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:


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.

Hurt Hawks

Perhaps it’s cheating to suggest that my two favorite poems in the first 200 pages of Jeffers’ Selected Poetry are “Shine, Perishing Republic” [ a poem I cited much earlier on my blog, certainly one of the best protest poems I’ve ever read] and “Hurt Hawks” because they are both widely anthologized. Considering the other choices, it’s not surprising that they were excerpted.

Of the two, “Shine, Perishing Republic” is by far my favorite, a snap shot of much of my own attitude towards trends in America that I find particularly disturbing, though my “love of man” seems to extend somewhat farther than Jeffers’ love does.

I also find much to admire in:



The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,

No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.

He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.

He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,

The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.

You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.


I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk;
but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.

We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance.

I gave him the lead gift in the twilight.
What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

It’s not accidental that many team mascots are birds of prey, because they symbolize a freedom and independence many of us can only dream of, not to mention their place near the top of the food chain, especially important in sports, though perhaps less important in real life.

That said, I’m still a little uncomfortable with the lines “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.” and “You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him.”

I’ll have to admit that I identify with the first line to a certain extent. I’ve said that I’d be more apt to kill a man than a deer, at least a man who was breaking into my house or one who threatened me. I can’t imagine any circumstances, other than hitting one on the highway, where I’d kill a deer. I’m afraid if I had to do my own personal killing, I’d be limited to eating fish and vegetables. The more bothersome phrase is “except the penalties,” for I can’t imagine wanting to kill a man where there would be penalties.

The other line, the one about “you communal people” is even more bothersome because it would seem to imply that most people aren’t as noble as a hawk because they depend on each other. I suppose that would mean that wolves are inferior to hawks, too, because they run in packs. Or that a Red-Tail Hawk is superior to a crow because crows flock together.

I value my independence as much as anybody I know, sometimes to the point of annoying others that I truly love, but I still recognize the common good as more important than my own personal good.

I’m not the only person who’s ambiguous about this poem. Various opinions on it are offered here.

I Know I Prefer Short Poems

If “Tamar,” “The Tower Beyond Tragedy,” or “Roan Stallion” are the best long poems written by an American poet as Gioia argued, I feel justified in my general distaste for long poetry. I suspect if these were movies, not poems, they would be universally panned by critics. In them Jeffers seems obsessed with sex in general, and incest in particular.

As a former caseworker, and the husband of a child protection worker, all the molesters I learned about were sad, sorry, weak people who could only satisfy themselves by preying on those weaker than themselves. Not one was larger than life, or admirable in any way I could ever imagine. Mostly they were in love with themselves and thought that somehow justified whatever they wanted to do.

I’ll have to admit that I nearly broke out laughing when I read this passage from “Roan Stallion”

… Desire had died in her
At the first rush, the falling like death, but now it revived,
She feeling between her thighs the labor of the great engine, the running muscles, the hard swiftness,
She riding the savage and exultant strength of the world.

It was hard to push the line “ Worshipping the performance of the phallus” from Bruce Cockburn’s “Put Our Hearts Together” out of my mind while reading the poem. Nor does it get any more believable at the end of the poem when California shoots the roan stallionand then “turned on her little daughter the mask of a woman/Who has killed God.”

In fact, in the first one hundred and fifty pages of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, I’ve only found one poem I felt deserved a second or third reading:


Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you fore-defeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly:
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth dies, the brave sun
Die blind, his heart blackening:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey peace in old poems.

Although this idea has been handled better in Shelley’ famous “Ozymandias,” Jeffers does manage to bring his own unique perspective to the idea, if mockingly. Do you suppose Jeffers envisions his own poems helping readers overcome their pained thoughts through their “honey peace?”

Still, the poem manage to put man on a slightly different footing than most poetry does. If not been entirely knocked off its pedestal, mankind has at least lost a nose or an arm or two. That’s not to say, though, that the artist’s work will not last considerably longer than most of mankind’s works.

Luckily, “Shine, Perishing Republic” is coming up in a couple of pages.

Shine Perishing Republic

While this America settles in the mold of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,

And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.

Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly

A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption

Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.

There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught-they say-God, when he walked on earth.

Robinson Jeffers

Lest we delude ourselves into thinking America’s present crisis and people’s diverse reactions to it are anything new, this insightful, but disturbing, poem first appeared in 1926.

Those, like myself, who see the source of America’s international problems stemming from our attempts to extend our capitalistic empire, rather than our democratic ideals may, indeed, sigh with regret when we realize that as early as 1926 insightful citizens were warning of the dangers of empire, a warning never taken seriously.

Those who know history are only too aware that all empires decline and fall, whether they be Egyptian, Greek, Roman, English, or American. It is only a matter of time before ours, too, falls, though some may find some small comfort in the fact that this poem was written almost 75 years ago; so our decline may not be as "meteoric" as Jeffers envisioned.

For me, though, the most powerful, and frightening, line in the poem is beware the "love of man" for "There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught-they-say God, when he walked on earth."

The dilemma that each of us critical of America faces is whether to retreat within ourselves in order to save ourselves or to reach out to try to change a society that does not appear to want to change, that is happy with life as it is. And if we reach out, will we inevitably be pulled along with those we come to love?