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 work did not make much of an impression on my generation of poets. Even Frost, thanks to his keen ear for colloquial speech, sounded more like a contemporary. Compared to Eliot and Williams, Jeffers sounded like a provincial windbag. It took a selection of his short poems and an excellent introduction by Robert Hass in 1987 to make me open my eyes and correct some of these misapprehensions.
Not that Jeffers ever made it easy for anyone to like him or that the complaints about his poetry were entirely baseless. Reading his poems one would not know that motion pictures were ever invented or that most Americans lived in cities. What is needed in poems are things that are permanent, he said. Writing an ode to a locomotive, as Whitman did, made no sense to him. He considered most of our modern inventions, good and bad, as passing fads doomed to disappear without trace. It was all right for prose to concern itself with contemporary matters. Poetry for Jeffers had to deal with things that a reader two thousand years from now could still understand and be moved by.
These views of his were not a product of complete ignorance of modern literature. Jeffers had a thorough knowledge of French poetry, admired it, but thought it was a dead end. Mallarmé’s and his followers’ dream of divorcing poetry from intelligibility and of bringing it nearer to music seemed to him hopelessly deluded. Their successors in his view could make only further renunciations. “Every advance,” he wrote in the introduction to a volume of his poems, “required the elimination of some aspect of reality, and what could it profit me to know the direction of modern poetry if I did not like the direction? It was too much like putting out your eyes to cultivate the sense of hearing, or cutting off the right hand to develop the left.”
He disapproved particularly of modern poetry’s competition with prose, its desperate attempt, so he thought, to save its soul by sounding as prosaic as possible. “It became evident to me,” he writes, “that poetry—if it was to survive at all—must reclaim some of the power and reality that it was so hastily surrendering to prose.” Jeffers was not persuaded by the modernist complaint that the language of poetry needs to renew itself from time to time, that the old ways with words had grown stale, so that poetry as it was being written when he started out became an embarrassment to any intelligent human being. There was no crisis of language for Jeffers, or the likelihood that yesterday’s poetic idiom is inadequate to deal with contemporary reality. Given his rejection of every literary fashion of his day, it’s not surprising that it took this long for us to begin to see him for what he was, a poet capable of extraordinary originality and beauty.
Everything about Jeffers was out of the ordinary. Even his childhood and upbringing are a puzzle. Born in 1887 in Pittsburgh, he was the first son of a reclusive, eccentric widower who was a minister and professor of Greek and Latin at Western Theological Seminary and his much younger second wife. Dr. Jeffers was over six feet tall, they say, but he went around stooped, giving the impression of a much shorter and much older man. Like his son, he didn’t care to meet people or engage in small talk. While Jeffers was growing up, his father kept moving constantly around Pittsburgh. His excuse was that he couldn’t find peace to concentrate on his studies because young Robin kept inviting playmates to the house. The insistence on privacy and the formal courtesy with which the family members treated each other are both admirable and a little frightening. For instance, although the family never missed Sunday service, the doctor preferred to worship alone and went to another church. Still, father and son seemed to have gotten along despite what Jeffers suggests about their relationship in this early sonnet:
TO HIS FATHER
Christ was your lord and captain all your life,
He fails the world but you he did not fail,
He led you through all forms of grief and strife
Intact, a man full-armed, he let prevail
Nor outward malice nor the worse-fanged snake
That coils in one’s own brain against your calm,
That great rich jewel well guarded for his sake
With coronal age and death like quieting balm.
I Father having followed other guides
And oftener to my hurt no leader at all,
Through years nailed up like dripping panther hides
For trophies on a savage temple wall
Hardly anticipate that reverend stage
Of life, the snow-wreathed honor of extreme age.
What comes as a surprise is that Dr. Jeffers, far from being provincial and narrow-minded, gave his son a broad education. He and his younger brother were sent to study in private schools in Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, and Leipzig. By the time he was through with high school, Jeffers not only knew French and German, but also Greek and Latin. Afterward, he continued his education at Occidental College in California, where the family had moved because of his father’s poor health. He got his undergraduate degree in 1905 when he was eighteen and enrolled in the University of Southern California graduate program in literature, where he met his future wife. Mrs. Una Call Kuster, as she was then called, was a married woman. After years of conducting an on-and-off illicit affair, she divorced her lawyer husband and married Jeffers in 1913. He was already writing poems and beginning to think of himself as a poet. He had a small legacy they could live on modestly, so there was no pressing need to worry about making a living.
They planned to go to England but the war interfered and they settled in the village of Carmel in Monterey County. After a few years, they bought a plot of land and erected a stone edifice called “Tor House” and subsequently added a tower which Jeffers built with his own hands with rocks he gathered and dug along the seashore. This is how another California poet, Robert Hass, describes what Jeffers saw when he walked out of his stone house:
A rocky coast, ridges of cypress and pine, ghostly in the fog. On clear days the Carmel River glittered past the ruin of an old Franciscan mission, and the surf was an intense sapphire, foaming to turquoise as it crested. Gulls, cormorants and pelicans among the rocks, hawks hovering overhead. In the distance, the Santa Lucia Mountains rising steeply from the sea and ranging south toward Big Sur.1
Years later, visiting England, Jeffers confessed in a letter that he did not care for trees since they made the landscape soft and fluffy. He liked the violence of the sea, the spectacular cloudbanks at sunrise and sunset that would give the mountainous coast the feel of high drama on any given day. It suited his temperament perfectly. Jeffers was a brooding loner who made even those who knew him well somewhat ill at ease. He never had a single friend as far as I can tell. The local stories and legends he retold in his narrative poems, he heard from his wife, who took the trouble to talk to the neighbors. She often encouraged him to write, answered most of his mail, and was the first reader of all his poems. Una was a strong-willed woman, far more ambitious and opinionated than her husband, and appears to have been as tough to get along with as he was. On one hand, they seemed to have lived in near-complete isolation, and then—it doesn’t seem so. He read Nietzsche, Vico, Spengler, and psychoanalytic literature. Just as one decides that Jeffers was hopelessly out of touch with intellectual currents of his time, he takes one back by some remarkable insight:
We obey in fact, consciously or not, two opposed systems of morality. They cannot be reconciled, yet we cling to both of them, and serve two masters. (We have in fact two moralities, which cannot be reconciled, yet most of us cling to both of them.) We believe in the Christian virtues, universal love, self-abnegation, humility, non-resistance; but we believe also, as individuals and as nations, in the pagan virtues of our ancestors: justice with its corollary vengeance, pride and personal honor, will to power, patriotic readiness to meet force with force. Our conduct almost always compromises between these contradictory moralities. And the great movements of Christianity—the Crusades, for instance, or the great colonizations, or the French and Russian revolutions—are inspired and confused by both of them.2
The little prose Jeffers wrote is of the highest quality and the best of it is fortunately included in the back of The Selected Poetry. His letters are perhaps not as interesting. A number of them are helpful on matters of his poetry, but the rest tend to be a bit formal and not very forthcoming. His poems are the best clue to what he had on his mind, and that’s where the difficulty arises. He wrote so much. The Collected Poems, also edited by Tim Hunt, comes in four thick volumes, plus an additional one of textual evidence and commentaries. The new Selected Poems is almost 750 pages long, which must be a world record. The volume includes five of his lengthy narrative poems, which take up more than half of the book. I have no objection to including “Tamar” and “Roan Stallion,” because they are the best of the lot. Having the others in the book, however, defeats the entire idea of a selection and is bound to scare away many readers. Robert Hass’s decision to stick to short poems in his 1987 compilation was wiser in my view.
One can argue, I suppose, that one needs to read a lot of Jeffers to appreciate his range. That includes all the violent, sexually charged, and blasphemous parts of his long, narrative poems that had shocked some of his early readers and that one would otherwise miss. No doubt, many individual passages are magnificent poetry, but it’s difficult to make a case that they succeed in their entirety as poems. Like many other poets, Jeffers was not content with just his lyrical gift. He wanted some epic sweep so he could dramatize and investigate complex issues like family conflicts and in the process impart momentous wisdom to his contemporaries. He was more than capable bringing off a dramatic scene or two, but his narrative poems, nevertheless, feel contrived to me. The overbearing presence of a didactic purpose undercuts his characters, who are not very believable to me to begin with. The long poems have their admirers, but I’m not convinced that they belong with his best work.
Jeffers’s short poems, on the other hand, pack a lot of power. Here is one of his best-known poems from Tamar (1917–1923):
SHINE, PERISHING REPUBLIC
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught—they say—God, when he walked on earth.
Jeffers, unlike Auden, thought poems could make things happen. “There is good poetry,” he wrote in a letter, “that expresses hatred of injustice, love of freedom….”3 He didn’t mean by that some form of propaganda, but a single man’s passion to make the world right. While the modernists were mostly averse to spelling out what the experience in the poem means and allowed the readers to draw their own conclusions, Jeffers, especially in his political poems, liked to mount the soapbox. Nor did he subscribe to Ezra Pound’s dictum that the poet must tread in fear of abstractions. He strove to persuade us and move us by the strength of his argument. Like so many other classic American writers, he had a low opinion of what had become of our democracy. He was an old-fashioned Jeffersonian Republican, no friend of progress or empire building, who all his life railed against smugness, greed, and what he called “flunkyism” in our public life. Ordinarily, I don’t like being lectured in a poem, but there are numerous passages of his and a few whole poems where his rhetoric turns oracular and ought to strike a chord today.
The war that we have carefully for years provoked
Catches us unprepared, amazed and indignant.
The ultimate outcome of our love affair with technology, he thought, would not be comfort or improvement in our lives, but soulless triumphs and unrelieved tragedy. Long before the ecology movement, he warned about elevating our selfish concerns over those of other creatures who share the planet with us. Civilization was the enemy of man, he said again and again. As interesting as this Cassandra side of Jeffers is, his best work lies elsewhere in poems that do not aspire to warn and instruct. Their intentions are much more modest, since they tend to be mostly recreations of some particular experience where the aesthetic considerations are as important as the ideas and often even more so.
All the arts lose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their business among the equally
Earnest elements of nature.
There’s nothing of Emerson’s optimism in Jeffers, as Hass points out. Human consciousness has no special meaning for him. Nor is the presence of a higher, spiritual element in nature a given. He was too much of a materialist for that. What he wanted was a radical philosophical shift in emphasis and significance. Humanity was neither central nor important to the universe. Man in his self-absorption imagined that he was God’s favorite, while in all probability he admires the cockroach as much. For Jeffers, as far as I can make out, God is merely a part of creation and certainly no special friend of humanity. “He is like an old Basque shepherd,” he wrote in one of his final poems:
Who was brought to California fifty years ago,
He has always been alone, he talks to himself,
Solitude has got into his brain,
Beautiful and terrible things come from his mind.4
He may have been describing himself. “But look how beautiful—are all the things that he does,” he continues. He meant a God whose signature was the beauty of things. It’s not belief but awe that held Jeffers spellbound, what he called “divinely superfluous beauty.” He discerned God’s presence in examples of his excesses, the way, for instance, he endowed a seashell on the bottom of the sea with a rainbow. Like the countless such examples in nature, the marvel was there long before there were eyes to appreciate it. The heartbreaking beauty of the world has nothing to do with us. It will still be here, he said, when there is no heart to break for it.
FIRE ON THE HILLS
The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front of the roaring wave of the brushfire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the black slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders.
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.
Czesl/aw Milosz in one of the early appreciations of the poet is both attracted by Jeffers’s intellectual independence and put off by his terrifying vision of blind necessity. That his “truth” was a harsh one, he himself knew. Now and then we may agree with him, but it’s not easy to live with that knowledge. I’ve once looked into the eyes of a hawk sitting on my windowsill in Santa Rosa, California, and the no-nonsense, matter-of-fact astuteness of that gaze is not something I’m likely to forget. For Jeffers, this is what one had to come to terms with. Not turn away from it, as we usually do in life, but act on it and accept the consequences. He had the idea that what is most disliked in his poems is what is most true, and he may have been right about that.
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.
I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bones too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight. What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.
Jeffers’s philosophy has been called “inhumanism,” and yet what moves us about his finest poems is not only the starkness of his vision but his genuine compassion. “Throat-bandaged dogs cowering in cages,” he starts a poem about laboratory animals, “still obsessed with the pitiful/Love that dogs feel, longing to lick the hand of their devil.” When it came to birds and animals, he saw clearly and memorably. So unlike us in their inner strength and heroic resignation to the inevitable, they represented for him an ethical ideal. He knew it was impossible to emulate them and then sometimes he pretended that it was.
“Beauty, is the sole business of poetry,” we read in a poem. Most of the time, however, Jeffers did not take his own advice. The serenity he sought eluded him. He was a tormented man, as anyone can see reading his late poems. Undoubtedly, they are more interesting as confessions of a very private man than as poetry. “I seem to hear in the nights many estimable people screaming like babies,”5 he writes in one of them, suggesting how far he was from caring only about animals. From what we know about his life, it’s not clear what his own reasons for screaming were. When he prophesied and rose in wrath against his fellow human beings, he may have given a temporary rest to these torments, but he generally failed as a poet. He longed for the timeless, but he was at his most poignant when he wrote about the fleeting moment. The intensity of the experience sharpened his eye and made his language and imagery precise. This, of course, is the paradox of the lyric poem. It has a way of catching the permanent on the wing, as it were, and seemingly without trying. In a dozen or so such poems, when he lets his lyric genius take him where it wants to go, Jeffers is peerless, a poet everyone ought to read.
The ocean has not been so quiet for a long while; five night-herons
Fly shorelong voices in the hush of the air
Over the calm of an ebb that almost mirrors their wings.
The sun has gone down, and the water has gone down
From the weed-clad rock, but the distant cloud-wall rises. The ebb whispers.
Great cloud-shadows float in the opal water.
Through rifts in the screen of the world pale gold gleams and the evening
Star suddenly glides like a flying torch.
As if we had not been meant to see her; rehearsing behind
The screen of the world for another audience.
April 11, 2002
Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers, edited by Robert Hass (Random House, 1987), p. xv. ↩
Melba Berry Bennett, The Stone Mason of Tor House: The Life and Work of Robinson Jeffers (Ward Ritchie Press, 1966), pp. 135–136. ↩
The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers 1987–1962, edited by Ann N. Ridgeway (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968), p. 241. ↩
Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Volume 3, 1938–1962, edited by Tim Hunt (Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 454. ↩
Collected Poetry, Volume 3, p. 448. ↩