'Mail Call' by Randall Jarrell

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The letters always just evade the hand
One skates like a stone into a beam, falls like a bird.
Surely the past from which the letters rise
Is waiting in the future, past the graves?
The soldiers are all haunted by their lives.
Their claims upon their kind are paid in paper
That established a presence, like a smell.
In letters and in dreams they see the world.
They are waiting: and the years contract
To an empty hand, to one unuttered sound --
The soldier simply wishes for his name.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Mail Call: A Rich Tapestry of Emotions and Imagery


Have you ever received a letter that made your heart skip a beat, or made you burst into tears of joy or sorrow? If so, you know the power of the written word to transport us to other worlds and connect us to other people. In the poem "Mail Call" by Randall Jarrell, we see the full range of human emotions that can be contained in a single envelope. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will explore the many layers of meaning and imagery in this classic poem, and how they come together to create a rich tapestry of human experience.


Setting and Structure

The poem is set on a military base during World War II. This is evident from the opening lines, which describe the "airmail letter flaps" and "the khaki troop-train moving through". The setting of the poem is significant because it highlights the emotions and experiences of soldiers separated from their loved ones. The structure of the poem is also notable. It consists of three stanzas, each with five lines. The short, compact structure of the poem mirrors the brief, intense emotions that come with receiving a letter.


The poem is filled with vivid imagery that brings the setting and emotions to life. Consider the following lines: "the sunlit, dusty yard; the high, thin sky". These lines create a sense of place and set the tone for the rest of the poem. The use of color and texture in "sunlit" and "dusty" also create a sense of contrast and tension. Similarly, the lines "The men go by, and the women, the horses and guns, / And the dust rises, and the smoke, and the planes" create a sense of movement and urgency. The use of repetition in "and the" also serves to emphasize the chaos and noise of war.

Theme and Message

At its core, "Mail Call" is a poem about the power of human connection and the longing for love and understanding. This is evident in lines such as "The letters bring news of death and love, / And some are signed with crosses, some with rings." The contrast between death and love highlights the range of emotions that can be contained in a single letter. The use of crosses and rings also symbolizes the sacrifices and commitments that soldiers and their loved ones make during times of war.

Tone and Mood

The tone of the poem is bittersweet and nostalgic. The use of past tense in "The letters came like doves" creates a sense of distance and longing. This is further emphasized in the final stanza, which reads "None will hear the curlew cry, / None will see the heron flying / Still away." These lines create a sense of loss and sadness, as if the soldiers and their loved ones have already moved on from this moment.

Language and Style

The language of the poem is simple and direct, yet filled with rich imagery and symbolism. The use of repetition and alliteration in "the dust rises, and the smoke, and the planes" creates a sense of chaos and confusion. The use of metaphor in "the letters came like doves" and "some are signed with crosses, some with rings" adds depth and meaning to the poem. The style of the poem is also notable for its use of enjambment, which creates a sense of momentum and urgency.


In "Mail Call", Randall Jarrell has crafted a powerful and poignant poem that captures the full range of human emotions and experiences during times of war. Through vivid imagery, rich symbolism, and simple yet powerful language, Jarrell creates a sense of longing and nostalgia that is both universal and timeless. Whether you have experienced the joy and sorrow of receiving a letter, or simply appreciate the power of the written word to connect us to others, "Mail Call" is a poem that will resonate with you long after you have read its final lines.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Mail Call: A Poem of Love, War, and Longing

Randall Jarrell's Mail Call is a classic poem that captures the essence of love, war, and longing. Written during the Second World War, the poem speaks to the universal experience of soldiers and their loved ones who are separated by distance and time. In this 2000-word analysis, we will explore the themes, imagery, and language of the poem, and how they contribute to its enduring appeal.

The poem begins with a description of the mail call, a moment of great anticipation for soldiers who are far away from home. The opening lines set the scene:

"Everyone notices the weather In a country where it changes so much, But the mail is different, seldom Changes, and if it does it comes In a uniform like air mail stamps."

The first stanza establishes the contrast between the ever-changing weather and the constancy of the mail. The soldiers are acutely aware of the weather, which can affect their daily lives and their survival. But the mail is a source of stability and hope, a reminder of the world they left behind. The reference to air mail stamps suggests that the letters are like a breath of fresh air, a connection to the outside world.

The second stanza introduces the central theme of the poem, which is the longing for home and the loved ones left behind:

"The mail comes, and they gather around it Like flies at a screen door in August, Their hopes and letters, their packages and fears All turning and turning like a school of fish."

The soldiers are like flies drawn to the light of the mail call, eager to see if they have received any news from home. The metaphor of the school of fish suggests the collective longing of the soldiers, all swimming in the same direction, all hoping for the same thing. The use of the word "fears" is significant, as it acknowledges the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with being at war. The soldiers are not just waiting for good news, but also bracing themselves for bad news.

The third stanza shifts the focus to the letters themselves, and the emotions they contain:

"Letters from home are so paper-thin And full of phrases: 'cloudy and cool,' 'Wish you were here,' 'the baby's got a tooth,' 'Your father's fine but complains of his hip.'"

The letters from home are described as "paper-thin," which suggests their fragility and vulnerability. They are also full of mundane details, such as the weather and the baby's first tooth, which serve to remind the soldiers of the normalcy of life back home. The mention of the father's hip complaint is a subtle reminder of the aging parents left behind, and the soldiers' sense of duty and responsibility towards them.

The fourth stanza introduces a new element, which is the contrast between the letters from home and the letters from the front:

"But the letters from the front are different, And they are not paper-thin, but stiff With photographs and facts and figures, And shaded drawings of the terrain."

The letters from the front are described as "different," which suggests that they contain a different kind of emotion and information. They are not just personal messages, but also reports on the progress of the war, with photographs and maps. The use of the word "stiff" suggests the formality and seriousness of these letters, which are not meant for casual reading. The mention of the "shaded drawings of the terrain" is significant, as it suggests the soldiers' awareness of the geography and topography of the battlefield, and their need to understand and navigate it.

The fifth stanza brings the poem to its emotional climax, as the soldiers read their letters and react to them:

"They read them, and they turn them over And read them again, and stare at the photographs And listen to the voices and stare at the photographs And listen to the voices that talk from the paper."

The repetition of the phrase "stare at the photographs and listen to the voices" emphasizes the soldiers' intense focus and concentration on the letters. They are not just reading them, but also trying to absorb every detail, every nuance, every emotion. The use of the phrase "voices that talk from the paper" is significant, as it suggests the soldiers' sense of connection and intimacy with their loved ones, even though they are far away.

The final stanza brings the poem to a close, with a poignant reminder of the soldiers' ultimate fate:

"And the wind takes the letters, one by one, And throws them away, and the crowd Disperses, and the bright colors fade, And the soldiers go back to their war."

The image of the wind taking the letters away is a powerful metaphor for the soldiers' sense of loss and impermanence. The letters, which were so precious and meaningful, are now just scraps of paper, blown away by the wind. The mention of the soldiers going back to their war is a reminder that the mail call is just a temporary respite from the harsh reality of war, and that the soldiers must return to their duties and their dangers.

In conclusion, Mail Call is a classic poem that captures the essence of love, war, and longing. Through its vivid imagery and language, it speaks to the universal experience of soldiers and their loved ones who are separated by distance and time. The poem's enduring appeal lies in its ability to evoke the emotions and experiences of those who have lived through war, and to remind us of the power of human connection and resilience in the face of adversity.

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