“Like a Muscle Under Too Long Tension”

The Correspondence of Robert Lowell and Randall Jarrell

Sean Campbell

Robert Lowell was a constant rewriter throughout his career, particularly of already published material. Frank Bidart in his introduction to the Collected Poems writes: "What most people think of as his first book, Lord Weary's Castle, is not a "revision" of Land of Unlikeness—less than a quarter of it transforms material from the earlier book—but it is, I think, the book that Land of Unlikeness wanted to be" (Bidart xiii). Through this revision period, roughly 1944 through 1946, he corresponded with Randall Jarrell, sending him poems from Land of Unlikeness, and new poems, including the Jonathan Edwards poems and "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket." Jarrell responded with marginal annotations and full letters detailing what Lowell needed to improve. These responses are as blunt on Lowell's faults and limitations as the letters from Marianne Moore to Elizabeth Bishop. But Jarrell's vision for Lowell's future is less of a personal matter than what Moore envisioned for Bishop. Moore wanted to play her part as a guide for Bishop, yet she had her self-doubts: "I am much hampered, in fact, in what I say, for fear of spoiling you" (Kalstone 58). Jarrell wouldn't be hampered, or show any doubts: "I think it's terribly important for you to get your book absolutely perfect" (Michelson 155). Jarrell was insistent. He had in mind something larger, something more at stake. Lowell followed this guidance closely, and in time became the next great poet Jarrell envisioned for him.

Soon after they met in 1937, Jarrell and Lowell roomed at the house of John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Allen Tate had drawn them to the college. Lowell had transferred there after only two semesters at Harvard. Jarrell spent two years teaching at Kenyon, followed by about three years at the University of Texas. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and then in 1945 worked as a control tower operator. Through these years Jarrell published his first book of poems, and published essays in numerous journals including The Southern Review and Partisan Review. A few of these essays concerned what Jarrell felt to be the end of modernism: "I am not going to try to tell the reader what the solution should be, but I can tell him where to find it: in the work of the next first-rate poet" (Michelson 141).

Meanwhile, Lowell had managed to bring out his first book in 1944, from a small press with a run of 250 copies. This was Land of Unlikeness, which Jarrell reviewed in 1945. At the time of the review, Lowell was serving a year in prison as a draft resister. By the end of that year, Lowell mailed Jarrell a set of revisions of poems from his first book, as well as new poems. Some of the poems they worked on included: "Mr. Edwards and the Spider," "After the Surprising Conversions" (originally "An Eighteenth Century Epistle"), "In Memory of Arthur Winslow," "Mary Winslow" (originally, "Forest Hills Cemetery"), "Winter in Dunbarton," "Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue" (originally, in Land of Unlikeness, as "Christmas Eve in the Time of War"), and "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket." Jarrell wrote back with extensive analysis. His tone seemed bent on directing Lowell on fulfilling his prophecy. In the earlier review of Land of Unlikeness, Jarrell wrote, "He is a promising poet in this specific sense: some of the best poems of the next years ought to be written by him" (Michelson 142). And when he finally reviewed Lord Weary's Castle, in the essay "From the Kingdom of Necessity," he felt free to characterize his earlier prediction as an understatement:

The appearance of Lord Weary's Castle makes me feel less like Adams or Leverrier than like a rain-maker who predicts rain and gets a flood which drowns everyone in the county. One or two of these poems, I think, will be read as long as men remember English. (Jarrell 219)

The sentiments from Jarrell's own correspondence with the poet were hardly less passionate: "I think you're potentially a better poet than anybody writing in English" (Michelson 146). This correspondence continued for years. Bidart once complemented Lowell on the improvements from the English to the American edition of Life Studies. He received this response: "[Lowell] smiled with pleasure, and said that Randall Jarrell had helped him with them" (Bidart viii).

Lowell clearly made great use of this correspondence with his old Kenyon friend. The letters Jarrell wrote back to him were more craft-driven than his essays tended to be. Thus, the revisions improved upon the language, rhythm, and sensibility of the older drafts, especially in "Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue" and "Mr. Edwards and the Spider." Here is an earlier version of the latter, ending with:

        …stretches out its feet
and dies. Insect, this is the soul's defeat;
no strength exerted to oppose the heat
then sinews your abolished will. The soul,
burning Black Widow, cinders in a bright coal. (Michelson 145)

In the final piece, most of these lines would end up in the penultimate stanza, except the Black Widow, which Lowell retains as the final lines: "this is death/ to die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death." Lowell followed closely to Jarrell's advice on this one:

Rhythm awkward. You generally have one line in a poem when the rhythm gets not just harsh but gets tetanic like a muscle under too long tension. Also, burning, Black, cinders, and bright coal are too much fire and its effects for one line. (Michelson 145)

The "cinders" and "coals" are thrown out, replaced with:

        It stretches out its feet
And dies. This is the sinner's last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.

That whistling brick, like a brick stove, is far more effective than "cinders." This adds an action to the will (as in, the abolished will whistling), where before the soul was simply acted upon, without reaction. Moreover, directing the focus toward the will, instead of the soul, continues the repetition of the -ill sound. "How will the heart endure;" "Can kill a tiger;" "Will the dead," etc. Three lines in the third stanza end in a similar -ell sound—smell, well, hell. But not until that fourth stanza does the will refer to a noun. Perhaps a matter of Christian free will. Or at the least, the manner of a person's will. This is directly related to Lowell's correspondence with Jarrell. The latter writes in his letter:

I think your biggest limitations right now are (1) not putting enough about people in the poems—they are more about the actions of you, God, the sea, and cemeteries than they are about the "actions of men…" (Michelson 145-6)

Lowell achieves a more direct effect with replacing "soul" with "will." And he continues this revision with the new stanza, calling out to Jonathan Edward's suicidal uncle:

        But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
        Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
                Into a brick-kiln where the blast
                Fans your quick vitals to a coal—
                        If measured by a glass,
        How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
        A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
        Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.

It has the effect of bringing up an actual person, Hawley, as well as Edwards himself, speaking as a man with more than just "God, the sea, and cemeteries" on his mind. Furthermore this transposes Hawley onto the earlier stages of the poem. "Brick-kiln" returns us to "it will whistle on a brick" from the previous stanza—becoming like Hawley's will whistling, and further back to the death of the spider, "thrown into the bowels of fierce fire." Hawley, and a man's will, is that spider held "to the pit of hell." The "coal" from the ending to the poem's previous draft, returns with "fans your quick vitals to a coal." And as for the revised placement of the Black Widow, who we last saw, as the symbol for death, about to "kill a tiger," the last lines have an excellent reference with "if measured by a glass,/ how long would it seem burning!" That glass brings back the "hourglass-blazoned spider," which according to the notes in Complete Poems refers to the hourglass design on the underside of the Black Widow. The hourglass image is chilling: "less there pass/ a minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze/ is infinite, eternal," more-so with the echo of blaze in "hourglass-blazoned spider." As if time is branded on the spider ("it will whistle on a brick": the whistle, or sizzle, of the branding iron). And likewise, infinite time is branded on us (or at least Josiah Hawley).

But not all advice was adhered to. Jarrell wrote to him about the revisions made to an earlier version of "Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue," printed in Land of Unlikeness as "Christmas Eve in the Time of War,"

Much better than the old; you've left out most of the bad things, but I don't believe it's a good poem yet. (Michelson 155)

According to Michelson, "the accompanying letter advised Lowell to leave 'Christmas Eve' out of the book entirely" (156). Instead, Lowell revised the poem even further, cutting entire stanzas, and condensing the piece into the final version that is found in Lord Weary's Castle. Even without Jarrell's direct encouragement of the poem, Lowell's revisions reflect the criticism Jarrell sent him about his other poems.

Jarrell wrote to Lowell, "You generally have one line in a poem when the rhythm gets not just harsh but gets tetanic like a muscle under too long tension." That word tetanic—something marked by sustained muscular contractions, or spasms—could characterize a line from the first version of "Christmas Eve Under Hooker's Statue":

I strung my stocking on the tree—if Hell's
Inactive sting stuck in the stocking's toe,
Money would draw it out.

It is a clattering rhythm, like the chattering of teeth in winter, replaced in Lord Weary's Castle with:

I hung my stocking on the tree, and hell's
Serpent entwined the apple in the toe.
To sting the child with knowledge.

The t sound is far more balanced with the winding w of "entwined," a word whose prefix also matches with the -ent ending of serpent. A similar manner is improved with the sound of -ar in mars and arms. In the earlier version Lowell has "Mars is open arms," which is remade in second line of the second stanza:

Now storm-clouds shelter Christmas, once again
Mars meets his fruitless star with open arms,
His heavy saber flashes with the rime,
The war-god's bronzed and empty forehead forms
Anonymous machinery from raw men;
The cannon on the Common cannot stun
The blundering butcher as he rides on Time—
The barrel clinks with holly. I am cold:
I ask for bread, my father gives me mould;

"Mars meets his fruitless star with open arms." The line is extended, an extra -ar sound added with star, and the matching beat is allowed space to breath and become more affixed with the iambic meter. Lowell follows "Mars" with, three lines down, "raw men." The sounds continue to echo in the third stanza:

His stocking is full of stones. Santa in red
Is crowned with wizened berries. Man of war,
Where is the summer's garden? In its bed
The ancient speckled serpent will appear,
And black-eyed susan with her frizzled head.
When Chancellorsville mowed down the volunteer,
"All wars are boyish," Herman Melville said;
But we are old, our fields are running wild:
Till Christ again turn wanderer and child.

"Raw men" is matched in the third stanza with "Man of war," that feeling of raw, and "anonymous machinery." Finally, the -an sound in man of war, heard also in anonymous, santa (itself a boyish sentiment), ancient, and susan, is heard again in Herman, which follows the direct quotation from the Civil War era poet, writing about Manassas: "All wars are boyish" (to be followed, in Melville's original poem, with "and are fought by boys, / The champions and enthusiasts of the state.") This repetitious man sound is thus finally juxtaposed, climatically, with boyish, and again with the final word of the poem child, or the Christ child. Christ comes late here. The earlier version is full of Christ imagery ("Christ the King is rocking on the mould," from the first stanza).

Jarrell, still on the earlier version of "Mr. Edwards and the Spider," enumerated his judgment of Lowell's limitations in style:

(2) being too harsh and severe—but this already changing, very much for the better too, I think. Contemporary satires (which you don't seem to write anymore) are your weakest sort of poem, and are not really worth wasting your time on." (Michelson 146)

"Contemporary satires" might characterize the earliest version of the Hooker poem, published in Partisan Review in 1943 as "The Capitalist's Meditation by the Civil War Monument, Christmas, 1942." That original title is somewhat retained in the second published version, the one found in Land of Unlikeness, in its subtitle: "A Capitalist Meditates by a Civil War Monument" (a title that disappears altogether by the final version). The anti-war sentiment, reflecting Lowell's own contempt against World War II (the first version published a year before Lowell refused to register for the armed services) is paramount. It is as Jarrell had written in a general sense, "too harsh and severe" such as in the line, "what is war to gold's eternal glimmer?" Lines about the Civil War take up more space in the old drafts: "blue lines of men and women are on the march,/ and the unions' czars entrench for civil war," making the poem more like one of Lowell's historical pieces than a poem about 1942. The sentiment is more akin to a proclamation than a meditation: "War's coddling will not warm me up again/ brazenly gracious Ares throws his arms/ about his mother the mulct'd tycoon." "Raw men" are found in the original version, but the line sits alone, without the blithe, focused rhythm Lowell would find for the final piece. Even the presence of Melville's words, found only in the final version, feels as if they contain a person, fulfilling Jarrell's warning about Lowell's lack of people. The first versions make due with abstract anti-war statements. They generalize. They talk of "the War's snowfall / slogs down the philanthropic plutocrat." The second version retains the plutocrat, but it is dropped in the final. Melville's statement, "All wars are boyish," is allowed to resonate, with its simplicity, its calling up of the past without bland historic details, and its atonement with the sounds found in the rest of the poem. It is far more effective an anti-war statement than any of the plutocrats, tycoons and glimmering gold.

These two poems, while far from perfect—and never finished for Lowell—nevertheless show in their revision stages how on the mark many of Jarrell's criticisms were, and how well Lowell could follow his guidance.

There is a long correspondence between Lowell and the poets he admires, in the writers he quotes and paraphrases from: especially with Melville, Edwards and Thoreau. Lowell featured three sonnets in History on Randall Jarrell. These poems were written after Jarrell's death. "Randall Jarrell 1. October 1965" confronts with violent imagery the accident, or possible suicide, on that road in Ohio in 1965—"Randall, the scene still plunges at the windshield." The sonnet is written in second person, addressed to his late friend, who he would never get to see turn "sixty, seventy, eighty." These poems are free of the biting honesty of other poet-titled sonnets in History. Nothing like "'Mama, he says, 'which would you rather see here/ me or two blondes?''" from his poem on William Carlos Williams. Their history seems pervaded by nostalgia, when "as students waiting for Europe and spring term to end," they observed their college like an arcadia—"the college polo field, cornfields, the feudal airdrome…dorms, fieldhouse, the Bishop's palace and chapel." Lowell refers to Jarrell as an "unchanging grasshopper, whistling down the grass-fires," as a "Child Randall/greeting the cars, and approving—your harsh luminosity." These last words echo his earlier essay on Randall Jarrell found in his Collected Prose: "he had the harsh luminosity of Shelley" (91). He went further in his rapturous adoration for his former correspondent: "Randall did somehow give off an angelic impression, despite his love for tennis, singular mufflers knitted by a girlfriend, and disturbing improvements of his own on the latest dance steps." His adoration for the man continues throughout the essay: as a character study it is fulfilling, but most often it shows Lowell's affections for the man, a critic who gave him trouble for his overly academic style, followed by stunning praise. A man who could make "other[s] feel that their work was more important to him than his own" (93). There is a trust between the two poets, between the critic and the poet, that fostered not just a friendship, but a body of work for both.

Works Cited

  • Michelson, Bruce. "Randall Jarrell and Robert Lowell: the Making of 'Lord Weary's Castle'." Robert Lowell (Bloom's Modern Critical Views) . Bloom, Harold, Ed. New York, NY: Chelsea House Publ., 1987.
  • Jarrell, Randall. Poetry and the Age. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2001.
  • Kalstone, David, and Robert Hemenway. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop, with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2001.
  • Lowell, Robert, Frank Bidart, and David Gewanter. Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
  • Lowell, Robert, and Robert Giroux. Collected Prose. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1990.

SEAN CAMPBELL's poems and prose have appeared in Boston Review, The Critical Flame, Poetry Northeast, Clarion, and The Copperfield Review. He holds an MFA from Emerson College.