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

This America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire “Shine, Perishing Republic”

Go to Part One.

Modern man’s spiritual and physical weakness, in the understanding of Jeffers, is not just a cause for despair, but is mortally dangerous. In “The Purse-Seine” (1938) the poet recalls watching sardines being gathered in by fishermen at night, and is reminded of this again one evening while looking over a city from a mountain-top. Like the sardines, he imagines the masses of weak and dependent people below being gathered in and controlled by an all-powerful government:

Lately I was looking from a night mountain-top
On a wide city, the colored splendor, galaxies of light:
how could I help but recall the seine-net
Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how
beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible.
I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together
into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable
of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all
dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet
they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we
and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all
Powers — or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls — or anarchy,
the mass-disasters.

As well as despair at the condition of modern man, Robinson Jeffers was a harsh critic of the spirit and material expressions of mass society. To Jeffers, the rapid growth of the population, together with the expansion of government and economic interests (in effect the closing of the frontier and its way of life) was both a personal and civilizational tragedy. In “Carmel Point” (1954) he writes with despair that his village was being slowly “defaced with a crop of suburban houses.” Nine years later, in “Salvage” (1963), Jeffers observes with sadness the now complete encroachment of a growing population upon his beloved frontier existence:

It is true that half the glory is gone.
Motors and modernist houses usurp the scene.
There is no eagle soaring, nor a puma
On the Carmel hill highground, where thirty years ago
We watched one pass.

These personal reflections are given deeper context in the earlier poem “Prescription of Painful Ends” (1941), where the poet remarks with Spenglerian pessimism that just as Plato was forced to watch Athens “Dance the down path,” so the West was forced to confront the fact that “come peace or war, the progress of Europe and America Becomes a long process of deterioration — starred with famous Byzantium’s and Alexandria, Surely — but downward.”

Jeffers’s most stinging rebuke of American modernity can be found in “Shine, Perishing Republic,” (1938), in which the poet sees an urban, corrupt America settling “into the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire.” For Jeffers, rural living was most conducive to a noble and authentic existence; the city was a clogged artery of decadence and degeneracy. In “Return,” published in the same year, he commented that society had become “A little too abstract, a little too wise, It is time for us to kiss the earth again.”  By now the father of twin sons, Jeffers wrote in “Shine, Perishing Republic”:

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center, corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

 In the same poem Jeffers cautions his sons to be wary of fashionable, unrealistic, universalist ideologies professing love of all men:

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.

Similar lessons from Jeffers may be found in “Self-criticism in February,” where the poet writes that society’s cherished lies include the idea that “God is love,” and that man-made “social justice will prevail.”

If Jeffers rejected liberal notions of progress and the Christian offer of unconditional love from the Divine, then where did he locate man’s essential truth and purpose? A partial answer may be found in those poems that glorify a Darwinian existence and seem to imply that Man is best, or at least truest to his design, when he departs from superficially comforting ideologies and embraces conflict and struggle. In “The Answer,” Jeffers warns his readers to remain apart from “man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.” In “The Cruel Falcon” (1938), he reflects autobiographically on the envy a domesticated man feels at the sight of a hunting falcon. Most pointedly he writes: “In pleasant peace and security How suddenly the soul in a man begins to die.” This contrast between natural instincts and man-made banalities is returned to in “The Beaks of Eagles” (1938), where Jeffers discusses a female eagle he spots nesting on a ridge:

The world has changed in her time;
Humanity has multiplied, but not here; men’s hopes and thoughts
and customs have changed, their powers are enlarged,
Their powers and their follies have become fantastic,
The unstable animal never has been changed so rapidly. The
motor and the plane and the great war have gone over him,
And Lenin has lived and Jehovah died: while the mother-eagle
Hunts her same hills, crying the same beautiful and lonely cry and
is never tired; dreams the same dreams,
And hears at night the rock-slides rattle and thunder in the throats
of these living mountains.

Jeffers here reflects on the ignorance, and in some respects naivety, of those ideologies which sought to usurp nature — Communism and Judaism — as being quintessential examples of the worst hubris in Man. In the form of the resilient she-eagle “older than I,” Jehovah and Lenin are mocked by the resilience and immutability of nature, much like today’s cultural Marxists in their failed racial and sexual experimentations.

In combination with a pessimism towards man-made “progressive” ideologies, Jeffers perceived a nobility and utility in violence. In “The Bloody Sire” (1941), Jeffers sought to find at least some meaning in America’s entry into World War II — an entry to which he was deeply opposed. In this poem, Jeffers reflects on the role of violence in past centuries in reshaping the trajectory of the West, and giving rise to new values. What values would arise from the war, Jeffers couldn’t envisage; but it remained his conviction that violence was the axis upon which the world most profoundly turned:

It is not bad.  Let them play.
Let the guns bark and the bombing-plane
Speak his prodigious blasphemies.
It is not bad, it is high time,
Stark violence is still the sire of all the world’s values.
What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?
Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values.
Who would remember Helen’s face
Lacking the terrible halo of spears?
Who formed Christ but Herod and Caesar,
The cruel and bloody victories of Caesar?
Violence, the bloody sire of all the world’s values.
Never weep, let them play,
Old violence is not too old to beget new values.

Although it had a utility, violence, in the vision of Jeffers, wasn’t always noble. Mass violence with obscure motivations, particularly of the type witnessed in both world wars, was viewed by the poet as senseless and destructive. Wars such as these often harnessed heroic instincts in the service of un-heroic or malignant ends. As such, confronted with successive waves of warmongering against Germany throughout the 1930s, Jeffers remained resolutely isolationist. In his powerful composition “Rearmament” (1938), Jeffers watches Europe make slow preparations for war: “These grand and fatal movements toward death.” The mingling of individual bravery and ingenuity with weak reasons for conflict produced a “tragic beauty.” Jeffers was appalled, writing: “I would burn my right hand in a slow fire To change the future.” He could only watch with horror “the Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.”

In 1941, as America looked increasingly likely to enter the war, Jeffers published a number of poems carrying the same sentiment. In “The Day is a Poem” (1941), a work of gothic admonition and yet deep humanity, Jeffers recalls hearing a speech given by Hitler in Danzig a couple of weeks before the German invasion of Poland. Describing Hitler as “A man of genius: that is, of amazing Ability, courage, devotion,” Jeffers also portrays a Hitler who was reckless and possessed “a sick child’s soul” beneath the “dog wrath.” In the view of Jeffers, although the cause of Danzig was a just one, Hitler was wrong in dangerously courting a destructive continent-wide conflagration, and he accuses Hitler of both “invoking destruction and wailing at it.” The second half of the poem is extremely evocative. The radio broadcast over, Jeffers notes that his surroundings have become scorching hot: “A south wind like a blast from hell’s mouth spilled a light rain On the parched land.” An earthquake then “Danced the house” before Jeffers watches “the blood-red moon droop slowly Into black sea through bursts of dry lightning and distant thunder.” Full of foreboding, Jeffers concludes: “Well: the day is a poem: but too much like one of Jeffers’s, crusted with blood and barbaric omens, Painful to excess, inhuman as a hawk’s cry.”

Perhaps the clearest poetic enunciation of Jeffers’s isolationist position can be found in “The Stars Go Over the Lonely Ocean” (1941). The poem takes place as Jeffers goes for a walk along the coast, “unhappy about some far off things That are not my affair.” During the walk, Jeffers encounters a wild boar, which he presents as a wise creature and ventriloquizes to express his own opinion on the situation in Europe. The boar explains to Jeffers that

The world’s in a bad way, my man,
And bound to be worse before it mends…
Keep clear of the dupes that talk democracy
And the dogs that talk revolution,
Drunk with talk, liars and believers.
I believe in my tusks.
Long live freedom and damn the ideologies.

The poem clearly indicates Jeffers’s own disgust with the pretenses of Communism (“dogs that talk revolution”) and liberal democracy (“those dupes that talk democracy”). In keeping with the overarching theme of his poetry, Jeffers advocates a return to a rawer, more natural, and ultimately more honest form of life and politics. Just as Jeffers wished that America would isolate itself from the European catastrophe, the boar stresses that he intends to “lie up in the mountain here Four or five centuries, While the stars go over the lonely ocean.” It is a poem seeping with exasperation and resignation.  The same position is present in “The Soul’s Desert” (1939). Beginning with “They are warming up the old horrors,” Jeffers maintains that his contemporaries should “Beware of taking sides; only watch.”

This isolationist position was the tipping point for hostile critics only too keen to remove Jeffers and his dangerous ideas (distrust of New Deal social reform and elitism) from the pinnacle of culture. During World War II, and in its immediate aftermath, a succession of Jewish poets and critics emerged to assault Jeffers’s reputation and agitate for his elimination from the literary scene. Stanley Kunitz, the “poet” son of Jewish frauds, bankrupts, and suicides (his father killed himself by drinking carbolic acid) warned Jeffers that if he “did not accept moral obligations and human values,” he would “range himself on the side of the destroyers.”[1] By this, of course, Kunitz meant that if Jeffers did not align himself with the Jewish presentation of the war as a “moral crusade” then he would be deemed an enemy and treated as such. Another Jewish “poet,” Babette Deutsch, wrote in the 1942 Virginia Quarterly Review that Jeffers’s isolationist poetry “gave color to the suspicion that Jeffers has fascist sympathies.”[2] These attacks had such a cumulative effect that by the time of the publication in 1948 of The Double Axe, an influential article appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch arguing that “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.”[3] As well as attacks on Jeffers for being a “fascist,” another tactic was to acknowledge that he had been an excellent poet in the 1920s but had produced “weaker” work since that decade because his “mind was unravelling.” Scholar Alex Vardanis remarks that “the charge of insanity to explain a writer’s opinion has been employed before…Ezra Pound comes to mind.”[4]

The damage sustained to Jeffers’s power as a literary force was immense. The follow-up to The Double Axe, Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954), “received scant critical notice.”[5] When Jeffers died in 1962, the same man who had been declared in the 1920s as “the greatest American poet since Whitman” failed to make the headlines of almost any newspaper, and even in Carmel was kept off the front page by the Pebble Beach Golf Tournament.[6] Local efforts were attempted, after a time to commemorate him. In 1964 the Sierra Club considered a proposal to publish a book of photographs of the Big Sur coast, accompanied by lines from Jeffers’s poems. The most strenuous objection came from George Marshall, a Jewish member of the Sierra Club board of directors, who wrote in a memo dated December 23 1964 that Jeffers reminded him “of the over-sentimentalized anti-intellectualism…encountered in Germany…in 1933 in the midst of disintegrating minds which led more and more people to commit or accept vicious acts…Much of Jeffers’s writing strikes me as being anti-human or a-human and I should not like to publish a book of this kind.”[7]

Unfortunately for Marshall, there was enough support for Jeffers on the board to ensure that the project would go ahead. I happen to own a copy of the resultant, and quite beautiful, publication, Not Man Apart.

There have been sparse and sporadic efforts from individuals in academia to resurrect the work of Robinson Jeffers, but these have been largely unsuccessful due to the overwhelming hostility of the new consensus to both the man and his ideas. Hinting at the co-option of academic and literary circles by Jewish interests, scholar R.W. Butterfield remarked that the general critical hostility toward Jeffers after the 1930s was due to the “inability of the ascendant New Critics” to assimilate Jeffers ideas into their critical theory, and also to the rejection of Jeffers’s isolationism and cynical view of history by “liberal Democrats and Marxists.” His ongoing exile from study, according to Butterfield, is the result of Jeffers’s “self-assured insouciance,” which “does not suit contemporary critical preferences.”[8]

In other words, Jeffers remains a cultural pariah because he was a man who confidently and unapologetically advanced ideas dangerous to the left-liberal status quo.

Because I do not want to close this essay with his petty critics and their rationales, I will return the spotlight to Jeffers once more, and focus on perhaps the most important aspect of his poetry. While it would be easy to dwell, as so many of his critics do, on Jeffers’s views of violence and the fall of modern Man, the compurgation of his poetry rests in its redemptive vision. Jeffers does not ultimately condemn us, but calls us to action — to become what we might be if we can only look up from the luxuries and lies that surround us. Man, to Jeffers, is not innately lower than the animals and birds he idealizes in his poems. In fact, as he writes in “The Beauty of Things” (1954), “man, you might say, is nature dreaming.” Man is nature itself, incarnate and reflecting upon its wonders. In “November Surf” (1938) the poet describes Man, in his better moments, as “one of the nobler animals,” and hints that we would become better still if we can disentangle ourselves from social justice projects and insane ideologies and “regain the dignity of room, the value of rareness.” The modern neuroses crippling Western Man should be abandoned, writes Jeffers in Carmel Point (1954), and we should “become confident as the rock and ocean that we were made from.”

None of this can be accomplished without a fight, or without prolonged and sacrificial struggle. Jeffers, throughout his poetic career, explored this theme to a greater extent than any other artist contemporary to him. Much of our individual and greater purpose rests in struggle, and to shirk it and nourish ourselves only in temporary distractions and suicidal comfort would be to deny ourselves and to live a lie. In his poem on evolution, “Ocean” (1954), Jeffers recounts the challenges posed to various species as their environments change and they are placed in jeopardy. The choice presented to them is stark: “Grow great or die.” From beyond the grave, and from the fringes of literature, Jeffers poses the same to us.

[1] Quoted in R.J. Brophy (ed.) Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet (New York: Fordham University Press, 1995), p.24.

[2] Ibid, p.25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted in R. Zaller (ed.) Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991), p. 49.

[5]Brophy (ed.) Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet, p.26.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, p.25.

[8] W. B. Thesing (ed.) Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honor of William H. Nolte (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995), p.157.

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