Jeffers’ “November Surf”

I’ve finished the first four hundred pages of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, and I’m still waiting for a poem that I love nearly as much as “Shine, Perishing Republic.” I find it extremely difficult to wade through his long poems, though my favorite so far is “Thurso’s Landing,” which manages to be psychologically more interesting than the previous one’s I’ve read. It traces the effects of a father’s suicide on his family with devastating effects. I would probably have enjoyed it even more if I hadn’t read Berryman’s “Dream Songs” just recently.

Unfortunately, I’m more repelled by Jeffers’ Nietzschean view of mankind than I am attracted by his attraction to nature. Still, I can certainly identify with:

NOVEMBER SURF

Some lucky day each November great waves awake and are drawn
Like smoking mountains bright from the west
And come and cover the cliff with white violent cleanness: then suddenly
The old granite forgets half a year’s filth:
The orange-peel, eggshells, papers, pieces of clothing, the clots
Of dung in corners of the rock, and used
Sheaths that make light love safe in the evenings: all the droppings of the summer
Idlers washed off in a winter ecstasy:
I think this cumbered continent envies its cliff then . . . . But all seasons
The earth, in her childlike prophetic sleep,
Keeps dreaming of the bath of a storm that prepares up the long coast
Of the future to scour more than her sea-lines:
The cities gone down, the people fewer and the hawks more numerous,
The rivers mouth to source pure; when the two-footed
Mammal, being someways one of the nobler animals, regains
The dignity of room, the value of rareness.

Every time I walk to Pt Defiance Park and see the tires, appliances, and trash dumped into the woods I’m enraged. I can’t comprehend such behavior. What hiker hasn’t had a trip to a favorite wilderness besmirched by someone else’s careless garbage?

Like Jeffers, I believe population growth presents a real threat to our quality of life. As I’ve noted before, population growth in the Pacific Northwest, particularly in areas that used to be wilderness is frightening. Such growth has put immense pressure on wilderness areas. It has radically decreased the habitat of wildlife, while increasing the demand for wilderness experiences. Growing up, I could never have imagined needing to apply for a wilderness permit a year in advance, yet that’s precisely what has happened in high-demand areas.

7 thoughts on “Jeffers’ “November Surf”

  1. Jeffers had his periods of being misanthropic for sure. I think many authors go through this, many people go through this, too. I still vote for “Oh, Lovely Rock” as being one of Jeffers’s best. Also “Purse Seine,” the poem that first brought me to Jeffers (excuse the line breaks; they may be off):

    The Purse Seine
    by Robinson Jeffers
    Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark of the moon;
    daylight or moonlight
    They could not tell where to spread the net, unable to see the
    phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.
    They work northward from Monterey, coasting Santa Cruz; off
    New Year’s Point or off Pigeon Point
    The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the
    sea’s night-purple; he points and the helmsman
    Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal
    and drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
    And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it in.

    I cannot tell you
    How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the
    crowded fish
    Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the
    other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent
    Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted
    with flame, like a live rocket
    A comet’s tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside the
    narrowing
    Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up to watch,
    sighing in the dark; the vast walls of night
    Stand erect to the stars.

    Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
    On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light: how could
    I help but recall the seine-net
    Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how beautiful
    the city appeared, and a little terrible.
    I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
    into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
    There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
    of free survival, insulated

    From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
    dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
    Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they
    shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
    Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we and our
    children
    Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers
    -or revolution, and the new government
    Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls- or anarchy,
    the mass-disasters.

    These things are Progress;
    Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps
    its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
    In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria, splin-
    tered gleams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
    There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that
    cultures decay, and life’s end is death.

  2. This poem appears on page 588 of my edition, Theresa. Not quite there yet.

    Actually, after some reading on the net, I decided i needed to order a newly released version of Jeffers’ Selected Poems since many of the poems cited are those that appeared after 1938.

  3. Hello,
    I’ve been reading your site for quite some time now, but have never posted any comments. I’m a big time nature enthusiast, however not the yuppie type that seem to be filling out quite a large and new niche in society. I guess I define myself as a person most seeking Thoreau’s idea of Wildness, not the new line of EMS or north face gear. I originally found your site in searching for some critiques of one of my favorite works, Walden. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend you give Paul Rezendes’ “The Wild Within” a chance. I enjoy your site greatly, admire your respect for Nature, and wish you well in your journeys through written thought.

  4. Even were we to populate the world in today’s crowded numbers for a thousand more years, our nature shall never change. We evolved as hunter/gatherers, living in small bands, and rare to find on the earth. Many (most?) of us shall never feel unconflicted acceptance of cities. Jeffers is right: There needs be fewer of us.

  5. “Jeffers was more than a great poet, he was a great prophet. Everything he wrote about the corruption of empire, the death of democracy, the destruction of our planet and the absurd self-centered vanity of the human animal has come true tenfold since his time.”
    Ed Abbey “The Thoreau of the West”

    And he, Jeffers, DID give us the best, perhaps the only, ANSWER

    THE ANSWER
    Then what is the answer?–Not to be deluded by dreams.
    To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence, and their tyrants come, many times before.
    When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
    To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped
    By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will not be fulfilled.
    To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
    Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history…for contemplation or in fact…
    Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is
    Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
    Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.

  6. Personal to Loren (sorry about messing up my e-address, it says it all).

    I accidentally came across your blog yesterday, 18 months after you put Jeffers up on it. I hope you’re still reading his poetry/prophecy.

    I also hope you know he’s chosen the West Coast Poet for the NEA’s Big Read (qv). The Reader’s and Teacher’s Guides therefore are wonderful introductions.

    Also, please have a look at: http://www.torhouse.org and come by if you’re in the area.

    Zoli

  7. Call him misanthrope. Call him a son of Nietzsche if you like. I say the man had a right to be disappointed in his species–or at least to appreciate the tragedy of it, and to seek value and solace in the broad sweep of geologic time. Right or wrong, Jeffers spoke the truth of his heart.

What do you think?