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The Death of Randall Jarrell

ISSUE:  Summer 1982
What does being a poet mean? It means having one’s own personal life, one’s reality, in quite different categories from those of one’s poetic work, it means being related to the ideal in imagination only, so that one’s own personal life is more or less a satire on poetry and on oneself.
Kierkegaard, Journals

The death of Randall Jarrell, who was struck by an automobile in 1965, has always been surrounded by mystery. The official verdict was “accident,” but many familiar with the case concluded that it was suicide. A. Alvarez, Martin Seymour-Smith, Galway Kinnell, and John Simon are perhaps the only writers to state Jarrell killed himself (though they offer no evidence for this assertion). Recently discovered documents now make it possible to say exactly what happened to Jarrell and to suggest some reasons for his tragic end.

Jarrell belonged to a generation of poets, born between 1899 and 1917, who suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and died prematurely: Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. Roethke exalted insanity as part of the artist’s fatal gift:

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against the sweating wall.

But Berryman condemned the deity who devoured mad genius:

  I’m cross with God who has wrecked this generation.
  First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now
  In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.

If, as Delmore Schwartz says (paraphrasing Wordsworth): “We poets in our youth begin in sadness; / thereof in the end come despondency and madness,” we must look to Jarrell’s childhood for a partial explanation of his death. Frederick Hoffman could not be more mistaken when he maintains: “It is obvious that Jarrell had had a splendid childhood, though one wonders why it should flood his fancy in the last of his books [The Lost World], close to his death.” Though the facts about his childhood are often cloudy and contradictory, he clearly had good reason to be bitterly unhappy. He was born in Nashville on May 6, 1914, the second child (the first apparently died in infancy) of a 19-year-old mother and 20-year-old father, who was then a bookkeeper. Soon after Jarrell’s birth, the family moved to Long Beach, California, where his father worked in a photographer’s studio. His parents separated in September 1925, when his mother and younger brother Charles returned to Nashville, and Jarrell remained in Hollywood with his paternal grandparents and great-grandmother. Jarrell later recalled that when summoned to rejoin his mother “he hated to leave. “How I cried!” he said. And he’d begged them so hard to keep him that when they wouldn’t—or couldn’t—he blamed them for being cruel and resolved never to think about them again.”

Jarrell’s father soon remarried; his mother moved about frequently in Nashville, struggling to meet her financial obligations and to care for her two sons. Jarrell was forced to do what he considered “hellish” and humiliating jobs, like collecting money for newspapers and selling Christmas seals door-to-door: “Imagine, pestering people like that in their houses. Wasn’t that a wicked thing to make a child do?” In 1926 the lonely, handsome boy posed for the statue of Ganymede on the bogus Parthenon in Centennial Park. “His mother said the sculptors had asked to adopt him, but knowing how attached to them he was she hadn’t dared tell him. “She was right,” Randall said bitterly. “I’d have gone with them like that.”“ During his childhood Jarrell lost his mother three times: when Charles was born and replaced him as her favorite, when he was suddenly severed from both parents and brother in 1925, and when his mother remarried in about 1930. After his mother’s second husband was killed in a car crash in 1940, Jarrell (whose brother had moved permanently to Paris) had sole responsibility for her.

Jarrell’s perception about his friend Robert Lowell applies with equal force to himself: “He was struggling with two dynamos, one leading him to some kind of creative work, the other tearing him apart.” Though destined (like Hart Crane) for the candy business, Jarrell was sent by a wealthy uncle to Vanderbilt, where he became the favorite pupil of the most respected and influential poets of the South: John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren. These poets soon acknowledged his superior gifts, technical skill, and formal mastery of verse. Tate remembered Warren “showing me some of the boy’s poems. There was one beginning “The cow wandering in the bare field” which struck me as prodigious; I still think it one of his best poems.” His precocious reputation as a “literary genius” led the youth to nourish great expectations.

Jarrell could be charming and gentle, but even friends like Elizabeth Bishop admitted that he “was difficult, touchy, and oversensitive to criticism.” Berryman called him “a hard loser. He wasn’t a man who liked to lose at all.” In an interview Tate angrily recalled: “Randall was the most difficult human being I ever knew. His vanity was absolutely astronomical. He insulted everybody. He would sneer at people,” Lowell (whose star eclipsed Jarrell’s) tried to explain the acerbic character of the man who was admired by friends, worshipped in Greensboro, N. C. (where he taught from 1947 to 1965), and accustomed to adulation: “In his own life, he had much public acclaim and more private. The public, at least, fell cruelly short of what he deserved.”

Jarrell published five volumes of poetry between 1940 and 1951, but there was a nine-year gap before The Woman at the Washington Zoo, one third translations from Rilke, appeared in 1960. In the 1960’s, as his poetic inspiration diminished, he concentrated on translations, anthologies, criticism, and children’s books. In his essay on Wallace Stevens, written when he was 37, Jarrell observed that poets have no choice about waiting for the spark of heaven to fall: “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times. . . . A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems.” And his second wife, Mary, wrote: “The half-alive poet/artist may reckon with arid and idea-less attacks, as Randall did, saying for a while, “It’s cyclical,”; and writing “Believe, my heart, Believe!” on scraps of paper around the house. Also, he can read—as Randall did—all that the Germans have to say about the crisis in the poet’s ego that causes his creative paralysis.” But these attempts at resignation, incantation, and reflection did very little good when inspiration failed. Jarrell suffered from that “morbidness which not infrequently casts a shadow on the mind of the ignored innovator.” In the mid-1960’s he feared he might never recover his creative powers.

The loss of his mother and fear of sterility are poignant themes in the two beautiful children’s books that he wrote during the final years of his life. As early as 1939, Jarrell had admiringly quoted from Collins’ “Ode to Evening”: “the weak-ey’d Bat, / With short shrill Shriek flits by on leathern Wing.” In his Bat-Poet, the talented creature abandons his nocturnal habits and becomes isolated from the other mammals: “Toward the end of summer all the bats except the little brown one began sleeping in the barn. . . . So he had to sleep all alone. He missed the others. They had always felt so warm and furry against him.” As compensation he begins to write poetry; but when his work is criticized by the mocking-bird bird and ignored by the other animals, he echoes Jarrell’s earlier laments about the lack of an intelligent audience: “The trouble isn’t making poems, the trouble’s finding somebody that will listen to them.” Though fluent at first, he becomes blocked when he tries to write about the color and song of the cardinal: “It was no use: no matter how much the bat watched, he never got an idea. . . .”[The cardinal would] make a beautiful poem; but I can’t think of anything.”” When the unresponsive chipmunk remarks “how queer it must be to be a bat,” the escapist, airborne poet replies: “No, it’s not queer. It’s wonderful to fly all night.”

Jarrell’s brilliant illustrator, Maurice Sendak, said that his last children’s book, “Fly by Night, is a strange story and a very personal one. . . . It is a painful dream about a little boy who misses his mother’s presence, and I knew this was something that had always troubled Randall.” Jarrell writes: “At night David can fly. In the daytime he can’t. In the daytime he doesn’t even remember that he can. . . .”If I remembered in the daytime I could fly in the daytime. All I have to do is remember.”” It seems clear that flying is a metaphor for the release of the imagination (as in dreams) and that his inability to remember represents the loss of poetic powers in the conscious world. The lonely David, in contrast to the bat, exchanges day for night. As he glides over his sleeping parents, his mother lies buried and obliterated under a mound of blankets and pillow. But he has the insight and power to see her dreams—and divine her true feelings about him. David’s poetic flight, like the bat’s, is exhilarating; but he must inevitably return to the sterile world of daylight. As the owl warns him: “You will fly / From your dark nest into the harsh unknown / World the sun lights.” The outside world is “cold and hard and bare”; and at the end of the story, when he vainly tries to remember his furtive and suspect vol de nuit, he suddenly “opens his eyes and the sunlight blinds him.” Both children’s stories are allegorical and convey an unusual sense of loss, isolation, sterility, and frustration.

Jarrell’s last and most autobiographical book of poetry, The Lost World (a world of lost parents, childhood, and imaginative powers), was published in March 1965 and echoes the dominant theme of his earlier volumes: The Rage for the Lost Penny (1940) and Losses (1948). Ransom observed that Jarrell—who wrote of suicide in “Kirilov on a Skyscraper” and his note on Tuzenbach in The Three Sisters— “had a great flair for the poetry of desperation.” And Christina Stead (whose novel The Man Who Loved Children was enthusiastically praised by Jarrell) recently noted: “Some months ago in a bookshop in Canberra I bought a volume of his poems and I was shocked to read in them a tendency to that act [suicide].”

The Lost World (especially in retrospect) seems forlorn and foreboding. It is filled with images of illness:

    Forced out of life into
  Bed, for a moment I lie comfortless
  In the blank darkness;
of pain:
  His jerking body, bent into a bow,
  Falls out of the hands onto the table,
  Bends, bends further, till at last it breaks;
of mutilation:
  I lie here like a cut-off limb, the stump the limb has left;
of terror:
    there visited me one night at midnight
  A scream with breasts;
of derangement:
  But I identify myself, as always,
  With something that there’s something wrong with;
of despair:
  The patients have in common hopes without hope;
and of death:
  I stand beside my grave
  Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.

Jarrell’s morbid depression was all too apparent to close friends who saw him in 1965. Hannah Arendt recalled: “When I last saw him, not long before his death, the laughter was almost gone, and he was almost ready to admit defeat.” And Stanley Kunitz noted: “He came north for a visit from Greensboro, with his beard deleted, and I saw at dinner for the first and last time the naked vulnerability of his countenance.” Even though Jarrell had been severely depressed for several years (when his bearded mask was stripped away), Mary Jarrell was too close to her husband to foresee the disaster that occurred in February 1965 and confined Jarrell in a private hospital in Chapel Hill: “Randall’s nervous breakdown was showing signs that all but we could see. . . . Before it was through with us, this ordeal called forth a desperate valor we’d never known we had. . . . When the doctors let him come home again, Randall was not as good as new, but he was recovering.”

The reviews of The Lost World, which appeared while Jarrell was in the psychiatric ward, must have intensified his depression. Friends like Philip Booth and Williams Meredith praised the book; and Jean Garrigue, Samuel Moon, and W. J. Smith also wrote favorable notices. But the negative reviews, which repeated the old charges of sentimentality and selfpity, had a greater emotional impact on the hypersensitive invalid. Joseph Bennett wrote in the widely read 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.” This savage judgment was reinforced by more persuasive and influential critics. Paul Fussell stated in the Saturday Review: “ It is sad to have to report that Randall Jarrell’s new book . . .is disappointing. There is nothing in it to compare with the poems he was writing twenty years ago. . . .[His style] has hardened into a monotonous mannerism, attached now too often to the mere chic of sentimental nostalgia and suburban pathos.” In the Hudson Review Roger Sale concluded: “If Lowell and Roethke are major poets, Jarrell is minor indeed.” And Jarrell’s great rival James Dickey (who had come up to Vanderbilt when Jarrell was still the prototype of the brilliant promising poet) exposed in the American Scholar the crucial weaknesses of his poetry: “In Jarrell there is a persuasive and disquieting flatness. . . . He generally does not hold out long enough for the truly telling phrase, for the rhythm that matches exactly the subject, the image, the voice.”


Jarrell resumed teaching at Greensboro in the fall term but returned to Chapel Hill for further medical treatment on October 10. Four days later, while walking about a mile and a half south of town on the busy U. S. highway 15—501, which runs between Durham and Sanford and bypasses Chapel Hill, Jarrell was struck by a car. The composite newspaper reports are somewhat contradictory but give a full account of the incident. The front page of the Chapel Hill Newspaper of Oct. 15, 1965, which had a photograph of the damaged car, reported:

Jarrell was walking south, facing oncoming traffic, when the accident happened at about 7:30 p. m. Graham Wallace Kimrey, 42, of Sanford, was identified as the driver of the car. Jarrell’s head struck the right side of the windshield, breaking a large hole in the glass, and threads of his dark clothing were imbedded in the pane on the side of the car, the patrolman reported.

Both Kimrey and his wife told the patrolman the victim seemed to whirl, “as I approached he appeared to lunge out into the path of the car.” Most of the damage, estimated at $200, was at the windshield-door post on the right side of the car.

Jarrell died instantly. Usually recognized as a bearded man, Jarrell was clean shaven when he died. Authorities said Jarrell was being treated at N. C. Memorial Hospital here for a skin graft by Dr. Earle Peacock, a Chapel Hill specialist. Jarrell had a two-day old pain killer prescription in his pocket when his body was found.

Impact of the car spun Jarrell around and did not knock him more than three or four feet at most. The car was going at a speed below the 45-mile limit. No charges were expected to be lodged. . . .

Dr. [Loren] MacKinney said he had inquired into Jarrell’s background, pertaining to whether he had had periods of depression. However, Dr. MacKinney said his discussion on this line is considered medical, “privileged information.”

This story provides some crucial facts and raises some unanswered questions. It is essential to note that Jarrell, most unusually, threw himself into the side of the car and went through the windshield, rather than under the wheels; that the evidence confirmed and the police accepted the Kimreys’ statement that Jarrell lunged into their car; and that no charges were made against the driver. The pain-killer prescription suggested that Jarrell may have been drugged at the time, and the doctor’s refusal to discuss his medical history implied that Jarrell had suffered periods of depression.

The Winston-Salem Journal of October 16 quoted author Peter Taylor in the misleading headline: “Friend of Jarrell Says Poet / Was Distraught About Bomb” and extracted more information from the State Trooper who investigated the incident:

Gentry said the unlighted, wooded by-pass was a “weird place” for Jarrell to be walking. The spot was about a mile from where Jarrell was staying. “As the vehicle came abreast of the pedestrian,” Gentry wrote in his report, “he lunged into the side of the vehicle, striking the left fender of the vehicle, his head striking the windshield, killing him instantly

After he had completed his investigation, Gentry said, he received later information that Jarrell was seen staggering on the edge of the highway about 10 minutes before his death. The couple who reported seeing him said it looked as if he were under the influence of a drug.

In this account, the policeman stated that the dark highway was a strange place to walk and provided additional evidence to suggest Jarrell may have been drugged.

The front page of the Greensboro Daily News had further information from the doctor:

Dr. Loren MacKinney, deputy medical examiner, acting in the absence of Dr. Hubert Patterson, medical examiner, said last night that he had not completed his investigation of Jarrell’s death. “Until I complete my investigation, I think it is better that I make no comment,” Dr. MacKinney said. Hospital authorities said Jarrell had been undergoing skin treatment at Memorial Hospital.

The body is at Hanes-Lineberry Funeral Home pending arrangements.

Finally, The New York Times of October 15—where most of the literary world read about Jarrell’s death—emphasized the mysterious circumstances and was the first newspaper to state it was a suicide:

[Jarrell] was struck by an automobile as he walked along the heavily travelled Chapel Hill bypass, U. S. 15—501. There was no immediate explanation for Mr. Jarrell’s presence as a pedestrian on the highway.

State Trooper Guy C. Gentry, Jr. said: “We are going on the assumption that it was suicide. He said witnesses reported that the victim had “lunged into the side of the car that struck him.” “No charges were placed against the driver. The body was identified by friends of the poet on the campus at Chapel Hill.

The fact that the body was not identified by his wife suggests that she may have been away from Greensboro at the time. No further firsthand evidence is available, for the police reports at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Raleigh and the State Police Headquarters in Graham have been destroyed. And Guy Gentry, who left the State Police, worked for Martin-Marietta in Baltimore, and moved to California five years ago, has disappeared.

The controversy about Jarrell began three weeks after his death when his grieving wife—who believed, “Readers are grateful for any knowledge you have, and they don’t, about an artist they care for”—responded to the brief obituaries in Time (October 22) and Newsweek (October 25). Both repeated the New York Times report that Jarrell “apparently “lunged into the path” of a passing automobile” and was “an apparent suicide.” She wrote to Time on November 5:

The road he was walking beside is a narrow one-lane cutoff, not well lighted. My husband, who was dark-haired, wore dark clothes, including his gloves, and it was nighttime when the car brushed past him at about 45 m. p. h. , bruising his shoulder and glancing the side of his head, causing instant death. The driver seems not to have been aware of my husband’s presence at the roadside until he had hit him. His statement that my husband apparently “lunged into the path” of his car has a sinister ambiguity. . . . When no written evidence exists that a deceased person intended to take his life, it would seem more reliable and humane to assume death is accidental.

This account differs in several important respects from the newspaper reports, which were based on firsthand accounts by the driver, the policeman, and the medical examiner. She describes the road as a “narrow one-lane cutoff” rather than a busy highway; says the car “brushed past him” rather than that he lunged into it; calls his injuries mere “bruising” and “glancing”; and, in contrast to the policeman’s judgment, anticipates the line of legal reasoning that led to the official verdict of “accident.”

Mary Jarrell added some new facts in her letter to Newsweek on November 22:

My husband loved walks and naturally had taken several during his four-day stay at the Hand Rehabilitation Center in Chapel Hill, N. C. (He was receiving therapy for a nerve regeneration pain. ) Except for the main street, Chapel Hill has virtually no sidewalks. . . . The medical examiner reported no broken bones, only surface contusions, and a skull fracture from an impact in the lower left back quadrant. The toxicologist’s report revealed no evidence of sedation or tranquilizing medication.

Her statement that Jarrell loved walks does not explain why he chose the “weird place” on the dark highway instead of the pleasant campus of the University of North Carolina. The fact that he was “receiving physical therapy for a nerve regeneration pain” does not match Dr. Peacock’s statement that Jarrell was having a “skin graft”—and neither one reveals the reason for this treatment. She maintains that Jarrell had no broken bones or lacerations; and repeats this in 1967 when describing the death of their cat who was also struck by a car: “Like Randall, the beautiful eyes and face, and the graceful body were not hurt in any way.” And she denies the rumors that Jarrell had been under the influence of drugs.

Though Jarrell’s wife quite naturally wished to assuage the feelings of her family and friends after the incident by softening the grim facts of the case, there was far less reason to do so 15 years later in a letter to the New Leader. On Oct. 6, 1980 she contradicted John Simon’s account of Jarrell’s death in his review on September 8 of Kipling, Auden & Co.:

In Simon’s first paragraph he asserts that Jarrell “died of letting a truck run over him.” The facts are:

1. It was not a truck, it was a passenger car.

2. Jarrell was not in the least “run over.” He was sideswiped as he walked along the edge of the road, and flung upward across the hood.

In his last paragraph Simon claims that Jarrell “was finally deflated into suicide,” and that “Members of his family and friends who have tried to make his death appear an accident do him a disservice.” Again, the facts are:

1. The doctors performing the autopsy found no other injury but a fracture at the base of the skull, which in their opinion killed Jarrell on impact.

2. The medical evidence, along with statements from persons in the car, formed the basis for the coroner’s report listing my husband’s death as “Accidental” and making this a matter of public record on his death certificate.

This letter differs from her earlier accounts in which the passenger car bruised and glanced Jarrell’s shoulder and head. It now places the blame entirely on the driver and claims Jarrell “was sideswiped . . . and flung upward across the hood.” Jarrell’s wife (who may not have read the complete autopsy report) repeats that the only injury was a fracture of the skull. Moreover, she states, for the first time, that the cause of death was officially recorded as “Accidental.”


Three vital documents—Jarrell’s Certificate of Death, Coroner’s Report, and Autopsy Report—finally enable us to cut through the multifarious contradictions in the newspaper and subsequent reports of Jarrell’s death and to clarify the mysteries obscuring this incident. The Certificate of Death, signed by Dr. Loren MacKinney and dated Nov. 8, 1965, lists Jarrell’s “Kind of Business or Industry” as “Poetry.” It states the time of death: “7:30 P. M.” (not 8 P. M. ); the cause: “cerebral concussion”; the interval between onset and death: “less than five minutes” (not instantaneous); and the verdict: “accident.”

The apparently contradictory Coroner’s Report, filed in January 1966 by Allen H. Walker, Jr. (who, as was common at that time, was both a coroner and an undertaker) does not explain why the verdict was an “accident”: “Kimrey’s car was in the correct traffic lane, and when he came abreast of Jarrell, he suddenly lunged into the side of the car. Apparent evidence warrants calling his death accidental. No jury empanelled.” But an interview with Walker in Hillsborough, N. C. on June 10, 1981 reveals why he accepted Kimrey’s statement that Jarrell lunged into the side of the car, yet called it an accident and felt there was no need for an inquest. Walker said a coroner’s report was required on all automobile deaths and that the coroner was concerned only with the criminal aspects of the case. Following normal procedure, Walker did not examine Jarrell’s body, did not talk to Kimrey, and did not consult the medical examiner or the pathologist. He got all the facts from State Trooper Gentry. The decisive factors in his verdict were that Jarrell, in a rare kind of incident, hit the side rather than the front or front wheels of the car (though his lunge may have been mistimed); and that the legal verdict must be “accident” if there is no certain evidence—such as a written note—that suicide was intended. As The New York Times of Nov. 9, 1965 reported: “Dr. Loren G. MacKinney, acting medical examiner, who signed the death certificate, said a three-week investigation of circumstances surrounding Mr. Jarrell’s death had “raised a reasonable doubt about its being a suicide.” “

The 18-page report of Jarrell’s autopsy, authorized on October 15, contains startling revelations about his psychiatric history and the injuries sustained on the night of October 14. The pathologist, Dr. Fred Dalldorf, abstracts his findings in a clearly written two-page “Summary of Case”:

The patient had been seen at the North Carolina Memorial Hospital previously for psychiatric difficulties. He had been last hospitalized here [in May] approximately 5 months prior to his death with a manic depressive psychosis, and [in January] just prior to that hospitalization, he had attempted suicide by inflicting multiple cuts on his left arm. At the time of his death, he was receiving outpatient treatment here for these wounds.

Dr. Dalldorf gives the precise diagnosis of Jarrell’s mental illness, reveals that he attempted suicide in January 1965 by slashing the bend and wrist of his left arm (the diagram on the first page of the autopsy report shows “two 4 cm scars left antecubital fossa” and “multiple 4 cm scars left wrist”), and explains that he was at the Chapel Hill Hand Rehabilitation Center in October to repair these severe wounds and restore the use of his left hand—which necessitated a skin graft and “physical therapy for a nerve regeneration pain.”

The autopsy shows that “there was moderate atherosclerosis of both coronary arteries,” which could have become a serious problem if Jarrell had lived; and “a minimal to moderate degree of fatty metamorphosis scattered throughout” the liver, a legacy of his heavy drinking in the 1940’s— before he became a teetotaler. More significantly, the autopsy reveals that the injuries to the left side of Jarrell’s face, head, and body—as one would expect when a man’s head goes through the windshield of a car travelling at nearly 45 miles per hour—were much more extensive than previously reported. Bones were broken in his left foot and in his skull:

Multiple ecchymoses [discoloration from bleeding into the skin] and abrasions were present over the face, the scalp, the left arm, the left side of the trunk, and the left lower extremity. The left foot was noted to be hypermobile on examination, and a portable x-ray of the left lower extremity revealed oblique fractures. . . . There was a 4 cm. laceration extending through the entire thickness of the scalp over the left parietal [side to back skull] bone. Multiple skull fractures were noted grossly and on x-ray examination involving both temporal bones, the left parietal bone, and multiple bones in the base of the skull on both sides. . . .

At autopsy, severe and extensive injuries to the skull and the brain were found; and it is felt that his death may be attributed to these.

The multiple skull fractures caused hemorrhages, increased the cranial pressure, compressed the medulla, and damaged the parts of the lower brain that control breathing and heart function.

The autopsy report also states: “There was no anatomical or toxicological evidence of any form of intoxication or of any other disease process which might have contributed to his demise,” and proves that drugs were not a factor in Jarrell’s death. Finally, and contrary to all previous reports, Dr. Dalldorf concludes that “Death was not instantaneous; he remained alive for a short period of time after the accident, though unconscious.”

After Jarrell’s death, a bizarre quarrel took place between the pathologists of Orange County (which includes Chapel Hill) and Guilford County (which includes Greensboro) about who should pay the $150 bill for his autopsy. Orange sent the bill to Guilford, quoting the North Carolina statute that the charge must be “paid by the county of legal residence of the deceased.” Guilford ignored this point and wrongly claimed: “I fully appreciate that you cannot accept the financial burden of doing autopsies on every one who dies in Memorial Hospital and the referring counties should be asked to pay for them. But in this case, the decedent received his initial injury in your jurisdiction, and your police department conducted the investigation.” Orange pointed out “that Mr. Jarrell did not die in this hospital, but at the scene of the accident,” and correctly maintained: “As the law is stated, the place where an accident or death occurs and is investigated is not relevant.” At this point, Guilford presumably conceded the issue and paid the bill.

Although Jarrell had been brought up as a Nashville Methodist, his funeral took place at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greensboro on October 17, when his body was creamated. His wife, two stepdaughters, uncle, aunt, and mother (but not, apparently, his father or brother) attended the ceremony. The pallbearers included his oldest friends, Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor, his editor Michael DiCapua, his tennis partner Richardson Preyer, his colleague Robert Watson, and other members of the College. His grave at New Garden Cemetery, near Guilford College, bears the inscription: “Randall Jarrell / Poet / Teacher / Beloved Husband / 1914—1965.” He left an estate valued at $17,500 to his wife and also named her as literary executor. Adrienne Rich, whose early poems had been praised by Jarrell, spoke for all his friends when she called him “an irreplaceable piece of humanity.”

The suicide of Jarrell—who died at 51, the same age as his gentle, vulnerable heroes, Proust and Rilke—had a powerful emotional impact on two poets, John Berryman and Robert Lowell, and may have loosened their tenuous hold on life. Berryman was stunned, confessed Jarrell’s “death hit me very hard,” and said he felt much worse later on when he read The New York Times report that called it a suicide. Nevertheless, Berryman thought Jarrell’s iron self-confidence and childlike quality would have prevented him from killing himself. In his elegy, written after further reflection, Berryman describes Jarrell’s self-devouring torment, panic, and frustrated ambition; and suggests he will soon give his friend a familiar greeting in the world of the dead:

Let Randall rest, whom your self-torturing
cannot restore one instant’s good to, rest:
he’s left us now.
The panic died and in the panic’s dying
so did my old friend. I am headed west
also, also, somehow.

In the chambers of the end we’ll meet again
I will say Randall, he’ll say Pussycat
and all will be as before
whenas we sought, among the beloved faces,
eminence and were dissatisfied with that
and needed more.

Lowell, who had often sent his poems to Jarrell in manuscript, recalled: “Randall had an uncanny clairvoyance for helping friends in subtle precarious moments—almost always as only he could help. . . . Twice or thrice, I think, he must have thrown me a lifeline.” Unlike Berryman, Lowell had no doubts about Jarrell’s suicide, and in “Ten Minutes” thinks he might end his loneliness in the same way as Jarrell did:

I am companionless;
occasionally, I see a late, suicidal headlight
burn on the highway and vanish.

In one elegy, Jarrell holds his slashed wrist as he had once held the black Persian cat that had also been struck by a car:

They come this path, old friends, old buffs of death.
Tonight it’s Randall, the spark of fire though humbled,
his gnawed wrist cradled like his Kitten.

In another elegy, Jarrell (whose nobility and innocence are suggested by “Child”) walks in a trance on the highway, seeks death and “lunges on the windshield”:

lights, eyes, peering at you from the overpass;
black-gloved, black-coated, you plod out stubbornly,
as if asleep, Child Randall, as if in chainstep,
meeting the cars, and approving; a harsh luminosity,
as you clasp the blank coin at the foot of the tunnel.

The facts about Jarrell’s death are now known. But without an edition of his letters (promised since 1973), a biography (discouraged by his wife), and his psychiatric records (which cannot be released without family approval), we can only speculate on the causes of his death. His unhappy childhood, excessive drinking in the 1940’s, the breakup of his marriage to Mackie Langham in 1951, worries about the health of his mother (who entered a nursing home in 1965), periods of sterility, fears that he would lose his poetic powers, hostile reviews of his last book of poems, division between his personal life and poetic ideal, realization that he had not fulfilled his brilliant promise and impossible hopes, severe nervous breakdown, manic-depressive psychosis, and the earlier attempt to kill himself were certainly significant factors. Jarrell’s uncharacteristic involvement of Graham Kimrey and his wife, which risked their lives as he destroyed his own, was probably an attempt to make his suicide seem like an accident. Jarrell had always been an extremist: a man of passionate enthusiasm and extreme hostility. These traits were reflected in his all or nothing drinking habits, friendship (with Tate and others), marriages, criticism—in his life and in his death. Jarrell was apparently not in full control of his mind and body when he lunged into the car on that dark night. But it was will, not fate, that determined his death.


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Joseph Fortier's picture
Joseph Fortier · 6 years ago

You say that although we know the facts about Randall Jarrell’s death, and that  we can only speculate on the causes of his death, but then seem to conclude that it was “will, not fate” that determined (caused) his death.  While given all that you note about his deep suffering, it seems probable that he willed death, and thus committed suicide (the willing determined suicide), I’m just not convinced that it can be concluded that he did in fact commit suicide in a premeditated, reflected-upon way. 



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