For Thomas Cochran
Like almost everything else in contemporary life, writers go out of style, and one formerly well-known American poet has all but disappeared from the literary landscape. After completing his formal education, Robinson Jeffers decided that he wanted to write; he eventually discovered his spiritual home in Point Sur, California, and for forty years he produced slender volumes of splendid poetry.
Sometimes a writer becomes unfashionable because he makes people unpleasantly aware of their cultural deficiencies, and perhaps that circumstance in some measure accounts for the current eclipse of Jeffers’ popularity. No one wants to have his glib certainties challenged, and the work of Robinson Jeffers is a decided provocation to contemporary sensibilities. It is always easier to dismiss a critic than it is to consider the ways in which his ideas might meaningfully improve the world.
Jeffers built Tor House and Hawk Tower on his property, stone by stone, in order to afford himself a clear perspective on the ocean – and on life. From this lofty citadel he wrote verses in an idiom as rugged as the Pacific coastline, and yet he was a deeply intuitive and profoundly sensitive man. Jeffers responded to nature in passionately eloquent ways, and he had a keen appreciation of the complexities of human character; in consequence, he wrote some of the most hauntingly lovely poems in the English language.
Jeffers had many temperamental affinities with Jack London. Both men despised the emotional promiscuity that sometimes informs American social life, and they were happiest when alone or in the company of family and close friends. Because they treasured privacy, in their works Jeffers and London defended the individual against the oppressive norms of mass society. Above all, these men shared a decidedly unsentimental view of nature’s inherent beauty and grandeur.
Like Thoreau, Jeffers was a keen observer of the natural world, and he was especially adept at placing local landscapes into wider poetic and philosophical contexts. Staring at the vast Pacific he could write, “Before there was any water there were tides of fire; both our tones flow from the older fountain.” His poetry thus affords readers a metaphorical glimpse into the primordial hurricane that gave birth to the cosmos.
But despite living amidst the immense gulfs of time and space, man has a place in Jeffers’ world, albeit a modest one. In “Boats in a Fog” Jeffers states, “It is a bitter earnestness that makes beauty . . . A sudden fog-drift muffled the ocean. A throbbing of engines moved in it . . . The flight of planets is nothing nobler; all the arts lose virtue against the essential reality of creatures going about their business among the equally earnest elements of nature.” Human beings might simply be “creatures” among many others, but in Jeffers’ poetry their everyday life is elevated into a mythic ritual.
Such experiences are not extraordinary, though they are frequently undervalued. Imagine a winter morning on an Arkansas lake. As the pre-dawn mist rises from the surface of the water, a bird suddenly cries out from the cloud-wracked woodlands. When the echoes of its call subside, the world is utterly silent, save for the gentle, barely audible lapping of waves upon the shore. This is the very sort of spiritually resonant moment that Jeffers captures and distills in his finest poetry. Solitude and quiet do not find much affirmation in our crowded and noisy world, but by having us recollect their worth, Jeffers imaginatively restores our sense of wonder at being alive.
In one of his most beautiful poems, Jeffers personifies night with such richly textured imagery that he could be mistaken for an Aryan nomad wandering in the steppes of central Asia, writing a Vedic love hymn to the goddess of darkness. From “Night”: “O passionately at peace you being secure will pardon the blasphemies of glowworms, the lamp in my tower, the fretfulness of cities, the cressets of planets, the pride of the stars.” Jeffers sounds, in fact, like a Chinese Taoist poet singing praises to Yin, the dark and depthless female principle that is the source of all creativity.
Walk abroad on a clear Arkansas night, far from the gaudy lights of city, and look heavenward. The same stars that delighted Jeffers wheel through our sky, bearing their lovely Greek names – Arcturus and Antares. The planets still wander through the constellations, as do we, and standing under her spangled dome, we are all the children of Mother Night. That is exactly the sort of quiet epiphany that illuminates the hearts of people who read the poetry of Robinson Jeffers.
Schooled in Greek tragedy, Jeffers did not have a particularly high regard for human beings or society. In fact, early in his career he wrote, “Humanity is the mold to break away from,” for he feared that a mass society would pressure its citizens to conform in ways that could extinguish creative individualism. Thus, his attacks on American monoculture are actually a defense of a national principle, and he was a tireless advocate of personal autonomy.
It is especially instructive in an election year to scan the lines of “Be Angry at the Sun” and discover, “That public men should publish falsehoods is nothing new . . . let boys want pleasure, and men struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame, and the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.” In 1924, at a time when America was enjoying an economic boom remarkably like the one that obtains today (2000), Jeffers wrote “Shine, Perishing Republic,” in which he lamented the fact that, long before the apotheosis of Hollywood and television, America had begun to settle “into the mold of its vulgarity.”
Jeffers’ tragic view of human experience is at variance with the therapeutic understandings currently in vogue. He wrote, “Be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.” He also asserted in “Soul’s Desert” that “Clearly it is time to become disillusioned, each person to enter his own soul’s desert and look for God – having seen man.” It is easy to characterize these notions as cynical, but since he was fluent in Classical languages, Jeffers would have construed the allegation as a compliment, for he knew that “cynic” derives from the Greek word for “canine” – the loyal dog that refuses to be cowed by popular opinion when it is at odds with truth.
In his steadfast realism, Jeffers knew that his artistic ambitions were doomed to failure. In an almost Shakespearean conceit, he comments in “To the Stone-Cutters” that people who create things are “foredefeated challengers of oblivion . . . the poet . . . builds his monument mockingly.” Perhaps art can temporarily arrest the flow of time by giving aesthetic form to transient things, but in Jeffers’ grim words, everything will finally “be blotted out.” This courageous acceptance extended to his own mortality, and in his poem “Bed by the Window,” with stoic conviction Jeffers states of his deathbed that “I often regard it, with neither dislike nor desire.”
William Butler Yeats once claimed that poets could sing “of what is past, or passing, or to come.” His study of Greek tragedy gave Jeffers an understanding of the past, his tower presented him with a perspective on the present, and his intuitive nature bestowed upon him the capacity to foresee the patterns of history being repeated in the future. However, he knew, as all wise prophets do, that his warnings would go unheeded. In fact, in his poem “Cassandra” he wrote, “does it matter, Cassandra, whether the people believe your bitter fountain? Truly men hate the truth.”
The poems of Robinson Jeffers reacquaint us with the bedrock constants of human life that abide beneath the shifting surface tides of cultural change. Since we live in a time characterized by remarkable technological achievements and broad economic prosperity, maybe we occasionally need such reminders. Perched high above the Pacific Ocean, Robinson Jeffers lived among and recorded the rhythms of sea and star, mountain and sun, humanity and history. Perhaps his poetry now suffers neglect, but his works are still in print, and they afford us all the opportunity to be astonished anew by the harsh and beautiful drama that is the world.
This article first appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on September 17, 2000. People who wish to read more of my editorials and reviews should access the newspaper’s electronic archives at www2.arkansasonline.com/
Thomas Cochran is a teacher, scholar, and author, whose two books – Roughnecks and Running the Dogs – deserve the widest possible audience.