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Analysis Of A Lollaby By Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell’s poem “A Lullaby” has both a glaringly bleak and starkly literal tone; it evokes despair about war and human society altogether. Set in an unclear place and time, the poem tells the story of a soldier who has sacrificed everything to fight for his country, and describes his insignificant life and death with a series of increasingly abstract similes. The speaker’s dismal tone, clear from the first few lines, makes a grand message about the baseness of war, and shifts the reader’s focus away from the singular central soldier.

Each stanza furthers the poem’s pessimistic view of war, and the third and final stanza essentially dismisses the soldier’s life as meaningless. Jarrell’s poem, with its cynical tone and evocative descriptions of a soldier’s existence, tears down any positive notions of war and leaves only the vicious truth. Jarrell first establishes his tone with his title. Parents or caretakers sing lullabies to their children to fall asleep — sleep recurs as a common theme throughout the poem. But no parent would ever sing or read a poem about war, or soldiers, or death.

Jarrell sings readers his gloomy lullaby in an attempt to enlighten them about the dangers of war. This tone continues through the first two lines, “For wars his life and half a world away / The soldier sells his family and days. ” The soldier makes a deal in order to fight in wars half a world away from home, extremely far from everything he has ever known. This painfully unfair deal reflects what every soldier must give up in order to fight in his country’s wars – all that he has on Earth (his time and his family).

The next two lines reflect what the soldier has given it all up for; and his immediate loss of personal space and thinking. “He learns to fight for freedom and the State; / He sleeps with seven men within six feet” (Jarrell 3-4). His country teaches the soldier to fight for his motherland’s ideals and for freedom – but the truth about war lies beneath these motivations. Hidden behind false propaganda, every war has an ulterior motive – be it greed or revenge. The latter line shows, in literal terms, the difficulty of life as a soldier.

Jarrell also uses the term “within six feet” to begin the poem’s recurring theme of death. The interring of a corpse in a grave usually ends with the undertaker burying their coffin six feet under the ground. The simple phrase “six feet” alludes to the soldier’s inevitable fate — death. Through his strong diction and complex metaphors, Jarrell maintains his anti-war message. This pessimistic tone continues in the second stanza. In the second and third lines, the poet uses three similes which vary in nature. They share one common theme, for the most part: the immorality of war.

He picks up matches and he cleans out plates / Is lied to like a child, cursed like a beast. / They crop his head, his dog tags ring like sheep, / As his stiff limbs shift wearily to sleep” (Jarrell 5-8). The soldier performs such menial tasks as picking up trash and washing dishes, which might make him wonder why he gave it all up to fight in this war. His supervisors lie to him frequently, as if he was a child. He also “cursed like a beast”, which represents the inhumanity of being a soldier. He has gone from a human at home to a savage at war, treated and acting as if he was a dangerous animal during battle.

When “they crop his head”, they are closely cutting the soldier’s hair into a crew cut, so that he looks almost exactly like everyone in his troop. Jarrell then uses the particularly vivid imagery of “his dog tags [ringing] like sheep. ” As he and his fellow soldiers march into battle with enemy forces, the military-issued dog tags that hang around each of their necks ring loudly. The dog tags might also ring as the soldier destroys houses or, worse, kills people. This imagery haunts the soldier at night while he tries to sleep – instead of counting sheep.

Jarrell draws a comparison between servicemen and sheep. Like soldiers, sheep also move in a herd, obediently following their shepherd – or general. The vagueness of the location and time period of the war continue in the second stanza.. This ambiguity seems to be on purpose, to present the notion that this could be set during any war, in any country, throughout history. And yet, to Jarrell, no war accomplishes much except to wreck lives and even entire cultures. In the third stanza, the speaker maintains his bleak tone, but the content of the poem, and the individual soldier’s story, takes a much darker turn.

Recalled in dreams or letters, else forgot / His life is smothered like a grave, with dirt” (10-11). The soldier’s life can only be recalled in dreams or letters because his life was lost on the battlefield, with no pictures or memories to remember him by. Without these dreams and letters, his entire existence will be forgotten – a tragic inevitability. Jarrell uses a somber simile to compare the smothering of the soldier’s life — completely suffocated and extinguished — to the smothering of dirt over a grave.

This grave might stand for the millions of graves across the globe whose coffins contain the bodies of fallen soldiers. These sad truths that war creates are uncovered throughout this poem. With the next lines, the speaker sums up the soldier’s life and endless struggle with another simile. “And his dull torment mottles like a fly’s” (12). He compares the soldier’s torment to that of a fly – buzzing around in circles, trying to harm others, without any means of escape or end. The soldier longs to return to his family, but no, he must keep buzzing just as a fly does.

He follows his comrades, his fellow flies, into the fight against his country’s enemy. But does he know why, or when it will ever end? Jarrell completes the poem aptly with the final line, “The lying amber of the histories. ” When a tree falls, its sap (or amber) can live on forever, preserving anything within it. The soldier and his war may be preserved through historical amber. War history’s amber lies in museums and battlefields everywhere, and some of that history might actually be lying to those who study it.

Jarrell’s use of “lie” could be a metaphorical double entendre, in that history often lies to us, and the winners always write history of wars. Particularly brutal wars might be inaccurately cast as nondestructive or even helpful to the societies that the winners crushed. Examples include the wars America waged against Vietnam and more recently, Afghanistan. Those are just two wars out of thousands, which have wrecked societies, killed billions, and defined our world. In all, the idea of war gets broken down step-by-step in this poem, and Jarrell ultimately portrays warfare as horrifically destructive.

Young men leave their homes and families to go overseas and fight for their motherland – but they do not know what they have lost, or what awaits them in the trenches. Aiming to expose the ignorance and atrocity that come with war, the speaker takes a very pessimistic stance. From his haunting title to the repeated similes and moving imagery, the speaker succeeds in uncovering war’s true savagery. Jarrell’s poem, with its gloomy tone and vivid descriptions of a soldier’s life and death, rips away any positive convictions of war and exposes the cruel reality.

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