Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Robert Graves

Randall Jarrell Part Four

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday March 15 2015

The Cruel Critic


After the Second World War, Jarrell achieved a measure of success, financial security, critical esteem and happiness. He married his second wife, Mary von Schrader, in 1952.


For the rest of his life, he taught at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 1967, Nancy Seletti wrote about  being taught by Jarrell at Greensboro in 1947/48. “He made us love good poems with the passion children give to toys which are not merely companions to them but talismen with which to face the world. He had, and conveyed to us, the professional magician’s delight in a brilliant accomplishment for its own sake.”

with students

She observed the cruel streak that others have discussed but claims he was never cruel to students.“It seems to me that Randall Jarrell was harsh and unfeeling only with those whom he felt to be his equals in sophistication or who, by placing themselves in the literary arena, made themselves the enemies of genuine excellence, the representatives of those powers, political, aesthetic, or intellectual which threatened the unique, suffering, not very virtuous individual being whom he loved with mingled pity, horror, and delight.”


He was poetry consultant at the Library of Congress in Washington (a post now named Poet Laureate) for two years. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was not writing so much original  poetry, he translated Faust, Part 1, a Chekhov play, and several of Grimm’s tales. Near the end of his life, he wrote children’s stories, among them The Bat Poet (1964) and The Animal Family (1965).  His children’s books, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak, have been very popular.


Nancy Seletti described his appearance: “When he first came to us he seemed a rather queer bird, austere, forbiddingly heralded as both brilliant poet and devastating critic, but with a surprising naturalness of movement which reminded us of the childhood we were leaving behind, an ease which seemed to contradict his coldness. He had besides an extremely unacademic manner, and all in all there was something gnomelike about him, something not quite contained in everyday experience, full of sudden surprises and disconcerting impressions. We were a little afraid of him…”


Stephen Spender said he,” looked at moments like a squirrel struggling through a hollow log, held in a cramped hole but with berry-black eyes shining through”. Paul Mariani, biographer of John Berryman, described the impressions of John and Eileen Berryman when they met Jarrell at the time that he took over as literary editor of The Nation in New York. “Tall willowy, thin, dark-haired, dark-eyed, half a year older than Berryman, a man of stunning contrasts, a hipster whose language was ten years out of date, a puritan who drove fast cars, a killer who could weep apologetically after his words had innocently sliced the heart from his victim”.

Photographs show him looking benign at home holding a cat, others wearing grey flannel suits, sometimes he is shown polishing the hubcaps of his Mercedes-Benz, others show him poised on chair’s arm with Alastair Reid and Robert Graves, in conversation with Robert Lowell. Jack Kerouac once visited the Jarrells and drank the house dry.


More about that cruel streak: He said of one book that it seemed to have “been written on a typewriter by a typewriter”). Lowell balances this cruelty against Jarrell’s immense enthusiasms for what he did like. Conrad Aiken once publicly protested about Jarrell’s “sadistic” reviews of his work. John Berryman wrote: “Jarrell’s reviews did go beyond the limit; they were unbelievably cruel, that’s true. Conrad was quite right. But…he hated bad poetry with such vehemence and so vigorously that it didn’t occur to him that in the course of taking apart—where he’d take a book of poems and squeeze, like that, twist—that in the course of doing that, there was a human being also being squeezed.”

In 1961, Jarrell won the National Book Award for Poetry for his volume The Woman at the Washington Zoo. In his acceptance speech, he referred to his reputation as a cruel critic: “Sometimes I read, in reviews by men whose sleep I have troubled, that I’m one of those poets who’ve never learned to write poetry.” He tried to show his human side. “During these times the only person who helps much is my wife: she always acts as if I’d written the last poem yesterday and were about to write the next one tomorrow. While I’m writing poems or translating Faust I read what I have out loud, and my wife listens to me. Homer used to be led around by a little boy, who would listen to him: all I can say is, if Homer had ever had my wife listen to his poems, he would never again have been satisfied with that little boy.”

“Poetry, art — these too are occupations of a sort; and I do not recommend them to you any more than I recommend to you that tonight, you go home to bed, and go to sleep, and dream.”


Jarrell  was a hipster heavily influenced by Wordsworth. Jarrell’s last book of poems, The Lost World, published in 1965, explores the world of childhood, as did Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality.  In his Ode, Wordsworth feels that a glory has passed away from the earth. Jarrell shares that view that the immediate reality of habit and routine dulls the innocence of childhood, knowledge extinguishes ignorance until death deprives us of the finite pleasures of the world. Works of art can give only limited immortality. Childhood can only be recovered in a frustrating way through fallible memory.


Jarrell, in the title poem of the collection, remembers living as a child with his grandparents, Pop and Mama, and his great-grandmother, Dandeen, in Hollywood. In the first section , “Children’s Arms,” Jarrell remembers when he was twelve years old passing the set 1925 film directed by Harry O Hoyt of the Conan Doyle novel The Lost World. A papier-mâché dinosaur and pterodactyl look over the fence. When he gets home, he picks up his bow and arrows, climbs to his tree house and begins a life of make-believe.

He also goes with his grandfather to the adult world of work, where he realizes that “the secret the grown-ups share, is what to do to make money.”

My grandfather and I sit there in oneness

As the Sunset bus, lit by the lavender

And rose of sunrise, takes us to the dark

Echoing cavern where Pop, a worker,

Works for our living. As he rules a mark,

A short square pencil in his short square hand,

On a great sheet of copper, I make some remark

He doesn’t hear. In that hard maze—in that land

That grown men live in—in the world of work,

He measures, shears, solders; and I stand

Empty-handed, watching him. I wander into the murk

The naked light bulbs pierce: the workmen, making something,

Say something to the boy in his white shirt. I jerk

As the sparks fly at me. The man hammering

As acid hisses, and the solder turns to silver,

Seems to me a dwarf hammering out the Ring

In the world under the world. The hours blur;

Bored and not bored, I bend things out of lead.

I wash my smudged hands, as my grandfather

Washes his black ones, with their gritty soap: ahead,

Past their time clock, their pay window, is the blue

And gold and white of noon. The sooty thread

Up which the laborers feel their way into

Their wives and houses, is money; the fact of life,

The secret the grown-ups share, is what to do

To make money. 


Soon after completing The Lost World, Jarrell  became mentally ill, first elated and later depressed. Stephen Spender described recordings of Jarrell reciting his poems in an “almost strangled voice, sometimes shrill with protest”. Jarrell often sounds as though he is about to weep. He slashed his wrists when his mind was troubled by a severe review. Joseph Bennett wrote of The Lost World in the New York Times Book Review: “His work is trashy and thoroughly dated; prodigiousness encouraged by an indulgent and sentimental Mamaism, its overriding feature is doddering infantilism”. Robert Lowell wrote to Jarrell to comfort  him: “Your courage, brilliance and generosity should have saved you from this.”


Recovering, he went back to teaching in the fall of 1965, then entered a hospital in Chapel Hill for therapy on his wrist. While there, and while walking at dusk on a nearby highway, he was struck by a car and killed immediately. The coroner’s verdict was accidental death, although the circumstances will never be entirely clear.


A book of tributes was published in 1967:  Randall Jarrell, 1914-1965 edited by Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren. Reviewing it Stephen Spender wrote: “The writers in this volume bear witness to his gaiety and happiness as well as to his grievances”.  Robert Lowell wrote, “What Jarrell’s inner life was in all its wonder, variety, and subtlety is best told in his poetry…His gifts, both by nature and by a lifetime of hard dedication and growth, were wit, pathos, and brilliance of intelligence. These qualities, dazzling in themselves, were often so well employed that he became, I think, the most heartbreaking English poet of his generation…Always behind the sharpened edge of his lines, there is the merciful vision, his vision, partial like all others, but an illumination of life, too sad and radiant for us to stay with long—or forget.”


If just living can do this,
Living is more dangerous than anything:
It is terrible to be alive.


Ivor Gurney- Poet and Composer 1890 – 1937 Part Three

This article was published in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday June 1 2014.




This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. The BBC will be marking the centenary with four years of programmes covering the war. Among these programmes will be one presented by Tim Kendall, Professor of English at Exeter University, entitled The Poet who Loved the War: Ivor Gurney, 1914–1918. Gurney does not fit easily into the category of “war poet” and it would be wrong to conclude that Gurney’s war experiences caused his mental problems. His work is not like that of Graves, Owen, Sassoon or Rosenberg. Readers who want a full critical analysis of the poetry should read the blogs of Kendall and Philip Lancaster.

In 1915, Ivor Gurney joined the Fifth Gloucester Reserve Battalion and saw active service on the Western Front between June 1916 and September 1917. On Gurney’s departure for the Somme, Herbert Howells dedicated his Piano Quartet in A minor: ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’. Chosen Hill in Gloucestershire had been a favourite walking place for the two men.  I used to walk from my home to the top of Chosen Hill and look at the city spread below me or sit in quiet contemplation in the church at top of the hill. Today one cannot take the same route because motorways, bypasses, and industrial estates dominate the landscape.


Gurney with Herbert Howells

In the trenches, he began writing poetry prolifically. On April 6, 1917, he was shot in the upper arm.



Pain, pain continual: pain unending:

Hard even to the roughest, but to those

Hungry for beauty…Not the wisest knows,

Nor most pitiful-hearted, what the wending

Of one hour’s way meant. Grey monotony lending

Weight to the grey skies, grey mud where goes

An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows

Careless at last of cruellest Fate-sending.

Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,

Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,

Dying in shell-holes both, slain by the mud.

Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun-

Till pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her,

The amazed heart cries angrily out on God.


Wartime Songs

He managed to write five songs in the trenches and get them published. The songs were about a longing for peace and security and a concern with the nature of death. “By a Bierside” was a setting of a poem by John Masefield; “In Flanders” is a setting of a poem by his friend FW Harvey (Sung by Michael Lampard, baritone on


“Severn Meadows” is a setting of one of Gurney’s own poems:

Only the wanderer

Knows England’s graces,

Or can anew see clear

Familiar faces.


And who loves joy as he

That dwells in shadows?

Do not forget me quite,

O Severn meadows.


Listening to the rendition by Christopher Maltman, baritone and Roger Vignoles, piano will bring tears to the eyes.

“Even such is Time” was a setting of the poem that Sir Walter Raleigh wrote on the night before his execution. The fifth song was a setting of “The Fiddler of Dooney” by WB Yeats.

Life in the Trenches

Gurney seemed, to some extent, to enjoy the camaraderie of the trenches. “The life is as grey as it sounds, but one manages to hang on to life by watching the absolute unquenchability of the cheerier spirits – wonderful people some of them; after all, it is better to be depressed with reason than without. When confronted with a difficult proposition the British soldier emits (rather like the cuttle fish) a black appalling cloud of profanity; then does the job.”

According to Michael Hurd, Gurney was able to write calm letters home because he had found a kind of inner peace through being part of the war. Being an ordinary private meant he was a disposable item whose path was marked out for him without him having to make decisions. “Caught up in a loving comradeship wherein all suffered equally and endured, he felt perhaps for the first time in his life a sense of security – a sense that he was no longer the odd man out, and that he had found the family he had always been looking for.”


He did witness horrors. “The front line trenches of both sides were very close to one another in places, so close in fact that a bomb could easily be thrown from one to the other, and No Man’s Land was littered with the dead bodies of men who had been scythed down by machine-gun fire in the last attack… The cemetery at Richebourg was an eerie spot; it had been completely churned up by shell fire: tombs torn open to reveal skeletons that had lain there for years. The crucifix, as was so often the case, remained standing.”

“Why does this war of spirit take on such dread forms of ugliness, and why should a high triumph be signified by a body shattered, black, stinking: avoided by day, stumbled over by night, an offence to the hardest? No doubt there is consolation in the fact that men contemplate such things, such possible endings, and are yet undismayed, yet persistent; do not lose laughter nor the common kindness that makes life sweet – and yet seem such boys. Yet what consolation can be given me as I look on an endure it?”

severn somme

During the Passchendaele offensive of 1917, he was gassed and invalided home. He returned to Barton Street, Gloucester and worked in a munitions factory until Armistice Day (a week after Wilfred Owen was killed).In 1919, he returned to the Royal College of Music and was taught composition by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He took a post as organist at Christ Church, High Wycombe and began to move in London literary circles.


Vaughn Williams on the left

He suffered a severe breakdown in 1918. He claimed to have spoken to the spirit of Beethoven. By 1921, his life had become unsettled. He had songs and preludes published but formally left the Royal College of Music and went to live with his aunt in Longford and did farm work. He went back and forth from Gloucester to London and spent a week as a cinema pianist in Cornwall. In 1922, his third collection of poems was rejected. He lost three farm jobs in a month and got a job at Gloucester tax office, which lasted only 12 weeks because he proved incapable of performing even the most menial tasks.

Ivor’s brother, Ronald, had recently got married and Ivor went to live with them at their home in Worcester Street, Gloucester. Ivor was not an easy tenant. He shut himself up in the front room and shouted at Ronald and his wife to keep away. He complained that ‘electrical tricks’ were being played on him and sat with a cushion on his head to prevent the electric waves from the radio getting into his brain.

Ivor made several suicide attempts and was certified insane by Dr. Soutar and Dr. Terry on 28 September, 1922. He was committed to a private mental hospital called Barnwood House. He was moved to Stone House hospital at Dartford, Kent. Marion Scott visited him frequently and took him on outings with an attendant. She took him to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Old Vic. She also worked hard to get his poems and songs published. He produced a prolific output of poems but the songs came less readily. His mental condition continued to deteriorate. By 1926, he was severely deluded believing himself to be Beethoven, Haydn, Shakespeare and Hillaire Belloc among others. He became physically hostile to staff and patients.

Between 1913 and 1926, Ivor Gurney wrote about 900 poems. At a conservative estimate, despite his mental illness and incarceration, 300 of these were viable works, many of the highest quality. Hundreds of Gurney’s poems remain unpublished. Tim Kendall of Exeter University, together with Gurney expert, baritone Philip Lancaster, is preparing a three volume variorum edition of Gurney’s complete poetry, for Oxford University Press. As well as writing powerful poems about the war and about the natural landscape, his work has a quality of modernity through unsentimental observation transmuted into poetry by force of concentration. As George Walter writes: “His perception of the landscape, both urban and rural, is coloured by historical survival, and history is for Gurney a human experience: the ploughing up of a Roman coin makes him think not of empires or dynasties but of ‘some hurt centurion’ who lived in the land of the past.”

While in the trenches, Gurney dreamed about his beloved Gloucestershire. In the asylum, he was again deprived of it. Helen Thomas, the widow of the poet Edward Thomas, who had died in the war, visited him there. In 1960, she recalled those visits. On one visit, she took Edward’s ordinance survey maps of Gloucestershire and traced their fingers over the routes Edward had walked and Ivor loved so well. “He spent that hour in re-visiting his beloved home, in spotting a village or a track, a hill or a wood and seeing it all in his mind’s eye, a mental vision sharper and more actual for his heightened intensity. For he had Edward as his companion in this strange perambulation; and he was utterly happy, and without being over-excited.”

Helen Thomas wrote: “Ivor Gurney longed more than anything else to go back to his beloved Gloucestershire, but this was not allowed for fear he should try to take his own life. I said ‘But surely it would be more humane to let him go there even if it meant no more than one hour of happiness before he killed himself.’ But the authorities could not look at it in that way.”

They have left me little indeed

They have left me little indeed, how shall I best keep

Memory from sliding content down to drugged sleep?

But my blood in its colour even is known fighter-

If I were hero for such things here I would make wars

As love for dead things trodden under January stars.


Or the gold trefoil itself spending in careless places

Tiny graces like music’s for its past exquisitenesses.

Why war for huge Domains of the planet’s heights or plains.

(Little they leave me.) It is a dream, hardly my heart dares

Tremble for glad leaf-drifts thundering under January’s stars.


More about Gurney’s mental condition next week.



THE PRESS | Music Reviews

Click Header to Return Home

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -


A fake image is worth zero words

Poet's Corner

Poems, poets, poetry, writing, poetry challenges

Casual, But Smart

Pop Culture From An Old Soul

PN Review Blog

‘The most engaged, challenging and serious-minded of all the UK’s poetry magazines’ - Simon Armitage

The Manchester Review

The Manchester Review

Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal

The Human Academy