Critical Essay by Ramon Elani
“The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those that ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.”
In his twilight days, man dreams of his death. A lonely figure upon the cliff top gazing out over a black stormy sea under an iron sky. Beneath the stone, the volcanic consciousness pulses. The eyes beyond the flaming walls of the world blink open. The annihilating force of the myth of human superiority has never been more starkly visible. No poet understood this myth better than Robinson Jeffers. He stands side by side with us at the precipice of the void. Jeffers is truly the poet of our groaning, clamoring age. He utterly rejected the notion that human life is more important or valuable than the life of other creatures, or the existence of a pebble, a grain of sand, or a speck of dust. He saw human history as an inexorable march towards oblivion but he also perceived the consciousness of the universe, the spirit of all things, and thus, he saw that humanity as a child of the universe must be imbued with a spark of that consciousness as well, no matter how deeply it is buried beneath aeons of vanity.
As a quick housekeeping note, I have chosen not to discuss Jeffers’ long, narrative poems in the essay that follows, although they contain perhaps his most articulate version of his philosophy and his most stylish verse. I have instead focused on presenting a wide range of Jeffers’ work from various points in his career, with the intention of giving the inexperienced reader of Jeffers a broader exposure of his ideas.
As the child of a Presbyterian minister and professor of Old Testament literature, Jeffers’ earliest influences were the Classics and the Bible. But while Christ was the “lord and captain” of his father’s life, as Jeffers wrote in the poem “To His Father,” he “followed other guides… through years nailed up like dripping panther hides for trophies on a savage temple wall.” Among these “other guides” were the works of Freud and Jung on the mysterious shadowy landscape of the unconscious, as well as James Frazer’s seminal work on magic, myth, and ritual. Beneath all of this lay the deeply held conviction that humanity was doomed and that history was destined to end in ruin, decadence, and decay. Jeffers himself acknowledges that much of his early poetry was simply “imitating Shelley and Milton,” though without their originality. Part of this archaic style was an attempt to separate himself from contemporaries such as Pound and Eliot, who were committed to innovation in poetic forms. As Jeffers writes in his introduction to the 1935 Modern Library reissue of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, he could not become “a modern.” Jeffers rejection of modernism as a literary aesthetic or style, of course, reflects his deeper rejection of modernity as an experience of life and history. The world-shaping utopian projects of the Enlightenment and its inheritors likewise appeared to Jeffers as twisted, poisonous, and pernicious.
The promises of the revolutionary 18th and 19th centuries, promises and visions of a worldly paradise where suffering and struggle would vanish like mist before the blazing sun led inexorably to the horrors of the 20th century and beyond. The fantasy of progress, that history was moving towards the perfection of humanity and human society obliterated the last bonds that tied our species to the cosmos. Jeffers saw this more clearly than anyone. The world wars, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the domination of techno-industrial society were merely the culmination of a process begun long before.
Perhaps the greatest influence on Jeffers’ work was the landscape and character of the central Californian coastline. Jeffers and his wife Una moved to Carmel, California in 1914. They had intended to settle in Europe but the war changed their plans. Along those rocky cliffs, Jeffers discovered a deep and powerful connection to place. He and Una lived in Carmel for the rest of their lives. While building a stone cottage for his wife and twin boys, Jeffers also found his love for masonry and stone work. This would become one of the major themes of his poetry.
The stone gives us the impression of permanence, the strength and ancient age of the natural world. Those who work with stone may feel that they have the power to manipulate primordial substances, the bones of the world. At the same time, to know the essence of stones, one must also know how limited our capacity is to truly impose ourselves on the world. Because as titanic as they are to us, the stones themselves will dissolve into nothingness over time. But humans seem to have this impulse to carve our faces into the sides of mountains so we can delude ourselves with fantasies of immortality. Humanity is caught as it were between these two poles, transience and the illusion of permanence. Robinson Jeffers’ poetry reflects the tension between these poles, as well as the attendant conditions of hope and despair.
Jeffers consistently emphasizes both the absurdity and maliciousness of the human race and the unconquerable power of the world. Geological symbols are frequently invoked by Jeffers to dramatize the smallness of the human world and the vastness of nature. In “To the Stone-Cutters” he characterizes humanity as the “foredefeated / Challengers of oblivion.” All the products of human labor constitute a challenge to the indifference of the universe, what appears to the limited human intellect as “oblivion.” According to Jeffers, we build and dream and fight to prove ourselves, to prove that we have some significance and further, to prove that the universe has some kind of substance that we can understand, some structure, some meaning. Rather than the swirling storms of chaos and violence that we secretly fear. Truly, however, our best efforts are doomed before we begin. Jeffers continues, “the poet as well / builds his monument mockingly; / for man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the / brave sun / die blind and blacken to the heart.” Humanity’s challenge is ironic, somewhere deep within us. We know ultimately that our existence is contingent and temporary, as individuals and as a species, for we also know that the earth, the sun, and the universe itself has a finite lifespan. As we die, as our works are forgotten, so to will earth die, and the sun itself. Permanence is madly sought but cannot be found in this world. Why is such a simple truth so difficult for humanity to grasp? Despite the overwhelming knowledge that all things will pass into nothingness, why do we continue to create? Jeffers concludes his poem thus “stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained / thoughts found / the honey of peace in old poems.” In other words, it is true that stones, earth, and sun will die but the life of a human being is so much more fragile and fleeting that we cannot help but be impressed by power of stones and old poems. While a thousand years may be insignificant in terms of cosmic time, it represents a near eternity to the mind of a human creature. Jeffers always seeks to understand the place of humanity in the cosmos and in this sense it is natural for us to long for whatever taste of immortality we may achieve, as delusion as it ultimately is. This is something that appears to make us what we are.
Rocks and stones populate Jeffers’ poetry as reminders of our place in the universe but also as a source of power. As humanity was born from the world, there must be something of the world within us. In “Continent’s End” we can see a vision of humanity that is small and weak but forged of the same materials as the cosmos. Staring at the sea during a storm, Jeffers reflects on the line that divides humanity from the world, “you have forgotten us, mother. / You were much younger when we crawled out of the / womb and lay in the sun’s eye on the tideline. / It was long and long ago; we have grown proud since / then and you have grown bitter.” ‘Mother Earth’ here is characterized as a absent parent, one who no longer has the energy or patience to care for an impulsive child. For Jeffers, humanity is not necessarily alienated from the natural world. The division has been the consequence of our history. And humanity alone is not to blame. The world, in Jeffers’ eyes, is indifferent and cold. Our pride and hubris has not been met with kindness and understanding. Our mother is stern and punishes us with a world we can never hope to fully control, with forces that make us scatter frightened and humbled.
But once, before the rift occurred, humanity lived alongside its mother. And still “the tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars, life / is your child, but there is in me / older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye / that watched before there was an ocean.” As vast as the world is and as small as we are, the world is inside of us. The oceans and the stars. Its true that our mother, the earth, gave us life but we are not only the products of life. The oceans, the stars, and the stones do not have life but still were born. These things do not owe their existence to the world but to the womb of the universe itself. As Jeffers says, there is a part of us that comes from that source as well. The earth is our mother but we have a greater one too. When the earth itself was born the primordial universe was ancient beyond counting. That substance flows through us as well. Jeffers repeats this concept in the poem’s final stanza: “mother, though my song’s measure is like your surf / beat’s ancient rhythm I never learned it of you. / before there was any water there were tides of fire, both / our tones flow from the older fountain.” The older fountain is this celestial origin, that gave life to the earth itself and us. It is true that most of what we are comes from the earth but standing at the edge of the ocean and seeing the waves pound the granite shores, Jeffers reminds himself that there is something inside of humanity that is older and even more powerful than the earth, our mother. In this universe, there is always something older than we think. And we are all linked to the most ancient source.
Jeffers is preoccupied with time and history, which occurs on many different registers in his poetry. There is the history of the cosmos, the history of the earth, and the history of humanity. As Jeffers tries to broaden his perspective beyond the limits of a flawed and fragile human being, these three histories are juxtaposed, layered on top of each other. He understands that the events of human history are miniscule compared to the dramas and tragedies of the world beyond us. Nevertheless, while he tries to see reality from a non-human perspective, Jeffers knows that he will always be bound by his nature. We can see this conflict play out in “Tor House,” a poem about the stone tower which he built for himself on the Carmel coast. Here Jeffers tries to cast his imagination forward into the future and asks himself what will remain of his home, his life, and even the ground on which he has build this life. “if you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes: / perhaps of my planted forest a few / may stand yet.” So after a couple hundred years, Jeffers imagines, some trees he planted may remain. “Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers / had the art to make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.” Of Tor House itself there may even be some evidence. The foundations of the house, made from elemental stones. Whatever remains will not persevere due to human ingenuity or industriousness, but because ultimately it was made from substances beyond the power of humanity. Jeffers’ skill here is merely that of being able to coax the power of stones together.
But Jeffers looks further ahead. He wonders “if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years.” Surely, the trees he planted are long gone. As well as anything left of his home and the proud stones that lent their strength to his enterprise. What would be left of the place? How could it be identified? “You will know it by the wild sea / fragrance of the wind / though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little; / you will know it by the valley inland.” Particular features may no longer exist but the geology of the place may still persist. The ocean will still smell like the ocean, regardless of where the shore now lies.
Finally, Jeffers wonders about himself. What of the self would remain after ten thousand years? “My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably / here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind / with the mad wings and the day moon.” Some trace of humanity may linger as well. But not one that may be perceived in the world above. Not an easily discern presence but a subterranean one, a geological one. The closest thing to immortality that humanity can hope for is to be written into the rocks beneath the earth.
From the beginning of his career as a mature poet, Jeffers consistently engaged with the natural world in a way that separates him apart. It is not merely Jeffers’ portrayal of the beauty of nature that is important but what that beauty meansfor him. Jeffers nature is not the anthropomorphized nature we are so accustomed to reading and thinking. It is not benign, it is not pure, it is not peaceful, it is utterly indifferent to humanity, and its power is beyond our comprehension. Nevertheless, as Tim Hunt remarks in his introduction to the Stanford University Press Selected Poems of Robinson Jeffers, in Jeffers poetry we find an image of nature that is “intentionally nonironic” and “redemptively beautiful” (6). The natural world can provide us with the only truth that exists. Human society is nothing more than a pack of lies. Our salvation, such as it is, depends on our ability to abandon ourselves to the power, flux, and beauty of nature.
In his preface to the 1924 edition of Tamar and Other Poems Jeffers writes that while we are inclined to think of poetry as a form of “refuge” from the world or a dream designed to sooth our pain and assuage our misery, we would do better to think of it as an “intensification” of the world that brings us closer to what actually is. Poetry is “not an ornament but essential, not a diversion but an incitement”(707). If nature is the only way to truth, poetry can illuminate the way for us. To do so “poetry must be rhythmic, and must deal with permanent things”(707). In this way poetry can draw the consciousness of the lost, weak, and neurotic modern back to what is real. What is real? What is permanent? As we look around we are confronted with a vast number of things that are real and just as many that are unreal, that exist merely as smoke or mist that rises from the icy water of a mountain pool. There one minute but gone the next. Jeffers defines the permanent as follows: “a railroad, for example, is not real as a mountain is; it is actual, in its fantastic way, for a century or two; but it is not real; in most of the human past and most of the human future it is not existent”(708). We are surrounded with ephemeral things and these are the things we largely engage with. Is it any surprise then that we think as beings of smoke, dissipating and flying apart with every breath. What is essential, permanent is forgotten by modern humanity: “here is what makes the life of modern cities barren of poetry; it is not a lasting life; and it is lived among unrealities”(708). Jeffers’ insistence upon the rhythmic properties of poetry reiterates this articulation of the essential and the permanent.
Poetic rhythm for Jeffers is not a matter of conventional understandings of cadence, meter, or verse. It is a geological phenomenon, the vibrating, resonating force of the living world in all its cyclicality and duration. The movement of the ocean tides, the march of the sun and moon, the endless recurrence of life and death. Rhythm is what makes poetry: “prose belongs rather to that indoor world where lamplight abolishes the returns of day and night, and we forget the seasons”(709). Poetry, for Jeffers, is what reminds us of our connection to flux and return; this is why “his work continues to speak to readers who sense that our technological environment places us in a false relationship to space, time, and the physical world.”
In his 2001 essay, Tim Hunt draws our attention to “Salmon Fishing” as a prime example of Jeffers’ conception of humanity and its relation to the world:
The days shorten, the south blows wide for showers now,
The south wind shouts to the rivers,
The rivers open their mouths and the salt salmon
Race up into the freshet.
In Christmas month against the smoulder and menace
Of a long angry sundown,
Red ash of the dark solstice, you see the anglers,
Pitiful, cruel, primeval,
Like the priests of the people that built Stonehenge,
Dark silent forms, performing
Remote solemnities in the red shallows
Of the river’s mouth at the year’s turn,
Drawing landward their live bullion, the bloody mouths
And scales full of the sunset
Twitch on the rocks, no more to wander at will
The wild Pacific pasture nor wanton and spawning
Race up into fresh water.
We may be inclined to think of the fishermen as alien figures that interrupt the beauty, serenity, and peace of the river. They are “pitiful, cruel,”and as a matter of fact in earlier drafts of the poem Jeffers writes of the anglers “torturing” the fish. But the violence that they bring is itself a reflection of the world itself and thus humanity is a part of the world no matter how brutal and bloodstained. The sun itself here is menacing and “angry.” As Tim Hunt writes “Jeffers projects a world where salmon and anglers are both enmeshed in a sacrificial landscape of fire and blood.” The anglers, linked to the priests of Stonehenge, are part of ancient human heritage of violence and Jeffers is quick to emphasize that the sacrifice of a human life is no more weighty a thing than the sacrifice of a salmon. We are all bound up in the same rituals of blood.
Yet even in this vision of slaughter and cruel, macabre rites, Jeffers asserts the beauty and meaning of the world. In the end it is not the anglers that are the source of pain, it is the flux of the world, the “constant alternation of death and renewal.” Properly understood, humanity plays a role in this regard. Humanity is connected to the world through its blood-soaked rituals and massacres. Jeffers’ challenge to the reader, Hunt argues, “is to see and identify with the whole” and to avoid the temptation to merely observe “nature’s flux rather than identifying with it and recognizing one’s final and inevitable participation in it.” This is Jeffers’ visionary power; he understands humanity’s place in the cosmos and is willing to accept the frightening and awe-inspiring consequences.
Of the earth yet fatally unable to grasp the vastness of the forces that determine our lives. Humanity has within itself access to something immeasurable, the atoms of stars, the spirit of creation, the breath of god. And yet, and Jeffers is quick to remind us, we abandon this power in favor of illusions sprung from our disordered minds. So much of human existence is spent, for instance, in the pursuit of happiness, a theme Jeffers addresses in his 1924 poem “Joy”:
Though joy is better than sorrow joy is not great;
Peace is great, strength is great.
Not for joy the stars burn, not for joy the vulture
Spreads her gray sails on the air
Over the mountain; not for joy the worn mountain
Stands, while years like water
Trench his long sides. “I am neither mountain nor bird
Nor star; and I seek joy.”
The weakness of your breed: yet at length quietness
Will cover those wistful eyes.
Jeffers’ vision of the world is not one without value, it posits a value that supersedes the value of the human world. There is greatness in strength and peace, though we must understand that the latter does not imply an absence of violence or bloodshed. There is strength in the mountain, there is peace in the grace of the bird that soars through the clouds above us. The frozen radiant heart of the star. The notion of joy, however, is alien to the world. It is a concept that exists only among humans in society. A concept of the most limited truth. As Jeffers writes, our desire for joy is a hereditary flaw and will find no foundation in the world beyond us. However, again, we always come back to our source and eventually we will be released from our mad search for things that do not exist by the very fact of our existence in the world that we shun. “Death,” as Jeffers writes elsewhere, “is no evil.” Who shall seek a thing called joy? Only the strange thing that we are. Neither and nor.
In autumn the leaves fall and the sky grows dark and cold. We are in the forest now, wandering and lost. Dry branches scrape against our soft skin and jagged thorns rip. A wind rises up and shakes the twisted trees, its whisper calms us in our terror. “No matter / What happens to men … the world’s well made though.” We shall dissolve into the universe. What does the world dream?
Who does the earth think it is?
Think, think, think. Nothing is more human and yet nothing more abhorrent to life. For Jeffers, as we have seen, the truth of humanity’s link to the cosmos lies in our capacity to perceive the rhythms and the beauty of the world. It is not a beauty that easily conforms to what humanity creates in the mind. What we see is only a beauty of fragments, which have been violently put asunder and scattered. We seek reason. But what could we possibly find that lies outside of the world, which is ourselves as well? We know that love obeys no master reason. Nor does beauty and the infinite world. In “Apology for Bad Dreams” Jeffers writes:
I have seen the ways of God: I know of no reason
For fire and change and torture and the old returnings.
He being sufficient might be still. I think they admit no reason; they are
the ways of my love.
Unmeasured power, incredible passion, enormous craft; no thought
Apparent but burns darkly
Smothered with its own smoke in the human brain-vault: no thought
The ways of the world shall always be impenetrable as long as we choke ourselves on the smoke of thoughts that have no mirror in the stream or the darkening woods. In the meadows, the rushing clouds, there is no thought. Desperately and full of anger we ask in the language of reason and therefore we receive nothing but dust and shadow. Fire. Why does the world burn? Change. Why must all be as it is? Torture. Why must we fear? And after all, there is only flux and return. There is love in things we perceive as horror when we look upon them with eyes misty with reason. But what force awaits us when we walk on the path of love? Power beyond imagining and passion that can shake the pillars of time.
In the end, the world is not for us, though a flower that blooms from the stars aches within our hearts. We need only to linger among the ruins to understand. Throughout Jeffers poetry we are reminded that humanity is a passing thing. One day we were here and another day we will be gone. The bones of the earth will not have noticed. Even now, when we are faced with the reality of all the horror that humanity has wrought upon the world, Jeffers stands to gently point to forest that reclaims abandoned farms and the saplings that push through the rubble.
In “Love-Children” Jeffers tells the story of a young couple in love, who made their life together in a small hut by the side of the ocean. They sought to live purely, alongside the fox and the squirrel. Crouching, naked, like wild things themselves. Their passions, their struggles, the flame they brought would all perish in time. And the paths they carved along the cliffs became overgrown and time swallowed their every trace: “I’m never sorry to think that here’s a planet / Will go on like this glen, perfectly whole and content, after mankind is / scummed from the kettle.” Ultimately whether or not humanity returns to the way like these wild, loving, light eyed children does not matter, for in time we will be washed away from these shores and bathe in “the fountains of the boiling stars” and the world will remain until the sun itself withers into death.
END PART I
Originally published at The Tiger’s Leap.