Robinson Jeffers

Robinson Jeffers' statement in 1928 that 'I'd sooner, except for the penalties, kill a man than a hawk' startled the reading public with a different understanding of human significance in the world.1 Twenty years later, Jeffers labelled his philosophy 'inhumanism', which he defined as 'a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence'.2

After stunning initial success, Jeffers found that his high regard for the natural world and low regard for humans combined with his isolationist political stance had earned him the scorn of public tastemakers, especially during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Since his death in 1962, however, he has been hailed as the foremost American poet of the ecological movement and a philosopher-poet who, in giving voice to the coastal landscape of the Big Sur area, has set a pattern followed by such nature-writers as Gary Snyder. He has also taught to a consistently broad-based readership a different understanding of human relationships to the natural world.

Jeffers was born in 1887 in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father, a stern and scholarly professor of Old Testament literature and history, began his son's study of Greek at age 5. For much of his childhood, Jeffers attended schools in Europe. He and his younger brother lived with their mother and were visited regularly by their father. Jeffers' summary of his early years suggests the importance of intellectual development:

When I was nine years old my father began to slap Latin into me, literally, with his hands; and when I was eleven he put me in a boarding-school in Switzerland—a new one every year for four years—Vevey, Lausanne, Geneva, Zurich. Then he brought me home and put me in college as a sophomore. I graduated accordingly at eighteen, not that I was intelligent but by sporting my languages and avoiding mathematics.3

After graduation from Occidental College, Jeffers entered graduate school in literature at the University of Southern California. A year later he returned to Europe and at the University of Zurich began studying philosophy, Old English, French literary history, Dante, Spanish literature and the history of the Roman Empire. He returned to Los Angeles to enter the USC Medical School, where he ranked highest in his class. He briefly taught physiology at the USC Dental College. In 1910, deciding that medicine would leave him too little time to write, he entered the University of Washington, where he studied forestry until 1913.

While a graduate student at USC, Jeffers met Una Call Kuster, who was to become, along with the Big Sur landscape, the greatest influence on his life. Married to a well-to-do lawyer, Una carried on a love affair with Jeffers until, after seven years of rumour and scandal, she divorced her husband and married Jeffers. The two planned to move to Europe where Jeffers could write, but the outbreak of the First World War led them to move up the coast to Carmel instead. As soon as they arrived, Jeffers felt he had found the place about which he would write.

On their land overlooking the Pacific Ocean at Carmel Point, Jeffers began a daily pattern which would hardly vary for many years: he wrote every morning, quarried stone in the afternoon for their granite house and forty-foot stone tower, took walks with Una and their twin boys in the late afternoon, and read Shakespeare and other literature aloud to the family in the evening. Jeffers lived with no telephone, no electricity and no heat but for the heat from a Franklin stove and fireplaces. Not until the 1940s did Jeffers have electricity brought to the house.

Jeffers' first volumes to gain widespread attention were Tamar and Other Poems, published in 1924, and Roan Stallion, published in 1925. The New York Herald Tribune enthusiastically reviewed Jeffers' work, critic Mark Van Doren praised it in the Nation, calling Jeffers 'a major poet' and critic Babette Deutsch compared reading Tamar to Keats looking into Chapman's Homer.4 Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press published editions of Jeffers' work in Great Britain, and a French edition went through five printings. Within three years, his work appeared in eight anthologies. Jeffers' work was widely discussed, his books were bestsellers, and he was well paid for his writing. Soon Jeffers was even on the cover of Time magazine.

Jeffers' time at the pinnacle of American letters did not last long. His relegating of humanity and human consciousness to the importance of basalt and lichen offended socially progressive sensibilities of the 1930s. Jeffers' opposition to American involvement in the Second World War (or in any war) and his portrayal of all the leaders—Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini—as equally evil in leading their people to war offended many. Religious conservatives condemned Jeffers' portrayal of Jesus and his anti-Christian stance; for Jeffers, Jesus and Christianity turn people away from the beauty of the physical world, which is wrong because the beauty of the physical world is God, or at least the manifestation of God, and deserves our worship. Moralists condemned Jeffers' acceptance of violence as an essential aspect of life, and they condemned Jeffers' use of sexual acts, especially his use of incest to illustrate the human obsession with humans and human things to the exclusion of the beauty of the greater outside world.

Yet Jeffers has always had fervent admirers and a general readership. Jeffers' Selected Poetry of 1938 has sold continuously in many reprintings; his Selected Poems of 1965 continues to sell well. Jeffers articulates ideas that readers outside the academy and outside literary circles know to be vitally important: the non-human world is complex, interactive, conscious, a whole; every aspect of the non-human world is beautiful, and can lead people to a greater understanding of God and of our temporary and insignificant position in the cosmos; our scientific and our religious ways of knowing have serious flaws. Jeffers presents his ideas in memorable narratives, characterizations, images and metaphors which anyone, not just experienced readers of poetry, can understand.

What is the right relationship between nature and humans? Deriving ideas from Lucretius, Herodotus, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, his four main philosophical pillars, Jeffers offers a series of answers in direct opposition to the prevailing Western belief that 'no man is an island, entire of itself': we should turn from our 'incestuous' involvement with each other in our corrupt 'communal' life, and pay attention to nature. The problem with humanity, Jeffers says, is our self-absorption. He describes how we might look to future ages:

.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.5

The solution for Jeffers is to turn to permanent, natural things. It doesn't matter where we turn to nature for instruction: 'The ocean will show us/ The inhuman road',6 and 'there are left the mountains'.7 In 'A Little

Scraping', Jeffers says to 'Shake the dust from your hair', and he lists various elements of the landscape that are 'real' and more worthy of observation: a mountain sea-coast, lean cows which 'drift high up the bronze hill', a 'heavy-necked plough team', gulls, rock, 'two riders of tired horses' on a cloudy ridge, topaz-eyed hawks, and more.8

Though city dwellers can't very easily lean on rocks and contemplate hawks soaring, they still partake of the permanent reality because we all have bodies, and we eat: 'Broad wagons before sunrise bring food into the city from the open farms, and the people are fed./They import and they consume reality. Before sunrise a hawk in the desert made them their thoughts.'9 The landscape in Jeffers, then, is bodily consumed and afterwards influences everyone's thoughts; we must pay attention to the values the landscape might bring us. We should even attempt to imitate the landscape, for it provides examples of how humans should live: 'The beauty of things is the face of God: worship it;/Give your hearts to it; labor to be like it.'10

If we labour enough to be like the beauty of the natural world, we might experience the feeling of union with the landscape of the sort one of Jeffers' characters describes: '.I entered the life of the brown forest.../...and I was the stream/Draining the mountain wood; and I the stag drinking; and I was the stars,/Boiling with light.../...I was mankind also, a moving lichen/On the cheek of the round stone'.11 The speaker is one with the universe, experiencing a feeling of union with all creation more common to mystics than to heroes of Euro-American narratives.

This religious feeling in his poetry, Jeffers says, 'is the feeling—I will say the certainty—that 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'.12 Jeffers continues his explanation with a contrast to the kind of mysticism we might be more familiar with: 'This is, in a way, the exact opposite of Oriental pantheism. The Hindu mystic finds God in his own soul, and the outer world is illusion. To this other way of feeling, the outer world is real and divine; one's own soul might be called an illusion, it is so slight and so transitory.'13 Jeffers' character who becomes the stag and the stars emphasizes the importance of the outer world to Jeffers when he concludes, 'I have fallen in love outward.'14

The importance of a holistic understanding of reality permeates Jeffers' writing. In a response to a request for a comment on his 'religious attitudes',

Jeffers says, 'I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.)'15 This is dialogism, we might add, as well as physics, religion and ecology: all entities are in communication with each other, creating each other by their interaction. In what has become perhaps one of Jeffers' most quoted passages, he summarizes his holistic view and its benefits:

.a severed hand

Is an ugly thing, and man dissevered from the earth and stars and his history.

Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness, the greatest beauty is

Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man

Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.16

Perhaps the greatest difference between Jeffers' view of landscape and the landscape we are given by those scientifically trained to manage our forests, range lands and waters is this insistence upon seeing things whole. The search for truth is 'foredoomed and frustrate', Jeffers says, 'until the mind has turned its love from itself and man, from parts to the whole'.17 Jeffers has been called a prophet in the Old Testament pattern, a mystic, a seer, a religious teacher. Jeffers, ever the son of a Calvinist minister, does not come to know the conventional Christian God through creation; rather, Jeffers asserts that 'Things are the God', and he gives a formula for arriving at this understanding: 'Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity'.18 Other routes to God tend to obscure reality, and throughout his poetry Jeffers aims great invective at saviours of all kinds. Religion apart from the landscape can only lead to disaster.

Jeffers emphasizes the importance of understanding science, too, in relating to the natural world: 'The happiest and freest man is the scientist investigating nature, or the artist admiring it', he tells us.19 Jeffers considers 'a scientific basis' to be 'an essential condition' for the thinker. Jeffers says, 'We cannot take any philosophy seriously if it ignores or garbles the knowledge and view-points that determine the intellectual life of our time.' While an artist need not know science well, Jeffers says that if an artist has no familiarity with modern science, 'his range and significance would be limited accordingly'.20

Jeffers' own background in science, including medical school and forestry school, seems to have given him not only a will and an ability to incorporate a scientific outlook into his poetry, but also a sense of the limits of science as it is practised in the twentieth century: 'Science and mathematics/Run parallel to reality, they symbolize it, they squint at it,/ They never touch it', he says.21

Not only do scientists miss the truth, but they also apply their efforts to unworthy ends. Science 'has fallen from hope to confusion at her own business/Of understanding the nature of things', Jeffers continues.22 The echo of De rerum natura in the expression 'the nature of things' suggests that Lucretius, for all his pessimism, was on the right track. The methods of science have also gone awry. 'Man, introverted man...cannot manage his hybrids', Jeffers writes in 'Science'; 'Now he's bred knives on nature turns them also inward'.23 Science itself is admirable, Jeffers implies throughout his poetry; it is a means to knowledge and hence to truth. But as it is practised in the twentieth century, science needs severe critiquing.

Jeffers' belief in constant change and the need to adapt to change prevented him from pursuing a Luddite path. When asked on a questionnaire in 1926, 'How should the artist adapt himself to the machine age?' Jeffers replies, 'The machine age is only a partial change; the artist should adapt himself to it without ignorance but without excitement. It provides at the most, some shift of scenery for the old actors.'24 But behavioural adaptation, a necessary characteristic for survival in a changing world, need not entail a wholehearted embracing of the values that produce change. At roughly the same time, Jeffers writes, 'I don't think industrial civilization is worth the distortion of human nature and the meanness and the loss of contact with the earth, that it entails.'25

Like Thoreau, Jeffers returns to the single individual when any question of social reform arises: in one letter he says simply, 'I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one's own life and environment beautiful, so far as one's power reaches.'26 In 'The Answer' Jeffers advises, 'To keep one's own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted and not wish for evil; and not be duped/By dreams of universal justice or happiness.'27

Jeffers achieves a relative complacency about environmental destruction by taking a longer view of reality, in geological and astronomical time rather than human time: 'Man's world puffs up his mind, as a toad/Puffs himself up; the billion light-years cause a serene and wholesome deflation.'28 Jeffers has a clear idea of the extent of the destruction, as in the depiction of the death of a canyon of redwoods or an abandoned mine, where 'The sweat of men laboring has poisoned the earth'.29 Jeffers is particularly affected by such abuse of the landscape when it occurs close to home: 'This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses'.30 Simply looking harms a landscape as well. In an application of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to everyday life, Jeffers says, 'Whatever we do to a landscape—even to look—damages it.'31

Yet change is inevitable, and beautiful places especially call for tragedy involving violence and pain. Jeffers is remarkable in part because he can so easily think beyond the greatest tragedy for the human race—our extinction. The world, he says, will think, 'It was only a moment's accident,/The race that plagued us', and then resume 'the old lonely immortal splendor'.32

Notes

3 Selected Letters, p. 353.

4 Alex A.Vardamis, The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers: A Bibliographical Study, Hamden, CT: Archon, p. 9, 1972.

5 'Decaying Lambskins', Collected Poetry, vol. 2, p. 604.

11 'The Tower Beyond Tragedy', ibid., vol. 1, pp. 177-8.

13 Ibid.

14 'The Tower Beyond Tragedy', p. 178.

15 Selected Letters, p. 221.

20 Selected Letters, p. 254.

21 'What's the Best Life', Collected Poetry, vol. 3, p. 425.

24 Selected Letters, p. 103.

See also in this book

Emerson, Ruskin, Thoreau

Jeffers' major writings

Tamar and Other Poems, New York: Peter Boyle, 1924.

Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925.

The Women at Point Sur, New York: Liveright, 1927.

Cawdor and Other Poems, New York: Liveright, 1928.

Dear Judas and Other Poems, New York: Liveright, 1929.

Thurso's Landing and Other Poems, New York: Liveright, 1932.

Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems, New York: Random, 1933.

Solstice and Other Poems, New York: Random, 1935.

Such Counsels You Gave Me and Other Poems, New York: Random, 1937.

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, New York: Random, 1938.

The Double Axe and Other Poems, New York: Random, 1948; repr. New York: Liveright, 1977.

Robinson Jeffers: Themes in My Poems, San Francisco, CA: Book Club of California, 1956; repr. in M.B.Bennett, 1966.

Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, New York: Vintage-Random, 1965.

The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1897-1962, ed. Ann N.Ridgeway, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.

Brides of the South Wind, ed. William Everson, Cayucos, CA: Cayucos Books , 1974.

What Odd Expedients and Other Poems of Robinson Jeffers, ed. Robert Scott, Hamden, CT: Shoe String, 1981.

The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, ed. Tim Hunt, 4 vols, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988-.

Further reading

Bennett, M.B., The Stone Mason of Tor House: The Life and Work of Robinson Jeffers, Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie, 1966.

Brophy, R., Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems, rev. edn, Hamden, CT: Archon, 1976.

-(ed.), Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet, New York: Fordham University

Press, 1995.

Brower, D. (ed.), Not Man Apart: Lines From Robinson Jeffers, San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club/Ballantine Books, 1969.

Carpenter, F.I., Robinson Jeffers, New York: Twayne, 1962.

Coffin, A.B., Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism, Madison, WI: University of

Wisconsin Press, 1971. Zaller, R. (ed.), Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991.

-The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers, Cambridge Studies in

Literature and Culture, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

MICHAEL McDOWELL

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  • luke
    What does robinson jeffers say about the environment?
    7 years ago

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