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.

Jeffers’ “Credo”

I just ordered a new version of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, this one edited by Tim Hunt. I did it because the Random House copy had started to turn brown and was giving me a sinus headache since I am wildly allergic to book mold. More importantly, much of Jeffers’ poetry that was being cited on the web came from his later poetry, which was not included in the earlier Selected Poetry.

I’ve noted a number of changes in the book in the part I’ve already read, but I can’t imagine why Jeffers would have omitted this poem from his earlier collection:

CREDO

My, friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum
And gazing upon it gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found in my blood
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;

The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality. The mind
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself, the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.

As I’ve made clear, I’m quite drawn to Asian literature, particularly the Taoists and Chan Buddhism, but I don’t think I could agree with any poem more than this one.

This is my answer to Wallace Stevens’ “The Jar,” the answer I’ve never been able to articulate as directly and concisely as:

The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself, the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.

It is delightful to imagine new realities, brave new worlds, but all are but a poor imitation of the transcending beauty of the world that already lays before us if only we’re able to see it.