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.