“The passion for truth is the faintest of all human passions.” ― A. E. Housman
If Nietzsche was correct when he observed that the poets lie too much, it is also true that now and again a poet emerges who articulates truths so incendiary and forbidden that the guardians of the public good cannot help but be disconcerted. When it is politic to mouth chauvinistic homilies and genuflect to the tribal gods, those seditious writers and dissidents are ever in danger of being torn apart by the hounds of Hell, the beasts who guard the gates of propriety ― as Euripides, who terrified his Athenian countrymen by showing them the savage face behind the veil of their self-aggrandizing myths, is rumored to have been so torn apart. Osip Mandelstam disappeared forever into the gulag, Anna Akhmatova’s verse was banned, Boris Pasternak was forced to turn down the Nobel Prize because he could not avoid depicting the pathological nightmare of the Soviet state. But they dared not arrest him, he was too famous; instead, they threw his wife into a work camp to teach him the virtues of silence. In Turkey, Nazim Hikmet served decades in prison and was then forced into exile when he refused to fight in the US-sponsored Korean genocide. Richard Wright, Rafael Alberti, Joseph Brodsky, Juan Gelman and Czeslaw Milosz are just a few of the poets of our era who suffered exile. Cesar Pavese, Kim Chi Ha, Juan Ramon Hernandez, Irina Ratushinskaya are among the many poets of our century to be imprisoned. Garcia Lorca was murdered by the Spanish fascists for being a homosexual and a communist. Roque Dalton was murdered, or so it is generally believed, by internecine warfare among his fellow revolutionaries. Today, Forough Farroughzad’s sexually transgressive poetry is banned by the Iranian Islamic Republic.
In the most benign form of punishment, such writers are simply disparaged by critics, and the reading public is discouraged from paying attention to their works. Take, for example, the case of Robinson Jeffers. His refusal to write in the elusive modernist manner of his contemporaries, his lack of patriotic fervor during the Second World War, his grave reservations concerning the nobility of humanity, his insistent condemnation of mankind’s congenital cruelties, his disparagement of man’s primacy in the cosmic order, and the long shadow of misanthropy that fell across the entire body of his work were hardly designed to endear him to the critics and reviewers of his era. Although his screeds against humanity’s cruelty, America’s imperial designs, and the human degradation of the environment do not, these days, seem very wide of the mark, he has not regained the stature he once had and stands notably apart, both philosophically and aesthetically, from the modernist giants of twentieth-century American verse. “No major American poet,” Dana Gioia has commented, “has been treated worse by posterity than Robinson Jeffers. Nonetheless he still has an impressive number of passionate readers and advocates, and the most appealing of his poetry is by no means in danger of being forgotten. But what has remained perhaps least noted in his work is another quality shared by few of his contemporaries — a large-spirited compassion for his fellow beings, a compassion that does not exclude our non-human brethren. It is not impossible that it was precisely this empathy and compassion that account for his poetry’s unwavering focus on the world’s cruelty, man’s savagery, and his nation’s destructive history.
As early as 1923, in “Shine, Perishing Republic,” Jeffers was warning that America was settling “into the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,” and he was advising his sons to “keep their distance from the thickening center” (“Shine, Perishing Republic” CP 1: 15). During the First World War he had tried unsuccessfully to enlist as a pilot but because he was already in his thirties he was rejected for being too old. But the astronomical toll of death and destruction that the war brought shocked him out of his naïve romanticism and he came to view that catastrophic event — and the very idea of war — with horror. A few years later, in “Love-Children,” one of the shorter poems included in his 1927 collection The Women at Point Sur and Other Poems, he writes without apology: “I’m never sorry to think that here’s a planet / Will go on…perfectly whole and content, after mankind is scummed from the kettle” (CP 1: 213). To have insisted that mankind was a destructive force in the world and to have offered his allegiance to that larger creation, the universe itself, in which homo sapiens is but one of myriad sentient beings — and by no means the most admirable — struck the central note of his subversive philosophy.
Jeffers’s rise to prominence in the 1920s was meteoric, but so too was his fall just a decade later. During the 1930s and ‘40s the literary critics and reviewers turned on him with vituperative scorn. James Rorty, one of his earliest admirers, commented in 1932 that Jeffers “expressed the death wish of a spent civilization” (qtd. in Vardamis 23) and in 1935, Rolfe Humphries, giving his distaste a more explicitly ideological spin, chastised Jeffers for having made in his poetry “no effort to show that the present horrible frustrations, deformations and agonies of men are due to the fact that they are for the most part still living under the denigrating capitalism of the 20th century” (24).[Both qtd in Alex Vardamis “in the poet’s lifetime” in Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet, ed. Robert Brophy, p. 23-24 Fordham U Press, 1995] In 1936, Ruth Lechlitner scolded him for apparently favoring the “annihilation of humankind” (23),[vardamis 23] while in 1939, Delmore Schwartz, similarly appalled by Jeffers’s rejection of humanity, and perhaps also by his thoroughly anti-modernist proclivities, called his work “without interest and without value” (24). vardamis 24] The New Critics, who dominated American poetic taste in the 30’s did not find his prosody dense, complex, elliptical and ambiguous enough, and their attacks, begun in the late twenties, continued through the 1950s. Then too, there was the obsessive violence of the longer poems that was shocking to a poetic establishment that was comfortable with a more bookish, intellectualized, urban and “civilized” poetry. [All the critics cited in this paragraph are quoted in “In the Poet’s Lifetime” by Alex Vardamis in Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet, ed. Robert Brophy, p. 23-25 Fordham U Press, 1995].
With the publication of Be Angry at the Sun in 1941, and his adamant refusal to add his voice to the drum-beats for war, his disdain for “the immense vulgarities of misapplied science and decaying Christianity” (“Prescription of Painful Ends” CP 3: 14), (Prescription of Painful Ends)it became clear that Jeffers was not a member of the well-mannered, progressive chorus. In 1942, Babette Deutsch, who had praised him lavishly a few years earlier, went so far as to say that his latest collection of poems gave “color to the suspicion that Jeffers has fascist sympathies” (25).
[vardamis op cit. p25] Deutsch was not the only one to suggest as much, though it is difficult to see the reasoning behind such a charge other than the fact that he was an uncompromising pacifist, condemnatory of Roosevelt, and thoroughly antagonistic to the war. Though he was politically conservative, it is hard to see what in Jeffers’s philosophy or nature could possibly be considered fascistic. But Jeffers’s “isolationism” — a pejorative term meant to castigate those individuals opposed to the war — seemed all but treasonous to the patriotic American sensibility that saw Germany as dangerously totalitarian and aggressive and the United States, England and France as democratic, egalitarian and noble. Jeffers had been educated in Europe and was anything but a provincial or an isolationist: what he opposed was not close relations with Europe but the horror of seeing the United States being sucked into the war.
The influential American critic Yvor Winters, in his most important book, In Defense of Reason (1947), simply dismissed Jeffers’s work as “pretentious trash.”
[Vardamis p 23] The darkness of Jeffers’s vision, his relentless insistence on life’s anguish, and his evident dislike of human nature provoked Winters to suggest that the poet should consider committing suicide (23). Many [ibid. V p. 23] of the attacks were clearly or implicitly about his anti-modernist poetics as well as his politics. In the introduction Jeffers wrote for his Selected Poetry, a volume that Random House published in 1938, the poet states the case for his aesthetic proclivities this way:
Long ago, before anything included here was written, it became evident to me that poetry — if it was to survive at all — must reclaim some of the power and reality that it was so hastily surrendering to prose. The modern French poetry of that time, and the most “modern” of the English poetry, seemed to me thoroughly defeatist, as if poetry were in terror of prose, and desperately trying to save its soul from the victor by giving up its body. It was becoming slight and fantastic, abstract, unreal, eccentric.
The paragraph following that one suggests an aesthetic of moral seriousness that is no less antithetical to the spirit of modernism:
Another former principle came to me from a phrase of Nietzsche’s: “The poets? The poets lie too much.” I was nineteen when the phrase stuck in my mind; a dozen years passed before it worked effectively, and I decided not to tell lies in verse. Not to feign any emotion that I did not feel; not to pretend to believe in ”optimism” or “pessimism” or unreversible “progress”; not to say anything because it was popular, or generally accepted, or fashionable in intellectual circles, unless I myself believed it; and not to believe easily. These negatives limit the field; I am not recommending them but for my own occasions.
It was the publication of The Double Axe in 1948, a decade after the appearance of the Selected Poetry, that completed the evisceration of his reputation. Random House published that collection only after excising its ten most seditious short poems, demanding a number of line changes in others, and by including a brief, polite publisher’s note to assure the reader that “Random House feels compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet in this volume.” It was only three years after the Allied victory and to many readers the poems in The Double Axe must have seemed little short of treasonous. The details of that publishing episode, with excerpts from the correspondence between Jeffers and Saxe Commins, his editor at Random House, can be found in In the Wild Water: The Suppressed Poems of Robinson Jeffers, by James Shebl.
Although his publisher’s demurrer seems a gentlemanly way of handling the situation, the decision to delete ten poems from the book was a more questionable one. In “An Ordinary Newscaster,” one of the 10 suppressed poems, the speaker meditates on a typical radio newscast during the war with a prophetic commentary that I suspect no other significant American poet would have dared write or publish:
“The German astronomers
are interested in a red spot of Jupiter, they hope the eclipse will help them
learn something more
About the red spot. But our brave fliers are interested only in the red
Made by our falling bombs.”
This is perhaps the most ignoble statement we
have heard yet…. our whole attitude
Smells of the ditch. So will the future peace.
(CP 3: 127)
Today, such criticism would hardly seem an inappropriate denunciation. Anyone who watched American newscasts in the winter of 1991, during the bombing of Iraq, or during the bombardment of Afghanistan in the first few weeks of our invasion of that nation a decade later, or who listened to TV news or radio broadcasts during the horrors we wreaked upon Iraq during our invasion of that nation in 2003, will recognize the news media’s triumphalist gloating to which Jeffers is referring ― those atavistic expressions of joy at the slaughter of one’s putative enemy. That Jeffers was perfectly correct, that his emotional and ethical impulses were far more sober and praiseworthy than those of many of his countrymen, was not the conventional opinion of the times: Not surprisingly, The Double Axe was greeted with fierce hostility. R.I. Brigham announced in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “only the most devout followers of the right-wing nationalists, the lunatic fringe, and the most ardent of Roosevelt haters could, after reading The Double Axe, welcome the return of Robinson Jeffers” (25). In a recent essay, [Qtd Vardamis in Brophy, 25] Justin Raimondo The American Conservative published in December of 2007], summarizes the fiercely negative critical reception to that postwar volume: [December 17, 2007 Issue]
The chorus of jeers that rose up from the critics was deafening: “A necrophilic nightmare!” declared Time magazine. “His violent, hateful book is a gospel of isolationism carried beyond geography, faith or hope,” scolded the Library Journal. The Milwaukee Journal concurred: “In this truculent book, Robinson Jeffers … makes it clear that he feels the human race should be abolished.” His critical reputation shattered on the rocks of the postwar One-World consensus, the poet never regained his former stature. As William Everson wrote in the foreword to the 1977 edition: “Hustled out of decent society with antiseptics and rubber gloves, The Double Axe was universally consigned to oblivion, effectively ending Jeffers’ role as a creditable poetic voice during his lifetime.
[“Robinson Jeffers: Peace Poet, The American Conservative December, 2007. www.amconmag.com/2007/2007_12_17/review.html ]
In his preface to The Double Axe and Other Poems, Jeffers tells us that his verse presents “a certain philosophical attitude that might be called Inhumanism,” which he defines as “a shifting of emphasis from man to non-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.” That viewpoint (less provocatively called “transhumanism”) is simply a perspective freed of its anthropocentric delusions and which was evident even in his earlier work, a perspective that allowed him to view humankind as but one species among many, a perspective characteristic of a scientific attitude associated with sociobiology, an orientation that we now call “evolutionary biology.” But his orientation was by no means devoid of a spiritual aspect: by shifting his focus from the human, Jeffers could more fully invest his awe in the magnificent splendor of the Earth and the cosmos — an attitude that is at the crux of his entire life’s work. When he spoke of himself as “not well civilized,” he was confessing his allegiance to that larger, transhuman world rather than to the human domain of the comfortably acculturated. In a 1939 meditation on Hitler, “The Day is a Poem,” he characterizes his poetry as “crusted with blood and barbaric omens, / Painful to excess, inhuman as a hawk’s cry” (CP 3: 16).
Whatever else his Inhumanism implied, it was certainly not a paean to inhumanity and it was certainly antithetical to fascism. It was the inhumanity of mankind of which he despaired and from which his inhumanist philosophy afforded him some modicum of philosophical distance and relief. And of course humanity and its miseries were always at the heart of his poetry. The attitude of his Inhumanism is not merely in accord with the rather obvious realization that man is one insignificant being in a vast universe, but also an emphatic insistence on the obvious fact that some salient homo sapiens characteristics — our constant war-making, our habitual cruelties and destructiveness, our arrogance in imagining the world was placed here for our pleasure — are not altogether attractive. That understanding is, of course, at the foundation of his misanthropy, a charge that despite his denials seems well justified, for Jeffers never made a secret of the fact that homo sapiens was not his favorite species. Though he made use of the term “God,” it did not imply, for him, a personal, redemptive Judeo-Christian deity, nor faith in the orderly and morally just universe that is associated with an omniscient deity obsessed with human concerns. In 1956 he wrote:
Another theme that has engaged my verses is the expression of a religious feeling, that perhaps must be called pantheism, though I hate to type it with a name. It is the feeling—I will say the certainty—that the universe is one being, a single organism, one great life that includes all life and all things; and is so beautiful that it must be loved and reverenced; and in moments of mystical vision we identify ourselves with it. (qtd. in Everson 208) [2. Qtd. In Everson, Excesses of God in Brophy, RJ Dimensions of a poet, p. 208]
This pantheistic and mystical sense of awe that he experienced in the presence of the natural world is not, he made clear, attributable to a moral force concerned with good and evil. Rather, the god he intuits is a consciousness inherent in the cosmos, one that cares nothing for man or any other creature, a god without mercy or love. The notion that this world had been placed here for the convenience of this bipedal hominid sporting a vestigial tail, a lethal surfeit of intelligence, ineradicable tribal malice, and boundless arrogance — he viewed as a tragic delusion. Rather, the sublime power of the cosmos, viewed as an entity whose manifestation is everywhere grandeur and extravagant beauty, is a being which “does not care and will never cease,” a phrase from “The Great Explosion,” the opening poem in Jeffers’s final volume, The Beginning and the End.1 Tim Hunt considers this to be part of an earlier poem, “Explosion” and for the poem “The Great Explosion” prints in volume three of the Collected Poems only that poem’s opening stanza (CP 3: 413). It is this “God” that Jeffers constantly invokes.
Jeffers’s pantheism is perhaps of far less weight than his ethic. Our task, the poet tells us — and, as I said earlier, I believe it has been much too little noted — is to remain merciful and compassionate. In “The Answer,” he writes:
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose the least ugly
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.
(CP 2: 536)
Although the poet is decidedly not a Christian, in one intriguing poem he borrows the Christian notion of original sin for a singular and most interesting purpose. One of the short poems from The Double Axe, to which he gave the title “Original Sin,” has a band of primitive hominids, “the most repulsive of all hot-blooded animals,” gleefully roasting alive the giant mammoth they had trapped in a pit. He writes:
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.
(CP 3: 203)
It is as bitter a passage as one is likely to find from the pen of an American poet and certainly strong evidence of his anger at humanity. Perhaps even for Jeffers the insistence on man’s venomous nature and the rather shocking assertion that he’d rather be “a worm in a wild apple” are the products of the particularly gloomy and despairing mood brought on by the horrors of the war, a mood which permeates the entirety of that 1948 collection. Though the word “misanthropy” has unpleasant connotations, what does it imply if not disgust with the congenital and pervasive meanness of human nature, the human disposition that relishes domination and delights in torture and killing — that tribal self-righteousness and the attendant contempt for those whose land and wealth we wish to steal, the perennial human hatred for those not of our tribe, pigmentation or persuasion? And how interesting that from this bitter misanthropic narrative the author draws the lesson that the ubiquity of human viciousness should restrain us from hating any individual: since we are all guilty of such evil — love of vengeance and slaughter, greed, hypocrisy and bullying arrogance. Each of us needs to be wary of our own darker predispositions, our own presumed and false moral superiority to our neighbors.
But what is no less interesting is that our species’ original sin, according to Jeffers, was not the slaughter of one’s fellow man — an act universally acknowledged to be criminal (except when such slaughter is sanctioned by the state) — but the slaughter of an animal, a wild non-human creature, an act that has always been perfectly acceptable in the Judeo-Christian world. It seems evident enough — though it has not been much acknowledged — that Jeffers’ disgust at humanity is a product not of cold-heartedness but of an excessive compassion and empathy — not just for his own species but for his fellow earthborn creatures. Pained at the glee his countrymen expressed at the slaughter of the enemy, he understood that such periodic bloodbaths were a product not of the low character of our nation’s citizens but of our species’ congenital love of the hunt, our love of visiting pain and death on our fellow creatures. In “The Purse Seine,” first published in his 1937 collection Such Counsels You Gave Me, Jeffers describes the nets being hauled in as the captured sardines “wildly beat from one wall to the other of their closing destiny…each beautiful slender body sheeted with flame.” And then in the poem’s second half, he describes a contemporary human city, it too densely packed with helpless creatures who will not escape the inevitable mass-disasters. Even as he watches he knows
The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in”
(CP 2: 517).
But critics who have dismissed the description of the fish in that poem as simply a metaphoric vehicle while the poem’s real subject is the mass of human beings crowded into their cities, are very likely mistaken. It is, in fact, the first half of the poem, the section about the captured and panicked fish, that is the more vivid and more deeply felt. In Jeffers’ first notable collection, Tamar and Other Poems, originally self-published in 1924, the poet describes a similar scene in “Salmon Fishing,” a powerful poem of 17 lines, but in that piece the author doesn’t bother making the scene of horror serve as a vehicle for any human tragedy. He describes the fishermen this way:
In Christmas month against the smoulder and menace
Of a long angry sundown,
Red ash of the dark solstice, you see the anglers,
Pitiful, cruel, primeval…
And he describes the dying salmon like this:
…the bloody mouths
And scales full of the sunset
Twitch on the rocks, no more to wander at will
The wild Pacific pasture nor wanton and spawning
Race up into fresh water.
(CP 1: 6)
That is the poem of a man anguished — unambiguously — by the agonizing mass death of small sentient creatures. The fishermen are “pitiful and cruel.” We are reminded, pointedly, that it is Christmas month. If his world-view is misanthropic, it is a misanthropy that springs from compassion, from profound regret at the inherent cruelty of our nature.
His ability to take seriously the lives of other creatures is best known from that shocking line from “Hurt Hawks: “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” (CP 1: 377). It is a poem of tender concern for an injured bird whom he had fed for six weeks and had then found himself forced to euthanize, a great redtail that
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his
talons when he moved.
Here is the hauntingly painful opening of another short poem “Memoir” also from Such Counsels You Gave Me, a poem composed in the years just before the Second War. It begins with a visit to an animal research laboratory:
I saw the laboratory animals: throat bandaged dogs cowering in cages, still
obsessed with the pitiful
Love that dogs feel, longing to lick the hand of their devil; and the sick
monkeys, dying rats, all sacrificed
To human inquisitiveness, pedantry and vanity…
Leaving the laboratory, the speaker encounters some ranchers dehorning bulls in a field above Rio Piedras Canyon and while describing the gory process the speaker remarks that these are “sane men,” that is, they are rarely capable of “feeling pain outside their own skins” (CP 2: 524):
Bill Flodden with a long-
handled tool like pruning shears
Crushed off the horns and the blood spouted; Ed Stiles, our knower of
bawdy stories, the good-natured man,
Stands by to cake the blood-fountains with burning alum. These fellows are
fit for life, sane men, well buttoned
In their own skins; rarely feel pain outside their own skins: whilst I like a
dowager go here and there
With skinless pity for the dipping hazel-fork.
Near the poem’s conclusion, the speaker comments that “Here in this sanctuary” he need not recall that a million persons
Are presently dying of hunger in the provinces of China. I need not think of
the Russian labor-camps, the German
Prison-camps, nor any of those other centers
That make the earth shine like a star with cruelty for light….
The poem concludes:
I need not think of the probable
wars, tyranny and pain
Made world-wide; I need not… know that this is our world, where only fool or
drunkard makes happy songs.
James Karman suggests in his critical biography of the poet that Jeffers, who tried to enlist as a pilot in the First World War, would not have made a good soldier: “Despite his training in medical school, training that might have helped him place some distance between himself and the injuries of others, Jeffers was unusually sensitive. He neither hunted nor fished because he did not want to inflict pain on living things” (Karman 41). [Karman 41] However, there is some evidence that Jeffers did hunt, if only on rare occasions. In “Shine, Empire” he writes:
If I were hunting in the Ventana canyons again with my strong sons, and to
sleep under stars,
I should be happy again. It is not time for happiness. Happy the blind, the
witless, the dead.
(CP 3: 17)
According to Tim Hunt, an earlier draft of that poem made no mention of hunting.There he simply says,
If I were in the Ventana canyons with my strong sons, and to sleep under
I should be happy again.
(CP 4: 633).
Whether or not Jeffers had ever taken delight in sport hunting, and despite the fact that his long verse tragedies were famously drenched in vengeance, rape, incest, conflagration and murder, he was a man with a vehement antipathy to human violence and acutely conscious of mankind’s brutality toward our fellow sentient creatures.
But he relished the grandeur of the violence inherent in the natural world: he is the singer of coastal storms and violent seas, the poet whose major symbol was the predatory hawk. For the non-human creatures he has no moral judgement: they are part of the cosmic magnificence, “innocent” in the sense that they are behaving in the manner that nature has forced upon them — part of that natural world without moral agency. Like the sea and the stones, they have no alternative. The matter is set out nicely in “Orca,” a poem from The Double Axe wherein the speaker watches from a cliff two killer whales move shoreward toward a covey of sea-lions who had been loafing in the “swinging tide of the inlet.” As the birds begin screaming above him, the speaker sees below that “brown blood and foam / Striped the water of the inlet.” The poem ends with this telling passage:
Here was death, and with terror, yet it
looked clean and bright, it was beautiful.
Why? Because there was nothing human involved, suffering nor causing; no
lies, no smirk and no malice;
All strict and decent; the will of man had nothing to do here. The earth is a
star, its human element
Is what darkens it. War is evil, the peace will be evil, cruelty is evil; death is
not evil. But the breed of man
Has been queer from the start. It looks like a botched experiment that has run
Wild and ought to be stopped.
But isn’t man’s nature, with all its cruelty, also part of that existent whole, part of that majestic beauty? And if that is the case then God isn’t quite so beautiful. In “Contemplation of the Sword,” a poem from Be Angry at the Sun, the poet comments on that problem with his conception of the world, a problem made more acute by the war that he saw was inevitable:
Dear God, who are the whole splendor of things and the sacred stars, but
also the cruelty and greed, the treacheries
And vileness, insanities and filth and anguish: now that this thing comes
near us again I am finding it hard
To praise you with a whole heart.
(CP 2: 544)
It is humankind alone, the species that kills other creatures for recreation and indulges in periodic orgies of mass murder of his own species, that darkens the earth and should be stopped. The relationship between our quotidian cruelty to the other animals and our savagery to each other is spelled out in a stanza from “The King of Beasts”:
Cattle in the slaughter-pens, laboratory dogs slowly tortured to death,
flogged horses, trapped fur-bearers,
Agonies in the snow, splintering your needle teeth on chill steel – look:
Mankind, your Satans, are not very happy either. I wish you had seen the
battle-squalor, the bombings,
The screaming fire-deaths. I wish you could watch the endless hunger, the
cold, the moaning, the hopelessness.
I wish you could smell the Russian and the German torture-camps.
It is quite natural the two-footed beast
That inflicts terror, the cage, enslavement, torment and death on all other
Should eat the dough that he mixes and drink the death-cup.
(CP 3: 138)
“Despite his writing,” his friend, the photographer Edward Weston, once commented, “I cannot feel him misanthropic: his is the bitterness of despair over humanity he really loves” (qtd. in Karman 95)
An isolate figure who was never interested in the status of his literary reputation, Jeffers spent his final years writing and living in his beloved Tor House. An heroic poet of an heroic landscape, it is unlikely that he lived those last years with the consolations of Christian hope. If his notion of god was of an inherent consciousness immanent in the natural world itself, a god unconcerned with humanity, one that “does not care and will never cease,” it was clearly also a god that did not promise man personal immortality and the rewards of Paradise. “Hungerfield,” published four years after Una’s death, is bracketed by passages of quiet grief. In the opening section he begins to indulge in that consoling philosophy of eternal recurrence to which he had always been attracted, but then, with a heartbreaking ellipsis stops himself:
It is possible that all these conditions of us
Are fixed points on the returning orbit of time and exist eternally…
It is no good. Una has died and I
Am left waiting for death. Like a leafless tree
Waiting for the roots to rot and the trunk to fall.
Some 50 lines later he once again refuses the romantic lie, the small, consoling trope of conventional elegiac verse that allows the speaker to address the dead:
Never fear: I shall not forget you —
Until I am with you. The dead indeed forget all things.
And when I speak to you it is only play-acting
And self-indulgence: you cannot hear me, you do not exist. Dearest…
To remind himself, in the midst of this passionate apostrophe to his beloved Una, that she no longer exists is Jeffers’s attempt, once again, however difficult it might be, to tell the truth. But in the poem’s final ten lines Jeffers again addresses Una to tell her, in a passage that permits itself a consoling mystical hope that is more reminiscent of the optimistic philosophy of Whitman than the dark one of Jeffers, that
You are alive and well in the tender
young grass rejoicing
When soft rain falls all night, and little rosy-fleeced clouds float on the dawn.
— I shall be with you presently.
(CP 3: 375)
Another elegiac poem of his last years, one memorializing both Una and himself, is written in the voice of their beloved Haig, Robin and Una’s bulldog, the companion of many years. It is one of Jeffers’s most unashamedly tender poems. Here the poet of epic conflict and thunderous violence permits himself a sweet fantasy born of innocent love. Instead of lying by their fire as he had done in life, Haig lies now in the ground a few feet outside their window. It is a poem that exhibits the poet’s appealing humanity and his empathy with and compassion for other creatures, a characteristic that, as I have been arguing, has been largely overlooked, a humanity quite inseparable from his Inhumanist vision. The critical Hounds of Hell who pursued him with their wrath and did their best to destroy his reputation are likely not to triumph in the end. “The House-Dog’s Grave” ends like this:
I hope that when you are lying
Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No dears, that’s too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.
And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided….
But to me you were true.
You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.
(CP 3: 12)
1. Tim Hunt considers this to be part of an earlier poem, “Explosion,” and for the poem “The Great Explosion” prints in volume three of the Collected Poems only its opening stanza (CP 3: 413).
Everson, William. “All Grass is Flesh” from The Excesses of God, in Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet, ed. Robert Brophy. New York: Fordham U Press, 1995.
Gioia, Dana. “Strong Counsel” from Can Poetry Matter: Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Graywolf, 1992.
Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. Story Line Press, 1994.
Raimondo The American Conservative published in December of 2007], Justin “Robinson Jeffers: Peace Poet,” The American Conservative December, 2007.
Vardamis, Alex in Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet, ed. Robert Brophy, Fordham U Press, 1995.