cover image Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden

Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden

Stephen Burt, Randall Jarrell. Columbia University Press, $45 (200pp) ISBN 978-0-231-13078-3

Randall Jarrell wrote one of the major mid-20th-century works of poetry criticism (Poetry and the Age, 1953); Burt wrote the major 21st-century study (so far) of Randall Jarrell (Randall Jarrell and His Age, 2002). In his introduction to this set of six lectures, which Jarrell delivered at Princeton in 1952, Burt establishes the key, if contentious, role W.H. Auden's work played in Jarrell's own development as a poet and critic. As New Yorker writer Adam Gopnick points out in his foreword, Jarrell's lectures present an ""almost comically detailed analysis of the transformation of Auden's rhetoric in the 1940s,"" a crux period in Auden's career-he had emigrated to the United States from England a few years earlier, and in that time he had come to abjure the ""We must love one another or die"" sentiments of ""September 1st, 1939,"" which he composed almost immediately after his arrival. Gopnick finds the essays to be ""a cutting contest without cuts, an occasion of witticisms more than a battle of wits."" Indeed, Jarrell does seem to be trying to best the older (and more famous) poet at the same time that he is lavishing attention on his smallest rhetorical shifts-and working hard to impress the audience as he sings for his supper (Burt details the financial arrangements). Jarrell registers multiple complaints about Auden's seeming ""liberal pieties"" (as Gopnick calls them, though he does not think them such) and the taming effect they have had on his verse. Despite the ambivalence evident throughout the lectures, it is clear that Jarrell thought Auden worth reading to the dregs. The number of people today who have read Auden's poetry of the 1940s is smaller than the work merits, and the same goes for Jarrell's poetry and criticism throughout his career. This set of critical engagements, published here for the first time, allows one to start right in the middle of two mid-century titans.