Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry: Explained, ABSENT WITH OFFICIAL LEAVE, by RANDALL JARRELL



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Classic and Contemporary Poetry: Explained

ABSENT WITH OFFICIAL LEAVE, by             Poet Analysis     Poet's Biography


Randall Jarrell's "Absent with Official Leave" is a poignant exploration of a soldier's internal and external worlds, grappling with themes of mortality, isolation, and the transformative power of war. Set in a barracks where "lights are beginning to go out," the poem moves between the harsh reality of military life and the dreamlike state of the soldier as he drifts off to sleep. The dichotomy of these two realms serves as a compelling backdrop to delve into the complexities of human existence, particularly in the context of war.

The barracks are portrayed as an intermediary space, existing between reality and imagination, life and death. "They persist or return, as the wakeful hollow," writes Jarrell, emphasizing the ephemeral nature of this setting. The phrase "for all the hours of the soldier's life" insinuates a lingering dread, suggesting that this 'in-between' is not just a temporary stop but perhaps a metaphysical representation of the soldier's entire life.

The soldier's journey into sleep is fraught with ambivalence, beginning with an unsettling drift "past the laughs, the quarrels, and the breath of others / To the ignorant countries where civilians die." Here, the poet conjures a world where the line between soldier and civilian is blurred, elevating the tragedy of human mortality to an existential plane that goes beyond the specificities of military life.

As the poem progresses, the soldier encounters various landscapes and characters that evoke both unease and wonder. From the "curved roads hopping through the aimless green" to the cottages where people mourn "for themselves and, sometimes, for the absent soldier," the dream-like journey reveals the interconnectedness of lives impacted by war, even if the soldier himself remains isolated.

One of the most striking images in the poem comes as the soldier "turns in ecstasy / Before the slow small fires the women light." This moment encapsulates the surreal quality of the soldier's experience, his emotions swinging between euphoria and melancholy. The warmth from the fires contrasts sharply with the coldness and desolation that pervade the earlier sections of the poem.

The final stanzas transition back to the barracks, ending the dream sequence and situating the soldier within his immediate context. He is surrounded by "the dark companions / With whom he labors, sleeps, and dies." This return to reality doesn't come as a relief but instead evokes a sense of inescapable solitude, highlighting that even among comrades, the soldier is profoundly alone.

Yet, in the poem's closing lines, there's a moment of transcendence. The "Causes that mourn above his agony like trees" appear almost divine, and for a fleeting moment, the soldier seems to awaken to a newfound self-awareness, seeing "the night that is never silent" as an integral part of his own existence. The poem closes with a picture of resignation, yet also of a strange, haunting acceptance.

"Absent with Official Leave" captures the dissonance between the grim realities of military life and the dreams that offer fleeting respite. Through its evocative imagery, compelling contrasts, and contemplative tone, the poem serves as a powerful commentary on the human condition, particularly as it's shaped by the unforgiving nature of war.


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