This volume ends out a quartet of Jarrell's critical works and is, in a sense, filled with slightness: reviews of bad novels...



This volume ends out a quartet of Jarrell's critical works and is, in a sense, filled with slightness: reviews of bad novels and worse poetry, some of it so disheartening he can only bear to say a sentence of two apropos. There are some major essays here--a pyrotechnical one on Housman, a shrewd one on Yeats, and a world-delivering one on Kipling--but it's in the short, assigned pieces that Jarrell's tempered strength and his equally-tempered short-failings as a critic become remarkably clear. The man, like nature--to paraphrase one of his favorite quotes--had wit: ""Miss Becker""--poet Florence Becker-- ""in her 'streamlined hydroplane tractor,' going 'wherever the campaign/Has need for us. . .aware/ Of enemies and directions,' is a version of May Day I shall be sorry to forget."" Or: ""When Mr. Patchen hints, the pigs run in from miles around."" His prose responded not only to literature but to visual art as well; an examination of Malraux's The Voices of Silence is nigh perfect. William Carlos Williams ""is young forever; so this optimism of ability and courage--touchingly wrong in the old Hercules, dying in his shirt of fire--is still precisely right for the young one. He is the America of poets."" Jarrell can find Yvor Winters' absurd enthusiasms still mounting up into the ""best book on American literature I ever read."" Yet Jarrell's oscillations--deep dells of seriousness (antimodernist, he balefully saw Romanticism hiding everywhere), high peaks of wit and unflustered, liquid eloquence--snag on little that's especially particular here. Auden he loved, but Auden kept disappointing him, book after book: ""Poetry is not comments."" Even with Kipling, whom he loved even more, he holds back: the near-genius is acknowledged with no more violent a nod than the paradoxically scathing yet gentle dismissals of the untalented. An ideologue we don't ask him to be--useless to ask Jarrell not to be fair, graceful, thoughtful--but mild love has a way of seeming itchier than mild scorn; and, with Jarrell, you never can tell where exactly to scratch. Still, if you want to see how brief criticism ought to be written, here's your book.

Pub Date: July 14, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1980