Robinson Jeffers, the great poet of the California coast, says that poetry should address only the eternal things: “poetry’s function is the passionate presentment of beauty. . . an intensification of life, not an escape from it.”
Jeffers (1887-1962) feared poetry was becoming the domain of those who were interested in writing only virtuoso trivialities. Poetry must be “rhythmic, and must deal with permanent things, and must avoid affectation” Well, Jeffers has fallen on hard times. I don’t know that many people, especially academics, read him any more. I don’t know how most member of the EBF feel about Jeffers, but I find myself, for reasons not entirely clear to me, drawn to his vision of the universe. I suppose it’s Jeffers’s insistence that we should live with as few illusions as possible. Jeffers though the most pernicious illusion was the one of the herd, the mass of humanity following a mad hallucination, one demanding the Scapegoat, the spilling of sacrificial blood. The first half of the twentieth century did not prove Jeffers wrong.
One could make a case that Jeffers is in many ways Beckerian–particularly in how men (the “dream led masses”) embrace illusion to palliate the truth of the world. Jeffers accuses the human race of an incestuous self-indulgence; that is, loving itself more than it loves the world. Jeffers, who died in early 1962, would not be surprised at how we have spoiled the environment. Humans would, he said, “shit on a star.” He said that the three things he that are endemic to humans are cruelty, filth, and superstition.
It’s almost as if Jeffers thought self-consciousness was an aberration in the universe. He knew the great working-out of the universe was unconscious, no more aware of itself than the orange lightning’s jagged razor slicing through the dark belly of a summer’s night. The question, Jeffers seems to say, is this: if a man understands how things are in this world, the enigma of the human predicament, he must figure out how he is to live in the world as it is. Jeffers advises us to stay away from the spoiled and cruel world of men, from tormented men and their need for victims, their need for certitude, their insane clamoring for the world to provide to them what it cannot give.
Jeffers urges us to love the beauty of things, not mankind. Jeffers lived in his isolation at Carmel, in his stone house by the Pacific. He was not a hermit. He had wife and twin sons. He occasionally ventured into the world, this lonely and austere man, but he did not like what humankind had become, its constant probing of itself, a relentless and almost incestuous self-indulgence. Could he see what humans have done to the environment, the foul and pestilent thing we have turned Mother Earth into, he would say, “I told you so!” And he did.
He said, “One thing is left us: the beauty of the things, not men; / The immense beauty of the world, not the human world. / Look–and without imagination, desire nor dream–directly / At the mountains and the sea.” I find I am more sympathetic to Jeffers and his arduous and honest struggle about what it means to be a man than I am to the hermetic academic poet, narrow and self-absorbed, too often choked with resentment, too often devoid of talent and vision.
Was Jeffers a misanthrope? In some ways, I suppose he was. Though like all men he sometimes was infected with that obscure human fidelity toward his own kind, prone, as are most, to self-pity and absurd sentimentality. Jeffers wanted to stand under meaningless but beautiful skies, stand there with “bitter earnestness,” though Jeffers knew what most of us know: we are at war with ourselves, with our consciousness and its hunt for sweet illusions, the comfort of the tribe, the creed, the hot ideology, the fatuous diversion, the inane murmuring of human voices. How does a man shed his weakness? Oh, for to be human is to be weak, to tremble in one’s singularity.
In The Aenied, when Aeneas and his men attend the banquet given by Dido, after the hearty and deep imbibing of wine, one called Iopas, “the long-haired bard” picks up his lyre and soon poetry resounds through the halls:
. . . he sings
the wandering moon and laboring sun eclipsed,
the roots of the race and the wild beasts,
the source of storms and the lightning bolts on high,
Arcturus, the rainy Hyades and the Great and Little Bears,
and why the winter suns so rush to bathe themselves in the sea
and what slows down the nights to a long lingering crawl . . .
Virgil writes the kind of poetry Jeffers admired. Virgil and other Classical poets in general do not sing of pity and sentimentality, of temporal and petty things, of the desperate and selfish phantoms that haunt little men and their arrogant views of themselves. They sing of men who strive with gods. They sing not of the whining of lost men but rather of the prodigious strength and courage of men who contend with Fate, men who know where they stand in the cosmos.
And so Jeffers writes of the tossing ocean, the wind singing over it, the moon, swollen, gravid in the sky, and then the dawn coming, the birds in flight, the sunlight on the water –these things will be here when you and I are gone:
And when the whole human race
Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here:
storms, moon and ocean,
Dawn and birds.And I say this: their beauty has
Than the whole human race and the race of birds.
Jeffers built, stone by stone, a tower on the coast, there by the sea, and at night, he’d climb to the top of his tower, look over the sea and up at the sky full of stars or of clouds. He heard the wind and the old antiphony of the sea, the two chanting as they have been doing since time immemorial. Jeffers knew what science has since proved: that the universe is in cataclysm, worlds in fiery birth, stars collapsing upon themselves in furious wrath. A man cannot comprehend, but he can observe. All the world will ever give to him is its beauty, its prolific and superfluous beauty, its utter ruthlessness. It will never explain itself. It will bring him oblivion. All a man can do is sit and watch–and adore the splendor of things, the night in convulsion.
And yet men write poetry and when they sleep they dream.