The middle of summer may seem like an odd time to offer up the following poem by Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), given its frigid setting. However, it popped into my head for some reason, and it is, I think, a poem fit for any season.
Jarrell is now perhaps best known as a critic of poetry. His criticism is free of the jargon, theory, and political agendas that taint most contemporary criticism. He displays a deep knowledge of, and a devotion to, poetry. (There was a time, believe it or not, when criticism was written out of love.) He wrote perceptive essays on, among others, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, and Robert Graves. His observations are still incisive and thought-provoking more than half-a-century later.
His poetry has suffered from some neglect in recent years (with the exception of "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," which has long been a standard anthology piece). However, he wrote a number of fine poems that deserve greater attention.
I first encountered the following poem in my younger years, and I was quite taken with it at the time. Reading it now, I find that, well, I am still quite taken with it, but perhaps for less romantic, more prosaic, reasons. As I have noted before, rereading poems is always a good idea, since you are not the same person that you were when you last read them, whether the interval is months, years, or decades.
At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe's impossible sides
I sailed all night -- till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.
There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.
-- Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.
Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world -- my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.
And it is meaningless. In the child's bed
After the night's voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain -- in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land
I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone --
Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness -- that the darkness flung me --
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.
Randall Jarrell, Blood for a Stranger (1942).
Well, what can I say? Jarrell himself called it "a pessimistic poem." But there you have it. The Larkinite in me is drawn to the final two lines: "Pain comes from the darkness/And we call it wisdom. It is pain." If I came across those lines not knowing of "90 North," I would swear that Larkin had written them. Jarrell wrote the poem in 1941, when Larkin was 19 years old, so Jarrell's harrowing expedition preceded Larkin's later exploration of the same territory.