Divine, Superfluous Beauty

Robinson Jeffers
Robinson Jeffers; drawing by David Levine

It wasn’t always so hard making sense of things. When it came to Big Truth it was all settled. There were plenty of little truths for the poets and everybody else to busy themselves with, but they did not have to start from scratch and explain the universe. Then all of a sudden it happened. The silence of the infinite spaces and their own souls made them quake. One may argue about the date when one could no longer formulate with any confidence what the Big Truth was, but already in the nineteenth century, poets as different as Whitman, Dickinson, and Mallarmé found themselves philosophically pretty much on their own. By the time the twentieth century rolled around, the search for a new knowledge of reality and for an authentic self were the burning issues addressed by numerous, otherwise battling poetic movements. While rejecting Christian belief, the not-so-secret ambition of many of these poets was to write a poem about the absolute in an age suspicious of absolutes, and get away with it.

The role of the reader underwent a change too. It was not just a well-turned poem one was expected to admire, but also the homespun metaphysics that came along with it. Given the intellectual ambition and the high stakes, the risk of making a complete fool of oneself was almost guaranteed. Still and all, was it really possible to pretend that the world had not changed, as the aesthetic and political conservatives continue to believe? I mention all this as a way of situating Robinson Jeffers and his work. He is of that same tribe, although his poetry and his own outlook on things ended up being unlike anyone else’s among his contemporaries.

Jeffers, who died in 1962 and is little read today, was the author of at least thirteen sizable collections of poetry. This in itself would not be particularly unusual except that, from the 1920s to the 1940s, he was reputed to be one of the greatest poetic voices this country ever produced and was compared to Shakespeare and Homer by critics who loathed modern poetry. After the Second World War, all that changed. Jeffers, who remained a firm isolationist throughout the conflict, began to be thought of as a right-winger of the lunatic fringe. The Double Axe and Other Poems came out in 1948 with a publisher’s preface disclaiming responsibility for the political views in the book. Not only was Jeffers accused of being a fascist sympathizer—which he was not—but he was also being discarded as a poet. No less an authority than Randall Jarrell thought his poems lacked the exactness and conciseness required of the best poetry. I myself don’t remember his name coming up much, if at all, in literary circles in the 1950s and 1960s. We all knew who he was since he was included in all the important anthologies, but his…

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