‘90 North‘ takes a defeated and depressing tone in the final stanzas as the poet’s speaker discusses what he’s done in life and how, in the end, it means nothing. When once he used to dream of success, seen through a symbolic dream of reaching the North Pole, now he understands the overwhelming truth of the world, that his life and any successes he achieves are meaningless.
Explore 90 North
The poem begins on an imaginative and wistful note, with the speaker recalling the power of his childhood dreams. He would imagine himself as a poler explorer setting foot on the North Pole. Despite the terrible surroundings, he took pride and joy in this accomplishment. Now, as an adult who has reached his real life, metaphorical North Pole, he realizes that success is worthless. His life means nothing, and he’s alone in darkness and pain.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with the themes of dreams, reality, and growing up. He realizes that although he’s achieved everything he dreamed of when he was a child, it doesn’t mean anything. The poem ends on a dreary and depressing note with the speaker “alone” and defeated, feeling that his life is “worthless.”
Structure and Form
’90 North’ by Randall Jarrell is an eight-stanza poem divided into sets of four lines or quatrains. The third and eighth stanzas are the only ones that diverge. In the third stanza, Randall Jarrell cut off the fourth line and created five lines, with the fifth starting halfway across the visual line. This is an incredibly effective technique that adds suspense and importance to this part of the poem.
The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, there are a few examples of rhyme. For instance, “floe” and “pole” are half-rhymes, and so are “bed” and “end.”
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “I,” which appears at the beginning of lines two and three of the first stanza, and “Where” in lines three and four of the sixth stanza.
- Caesura: an intentional pause in the middle of a line. This is created through the use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. For example, “ I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “flannel” and “floe” in line one of the first stanza and “step” and “south” in line one of stanza four.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines three and four of the third stanza.
- Metaphor: a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as.” For example, the speaker compares his bed to “the globe” and a ship to his dreams in which he sailed all night.
At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.
The poet compares his youthful bed to the “globe” and his dreams to a ship that allowed him to “sail…all night” on the sea. As a child, he saw himself as a great explorer. Someone with a “black beard,” furs, and dogs. He traveled to the “northern pole,” accomplishing a fantastic and brave feat.
Throughout this piece, success, and happiness as related back to this mythical achievement. Doing everything one wants in life and being successful is like reaching the North Pole, the poet suggests.
There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes his nighttime adventures as “childish.” This is a striking juxtaposition against the actual images he’s imagining. He sees, in his dream-time vision, his companions, frozen and dead in the cold wilderness. His clothes are “stiff” at his “starveling throat,” and he’s close to meeting his death there, in his dreams, having achieved a great and praise-worthy feat.
This stanza contains two great examples of caesura, seen through the intentional pause in the middle of lines three and four.
—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.
The third stanza is the only one of the eight that contains five lines. The poet cut off line four, bringing the second half down to the next visual line and indenting it halfway across the page.
He describes, still in his dream world, how in that moment of horror, death, and incredible success, he’s on “unbroken ice” that is “silent” except for his country’s flag, which he’s planted at the North Pole, snapping as it moves.
The poet uses simple language in these lines, depicting himself clearly and ideally. As a child, “The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare / At the North Pole” are the defining characteristics of success and happiness. They are incredibly symbolic and suggest a childish idealism one grows out of as one ages.
The speaker asks a question in the extra fifth line, “Why go back?” He ponders, what is there for him in the world he came from? Why return to reality, the waking world, and the truth of everyday existence when this dream world, despite its horrors, is so much more satisfying?
Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.
The poem transitions to a new state of disappointment and sadness in the fourth stanza. All his “step[s]” the speaker notes (in reality) are “to the south.” No matter what he does or where he “Turn[s],” he’s headed south. That is, away from the success and prideful joy of conquering the symbolic North Pole.
His world, he discovers, is one of “cold and wretchedness” and not in the way he hoped as he dreamed of standing at the North Pole. Everything ends in this “whirlpool” of disappointment, the speaker realizes.
And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land
Life, he notes in the fifth stanza, is meaningless. No matter what he’s done or achieved, the real world is filled with suffering and is devoid of the wonders of a “night’s voyage” in a child’s bed.
The warmth of the real world (as contrasted with the joyful, freezing symbolic North Pole) is a “Cloud-Cuckoo-Land.” It’s a place of absurdity where people labor for success, sometimes find it (and sometimes don’t) but still end up wretched and having lived meaningless lives.
I reached my North and it had meaning.
Where I die or live by accident alone—
The speaker recalls how in the dream world, he reached his “North,” or the pinnacle of success in his life. It had, at the moment, “meaning.” But, in the “actual pole of [his] existence,” everything he’s done is “meaningless.”
He lives and dies by accident (a suggestion of the world’s random order and lack of meaning).
Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
I see at last that all the knowledge
No matter whether he does meet his death or continues living, he is “still alone.” In the darkness of his revelation, something that he compares to a “berg,” or iceberg, of “death,” he learns that life has no meaning. His dreams were ignorant and misplaced. Life has taught him the true lessons of existence.
I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.
The final stanza is the only other five-line section of the poem. Here, he uses repetition (seen through the use of “darkness” multiple times) to describe that everything he’s achieved is “worthless as ignorance” and that from the nothingness of his dreams and existence, nothing can be achieved.
Only darkness and pain come from darkness. It’s that pain that people equate to wisdom, but, in reality, it’s only suffering. The poem ends on this depressing note without revealing any redeeming features about life, success, or dreams. The speaker of ’90 North’ learns there is no purpose to life.
The message is that life is meaningless. Childhood dreams are powerful and uplifting when one is young. But, success in adulthood and in reality is far less satisfying. It accomplishes nothing and means nothing.
The purpose is to explore the nature of childhood dreams and how, even if one achieves them, life is still meaningless. The speaker realizes that having achieved his goals, his life is still worth nothing. He’s still alone and existing in darkness with nothing but pain.
It’s unknown who the speaker is in this particular poem. It’s possible that Jarrell saw himself as the child and adult in the text, but without specific evidence that this is the case, it’s better to assume that the poet was using a persona to write ‘90 North.’
Randall Jarrell is remembered as a literary critic, poet, children’s author, and essayist. He also published novels throughout his career and served as the 11th Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider exploring some other Randall Jarrell poems. For example:
- ‘A Country Life’ – gives a deeply felt depiction of the impacts of life, death, and loneliness on one’s life before death finally comes.
- ‘In Those Days’ – explores a relationship that changes over time.
- ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ – Randall Jarrell’s best-loved poem. It was published in 1945 and is based on his own unforgettable experiences in World War II.