If you believe that you’ll believe anything – Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet

robinson jeffers final

André Naffis-Sahely

Exactly a year prior to Nazi Germany’s surrender, while Allied planes were busy carpet-bombing the old continent in preparation for the D-Day landings, Robinson Jeffers wrote a poem entitled ‘Invasion’: “Europe has run its course,” he began, “and whether to fall by its own sickness or ours is not/Extremely important […] it was not our business/To meddle in the feuds of ghosts and brigands in historical graveyards. We have blood enough, but not for this folly;/Let no one believe that children a hundred years from now in the future of America will not be sick/For what our fools and unconscious criminals are doing to-day.” Four days later, on May 12, 1944, Jeffers turned his gaze to the future:

 

                We have now won two world-wars; neither of which concerned us; we
			were slipped in. We have levelled the powers
		Of Europe, that were the powers of the world, into rubble and dependence.
			We have won two wars and a third is coming.

		This one – will not be so easy. We were at ease while the powers of the 
			world were split into factions; we changed that.
		We have enjoyed fine dreams; we have dreamed of unifying the world; we 
			are unifying it – against us. 

 

Nevertheless, in his characteristic blend of fury and tenderness, Jeffers concluded: “As for me: laugh at me. I agree with you. It is a foolish business to see the future and screech at it.” As with much of what he wrote, Jeffers’s self-deprecating humour proved prescient: people did laugh at him, but they were mostly angry. When Jeffers’s fourteenth collection, The Double Axe – which included the aforementioned poems – was finally published by Random House in July 1948, no less than eleven poems were censored and it notoriously carried a ‘disclaimer’ in the form of a ‘Publisher’s Note’: “Random House feels compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet in this volume.” Predictably enough, the pundits unsheathed their knives. Time magazine’s ‘The Year in Books’ aptly summed up its reception, dismissing The Double Axe as a “crabbed” collection “which most critics resented for its arrogant, unyielding isolationism.”

It was a sudden reversal of fortunes, especially considering Time had featured Jeffers on its cover in April 1932. It is difficult to imagine a quicker eclipse, and the articles in Time neatly illustrate the making and unmaking of a poetic god. When Jeffers was first mentioned in the magazine in 1925, the headline read: ‘The U.S. Has Jeffers, a New Poet of Genius’; a year later, he was described as the “new national poet”; the year after that he became “one to rank with the greatest poets of all generations.” Although Jeffers’s reputation held steady for a few years while bankers fell out of the sky and millions of families went hungry during the Great Depression, muted grumblings could be heard by 1933: “Jeffers seems even to his enthusiasts like his description of the mountain coast he inhabits: precipitous, dark-natured, beautiful; without humor, without ever a glimmer of gayety.” In 1937, Jeffers finally burst out of his cultish chrysalis and became an “ageing prophet still hell-bent on emitting clouds of sulphur and smoke”, a status solidified by the outrage surrounding The Double Axe, which led his obituarist to pass the following judgement in 1963: “When Jeffers died last year at 75, he was not much missed.”

Robinson Jeffers was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania in 1887. His father was an authoritarian minister, while his vivacious mother was twenty years her husband’s junior. Jeffers’s education was barely more forgiving than the one forced on John Stuart Mill. As Jeffers recalled: “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.” As Jeffers’s son Garth later recalled, his European friends called him “the Little Spartan”, and by 15, Jeffers was back in the U.S. and fluent in Latin, Greek, French, and German. As prodigies often do, he spent many years drifting from one intellectual pursuit to the other: stints at Pittsburgh, Occidental, USC and Seattle saw him switch from literature to medicine and then to forestry. As James Karman notes in his slim yet expertly-written biography, Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet, the situation was starting to look “hopeless”: “He was twenty-three, five years had passed since he had finished his only degree, he was romantically involved with a married woman and he had no vocational prospects.”

However, the biggest upheaval in Jeffers’s life at the time was certainly romantic. He’d met Una Call Kuster – the wife of a prominent lawyer – in one of his classes at USC, and an affair quickly blossomed, until it eventually ripened into scandal. When Una’s husband found out about his wife’s infidelity, the story landed in the Los Angeles Times. Robinson and Una married the day after her divorce was finalized in 1913, and moved to “Carmel-by-the-Sea, a small village nestled in a pine and cypress forest”. The third decade of Jeffers’s life proved almost as turbulent as his second, but he would finally lay the foundations for his mature poetic life. After the death of their first child in 1914, the Jeffers family welcomed twin boys into their fold in 1916; with two mediocre collections of Edwardian verse under his belt, Jeffers had begun to make his mark, but not in a way which satisfied him, and like many of his coevals on both sides of the Atlantic, he sought adventure on the front-lines. After the U.S. decided to enter World War I in 1917, Jeffers attempted to enlist in the Army Balloon School, but failed his physical. Thus Jeffers felt nearly as unfulfilled at 31 as he had at 23, but a ‘spiritual awakening’ lay in store for him. Desiring to have a hand in building his family home, Jeffers took part in the construction of ‘Tor House’, a Tudor-style cottage crafted from local rocks atop an isolated hill south of Carmel. Once this initial structure was built, Jeffers felt confident enough to embark on the construction of ‘Hawk Tower’, a forty-foot fortress of solitude where he would write all his best work. As Karman tells us, during those years Jeffers exemplified the kind of Spartan discipline his father would have admired:

Jeffers worked on the tower every afternoon. In the evening, following dinner, he would sit by the fire in Tor House and read aloud to Una and the twins. Before going to bed, he stepped outside to breathe the ocean air, study the stars, and collect his thoughts for the next day’s work. In the morning, he paced and wrote upstairs. After several hours devoted to poetry, he came down for lunch. By mid-afternoon, he was back to work on the tower.

The physical exertion allowed Jeffers to bond with the natural and immaterial around him and ground his consciousness in a world that wasn’t exclusively human. There was certainly something of the anchorite monk in Jeffers: once his complex in Carmel was finished, he hardly ever left it, devoting himself solely to writing poetry and worshipping the natural world. His steadfast regime paid off: he published four collections over just as many years: Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems (1925) The Women at Point Sur (1927), Cawdor and Other Poems (1928) – which included the poem ‘Hurt Hawks’, the source of one of Jeffers’s signature lines, “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” – and Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929), all of which were published by Liveright until the Great Depression forced the firm into liquidation. Jeffers’s collections included two kinds of poems: sprawling narratives and short, sonnet-style lyrics. The former gyrate around a simple theme: the struggle between idealists (sensuous, rebellious ‘inhumanists’ drawn to the eternal of things) and conformists (arrogant, abusive ‘humanists’ who see no further than their noses) as they battle it out against a backdrop of immeasurable natural beauty: a coastal landscape where the skies are criss-crossed by birds of prey, and the land carpeted with unspoiled vegetation. Roan Stallion is a case in point: after a hard-drinking rancher wins an untamed stallion in a game of cards, the rancher’s wife, a mixed-race woman named California, begins to sexually fantasize about the horse and rides it into the wilderness. There she experiences a divine revelation, but when the rancher raises his hand to his wife, the horse tramples him to death, and is then murdered by California. It’s tempting to read into this: the old world oppresses the new, but the new is still so ‘human’ – and thus imperfect, volatile and clouded by passions – that everything ends in death and destruction.

The America of the Roaring Twenties – no doubt drawn to his ‘licentious’ themes – heartily embraced Jeffers’s work, and he became the subject of a cultish devotion, à la D.H. Lawrence. Mark van Doren was among the first to recognize how Jeffers had forged “a new path for narrative verse in America”, and while a handful dealt him a few jealous swipes, most notably Yvor Winters – who saw Jeffers as his only serious rival for the title of ‘California’s finest poet’ – his star kept rising. Though he hated leaving Carmel and only did so on a few occasions, the world happily came to him: visitors included Edgar Lee Masters, Lincoln Steffens, and Dylan Thomas. In 1933, a year after his chiselled profile graced the cover of Time, Bennet Cerf signed him to Random House and published Give Your Heart to the Hawks and other Poems, which was an instant best-seller and went through several reprints. While Jeffers was busy giving readings alongside Robert Frost and others, Hitler began baying for blood, and Europe slowly re-armed. As Karman reminds us, when hostilities finally broke out, most writers promptly chose sides: Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg wrote propaganda for the Allies, while Ezra Pound vented his vitriol on the radio for the Axis powers; others still, like T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, simply pretended nothing was happening. After an estimated 75 million deaths, “when World War II officially ended, waves of euphoria swept the land”, but Jeffers, Karman says, “did not celebrate. He was grateful his son Garth came through the war unharmed, but at deeper levels, where thoughts concerning America, Western Civilization, and human nature as a whole reside, he was appalled.” That said, few could have foreseen the ferocity of The Double Axe.

The first section of the title poem, The Love and the Hate, was written before World War II ended, at a time when Garth was still in harm’s way, and when parents and wives were receiving telegrams from the government telling them that their sons or husbands had died. Such telegrams were falling “like snow/Over the country, silent and soft as snow,/Freezing the hearts they light on.” Jeffers lived in dread of the day he and Una would receive one. When the war ended and Garth, like millions of other soldiers, returned home, Jeffers breathed easier, but he did not forget the soldiers left behind. Their anger, despair, and painful deaths were foremost in his mind.

In The Love and the Hate, Hoult Gore, a young soldier killed in the Pacific theater, wills his rotting body back to life so he can return to his family’s California ranch to haunt his callous, patriotic father and his adulterous mother, both of whom seem to have gone about their daily lives as if nothing much had happened. Turning to the war-hungry patriarch, Hoult asks him to give him one good reason why he had to die. When his father fails to answer, Hoult yells:

 

                						God damn you, haven't you
		One single reason? And I died for that? Nor don't say freedom:
		War's freedom's killer. Don't say freedom for foreigners,
		Unless you intend to kill Russia on top of Germany and Britain on Japan, and churn 			
                the whole world 
		Into one bloody bubble-bath; don't say democracy;
		Don't talk that mush. And don't pretend that the world
		Will be improved, or good will earned, or peace
		Made perfect, by blasting cities and nations into bloody choppets; if you believe that
		You'll believe anything.
 

 

It is difficult to imagine such lines causing much scandal now, but as William Everson opined in his preface to The Double Axe and Other Poems, including Eleven Suppressed Poems (1977), the U.S. at the time was “enjoying an interval of rare self-esteem”:

Victory had proved American justice and she stood before the world as the savior of mankind. All the free nations looked to her for security and protection, and she felt worthy of it. She saw the ordeal of her triumph as heroic and self-sacrificial, and after very real privations she was enjoying the reward of an accelerating prosperity. Into this bland, complacent atmosphere Jeffers’ book dropped like a bomb (a stink bomb, many thought).

The British critic Ian Hamilton concurred: “Jeffers was years ahead of his time in noting the bitter ferocity of the Allied Powers in Victory.” Thus, instead of heeding its former ‘genius’, the Nation preferred to turn to its muscly, young novelists: among others, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal (although Vidal would soon fall from grace for not being muscly enough). Increasingly forgotten, Jeffers began to fade, especially following his wife’s death in 1950. Although he drank more than he wrote, his later work is studded with gems like ‘Vulture’:

 

                I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
		Above the ocean.  I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in 				
                heaven,
		And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing. I                 			
                understood then
		That I was under inspection.  I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
		Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer. I could see the 
			naked red head between the great wings
		Bear downward staring.  I said, “My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
		These old bones will still work; they are not for you.”  But how beautiful 
			he'd looked, gliding down
		On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over 
			the precipice.  I tell you solemnly
		That I was sorry to have disappointed him.  To be eaten by that beak and become part 			
                of him, to share those wings and those eyes –
		What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment, what a life after death.


 

Praised by Czesław Miłosz and Gary Snyder, and healthily in print, Jeffers’s near-total absence from the mainstream narrative of modern American poetry appears rather curious. Helen Vendler’s essay on Jeffers, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1988, is an illustrative paradigm of the ill-considered reservations that have led to this undeserved oblivion. In her piece, Vendler prudishly obsesses over the sexual violence in Jeffers’s longer narratives and hazards the bizarre claim that Jeffers had no personal insights to share by quoting a few lines entirely out of context, employing over-the-counter Freudian analysis to paint Jeffers as a “friendless, freakish boy” who felt he had to “prove himself durable and masculine.” Though she does not come out and say so, Vendler seems to think Jeffers was a misogynist, and thus misses the point entirely, especially since, as the poet Diane Wakoski recalled in a pamphlet entitled The Stone Tower of Robinson Jeffers (The Honest Pint, 2013), what first drew her to Jeffers was “his love of passionate women, and his concurrent view that they have a power that shows up the weakness of men in comparison.” In his anthology, American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (Library of America, 2008) – which featured two of Jeffers’s poems, ‘The Answer’ and ‘Carmel Point’ – Bill McKibben writes:

[Jeffers] had not, [Vendler] insisted, done the hard psychological work of coming to terms with his childhood, resisting the ‘introspection’ required of a major poet. It was a revealing comment, less perhaps about Jeffers than about the prevailing literary standards. Jeffers’s precise point was that living in one’s head, out of contact with the physical world that surrounds us, defined the modern disease.

Part of the problem, of course, lies with our own conception of what it means to be modern. As Tim Hunt’s introduction The Collected Poetry, Vol. I, elucidates, while “modernism viewed the poem as an aesthetic object, Jeffers viewed it as utterance, a kind of prophetic speech.” And while Jeffers’s sources of inspiration may have differed greatly from Eliot’s or Pound’s, “his sense of the interplay of culture and nature was in many ways more radical and forward thinking.” As Vendler unfortunately proves, it is far too easy to stereotype Jeffers as the misanthropic bard of America’s Isolationist right, but this is ultimately an example of the same ‘principle’ at work in the popular acclamation of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’, which, as David Orr argued, “isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives.” Thus, just as Frost’s cynicism was overlooked to enable his metamorphosis into “a symbol of Yankee stoicism and countrified wisdom”, Jeffers’ unique poetics – which praised the natural world partly also to show how fickle and pointless human endeavours can be when anthropocentric greed is our only compass – as the lunatic rants of a paleo-conservative Neo-Luddite who belongs to the same Nativist strain that produced Pat Buchanan and the Tea Party – elements of which have also embraced Jeffers, entirely for the wrong reasons of course. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. As Karman correctly stresses:

Jeffers was not opposed to science, technology and human progress in principle. Throughout his life, certainly from the time of his medical studies on, he stayed abreast of new discoveries in astronomy, biology, geography, physics and other fields, and he incorporated current discoveries into his work. Nevertheless, he was mindful of the fact that scientific research and technological invention are human enterprises, which means their motives, means and ends are compromised by self-centeredness.

Jeffers’s decline as a major – and quintessential – American poet may really boil down to two chief causes: the ill-timed The Double Axe and the unfortunate label Jeffers picked to describe his philosophical outlook: inhumanism (which might have fared better under a different name, since it erroneously implies a distaste for humankind in general). In a letter to The Humanist, included in The Collected Letters, Vol. III, Jeffers explained his theory of ‘inhumanism’:

Man is a part of nature, but a nearly infinitesimal part; the human race will cease after a while and leave no trace, but the great splendors of nature will go on. Meanwhile most of our time and energy are necessarily spent on human affairs; that can’t be prevented, though I think it should be minimized [ …] I would suggest that the immense beauty of the earth and the outer universe, the divine ‘nature of things’ is a more rewarding object. Certainly it is more pleasant to think of that the hopes and horrors of humanity, and more ennobling. It is a source of strength; the other of distraction.”

Yet this was no mere stoical escapism:

“I think that when poetry dreams too much about death, there is always a resurrection being plotted. If we conjecture the decline and fall of this civilization, it is because we hope for a better one.”

We are clearly in the midst of another Jeffers revival. As far as I’m aware, there have been three: in the late 1970s, the late 1980s, and the one currently underway. The past three years have seen the publication of Karman’s admirable biography, four full-length critical studies, and an edited anthology of essays. Admirers of Jeffers also owe a great debt of gratitude to Stanford University Press for its long-standing commitment to two monumental projects: Tim Hunt’s The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Vol. I-V (1988–2002) and Karman’s The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, Vol. I-III (2009–2015). Taken up by the ecologist movement – Bill McKibbin notes that the journal of Friends of the Earth was called Not Man Apart, after this line “the divine beauty of the universe/Love that, not man apart from that” from ‘The Answer’ – it seems inevitable that Jeffers will survive in this niche, and while this does not truly do him justice, he does not lack admirers, and they seem to be growing in numbers, correcting an injustice which said more about Jeffers’s coevals than it did about him. The ‘Publisher’s Note’ to The Double Axe concluded by saying that “time alone is the court of last resort in the case of ideas on trial”. At least they were right about that.

Andre Naffis-Sahely

About Andre Naffis-Sahely

André Naffis-Sahely’s first collection is The Promised Land (Penguin, 2017). His translations from the French and the Italian include works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and Alessandro Spina.