On May 6, 1914, Randall Jarrell was born in Nashville, Tennessee. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Vanderbilt University. From 1937 to 1939 he taught at Kenyon College, where he met John Crowe Ransom and Robert Lowell, and then at the University of Texas.
His first book of poems, Blood for a Stranger (Harcourt, 1942), was published in 1942, the same year he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. He soon left the Air Corps for the army and worked as a control tower operator, an experience which provided much material for his poetry.
Jarrell's reputation as a poet was established in 1945, while he was still serving in the army, with the publication of his second book, Little Friend, Little Friend (Dial Press, 1945), which bitterly and dramatically documents the intense fears and moral struggles of young soldiers. Other volumes followed, all characterized by great technical skill, empathy with the lives of others, and an almost painful sensitivity.
Following the war, Jarrell accepted a teaching position at the Woman's College of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and remained there, except for occasional absences to teach elsewhere, until his death. Jarrell is highly regarded not only as a poet, but also as a peerless literary essayist, and was considered the most astute (and most feared) poetry critic of his generation. Robert Lowell, in an essay published after Jarrell's death, wrote, "What Jarrell's inner life was in all its wonder, variety, and subtlety is best told in his poetry...His gifts, both by nature and by a lifetime of hard dedication and growth, were wit, pathos, and brilliance of intelligence. These qualities, dazzling in themselves, were often so well employed that he became, I think, the most heartbreaking English poet of his generation...Always behind the sharpened edge of his lines, there is the merciful vision, his vision, partial like all others, but an illumination of life, too sad and radiant for us to stay with long—or forget."
Randall Jarrell was struck by a car and killed at the age of fifty-one on October 14, 1965.