Despite his initial attraction to the mermaid's differ-ent language ("no word of hers was like any word of his"), the hunter begins to subsume the mermaid's song—to teach her his own language: "she could say his sounds so much better than he could say hers, remember his words so much better than he could remember hers, that before long the learning was all one way" (pp. 16-17). Attracted to the land because "the land is different," the mermaid is persuaded to live with the hunter, whose supreme wish is to reconstruct a family that will be "the same" as his own lost family. In order for him to do this, the mermaid must learn to tailor her language to his, to lend exotic, "feminine" elements to an essentially male discourse. What results is a colonization of the other; the mermaid's love of difference gives way to the hunter's wish for sameness: "The hunter and the mermaid were so different from each other that it seemed to them, finally, that they were exactly alike; and they lived together and were happy." (p. 54).
Not surprisingly, this happiness based on one-way learning is ephemeral. The hunter begins to be haunted by a dream of his incomplete family, by the lack of a shadow version of himself that the mermaid cannot provide for him. The mermaid recognizes that this dream is both bad and inevitable and moreover recognizes that it is essentially nostalgic, that the hunter's wish is that "it will all be the way it used to be" (p. 61). The mermaid's acquiescence to fulfilling the hunter's "bad" dream makes her, in Mary Jarrell's phrase, "the ideal … consort," neither Wife nor Mother, but Sister, a romantic but desexualized partner or, perhaps, muse. She is able to adapt her "feminine" language to the terms of the hunter's "masculine" fantasy, providing him with a "semifeminine" discourse that will enable him to reconstruct his family. The mermaid must learn to sing sea songs in the hunter's language, and to use that language to create and support his fiction of a family.
The hunter's appropriation of the mermaid's discourse, in a sense, paves the ways for his appropriation of "children" in order to fulfill his nostalgic wish. But just as his appropriation of the "feminine" language of the mermaid can be accomplished only by denying sexual difference, his nostalgic appropriation of a child must be free of bodily entanglements. The hunter's ideal child is the child in latency—indeed, an idealized child, who will not disturb his dream of a perfect family with the sexual complications of infancy (or childbirth). The bear and the lynx prove to be unsatisfactory: they are too animal, their behavior is dictated by bodily needs much too frequently for comfort. Only the boy, blissfully unaware of his origins "except for one or two confused, uneasy dreams" (p. 156), provides the fulfillment of the hunter's wish that "it will all be the way it used to be": "The days went by for him, all different and all the same…. If one day as he played at the edge of the forest some talking bird had flown down and asked him: 'Do you like your life?' he would not have known what to say, but would have asked the bird: 'Can you not like it?'" (p. 162). In keeping the boy an eternal child, the hunter (and Jarrell) are able, at least temporarily, to ward off the difficult awareness of recognizing that human beings have bodies, bodies subject to the difficulties of sexuality and mortality.
In the "lie" that ends The Animal Family —"We've had you always"—the reader knows how untenable the hunter's wish for a shadow family must ultimately become. Jarrell seems to want his fantasy poet, the mermaid, to hold his family together through the mysterious power of her "semifeminine" poetic language. But this language, too, rests on a "lie": it is a language divorced from the body, from origins, from sexuality, and from an awareness of real difference. The reader knows that this wish for sameness cannot suffice for long; what has been denied will ultimately resurface. At the end of the novel, as the bear and the lynx recede into the distance and the reader learns of the boy's yearning for the sea, we know that the boy cannot accept lies "always." As the mermaid begins to rearticulate her sea language in the stories she tells to the boy, we feel that if, indeed, he is to remain the eternal child, the boy's only option is to marry one of the sea people, an alternative that, practically, means his death.
The creation of a "semifeminine" poetic discourse to serve largely "masculine" poetic purposes may serve to create an idea of order, but not, ultimately, any ideal order. For Jarrell, in particular, the obsession with mortality intrudes. After joking in the poem "The One Who Was Different" that if a man made up his mind about death he could do without it, Jarrell imagines himself transferring this wish to the woman's corpse, recognizing how untenable his wish for immortality is, but trying to deny that knowledge. If only the poet had interceded in time, he might have been able to save her from death. Like Snow White, the body of "Miss I _____" could have become "Encased in crystal, continually mortal":
In my mind's eye
I can hear a teacher saying to a class
About the twenty-first orsecond century:
"Children, remember you have seen
The oldest man that ever didn't die!"
Woman, that is.
1. An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a lecture in May 1990 (in San Diego) at the seventeenth annual convention of the Children's Literature Association on a panel I organized for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of The Animal Family. I am indebted to my fellow panelists, Jerome Griswold and Lissa Paul, for their insights into my essay and their insights into Jarrell's work in general. I am also grateful to U. C. Knoepflmacher and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for my participation in the 1989 NEH Summer Seminar on the Emergence of Children's Fairy Tales at Princeton University, where I began this research. I owe special gratitude to my wife, Professor Patricia Pace of Georgia Southern University, for her careful reading of my work.
2. Randall Jarrell, Randall Jarrell's Letters, p. 19.
3. For an illuminating reading of the feminine in Jarrell's poetics, see Chapter 7 of Wendy Lesser's His Other Half: Men Looking at Women through Art (1991). Also useful is Helen Hagenbüchle's The Black Goddess: A Study of the Archetypal Feminine in the Poetry of Randall Jarrell (1975).
4. Randall Jarrell, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket, p. 162.
5. David Kalstone, Becoming a Poet, p. 226.
6. Richard Flynn, Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood, p. 8.
7. For a detailed account of Jarrell's appropriation of Freud and Burlingham's case studies, see my Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood (1990, pp. 46-50).
8. Jerry Griswold's recent article, "Preliminary Minutiae: The Holograph of Jarrell's The Animal Family" (1991) contains illuminating evidence from the manuscript he uncovered in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, which indicates that Jarrell had originally projected an older sister as a character in The Animal Family (p. 206).
9. Randall Jarrell, Randall Jarrell's Letters, p. 328.
10. Mary Jarrell, "Introduction," p. 15.
11. Randall Jarrell, The Animal Family, pp. 37-39.
12. Randall Jarrell, The Complete Poems, pp. 316-318.
Benfey, Christopher, "The Woman in the Mirror: Jarrell and Berryman," Pequod 23/24 (1987): 24-33.
Flynn, Richard, Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.
Freud, Anna, and Dorothy Burlingham, War and Children. New York: Medical War Books, 1943.
Griswold, Jerome, The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Griswold, Jerome, "Preliminary Minutiae: The Holograph of Jarrell's The Animal Family," Children's Literature in Education 22 (1991): 205-210.
Hagenbüchle, Helen, The Black Goddess: A Study of the Archetypal Feminine in the Poetry of Randall Jarrell. Bern: Francke Verlag, 1975.
Jarrell, Mary, "Introduction." In The Children's Books of Randall Jarrell, Jerome Griswold (pp. 1-22). Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Jarrell, Randall, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket. New York: Atheneum, 1962.
Jarrell, Randall, The Seven-League Crutches. New York: Harcourt, 1951.
Jarrell, Randall, The Animal Family, decorations by Maurice Sendak. New York: Pantheon, 1965.
Jarrell, Randall, The Bat-Poet, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. New York: Macmillan, 1964.
Jarrell, Randall, The Gingerbread Rabbit, illustrated by Garth Williams. New York: Macmillan, 1964.
Jarrell, Randall, The Lost World. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
Jarrell, Randall, The Complete Poems. New York: Farrar, 1969.
Jarrell, Randall, Fly by Night, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. New York: Farrar, 1976.
Jarrell, Randall, Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection, ed. Mary Jarrell. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1985.
Kalstone, David, Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell, ed. Robert Hemenway, Afterword by James Merrill. New York: Farrar, 1989.
Lesser, Wendy, His Other Half: Men Looking at Women through Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
Schweik, Susan, "Writing War Poetry like a Woman," Critical Inquiry 13 (1987): 532-561.
FLY BY NIGHT (1976)
Jerry Griswold (review date 1-8 January 1977)
SOURCE: Griswold, Jerry. Review of Fly by Night, by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. New Republic 176, nos. 1-2 (1-8 January 1977): 30-1.
[In the following review of Fly by Night, Griswold suggests that Jarrell's books for children are at heart "an embodiment of the wish for companions."]
There is a great distance between the callow clutter of books-for-kids and the high haunted aeries of American fantasies as told by Randall Jarrell or pictured by Maurice Sendak. These two fantasy kinsmen have worked together before (The Bat-Poet, The Animal Family ) and Fly by Night is the last of these collaborations. Jarrell finished the tale shortly before his death. Sendak has now provided the pictures.
Jarrell was a master of the pleasant seemings of American juvenile literature that hide grim truths. The Animal Family, a Newbery Honor Book, is a seemingly peaceful pastoral about a hunter who seeks and finds companions. It is an idyllic tale so tranquil that we are apt to overlook the fact that the hunter befriends each of his "sons" over a cashiered mother. That fact, and that the only female of the book is a mermaid in whom the hunter sees his dead mother, hints that something is amiss in Eden.
Fly by Night is likewise an embodiment of the wish for companions. David lives on New Garden Road and, because "there aren't any children for him to play with," spends his waking hours daydreaming in a tree house. Sometimes he is accompanied by a striped cat who makes the tree swallows uneasy and "never stays long."
That is how David spends his days. At night David exercises an angelic prerogative: "At night David can fly. In the daytime he can't. In the daytime he doesn't even remember that he can."
At night David floats while others sleep and in his clairvoyance can see their dreams; his father's of his diminutive stature, his mother's mixed with pancakes and feathers, his dog's of chasing a rabbit. Sendak pictures one of these with David nestled embryonically in a tree while the cat malevolently eyes what the feline styles "dancing mice." To hardnosed David the mice seem more frightened than dancing but, for some reason, he is powerless and cannot tell the cat "they're afraid of you."
David is as powerless as Huckleberry Finn, another floater, when in his tree perch he cannot save his friend Buck; as powerless as the aerial Peter Pan trying to persuade Wendy. David cannot help the mice, cannot ask a fleeing rabbit to wait, and his hovering presence makes the ponies shy. Though he exercises Superman's power of flight, all his potential companions are the retiring Clark Kents of the animal world who take flight at his appearance.
And so he turns away from them and looks above, to a winged superior, to a night bird awake like himself. A striped owl with a small fish in its claws befriends him. The owl speaks to David in poetry and invites him to her nest where two owlets rest. To hardnosed David the unfeathered owlets make a sorry picture but he sees in the loving eyes of the mother owl that she "doesn't know how they look."
The owl tells her three nestlings a bedtime story, one that they can fall to sleep by before daybreak, and one that is the keystone to Fly by Night. It is the story of an owlet who is all alone and wishes for company. A great owl comes and tells him this will only come to pass if he leaves his mother's nest and flies in the daylight. The owlet departs, struggles in the tumult of "unfriendly day," clumsily finds footing on a branch, and finally meets and makes a sisterly companion of another owlet in a tree at whose base a dead owl lies. The two of them wend their way back through the harsh sunlight and the crows to the original nest where they welcome the arrival of night, the moon, and the owl they call "Mother" against whose breast they nestle making brooding sounds.
Once the owl has told the bedtime story she accompanies David home where he wakes to sunlight and forgets. Twice David struggles to remember, to link night and day in a simile: "the owl looks at me like … like …—" but before he can remember sunlight streams into the kitchen and "his mother looks at him like his mother."
Where David lacks the power of "like" Sendak is gifted. When the book ends, for example, we might expect an illustrator to provide a picture of David's mother in the kitchen preparing him pancakes. Instead, Sendak gives us her likeness: the cat on the kitchen table and, in the window behind her, a fledgling swallow struggling to fly by day. It is the same brooding cat that eyed the "dancing mice" and whose eyes and stripes recall that of the owl pictured before, the owl that held a small fish in its claws.
Sendak illuminates Jarrell's nocturnal hallucinations of "the owl's white world" with the same power he brought to the Grimms in his Juniper Tree and Other Tales. Sendak's David is pubescent and floats always by the light of the moon. The two-page picture that follows the bedtime story is lunar brilliance: David floats against the mammoth brooding eyes of the owl, above paired ducks and rabbits, above a mother and child and above a shepherdess and her flock between whom is a small plank carved with the name "Angelina."
David lives in the same superstitious and myth-filled world where angels are made. It is a world where "like" carries no force and invisible passions or emotions must be wholly made over into visible and physical shapes: gods, and angels, wise owls. And it is a world of strict separations of night from day, child from companions, mother from child that become other separations: "dancing mice" and frightened mice, unfeathered owlets and lovable offspring, hardnosed literality and what is figured in dreams.
Fly by Night will be read by dreamy youths like David, those same youths who in their tree houses have read of others that were ordinary too but, like Tarzan or Superman or Peter Pan, were gifted with aerial mobility. It is a gift of the artist of In the Night Kitchen and the author of The Bat-Poet to youths in love with night and the creatures that, like Batman or Dracula or Zorro, are vivid then but grow anemic at daybreak.
And it is a book that speaks to their parents, to those youths' fathers nestled in their easy chairs with books that transport them to the knightly world of detectives. It speaks to their mothers, knees under their chins, reading of the possessions that were Salem's lot, who have gone with the wind and wish to go again to moonlight trysts on mansion savannahs. Fly by Night is for us, Davids, hardnosed and slow to "like," for whom fantasy provides what we cannot find at day-break: a way to be in dreams awake.
Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2002, 291 p.
Book-length critical examination of Jarrell's life, career, and poetic style.
Finney, Kathe Davis. "The Poet, Truth, and Other Fictions: Randall Jarrell as Storyteller." In Critical Essays on Randall Jarrell, edited by Suzanne Ferguson, pp. 284-97. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983.
Exploration of Jarrell's four primary books for children.
Flynn, Richard. Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1990, 167 p.
Expounds on Jarrell's fascination with childhood in his fiction and poetry.
Jarrell, Mary von Schrad. "The Children's Quartet." In Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic, and Teacher, pp. 93-114. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999.
Jarrell's widow discusses how the author came to be involved with children's literature.
Travers, P. L. "A Kind of Visitation." In Critical Essays on Randall Jarrell, edited by Suzanne Ferguson, pp. 55-7. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983.
The author of Mary Poppins offers a review of The Animal Family, originally printed in the November 21, 1965 issue of the New York Times Book Review.
Updike, John. Review of Fly by Night, by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. In Critical Essays on Randall Jarrell, edited by Suzanne Ferguson, pp. 57-60. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1983.
Praises Jarrell's ability to connect with the child reader in Fly by Night, although dislikes the inclusion of nudity and the quality of the poems as compared to the more mature verse in Jarrell's previous collections.
Additional coverage of Jarrell's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 6; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941–1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 6, 34; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 25-28R; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 6, 9, 13, 49; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 48, 52; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 41; Poetry for Students, Vol. 2; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Children's Writers, Vol. 5; and Something about the Author, Vol. 7.