THESE ARE wonderful letters, fully as good as I hoped they would be. Witty, often brilliantly perceptive, often touching, usually funny, they have many of the best qualities of Randall Jarrell's criticism and his comic novel, Pictures from an Institution. They bristle with ideas while they also show great freshness and openness to experience.

Precocious and prodigious though his intelligence was, Jarrell retained both a child's curiosity and a child's cruelty. (Or a cat's, for there was something feline in the way this great cat-lover toyed with his prey; and there was often an element of Schadenfreude in reading him.) At the same time, this most formidable of critics professed an abhorrence of criticism and suspicion of the intellect, and as poet his great subjects were pity and nostalgia for childhood. It is the strangeness of this combination that has always made Jarrell fascinating, though also disturbing and enigmatic.

I have the impression that Jarrell is read and enjoyed more now than the other New Critics. It is a fitting irony that he, who spent much of his time attacking criticism, and especially those kinds now regarded as New Critical, should inexorably wind up in this pigeonhole. But it is a sad irony that Jarrell, who yearned so desperately to be remembered as poet rather than as critic, should be suffering the fate he feared: poet of talent, critic of genius, seems to be the verdict of even his greatest admirers. Some of the reasons for this preference are obvious enough: Jarrell as critic, as these letters show once more, is more readable, more entertaining, more often witty or amusing than his peers. He is less concerned than they are with attempting to formulate principles or conclusions of general validity. His specialty, in fact, is subverting any such effort and undermining the whole critical enterprise. He flatters the reader's prejudices by making him the final judge, superior to critics, and rather than trying to educate the reader's taste, urges him to read for pleasure alone.

This attitude allows Jarrell to express both sides of his nature: on the one hand he exalts the natural, the simple, the spontaneous (also the naive, the childish, sometimes the sentimental), in a kind of romantic primitivism; on the other, he expresses his aggressions by attacking with savage glee both his rivals and the critics from whom he springs. There is a definitely Oedipal tinge to this dichotomy: he loves the maternal, emotional, poetic side of himself and others and directs his hostility toward the masculine, paternal, intellectual side; symbolically, he strikes the father dead.

As these letters reveal, Auden was the earliest and most conspicuous of these father-figures: Jarrell's first publication was a review in 1934 of Auden's poetry; he wanted to write his master's thesis and eventually a book on Auden, and Auden's influence on him both as poet and as thinker was obviously enormous. Yet the two long essays about Auden that he did publish were, though very brilliant, essentially demolition work, destroying the foundations of Auden's reputation: the changes of attitude and rhetoric in Auden's poetry were, as Jarrell described them, all for the worse, and the stages of his ideology from Freud to Paul were increasingly incoherent.

Something of the same pattern may be seen in the relation to Allen Tate, who helped extensively to get Jarrell published and recognized and was repaid by remoteness tinged with hostility. John Crowe Ransom and R.P. Blackmur, too, were personally kind and helpful to Jarrell. With Tate, they were, of course, leading figures of the Age of Criticism that Jarrell made his reputation by attacking and repudiating. The hand that fed Jarrell was likely to get bitten.

ON THE PLEASANTER side, though, Jarrell's relations with Robert Lowell are revealed in these letters as one of the most gratifying of literary friendships. Each was the other's best critic, and the credit ledgers were at last pretty even, Lowell's posthumous concern for Jarrell's reputation balancing Jarrell's early generous help to this younger friend (and rival). "Child Randall," Lowell's epithet for him in History, is perfect, with its allusions to Lear and Browning ("Childe Rowland to the Dark Tower Came") and its suggestion that Jarrell was both heroic and ambiguous quester and perennial child. Lowell's "Appreciation," published in Jarrell's The Lost World and elsewhere, is the definitive summing up of Jarrell's life and work, his "noble, difficult, and beautiful soul." As Lowell rightly observes, "eulogy was the glory of Randall's criticism," and this comment puts in perpective what I have said of its negative aspect.

These letters, edited and annotated lovingly by Jarrell's widow, Mary, are described as an "autobiographical and literary selection." She chose some 400 of about 2,500 letters available to her, ranging from Jarrell's senior year at Vanderbilt in 1935 to his death in 1965. The letters to his first wife during his service in the Air Corps (1942-46) are especially interesting. Jarrell established his reputation as the leading poet of the air war in his Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) and Losses (1948). As the letters make clear, Jarrell served as a ground instructor; he washed out as a pilot, was never sent overseas, and was never in combat. But the letters show, as he repeats stories told to him by participants in battle, the kind of imaginative empathy that makes him fully deserve his reputation as a war poet.

There are sidelights on many episodes of some importance inliterary history, from Ransom's leaving Vanderbilt to backstage views of Blackmur and John Berryman at Princeton (the editor suggests that these are contributions to the history of "the American 'Bloomsbury Circle' of the fifties"), Leslie Fiedler and Robert Fitzgerald at the Indiana School of Letters, the Salzburg Seminar, the Poetry Consultantship at the Library of Congress, and faculty controversies and feuds at Greensboro. There are interesting letters to people ranging from Hannah Arendt (to whom he confesses, "Indeed I don't read Greek -- it's a wonder I can read English. In my earlier lives I couldn't read anything, but just sang songs so that people put gold bracelets on my arms or threw big bones at me") to B.H. Haggin, Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Bishop, and Marianne Moore.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, the most revealing letters are those to the women he loved: the wartime letters to his first wife, Mackie; the series to Elisabeth Eisler, the Viennese woman with whom he fell in love at Salzburg in 1948; and the letters to Mary, his second wife and editor of this collection, from 1951 on. The love for the last two women intertwines amusingly with Jarrell's light-hearted but dead serious and long-lasting love affair with the German language, memorably described in the poem "Deutsch Durch Freud."

The letters aren't quite an intellectual autobiography, because too many topics are untouched; but there are some brilliant pages. Lowell called Jarrell a "radical liberal"; for some periods, in some sense, he was certainly a Marxist, and differed in this respect sharply from his Southern peers. (The sense that Auden was a lost leader to Marxists was certainly part of Jarrell's animus against him in the Auden articles.) Probably because of similar political backgrounds, as well as their common anti-criticism stance, Jarrell found Leslie Fiedler very congenial: "I like Fiedler -- he's very intelligent and much more restrained and pleasant than what he writes. All in all I had rather a sense of how lonely you are when you come out on the side of life and risk-taking and thinking works of art are live and mysterious and unaccountable; on the side of everything that can't be institutionalized and handled and graded by Experts. Most academic highbrow people really do go along with the critical abstract categorizing mind, not the artist's." On the same grounds, he liked Karl Shapiro.

One of the sad aspects of Jarrell's life is that he meant to write books on Auden, on Hart Crane, on Eliot (a psychoanalytic study), and on St. Paul; he worked on both the Auden and Eliot projects over many years, and wrote extensively, yet was never able to bring either to completion. Perhaps one reason is that, aside form his own progress from Marx to Freud and his enduring myth of childhood, he seems to have formed no central core of belief or conviction.

Jarrell, who majored in psychology (shifting to English in his second year of graduate work) and never hesitated to diagnose others, has no claim to immunity from psychological speculation; and his letters provide a rich field. The nostalgia for childhood and the compulsive destruction of father-figures have already been mentioned. He seems to have felt like a motherless child not just sometimes, but constantly, though his letters to his mother are lost. The addressing of Mary as "Big Sister" and the absorbing of her into the Electra myth are striking. But his psychological peculiarities are much less interesting than his common and generous humanity. Not long before the sad story of his last days began -- depression, separation from Mary with divorce intended, a suicide attempt (though his actual death seems not to have been suicide) -- he wrote to Adrienne Rich: "If you believe in happiness and have ordinary good luck you really can be happy a lot of the time -- but most people of our reading-and- writing sort have conscientious objections to any happiness, they'd far rather be right than happy. It is terrible in our time to have the death of the world hanging over you, but, personally, it's something you disregard just as you disregard the regular misery of so much of the world, or your own regular personal aging and death." Considering what the future held for both Jarrell and Rich, this sensible observation seems touching indeed.

Of recent collections of letters, only Flannery O'Connor's seem to me to rival these in their consistently high level of interest and entertainment.