“Envying the cruel falcon”: The Anti-Liberal Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Part One of Two


Only the most ardent 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.
                              St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1948

In two previous essays I explored the nature of academic ethno-activism in the deconstruction of the cultural legacy of the Modernist poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Such deconstructions, which are ongoing, target the posthumous legacies of creative thinkers deemed by the current dispensation to have held quasi-Fascistic socio-political views. The essays on Eliot and Pound were intended as broad overviews of this process of deconstruction, emphasizing the scale of successive critiques and, to some extent, illuminating the psychology of those behind them. Analysis of the actual poetic content produced by those creatives was peripheral. This was partly because, although they have been subjected to withering criticism with the ultimate intention of consigning them to distant memory, neither Pound nor Eliot have yet disappeared entirely from view, and their works continue to be widely sold in bookshops, studied in colleges, and read in libraries. Thus, while Pound and Eliot are being “phased out” culturally, or held up as examples of “bigoted old White men,” the depth and intensity of their fame have meant that they continue to put up a spirited resistance to being forgotten.

Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962), the subject of this essay, has found this task much more difficult. Despite once adorning the cover of TIME magazine (April 4, 1932), Jeffers’s fall from grace began earlier, and has been more complete. Studied only rarely in colleges and almost entirely exiled from bookshops and popular discussion, Jeffers and his poetry are a niche literary interest at best. Even within our circles, aside from a single lecture by Jonathan Bowden (which takes the form of a brief cultural biography and glosses over the content of Jeffers’s poetry), he remains largely ignored or unknown. In part to rectify this, the focus of the present essay will be mainly on the poet’s biography and content, with the deconstructive element relegated to the background.

There are a number of reasons for Jeffers’s descent from the heights of popularity, and these reasons make both the man and his work an interesting study. Within a decade of his appearance on the front cover of TIME, Jeffers found himself pilloried as an isolationist opposed to American involvement in World War II, and even as a “fascist sympathizer” who produced “unpatriotic verse.” Jeffers had attracted increasing interest, and then suspicion, from liberals who reacted with horror to his scathing rebukes of, and deep pessimism towards, their schemes for “human improvement.” A close inspection of the reclusive Jeffers’s works revealed a man railing against the decadence of the inter-war period. Piercing that maelstrom of cultural degeneration, his poetry was a furious cry against cherished concepts like “equality,” “progressivism,” and “social justice.” In Jeffers’s unflinching vision, God and Nature were intertwined, inseparable. Man was “nature dreaming,” and the further Man distanced himself from Nature, natural instinct, and natural law, the further Man descended into weakness and decay. Violence, of a noble, natural kind, is glorified in Jeffers’s poetry, as is normal, healthy, and natural sexuality.

Because of his rejection of the pillars of the liberal consumerist worldview, Jeffers was labelled by the new shapers of culture, unfairly and erroneously, as a misanthropic nihilist. Jewish “New York Intellectual” Alfred Kazin remarked that Jeffers was afflicted with a “disgust with the human species in toto.”[1] Louis Untermeyer, another Jewish literary critic from New York, dismissed Jeffers’ work on the basis of “the idée fixe which runs through all of Jeffers’s volumes: Life is horrible.”[2] The non-Jewish avant-garde, limp-wristed, cosmopolitan Yvor Winters lamented that Jeffers’s poems “glorify brute nature and annihilation and are numb to the intricacies of human feeling.”[3] These critiques missed, perhaps intentionally, the more complex (and revolutionary) arguments inherent in Jeffers’s poetry — that Man should rise above his destructive pettiness and multiplying follies; that Man was once better than he is today and could become so again; and that liberal democracy and cosmopolitanism has “besmirched humanity” and in turn besmirched the Natural world.[4]

Was Jeffers an Alt Right poet? It would be intellectually dishonest and factually incorrect to state that Jeffers shared any programmatic ideas with the modern White Identitarian movement. However, if one assumes that our circles are also home to an imprecise yet profound ethos and deep racial consciousness (the presence of a “race soul” based on an ancient longing for individual freedom), then it occurs to me that there is a more than significant overlap between our ethos and that of our present subject.

Ancestral Origins

Robinson Jeffers was born into a Pennsylvanian family of Ulster Scots of Scotch Irish origins. His father, Reverend Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers, was a Presbyterian minister in the Covenanter church, a strict Calvinist denomination. Reverend Dr. Jeffers was also a well-known scholar of ancient languages and Biblical history, and was a sought-after speaker in both the Old World and the New. Raised with strict discipline and high-investment parenting, the young Jeffers traveled across Europe with his family throughout his youth and was educated in Germany, France, and Switzerland. By his early teens it became apparent that the boy was a prodigy. With ease he became fluent in German, French, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He devoted time to the study of history and literature, and by the age of 15 Robinson Jeffers considered himself a poet. At the same age he was also considered sufficiently accomplished and capable to be admitted to study at Occidental College. He left, having earned his bachelor’s degree, at age 18.

The family origins of Robinson Jeffers are important both culturally and racially because the noted characteristics and history of the Ulster Scots play themselves out in Jeffers’s life and work. Described by scholar Patrick Griffin as the “people with no name,” the Ulster Scots, neither fully Irish nor fully Scottish, identified themselves early in America simply as “frontier inhabitants.”[5] And this they were, even before they arrived in the New World. The groups which later became known as the Ulster Scots were drawn originally from the border regions of Lowland Scotland and the far north of England. They were predominantly Scots-speakers, a Germanic dialect similar but not identical to English, and in the frontiers of northern Britain they distinguished themselves by their predilection for “violent feuds, raids, and other acts of lawlessness.”[6] Their unruly behavior in Britain, their Protestantism, and their predisposition to ferocity, combined with the desire of the English Crown to displace the Catholic Irish in the north of Ireland, led King James I to offer the “borderers” the opportunity to settle on seized lands in Ulster in 1610. They took up the opportunity in their thousands. Possessing a frontier mentality from the beginning, the fighting instinct of these borderers was only further honed when they were very nearly exterminated by the native Gaelic Irish during the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–1649) — an eventuality that was only conclusively averted with the arrival of Oliver Cromwell and the commencement of his conquest of Ireland (1649–1653).

A significant number of Scottish borderers would remain in what would three centuries later become Northern Ireland, but many would also make their way onward to the American colonies. Here they drew the disgruntled attention of colonists of English descent who had contrived neat and legalistic systems of land distribution and sale. The Ulster Scots, in keeping with their temperament and history, resented government and being governed, and quite literally pushed boundaries. Fiercely independent, they were crucial in displacing, often at the cost of bloodshed, the continent’s indigenous peoples, and were therefore pivotal in the extension of the frontier.[7] Historian James Layburn writes that the group formed “the vanguard of pioneers” who pushed into the Ohio Valley after the Revolution.[8] Because this extension of the frontier often caused problems for the wider colony, the Ulster Scots were viewed with horror by more established settlers. In Pennsylvania, where the Jeffers family would later take root, one leading colonist complained that “the settlement of five families from Ulster gives me more trouble than fifty of any other people.”[9]

As well as being shaped by historical experience, the hunger for freedom and independence in this group was nurtured by religion. Calvinism, particularly of a puritanical or fanatical nature, has in recent years been given something of a bad press by Alt Right intellectuals (e.g. Tomislav Sunic in Homo Americanus), and in several notable cases this has been deserved. For instance, there is certainly something to be said for the fact that Calvinism contributed to the development of moralistic ideologies and socio-cultural patterns that are almost insufferable in contemporary society. However, having been raised in an Ulster Scots Calvinist denomination as a child, I contend that there are significant aspects of Calvinism which have been over-looked in prior critiques.

Specifically, in the more extreme variants of Calvinism (or even in other branches of nonconformist Christianity such as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church) one finds a form of Christianity so zealous that it becomes an inversion of itself. In some instances, the Plymouth Brethren being an excellent example, the emphasis on a God-chosen “elect” elite, or on what is meant by Christian ‘fellowship,’ becomes the antithesis of Christianity’s ostensibly egalitarian or universalist message, leading to forms of extreme social segregation more similar to that practiced by ultra-Orthodox Jews than by mainstream Christians. In other examples, one finds such an emphasis on stoic self-reliance and the denial of self-pity that genuine pity and compassion for others, a fundamental aspect of Christianity, becomes diminished by default. When combined with fanaticism of belief, as it did in the Ulster Scots pioneers, the result was often a sense of remorseless God-given entitlement that fueled and facilitated the violent and at times exterminatory acquisition of territory from oppositional groups — be they Irish or Native American. Such observations do not negate the pathways between Calvinism and pathological altruism, but they do complicate our understanding of them.

If Calvinism left its imprint on the Ulster Scots, then so did more ancient influences. I refer in particular to pre-Christian notions of honor and blood feud, of the type that permeates the Icelandic Sagas. Here it is fitting to turn to the words of James Parton, the nineteenth-century biographer of President Andrew Jackson, another Ulster Scot:

One trait in the character of these people demands the particular attention of the reader. It is their nature to contend for what they think is right with peculiar earnestness. Some of them, too, have a knack of extracting from every affair in which they may engage, and from every relation in life which they form, the very largest amount of contention which it can be made to yield. Hot water would seem to be the natural element of some of them, for they are always in it. It appears to be more difficult for a North-of-Irelander than for other men to allow an honest difference of opinion in an opponent; so that he is apt to regard the terms opponent and enemy as synonymous.[10]

Sir Walter Scott once remarked that the “Irish factions,” by which he meant the Ulster Scots and the native Irish, had been “envenomed” by having to conduct a profound religious war in such a small country; the equivalent of “fighting with daggers in a hogshead (whisky barrel).” This “venom” appears to have lingered in the blood of Andrew Jackson who was renowned for the ferocity of his wrath and the tenacity of his personal feuds. One might also consider the notorious blood feud of the Hatfield and McCoy families in Kentucky and West Virginia, satirized in the story of the Grangerfords in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, another Ulster Scot.

All of these traits can be seen, some more than others, in the life and work of Robinson Jeffers. After graduating from Occidental College, Jeffers undertook graduate work studying oratory and languages at the University of Southern California. There he met Una Call Kuster, wife of the successful Los Angeles lawyer Edward Kuster, and began gravitating towards Parton’s proverbial “hot water.” The two began a seven year affair which would make the front page of the Los Angeles Times and end in Una’s divorce from Kuster and her marriage to Jeffers. After a number of radical changes in career trajectory, first dropping the study of medicine, then forestry, and then following the death at just a day old of their daughter Maeve, Jeffers moved with Una to what remained of the frontier — the then sparsely-populated village of Carmel-by-the Sea, California. In a home built by his own hands from coastal rocks, Tor House (now a site of pilgrimage for small but dedicated bands of admirers), Jeffers penned his remarkable poetry.

The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

Robinson Jeffers was interested in his deeper ethnic origins and travelled to Ulster on a number of occasions. His poems reflecting on these homecomings reveal a man aware of the lingering ancestral “venom” within, as well as suggesting a sense of awe and inadequacy in the shadow of illustrious forebears. Jeffers certainly perceived the history of the Irish north as pitiless and bloody, and perhaps senselessly so. In “Antrim” he writes:

No spot on earth where men have so fiercely for ages of time
Fought and survived and cancelled each other,
Pict and Gael and Dane, McQuillan, Clandonnel, O’Neill,
Savages, the Scot, the Norman, the English,
Here in the narrow passage and the pitiless north, perpetual
Betrayals, relentless resultless fighting.
A random fury of dirks in the dark; a struggle for survival.

In the urgency of such struggles for survival, however, Jeffers undeniably felt that his ancestors were closer to Nature and natural instincts of competition and domination, and thus more true to their deeper purpose. In “Second-Best” (1938), the title of which summarizes the theme of the poem, Jeffers writes somewhat despondently of his own profession, domesticated and “pitiful” in comparison with his that of his ancestors:

A Celtic spearman forcing the cromlech-builder’s brown
A blond Saxon, a slayer of Britons,
Building his farm outside the village he’d burned; a Norse
Voyager, wielder of oars and a sword,
Thridding the rocks at the fjord sea-end, hungry as a hawk;
A hungry Gaelic chiefling in Ulster,
Whose blood with the Norseman’s rotted in the rain on a heather
These by the world’s time were very recent
Forefathers of yours. And you are a maker of verses. The pallid
Pursuit of the world’s beauty on paper,
Unless a tall angel comes to require it, is a pitiful pastime.

The sense of personal inadequacy when compared to his ancestors was merely part of a much broader theme in the poetic oeuvre of Robinson Jeffers — a disdain for, and dissatisfaction with, the spiritual and material trajectory of modern man. Jeffers, along with Eliot, Pound, Spengler, and others, was part of a generation that saw World War I as a civilizational catastrophe. While Eliot and Pound responded to this crisis with Modernism, a seething rejection of Romanticism, Jeffers advanced the position that Romanticism remained essentially valuable, but had grown decadent and excessive. Jeffers thus perceived the Modernism of Eliot and Pound as the completion and cultivation of this decadence and degeneration, rather than its refutation. In particular he was appalled at the tendency of Modernist poetry to be introverted, about itself and its structure, rather than about the world. Albert Gelpi writes that Jeffers saw in Modernist experiments “not just an elitist disregard for the reading audience but, even more alarmingly, a self-defeating capitulation to the very conditions of modernity that were the besetting problem.”[11] Jeffers sought to pioneer an anti-Modernism which would strip Romanticism of its excesses and return it to a state of truth and power. As such, his longer narrative poems followed sensible, coherent, and chronological plots that shifted the focus away from Man and his emotions, and stylistic ornamentation, and back towards the Romantic sense of the divinity of nature. This stance, in combination with his teenage rejection of the faith of his father, gave rise to Jeffers’s poetry having a pagan sensibility.

Regardless of our own perceptions on the matter, the veneration of nature seen in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers would be seen as inherently fascistic and reactionary by the Left. Some time ago, while conducting research for an essay on leftist (mis)understandings of anti-Semitism, I stumbled upon a radical leftist website called RevLeft.com. While browsing its discussion forums I discovered a thread on the Front National’s environmental policies. Although much of it entered and exited my mind in one turgid mass, one comment stood out because it summed up Communist attitudes towards nature and ecological concerns with an appalling clarity that I’ve yet to see rivaled:

The truth however is that like anti-semitism, ecology fetishism is thoroughly reactionary. Ecologism is anti-Communism, do not EVER forget the fact that the Nazis perceived themselves as guardians and protectors of nature in the midst of the ruthless, evil, unnatural, industrializing Soviet Union. That’s not all. Recall the reactionary romanticism of the 19th century, the old Toryism that lived on through Tolkien, which fetishized and idolized nature in the midst of the cold ruthlessness of industrial capitalism. Recall the relationship between the old decadent aristocracy and ‘nature’…Front National seeks a clean, natural, healthy environment. Part of having a clean, natural, healthy environment, means cleaning the human habitat of Arabs, Africans, and the peripheral Jews…The pathological notion of nature is reactionary…What is the task of Communism? The merciless destruction of ‘mother nature’. Don’t ever forget it.

Caring about the environment, the fate of animals, or any aspect of the non-human world is thus, in the minds of contemporary Marxists, tantamount to Nazism, Fascism, and ethnic cleansing. In attempting to comprehend the origins of such a position, it should be noted that Communism shares one of the central positions of Judaism — that everything non-human was created, or exists, purely to serve Man. Animals, landscapes, and habitats can thus be arbitrarily extinguished or commodified according to Man’s own vanity or, in the case of Communism, his psychopathic pursuit of irrational ideologies.

The other, deeper, reason for the Communist hatred of nature is of course that it is the most terribly visible refutation of the Marxist creed. There are no “affirmative action” equivalents in nature. There is no space for “equality.” The animal kingdom, including Man in his raw state, is the scene of struggles for dominance in which territory matters and borders and boundaries are a matter of life and death. It is particularly worrying to Marxists that someone who worries too much about the extinction of an animal species or sub-group will come to regard themselves as part of a species or sub-group – and wish to resist their own extinction. It is equally worrying that those who study the effects of heredity and breeding in animals may come to ponder the significance of those things in humans. Thus, in every IQ assessment which fails to show an improvement in the test scores of Africans, in every revealing study on the biological differences between the sexes, and in every failed medical experimentation with “gender,” the Marxists see cold, implacable, unbending nature jeering their efforts to create the new human — human nature as infinitely malleable and thus having no nature at all. And this, for the Left, is reason enough for the “merciless destruction” of all that is natural, whether conceptually (in the form of defiantly maintaining that a man can become a woman), or materially (by bulldozing forests and constructing soulless homes for the proletariat on the grave of oak and spruce).

Such attitudes appalled Jeffers, but he was no more sympathetic to the modern liberal capitalist than to the Communist. Both, in his eyes, were guilty of the same arrogance and the same commodification of nature. Both sought to locate themselves outside of the natural world, protected in the bubble of their “progressive,” Man-affirming, salvationist doctrines. Modern man emerges in the poetry of Jeffers as a weak, materialistic, and neurotic creature, dwarfed by his ancestors and the natural world. In “Nightpiece” (1963) Jeffers writes of social neuroses with “Many estimable people screaming like babies,” the root cause of which being that “Fear and remorse are monstrously exaggerated, And fear of responsibility.” Providing a cheap veneer for this inner weakness and insecurity is a superficial culture built on prosaic fashions and empty pastimes. In “Boats in a Fog” (1938), Jeffers asserts that “Sports and gallantries, the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers, The exuberant voices of music, Have charm for children but lack nobility.”

The modern taste for conveniences and comfort had led to the increasing docility of Western man, who had lost his hatred of government and had become tame and compliant in his decadence. In “Ave Caesar” (1938), Jeffers remarks with disdain that “We are easy to manage, a gregarious people, Full of sentiment, clever at mechanics, and we love our luxuries.” Similarly, in “Signpost” (1924) he asserts that men had become “curiously ignoble” and “prosperity made them curiously vile,” the repetition of “curiously” stressing the poet’s own incomprehension of modern culture. Jeffers’s instinctive disgust for the modern culture of convenience is made even more clear in “The Trap” (1938):

I am not well civilized, really alien here: trust me not.
I can understand the guns and the airplanes,
The other conveniences leave me cold.

‘We must adjust our economics to the new abundance.
Of what? Toys: motors, music-boxes,
Paper, fine clothes, leisure, diversion.

I honestly believe (but really an alien here: trust me not)
Blind war, compared to this kind of life,
Has nobility, famine has dignity. 

Be happy, adjust your economics to the new abundance;
One is neither saint nor devil, to wish
The intolerable nobler alternative.

Today we have made a veritable fetish of technological advances which, along with “social justice,” we have come to employ as a kind of benchmark for civilizational success and progress. In Jeffers’s phraseology, we much admire ourselves for being “clever at mechanics.” But, Jeffers argues, the emptiness and lack of meaningful purpose behind such advances ultimately render them worthless — they become exercises only in commerce and vanity. In “Decaying Lambskins” (1938) Jeffers asks:

What is noble in us, to kindle
The imagination of a future age? We shall seem a race of cheap
Fausts, vulgar magicians.
What men have we to show them? but inventions and appliances.
Not men but populations, mass-men; not life
But amusements; not health but medicines.

Go to Part Two.

[1] C. Falck, ‘Robinson Jeffers: American Romantic,’ in Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1987), p.7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Y. Winters, ‘Review: Dear Judas by Robinson Jeffers,’ Poetry, Vol. 35, No.5 (Feb. 1930), pp.279-286.

[4] ibid, p.8.

[5] P. Griffin, The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scotch Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) p.2.

[6] J.G. Layburn, The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962), p.xvi.

[7] Griffin, p.1.

[8] Layburn, p.xii.

[9] Griffin, p.2.

[10] J. Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson: In Three Volumes (New York: Mason Brothers, 1860), p.33.

[11] A. Gelpi (ed) The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003) p.2.

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