Poets: Robinson Jeffers

Returning again to the “modern” era, we have the American poet Robinson Jeffers, born in the 19th century & living well into the 20th. It should come as little surprise that Jeffers was the son of a minister–Presbyterian to be exact, coming from Pennsylvania. (We should recall for a moment the English Dissenter roots of the Pennsylvanian population.) Like all American poets, there is no direct indication of noble lineage; though in the context, being the son of a minister (both his father and his father’s brother were quite prominent) is sufficient to establish him, like Ezra Pound, as a member of the American literate/intellectual class.

Despite his prominence in his lifetime, Jeffers seems to be rather unknown compared to say, Robert Frost. The reason for this is quite simple, and that is his poetry is not included for reading by students when studying American literature (ironically, I read more William Carlos Williams poems that Jeffers poems growing up) and the reason for this is to some degree cultural, but it is primarily political. Some poets, as we remember, such as Pope, kept it ambiguous where they stood politically on certain issues to allow them to continue to function among the literate. Jeffers did not; and while there would have been a cultural divergence between him and many of his contemporaries regardless, his direct opposition of the U.S. entering World War II sealed his fate as a “curiosity” in the 20th century.

Jeffers did not oppose WW2 from the position of a pacifist in general, but from the mentality of America’s Old Right, which due to political maneuvering (and possibly some assassinations; depends on who you ask) was mostly marginal by the time Jeffers released his work “The Double Axe.” The work was released but censored, a full 10 poems removed from the original, and only released with heavy caveats. His popularity never recovered.

His perspective is frequently called “inhumanism”, in the sense that his perspective was one that turned away from human achievement and looked to what he saw as the immortality of nature, as for example in the poem “Carmel Point”:

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

There is a certain irony that in the first half of the 20th century–if any thing a period of humanism’s greatest pride since the French Revolution, that Jeffers would come uttering such words. There is precedent for a lot of what he says in other poets from the Romantic era, but he has taken a decisive step away from the emotionally human perspective of those poets (Wonder and Joy):

The things that one grows tired of—O, be sure
They are only foolish artificial things!
Can a bird ever tire of having wings?
And I, so long as life and sense endure,
(Or brief be they!) shall nevermore inure
My heart to the recurrence of the springs,
Of gray dawns, the gracious evenings,
The infinite wheeling stars. A wonder pure
Must ever well within me to behold
Venus decline; or great Orion, whose belt
Is studded with three nails of burning gold,
Ascend the winter heaven. Who never felt
This wondering joy may yet be good or great:
But envy him not: he is not fortunate.

But in fact, his perspective ends up getting taken up not by the Right, as the American Old Right was mostly dead by this point as a major political force, but by the New Left. Naturally, by now, all of the real, recognizable elements of Jeffers’ thought have been removed from the ascendant members of the New Left (take Hillary Clinton as an example) save perhaps the undercurrent of inhumanism which is often betrayed in discussions regarding why we wish to protect the natural environment.

For Jeffers, the natural world is justification enough for itself, whether there is a human there to see it or not; which is often an unspoken assumption in modern environmentalism. But more than this, there is a sense that the rugged individual (a image of Nietzsche’s overman) will persist to witness the world free of the majority of humanity; after the “spoiler” has perished.

There is something, of course, not totally consonant in this view with the Left in general; but it does make sense as a kind of failure mode when Locke’s ideal natural and anarchic society is found to be impossible. This failure mode attitude is clearly present in early American New Left texts like the Port Huron statement, and a certain incoherent inhumanism was (and is still) present in many people we have called “hippies” for decades.

There is a lot more to be said of Jeffers that I cannot do justice to here, but here is his “Shine, Perishing Republic” published in the 1920’s, which is, if nothing, prophetic:

While this America settles in the mould 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 deca-
dence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stub-
bornly 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 thick-
ening 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.

In this work in particular, you can see some almost undigested Spengler; in a very real sense isolation and inaction are justified by a belief in inevitable progress: not from glory to glory, but from height to decay.

Jeffers had two sons with his wife Una, and lived most of their time in rugged areas in California, particularly in a stone house Jeffers built himself called Tor House and Hawk Tower. Various poems of his can be found online with a search, though most of his significant works were actually long-form poetic tragedy. The overall catalogue is very extensive.

Some other people have written some words about Jeffers – here – and even Bowden had some words for the man.

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  1. I think his poems are beautiful.

  2. These poems are exquisite, and cut through to the quick of one’s being. One does not connect them with environmentalism (a vile and detestable thing), for they are so much more.

  3. The house and tower he constructed for his family is really incredible. It’s built out of local boulders.

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