The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell: Summary and Critical Analysis

This short poem 'The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner' by Randall Jarrell is the post modern elegy in which the speaker himself is a mourner of his death. Beside it, the poem is the criticism of devastating war. In order to expose the horror of war the poet employs imagery of abortion by drawing an analogy between the Ball Turret of the fighter plane and the womb of the mother.

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965)

He contrasts the womb of the ball turret and natural womb of the mother. The womb of nation is indifferent to its soldier, whereas natural womb of the mother is nurturing and warm. The position of the fetus in the mother’s womb and the position of hunched soldiers inside the Ball Turret create a similarity between ball turret and womb of the mother.

The speaker says that from his mother’s womb, he fell into a state. He passed from one womb to another womb. It is the journey from the darkness to darkness. He could never experience the freedom of human being. He feels that he was never born. Inside the mother’s belly fur was wet, and inside Ball Turret he was wet because of fear and sweat. He is continuously attacking enemies and he is six miles above the earth. The life had come up with dreams and expectations. But he could never see these dreams. Therefore, he never got a life.

The speaker imagines posthumous (after death) situation. He evokes the imagery of abortion; just as an unwanted baby is aborted and the womb of the mother is washed. After the death of a soldier in a war he, too, becomes an unwanted baby for the nation, thus he is washed from Ball Turret with the help of a hose. He will not be glorified instead they would wash every drop of blood. Jarrell reminds the deplorable situation of the soldiers in the war. Then the speaker imagines that war is of no use, and when soldiers die, they are simply forgotten and they do not become the subject of remembrance. Jarrell seems to denounce the war, stating that it is totally futile.

The title of the poem is significant as it states the death of a man, a mere soldier, whose death is so common to the state. But to general people it strikes a stark, grim tone. The expression "my mother's sleep" is the first clue of the womb metaphor in the poem. The speaker fell from the womb of the mother to the womb of the state and he feels so feeble to control the situation. Another womb metaphor in the poem is "I hunched it its belly” which parallels the position of the fetus in the womb to the position of the ball turret gunner in the bomber craft. The stark contrast is that the womb of the mother is warm and nurturing, but the womb of the state is cold and indifferent suggested by the phrase "my wet fur froze".

The poem is a denunciation of the insensitive, dehumanizing power of the political state where people are only termed as the soldiers. The mother gives birth, thus, a life, but the ball turret gunner led to the death.  The awakening of the gunner in the bomber craft (after he has been shot down) is an ironical awakening because it is an awakening to the violence of the gunner on the ground and to instant death rather than birth: the bomber had not believed that he would be shot down; his awakening is an ironic awakening into a meaningless existence between his birth into the state and his death at the hands of the state. The basic rhetorical pattern of the poem is a paradoxical one of death that is represented in the jargon parodying birth.

This poem focuses on the literal data of war. In poems such as this, the reader does not need to be told that war is terrible, because the actual events of war will communicate the same message. This is called the technique of showing rather than telling. The poet skips the years of development between birth and adulthood of the soldier emphasizing how short the speaker's life has been. This in turn points out the horrific nature of war — how it takes away the lives of people who have barely had the chance to live. Jarrell implies that "placing sorrow" in postmodern war or rendering its grief into the pastoral or chivalric frameworks of the past is now impossible. His war elegies break radically and finally with the traditional pastoral elegies: they increase rather than shed complexity; they displace rather than "place" sorrow. Jarrell implies the difficulty of achieving mature recognition of one's condition amidst the accelerating cycles of postmodern life.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, Kedar N. "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 16 Nov. 2013,

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Pastoral Elegy: A Literary Term

Metaphor: A Literary Term

Randall Jarrell: Biography