Jeffers’ Long Poems

I’ve finally finished all 747 pages of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt. It’s been both a pleasure and a burden. Most of the pleasure has come from the considerable number of short poems that I like as much as nearly any poems I’ve read.

Hopefully, I’ve made it clear that I think his meditative, lyrical poems are as good as any written in the 20th century and that his ideas and my own are quite similar when it comes to man’s relationship to nature.

Unfortunately I really didn’t like a single long poem and wouldn’t recommend them, though strangely I found I liked each long poem I read a little better than the long poem that preceded it chronologically, at least right up to “The Double Axe.”

Unfortunately, each of the long poems seemed fatally flawed, perhaps because too often they focus on fatally-flawed characters, characters who represent the worst in human nature, not the tragically flawed characters of Greek Tragedy who are admirable but brought down by a fatal flaw.

I find it difficult to read a hundred page poem when I can’t identify with a single character. At times, Jeffers almost seems determined to justify his misanthropic view of mankind by exposing man’s sinful nature, while ignoring any redeeming qualities. It seems more than a little ironic that the most common sin in these poems is forbidden sex since he caused a major scandal when he ran off with a well-known lawyer’s wife while attending college.

This is not to say that reading the long poems won’t give a reader additional insight into Jeffers’ philosophy. There are even delightful passages that sometimes rival his shorter poems:

Here, for instance, is an excerpt from “The Double Axe” where the old man with the axe reflects on the nature of mankind:

There was in fact a more merciless
And more life-weary beauty in the vast landscape, the dark gray light, the one dull streak of sulphur for dawn,
Dark headlong slopes, the black-fanged rocks and high grinning snow-teeth, the long row of the snow-struck mountain-tops
High up in heaven. The old man looked up: "Am I also a renegade? I prefer God to man.
"But," he said grimly, "Snapper, I have not tasted
Any cannibal feasts. It is the people-lovers and nation-leaders, the human-centered,
Have bloody chops' He sighed and said, "In this pale light
All the little tricks are played out and finished. Retreat is no good, treachery no good, goodness no good.
But still remains the endless inhuman beauty of things; even of humanity and human history
The inhuman beauty; - and there is endurance, endurance, death's nobler cousin. Endurance'

It’s undeniable that most of the “people-lovers and nation-leaders” in recent American history have “bloody chops.” For a nation of “Christians” they seem determined to impose our will on the world, no matter what it might cost us.

You can certainly find clear statements of Jeffers’ attitude towards mankind:

He looked up and down
At the cold peaks lining the lonely sky, and that opaque gray monster the ocean, incessantly
Gnawing his rocks. "Is it not enough? I see that the world is very beautiful, great and - in earnest,
It bred man and surrounds him and will reabsorb him: what more do I want? - It bred' he answered himself,
Louse too: noble and ignoble, the eagle and her lice. What more I want is a little nobility in man
To match the world's." He looked again at the great landscape and laughed.
I am asking something.

The old man could almost be summarizing Jeffers’ philosophy in this passage:

Oh future children:
Cruelty is dirt and ignorance, a muddy peasant
Beating his horse. Ambition and power-lust
Are for adolescents and defective persons. Moderate kindness
Is oil on a crying wheel: use it. Mutual help
Is necessary: use it when it is necessary.
And as to love: make love when need drives.
And as to love: love God. He is rock, earth and water, and the beasts and
stars; and the night that contains them.
And as to love: whoever loves or hates man is fooled in a mirror." He
grinned and said:
"From experience I speak. But truly, if you love man, swallow him in
wine; love man in God.
Man and nothing but man is a sorry mouthful."

It’s a reasonable philosophy, and I would agree with the best way to love God, but he seems overly pessimistic about mankind. Even in the worst of times, especially in the worst of times, I’ve found people much nobler than Jeffers would seem to allow. Kindness is more than just “oil on a crying wheel.”

Granddaughter

One of my favorite Jeffers poems in Last Poems 1953-62 is this one:

GRANDDAUGHTER

And here’s a portrait of my granddaughter Una
When she was two years old: a remarkable painter.
A perfect likeness; nothing tricky nor modernist,
Nothing of the artist fudging his art into the picture,
But simple and true. She stands in a glade of trees with a still inlet
Of blue ocean behind her. Thus exactly she looked then,
A forgotten flower in her hand, those great bllue eyes
Asking and wondering.

Now she is five ears old
And found herself, she does not ask any more but commands
Sweet and fierce-tempered; that light red hair of hers
Is the fuse for explosions. When she is eighteen
I’ll not be here. I hope she will find her natural elements,
Laughter and violence; and in her quiet times
The beauty of things – the beauty of transhuman things,
Without which we are all lost. I hope she will find
Powerful protection and a man like a hawk to cover her.

I like it is because it counters what I think is Jeffers’ misanthropic poems, much as they were tempered by earlier love poems written to his wife.

But I also share his wish that my grandchildren will learn to appreciate “The beauty of things — the beauty of transhuman things.”

Of course, it could be that my appreciation of this poem was also influenced by the birth of Cory and Margaret’s first daughter, Mira Monday night:

Jeffers’ “The Beauty of Things”

Considering his misanthropic views, it’s hard for me to view Jeffers as a Romantic poet, but in a poem like “The Beauty of Things” he certainly seems to share ideas with Emily Dickinson and earlier Romantics like Keats and Shelley:

THE BEAUTY OF THINGS

To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things—earth, stone and water,
Beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars—
The blood-shot beauty of human nature, its thoughts, frenzies and passions,
And unhuman nature its towering reality—
For man's half dream; man, you might say, is nature dreaming, but rock
And water and sky are constant—to feel
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest's diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the intricate ideas,
The love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.

On the most obvious level, he shares a love of nature with earlier Romantics, but a more startling idea, particularly considering many of his longer poems, is his argument that the “sole business of poetry” is “to feel/ Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural /Beauty.”

I’m not sure how “Shine Perishing Republic” or “Original Sin” would meet this criteria, but it has certainly been a guiding principle in much of my life.

Perhaps one of Jeffers’ greatest accomplishments was merely to find a way to make a Romantic viewpoint seem viable in a modern world.

Original Sin, Part II

I thought seriously about posting this poem for today’s entry:

ORIGINAL SIN

The man-brained and man-handed ground-ape physically
The most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals
Up to that time of the world: they had dug a pitfall
And caught a mammoth, but how could their sticks and stones
Reach the life in that hide? They danced around the pit, shrieking
With ape excitement, flinging sharp flints in vain, and the stench of their bodies
Stained the white air of dawn; but presently one of them
Remembered the yellow dancer, wood-eating fire
That guards the cave-mouth: he ran and fetched him, and others
Gathered sticks at the wood's edge; they made a blaze
And pushed it into the pit, and they fed it high, around the mired sides
Of their huge prey. They watched the long hairy trunk
Waver over the stifle-trumpeting pain,
And they were happy.

Meanwhile the intense color and nobility of sunrise
Rose and gold and amber, flowed up the sky. Wet rocks were
shining, a little wind
Stirred the leaves of the forest and the marsh flag-flowers;
the soft valley between the low hills
Became as beautiful as the sky; while in its midst, hour
after hour, the happy hunters
Roasted their living meat slowly to death.

These are the people.
This is the human dawn. As for me I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.
But we are what we are, and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;
And not be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;
And not fear death; it is the only way to be cleansed.

as I remember being quite impressed with it when I first read it shortly after returning from Vietnam.

Though I’ve reverted to my original belief that man is born inherently good and society corrupts him, it still strikes a powerful note.

It reminds me of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, another work that seems to reaffirm the Old Testament version of man that requires redemption, though it’ s not clear what kind of redemption that would be for Jeffers.

I realized, however, that on a bright spring day like today, that this

was a more appropriate post.

Jeffers Answer to Faith

Even when I agree with Jeffers I often feel uncomfortable about it. More often than not, though, I find myself only partially agreeing with what he has to say, as with

Faith

Ants or wise bees, or a gang of wolves,
Work together by instinct, but man needs lies,
Man his admired and more complex mind
Needs lies to bind the body of his people together,
Make peace in the state and maintain power.
These lies are called a faith and their formulation
We call a creed, and the faithful flourish,
They conquer nature and their enemies, they win security.
Then proud and secure they will go awhoring
With that impractical luxury the love of truth,
That tries all things: alas the poor lies,
The faith like a morning mist burnt by the sun:
Thus the great wave of a civilization
Lose its forming soul, falls apart and founders.
Yet I believe that truth is more beautiful
Than all the lies, and God than all the false Gods.
Then we must leave it to the humble and the ignorant
To invent the frame of faith that will form the future.
It was not for the Romans to produce Christ.
It was not for Lucretius to prophesy him, nor Pilate
To follow him .... Or could we change at last and choose truth?

Of course, the poem’s message isn’t too dissimilar from Marx’s line, “Religion is the opium of the people,” and it’s hard not to agree that too often in history leaders have used “lies to bind the people together” whether to make peace or to make war. It’s equally hard to deny that often “the faithful flourish,/ They conquer nature and their enemies” eventually to founder and fall as the faithful stray from their faith. Still, I find it difficult to be quite as scornful of others’ faith as Jeffers seems to be in this poem and even more so in a poem like “Theory of Truth” where he seems to dismiss Lao-tze, Jesus, and “godless Buddha” when he asks, “Why does insanity always twist the great answers” and proceeds to dismiss three of the most powerful religions in history.

Which is not to say that I don’t agree with Jeffers’:

The Answer

Then what is the answer? -Not to be deluded by dreams.
To know that great civilizations have broken clown 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.

I’d find it hard to state one of my major beliefs any clearer than he does in “Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is / Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe.” No wonder environmentalists are tempted to make Jeffers their poster boy.

Like Whitman, though, I’d like to think that a love of the universe would have to include a love of mankind, that the two are not separate but part of the “oversoul” as Emerson defined it.

Caught

Despite my recent lack of posting, I haven’t given up reading Robinson Jeffers, it’s just that I still don’t have much to say about Jeffers’ longer poems but it takes considerable time to wade through a 98 page poem like “Give Your Heart to the Hawks.” While I find myself liking his later long poems more than his earlier long poems, “like” is definitely a relative word. I find it painful to read them but persist out of a certain stubbornness and unwillingness to give up because they are hard to read.

Luckily, my distaste for those poems has been more than offset by several short poems I like quite a lot, even though they probably make me more worried about the future than I already was.

“The Purse-Seine” is one such poem that paints a dark picture of our modern world:

The Purse Seine

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, splintered 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
.

In my more pessimistic moments, it is hard not to see the world exactly this way. The lines:

I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape.

seem particularly true, at least here on the West Coast, the only world I really know. Anyone who’s thought about possible ways to solve the problem of air pollution, much less global warming, cannot help but feel that the very things that at first appearance seem to make our lives comfortable end up causing the problems that threaten to overwhelm us.

A rural home may seem like the ideal place to live when you first buy it, but when everyone else makes the same choice the city and all its problems moves to your neighborhood and the commute to work suddenly becomes a nightmare.

The irony of the final lines is hard to miss. No one who’s read history can deny that “cultures decay” or that “life’s end is death” knows that logically these things are true, but everyone wants to believe that their culture is still on the rise, not on the decline. I know I’m more concerned about how well I’m going to feel tomorrow or next year than I am about the inevitable ending of my life.

Left Out

Here are a couple of poems from the early version of Jeffers’ selected poems that were left out by Tim Hunt that seemed to me to be important themes in Jeffers’ work. It would be interesting to examine in more detail what poems Hunt included that Jeffers didn’t and which poems Jeffers included but Hunt left out. My initial impression was that Hunt was trying to take some of the hard edges off Jeffers and make him appear more compassionate than he probably really was.

Of course, my attraction to these poems probably suggests I share some of these beliefs with Jeffers, though I’m sure Jeffers would have found me much too soft and sentimental for his tastes.

Historically, Jeffers is not alone in feeling that American materialism threatens America’s well being:

AVE CAESAR

No bitterness: our ancestors did it.
They were only ignorant and hopeful, they wanted freedom but wealth too.
Their children will learn to hope for a Caesar.
Or rather-for we are not aquiline Romans but soft mixed colonists-
Some kindly Sicilian tyrant who’ll keep
Poverty and Carthage off until the Romans arrive.
We are easy to manage, a gregarious people,
Full of sentiment, clever at mechanics, and we love our luxuries.

A hundred years earlier Emerson warned “things are in the saddle and ride mankind,” but even he didn’t go so far as to equate this desire for things with political tyranny. It’s not an invention of the Bush Administration?! I’ll have to admit that I share some of Jeffers’ disdain for wealth and the softness engendered by that wealth:

THE TRAP

I am not well civilized, really alien here: trust me not.
I can understand the guns and the airplanes,
The other conveniences leave me cold.

“We must adjust our economics to the new abundance .
Of what? Toys: motors, music-boxes,
Paper, fine clothes, leisure, diversion.

I honestly believe (but really an alien here: trust me not)
Blind war, compared to this kind of life,
Has nobility, famine has dignity.

Be happy, adjust your economics to the new abundance;
One is neither saint nor devil, to wish
The intolerable nobler alternative.

Having fought in Vietnam I’m not about to believe war is nobler than owning too many toys, but the point is well taken. Why would anyone be willing to trade the environment for a few more toys? Is there really any doubt that far too many Americans are soft, not to mention overweight? Overall, though, I consider myself more Athenian while Jeffers sounds an awful lot like a Spartan.