Essay / Misc.

What Got Into Robinson Jeffers?

Jeffers on Time
I mean literally, what is the thing that got inside of this California poet?

Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) is not read much anymore, but I predict his work will make a big comeback in the next decade. I somewhat grudgingly admit that he stands out as one of California’s most accomplished poets, in fact one of the most important poets in American history. He was very popular in the early decades of the twentieth century, popular enough to land on the cover of Time. Classically educated and fearsomely intelligent, he brought the tough discipline of the great Western poetic tradition along with him when he perched in central California and devoted his life’s work to describing the spirit of California.

“Perched” is the right word: Jeffers imagined himself as a kind of hawk on a rock, sharp-eyed, predatory, inhabiting inhospitable regions, and living by taut muscle and will. Just look at the formal elements of his poetry. Without rhymes or meter, his poetry rumbles along in eerie lines that obey some inner logic which seems predetermined yet is impossible to forecast. Relentelessly serious, sometimes outright didactic, his authorial voice rings out like an unlikely cross between an Old Testament prophet and a manic Delphic seer. The Judaeo-Christian echo is natural enough, as his father was a theologian and Old Testament scholar. The pagan tonality was chosen and carefully cultivated, as Jeffers found a real kinship with the rougher edges of the age of Periclean Athens. He wrote long poems in an ancient Greek idiom, but he’s no Homer, and wouldn’t want to be. His long poems are more like some kind of central coast Sophocles, or (more on target theologically and aesthetically) Aeschylus at Big Sur.

Having made the grand tour of Western culture in its Christian and Graeco-Roman forms, Robinson Jeffers placed himself on the west coast of the United States and set himself to be the spokesman for the place itself. In an image that recurs in many of his poems, he thinks of the human race as having completed a “long migration” out of the East, across Europe and into the new world, across America to the very edge of the continent. From California, the final migrators look further west and see only their point of origin. Migration complete. This is the end.

And this “continent’s end” is where Jeffers perched to carry out his poetic vocation. He came here and opened himself up to whatever is, to hear it say its word to a humanity which had nowhere further to go. He built a rock cottage with a tower in it, and he waited for the spirit of the place to become manifest and audible.

He opened himself up to whatever is, and whatever is got into him and spoke. What it said, according to Jeffers’ transcription over the course of decades, is that it doesn’t care much for humans.

jeffers hawk tower

You’d have to see this worked out over the course of his poems, especially the long ones that try the reader’s patience with their gruesome plots and shrieky characters (Roan Stallion, Medea, The Double Axe, Tamar). But Jeffers also made helpful comments about his overall approach from time to time. He declared that his goal was “to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.” This Inhumanism was, according to Jeffers, the proper attitude for humans, and was consonant with the way the rest of the cosmos felt about humanity. The basic idea is that the human race is a microscopic portion of the vast reality of the world, and anybody in the business of evaluating it should evaluate it as ranking rather low in the whole scale of things (a “sick microbe” as he says in one poem). This would be mentally healthy: “It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again.”

Jeffers also tried in his work to express “a religious feeling, that perhaps must be called pantheism.” He believed that “the world, the universe, is one being, a single organism, one great life that includes all life and all things; and is so beautiful that it must be loved and reverenced; and in moments of mystical vision we identify ourselves with it.” It was important for him, however, to distinguish this from traditional forms of pantheism which were always egocentric, tending to find divinity and reality within the soul, and illusion and transience in the outer world. For Jeffers, the exact opposite was true: “the outer world is real and divine; one’s own soul might be called an illusion, it is so slight and so transitory.” The natural world is so real that the I who beholds it scarcely deserves to be recognized as substantial.

Add me to the list of the two or three who have said that Robinson Jeffers the poet hated people, and that he hated people because he had accepted a finite god in place of the infinite, living God. He, and the local genius that got into him and found its voice through him, declare themselves clearly to be on the side of impersonal cosmic force rather than on the side of humanity. The poetry of Robinson Jeffers is unmatched among twentieth-century poetry for its vigor, vitality, and attention to the rhythms of nature. But the price he paid for his inspiration is too high. What will it profit a man if he gains the world but loses his soul?

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