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
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’:
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.