In Those Days by Randall Jarrell explores a relationship that changes over time. The poem is concerned with how the standing between people can alter depending on what part of life they’re in, as well as be totally different when economic situations change. Jarrell frames the poem through an event in the past, and then comment on how things have changed.
In Those Days by Randall Jarrell slowly moves through a past memory. Jarrell is leaving his lover’s house, waiting a moment to watch her turn out her light. He runs home, arriving into darkness and solitude. Approaching the window, he looks out over the city and watches the beautiful stars shine down. The final stanza draws away from this past memory, instead of focusing on the present in which Jarrell and his lover can be together permanently, yet something about that elusive past was better for them, Jarrell romanticizing the past.
You can read the full poem here.
In Those Days by Randall Jarrell is written in a quatrain structure, each of the four stanzas having four lines. There is a consistent ABCB rhyme scheme within each of the stanzas, with Jarrell perhaps using the B rhyme to suggest a connection between himself and his lover. Although there is something blocking them being together, they have a connection that seemingly transcends time. The regularity of the poem could also suggest that this memory is incredibly ordered, with Jarrell having looked back upon it many times.
One technique that Jarrell uses when writing In Those Days is a lack of specificity, both present in the title and the first line. By avoiding making apparent an exact moment or date, instead just focusing on the general past of ‘those days’, Jarrell suggests that he looks back fondly on this whole period. The past becomes a beacon of happiness for Jarrell, the present speaker looking back with nostalgic envy.
Another technique that Jarrell uses when writing In Those Days is setting. In building the poem, Jarrell takes the reader through descriptions of the wintery scene, the beautiful starlight above shining upon the lovers’ scene. Although winter could be seen as an unfriendly season, Jarrell uses it to bring an element of magic to the poem, the wintery scene projecting a sense of romance. The halcyon beauty of the ‘stars’ further this sense of budding love, the beautiful background housing the initial ‘days’ of his relationship.
In Those Days Analysis
In those days—they were long ago—
A snowflake, as I looked back
By placing two hyphens within the opening line of In Those Days, Jarrell creates a metrical break, slowing down the meter of the poem. In doing this, Jarrell draws attention to the phrase contained within the hyphens, ‘they were long ago’ suggesting that he has since lost touch with the far away emotions and excitement of youth. The metrical pause also insinuates a moment in which Jarrell can think back over his memories, a pensive opening to the romantic poem.
Jarrell follows by describing the atmosphere and setting, ‘snow was cold, the night was black’ instantly characterizing the scene. The ‘cold’ and ‘dark’ initially seem disquieting images. Yet, by the end of the poem, it is revealed that Jarrell uses these to suggest his happiness despite all forms of setting, he is content with being with his lover, even if in the worst conditions and within stolen moments.
The focus on his own character, ‘cracked lips’ creates the idea that he is suffering due to the harsh conditions. He has come through the cold at night to show his devotion to his lover but has suffered from the cold. The landing of a ‘snowflake’ on his ‘lips’ creates a connection to nature, Jarrell existing within the realm of the environment within his poem. It is only after establishing the scene which Jarrell ‘looked back’ towards the ‘house’ of his lover.
Through branches, the last uneasy snow.
I went on, stumbling—till at last the hill
Peaking through ‘branches’, Jarrell looks up towards the window of his lover’s house. He knows she is still awake, ‘your shadow there in the light’, the woman’s body silhouetted against the bedroom light. The use of the personal pronoun, ‘your’, suggests that Jarrell is writing this poem directed at his lover, furthering their connection. Again, Jarrell presents his devotion, watching her until she sleeps, ‘the light went out’ symbolizing this moment. He then struggles home, ‘stumbling’ up a ‘hill’ until he reaches his bedroom.
Hid the house. And, yawning,
Rooftops, the clear stars shone.
Finally home, ‘yawning’ from the adventure he has undertaken, he realizes he is completely ‘alone’. The encapsulation of ‘alone’ within a caesura and endstop places dramatic tension on this word. Within a poem of relationships, being ‘alone’ takes on more than one meaning. This is a final moment of solitude before Jarrell launches into a shared life.
He takes this alone time to look out over the city, ‘rooftops, the clear stars shone’, taking in the beauty of the location. The brilliance of the stars taps into archetypical images of love, Jarrell using their connotations to further his romantic depiction of the past.
How poor and miserable we were,
In those days everything was better.
The final stanza shifts into the present tense, signaled by the present tense word ‘one thinks’. Jarrell presents the idea that although they were ‘poor and miserable’ in the past, also hardly being ‘together’, they may have been better off, ‘in those days everything was better’. Perhaps in the youthful simplicity of life, Jarrell and his lover were able to truly flourish. Now that they are constantly together, perhaps Jarrell has begun to miss the midnight sneaking from his house to hers, the beautiful frosty scene interplaying with the shine of stars. Jarrell misses the past, wishing to return to those simple ‘days’.
The final line confirms that his present situation has become worse in terms of their relationship. Indeed, one of the main factors for missing the past is that ‘everything was better’, signaling that their relationship has not turned out how Jarrell would have hoped.