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Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden

Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden

Edited by Stephen Burt
with Hannah Brooks-Motl
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden
    Book Description:

    ''To read Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden is to read the best-equipped of American critics of poetry of the past century on the best-equipped of its Anglo-American poets, and we rush to read, perhaps, less out of an academic interest in fair judgment than out of a spectator's love of virtuosity in flight.'' From Adam Gopnik's foreword

    Randall Jarrell was one of the most important poet-critics of the past century, and the poet who most fascinated and infuriated him was W. H. Auden. In Auden, Jarrell found a crucial poetic influence that needed to be both embraced and resisted. During the 1940s, Jarrell wrestled with Auden's work, writing a series of notorious articles on Auden that remain admired and controversial examples of devoted and contentious criticism. While Jarrell never completed his proposed book on Auden, these previously unpublished lectures revise and reprise his earlier articles and present new insights into Auden's work. Delivered at Princeton University in 1951 and 1952, Jarrell's lectures reflect a passionate appreciation of Auden's work, a witty attack from an informed opponent, and an important document of a major poet's reception.

    Jarrell's lectures offer readings of many of Auden's works, including all of his long poems, and illuminate his singular use of a variety of stylistic registers and poetic genres. In the lecture based on the article ''Freud to Paul,'' Jarrell traces the ideas and ideologies that animated and, at times, overwhelmed Auden's poetry. More precisely, he considers the influence of left-liberal politics, psychoanalytic and evolutionary theory, and the idiosyncratic Christian theology that characterized Auden's poems of the 1940s.

    While an admiring and sympathetic reader, Jarrell does not avoid identifying Auden's poetic failures and political excesses. He offers occasionally blistering assessments of individual poems and laments Auden's turn from a cryptic, feeling, impassioned poet to a rhetorical, self-conscious one. Stephen Burt's introduction provides a backdrop to the lectures and their reception and importance for the history of modern poetry.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50397-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. v-vi)
  3. Foreword (pp. vii-xvi)
    Adam Gopnik

    To read Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden is to read the best-equipped of American critics of poetry of the past century on the best-equipped of its Anglo-American poets, and we rush to read, perhaps, less out of an academic interest in fair judgment than out of a spectator’s love of virtuosity in flight. In flight rather than in fight—for all that these rescued lectures are in principle an “attack” by one poet on another, the effect is less of a battle joined than of two virtuosi playing side by side: like Menuhin and Grapelli playing jazz standards. It...

  4. Introduction (pp. 1-18)

    During the spring of 1952, before an invited audience at Princeton, Randall Jarrell delivered six lectures on the poetry, prose, and career of W. H. Auden. These previously unpublished lectures are at once a passionate appreciation, a witty attack from an informed opponent, an important document of a major poet’s reception, and a key to another poet’s career. Randall Jarrell was reading Auden almost as soon as he was reading any modern poetry at all: he explains in one of these lectures that he discovered Paid on Both Sides in 1932, the year he turned eighteen. In the fall of...

  5. Lecture 1 (pp. 19-32)

    Imagine a man on an island, a desert island. He loves poetry and has none; for years he has lived on nursery rhymes, “To a Wild-Fowl,” the “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” One morning, walking along the beach, he sees a packing box; he pries it open with a bone; there inside, in oil-cloth, is everything Auden ever wrote.¹

    He reads the poems, the plays, the criticism, over and over and over. He tires first of the plays: “I’d trade all three of them for one character,” he grumbles, his dark face darkening. To a solitary man, what are plays...

  6. Lecture 2 (pp. 33-46)

    In 1930 Auden was twenty-three. He and the friends with whom he identified himself were unwilling to accept the values and authority of their own society, that late-capitalist culture which, condemned by Marx, explained by Freud, and despaired of by no end of people, was still the only culture there to be accepted. Since he and his friends had rejected that established order of things, it was necessary to make for themselves a new one: they went hunting for an Authority to take the place of the one they had revolted against. Auden synthesized for them an order all their...

  7. Lecture 3 (pp. 47-64)

    When you come from the early poems to the poems of Auden’s middle period, the poet’s language seems to you passive and abstract. Full of adverbs and adjectives, intransitive verbs, capitalized abstractions, it is boneless by the side of that early speech, which was so packed with verbs and verbals that many of the articles, even, had been crowded out of it. The rhythms of this new language, compared to those of the old, are mechanical and orthodox or heavily perfunctory—Auden has never written so much in a sort of sloppily hypnotic accentual verse. But the rhetoric! In the...

  8. Lecture 4 (pp. 65-82)

    When one thinks about the faults of Auden’s early poems, they are usually not faults that we hold against the poet or the poem—let me call them Isn’t it a pity that faults. They are faults of organization, of focus: the poem seems good, but not as autonomous, as concentrated and unified, as largely and heavily there in the midst of its world, as we could wish; so that we feel, Isn’t it a pity that so much originality and individuality and rightness of texture weren’t concentrated into a few intense, imposing, completely realized concretions? The poems are, many...

  9. Lecture 5 (pp. 83-108)

    There are three stages of the works—and of the ideas which are their sources or elaborated by-products—that we call Auden. In the beginning there is the Old Auden the Ur-Auden. For this stage many titles suggest themselves: Freud and Grettir; Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny; The Law of the Members. An obvious and somewhat ambiguous motto for the stage would [be] Goethe’s “What you have inherited from your fathers you must earn in order to possess”; almost as good would be Auden’s own “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand,” or the statement of Groddeck’s from which Auden’s...

  10. Lecture 6 (pp. 109-136)

    Paid on Both Sides begins with a birth and ends with a death; begins with a woman sitting beside a child and a corpse and ends with a woman sitting beside a corpse. It begins with the account of the fight in which John Nower’s father is killed and ends with the fight in which John Nower is killed. After we are told, first, of his father’s death in the feud which is the permanent situation of the play, the mother talks about her sorrow, about memory, and about the vengeance her child will bring; and the chorus then speaks...

  11. Notes (pp. 137-170)
  12. Index (pp. 171-178)
  13. Further Acknowledgments (pp. 179-180)