Robinson Jeffers: Poetry, Nature, and Solitude
American poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) engendered controversy throughout his career. Critics describe his work as misanthropic, misogynist, anti-social, unpatriotic, obsessive, violent, and cruel. Yet Jeffers was once linked to Eliot and Frost in an American poetic triad, and has been celebrated as a lyric poet representative of American nature writing in the tradition of Thoreau, Whitman, and Muir. Joseph Campbell called him a great mythographer.
Jeffers' biography reveals formative influences and consistent themes culminating in his mature years with what Jeffers called "inhumanism," a philosophy of solitude that draws from sources as diverse as Lucretius, Nietzsche, Eliot and Spengler. Ultimately, Jeffers' poetry expressed his own insight, experience, creativity, and physical circumstances. Not without good reason has Jeffers been called the "hermit of Carmel" (by Reiswig, for his Carmel, California home of over five decades), and a solitary dwelling literally and in his art on "the cliffs of solitude" (Zaller).
Life and themes
The formative influences of Jeffers' life are striking. His austere father was a scholarly Presbyterian minister who taught Robin (as he was called) Greek and Latin. Boarding school in Switzerland taught the adolescent Robin French, German, and literature. Back in the United States, Jeffers entered college at 16 and graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles. He also pursued programs in medicine and forestry, though not completing them. His marriage in 1913 created scandal even in Los Angeles. A daughter born to Jeffers and his wife Una the following year died. Una and Jeffers would have emigrated to England but the world war erupted. Instead the couple moved to the village of Carmel (population 350), on the Big Sur coast, with its rugged granite cliffs overlooking the ocean and grand sky, a land thick with giant redwoods and lush landscape dotted with occasional farms and ranches.
Jeffers discovered a deep synergy with stonework. He built a cottage of local granite he called Tor House, and then embarked on building a two and a half story granite tower Hark Tower). Only later did Jeffers compose his first commercially successful poetry (after a great deal of unpublished writing), the lone narrative and shorter lyric poems by which he is best known: Tamar (1924), Roan Stallion (1925), The Women at Sur Point (1927), Cawdor (1928), and other collections at regular intervals. In 1938 appeared an anthology representative of his accomplishments.
At first Jeffers was hailed as a new Aeschylus or Shakespearian tragedian, deftly handling in long narrative poems themes of incest, violence, and madness against the wild backdrop of churning sea, endless sky, copious forests, and isolated homesteaders. Shorter lyric poems honed his insights and images. Jeffers' work was based on elements reflecting the influence of Calvinism, Freud, Jung, anthropology and mythology, violence and nature, and the cyclicism of Nietzsche, Spengler, and historiographers of declining civilizations.
But with the advent of the second World War, and the post-war appearance of Be Angry at the Sun (1941), Double-Axe (1942-47), and Hungerfield (1953), critics had wearied of his lengthy narratives with their stock characters and maudlin vices, of Jeffer's dogged pessimism and revisiting of older themes -- and, in this period, what they took to be his radical political views. Yet the later years are the years in which Jeffers works out his definitive philosophy of life, his "inhumanism," destined to further alienate critics and popular audiences alike.
That "inhumanism" appears in the late Jeffers is a natural result of the evolution of his themes. The early narratives are dominated by permutations of the Oedipal complex, derived from Freud, expressed as updated Greek tragedy, but ultimately extrapolated from the interactions of people observed by Jeffers and in a degree the emotions and experiences seething in his own subconscious. The overpowering father, sometimes absent, was Jeffers' own experience, an object to be placated, honored, and resented at the same time. The mother figure is source, nurture, stasis, refuge, but also absorption, manipulation, seduction, and destruction. The rivalries of brothers or of sisters are the struggles for predominance in the household, in succession, in competition for approval and affection of the parents. The relation of brother and sister in close physical and psychological proximity and intimacy, especially with the exclusion of peers, or the physical isolation from others, is the doom of families. All of these relationships are charged with sexual energy, which is the primordial body or physical energy not channeled by myth, ritual, symbolism, taboo, or evolved external or social forms of intervention, transfer, displacement, dissipation, repression, or authority. Such is humanity in Jeffers eyes and on the pages of his poems, especially the narrative poems.
Jeffers explores many ways in which sexuality, violence, power, fear, and madness overwhelm the characters of his narrative poems. At the same time, the lyric poems, far shorter and more traditional in form and structure -- and more palatable for popular audiences -- focus the insights, distill the grand themes, into more pithy images and observations.
For Jeffers, the purpose of poetry is to present reality, not to transform it (as does Modernism). He opposed modern poetry, especially imagism, for dissolving rather than intensifying the awareness and participation of life and the natural world. While Jeffers' themes evolve, his treatment varies, so that his early works are austere and naturalistic, his later works more philosophical and reflective. But throughout his lyric poems especially can be observed the growing philosophy that will culminate in "inhumanism."
In Tamar and Other Poems, Jeffers had already evolved a youthful, even scientific, view of nature as flux into a more visionary view of nature as continuum. Human beings were made of the stuff of nature: the rhythm of the sea but also the primordial intensity of fire. He describes moments of intense revelation, of insights into reality and nature as complexity yet simplicity. Nature reveals "the excesses of God" and offers "divinely superfluous beauty." A character in a poem owns that "one must forgive nature a thousand graceful subtleties," in contrast to the human world choked with desire, aggression, and maledictions.
The human soul clings to the "gluttonous dream of God," that it can achieve a longed-for unity, whether the folly of Caesar and Napoleon "in the throws of worldly ambition, or Christ and Gautama pursuing "sacred hungers." They are all dreamers, Jeffers avers, "worshippers of oneness," dreamers of a unity of human nature equivalent to nature.
Jeffers perceives the flaw not in wicked human beings but in ambition. Daily life and society is this embodied flaw that does not taint nature. In "Boats in a Fog," Jeffers conjoins the flight of birds and the flight of planets and separates all human activity from this unity:
all the arts lose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their business among the equally
Earnest elements of nature.
The poet sees shellfish-gatherers on a twilight beach and a solitary heron off to the side. He muses as to "why a lone bird was nearer to me than many people." Watching the stars at night, he reflects that "no matter what happens to men ... the world's well made through." A vast difference separates humans and nature, but not from any superiority of consciousness on the part of humans.
It is not good to forget over what gulf the spirit
Of the beauty of humanity, the petal of a lost flower blown seaward by the
Night wind floats to its quietness.
Or in a darker mood:
I'm never sorry to think that here's a planet
Will go on like this glen, perfectly whole and content, after mankind is
Scummed from the kettle.
By the mid-1920's, Jeffers' sentiments are honed. In "Credo," he writes,
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is in passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.
Jeffers avers that [I] "have paid my birth-dues; am quits with the people" and in "Hurt Hawks," he states boldly: "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk."
Reflecting on the pessimism of Nietzsche, Spengler, Eliot, and Yeats, Jeffers records his views on civilization in "The Broken Balance":
Men moulding themselves to the anthill have choked
Their natures until the souls die in them;
They have sold themselves for toys and protection. ...
The world's turned upside down;
The good do evil, the hopes in criminals; in vice
That dissolves the cities and war to destroy them.
Through wars and corruptions the house will fall.
Mourn whom it falls on. Be glad: the house is mined, it will fall.
As if not clear enough, the poet refers to "Civilization, the enemy of men."
In these heartfelt reflections, Jeffers' eschews a conservative nostalgia for the past, for traditional classes and values, at the same time scoffing at the notion of human progress. Despite his realist style, Jeffers shares the anguish and outrage of his generation of post-World War I intellectuals and artists appalled by the mass slaughter and purposelessness of the war but also pessimistic about a collection redirection that will avert future catastrophes.
Hermit, prophet, savior
But unlike his European counterparts, Jeffers finds an inkling of individual solution in eremitism. In "An Artist," Jeffers writes about a hermit. Of course, the hermit is a projection of himself, but the poem represents a new application of his insights, a reconciliation of ideas with a form of daily life.
In the poem, the narrator encounters a once-famous sculptor now reclused in the desert mountains. The sculptor has renounced not only the world but even marble and bronze, his former media. He works a vein of stone because stone is natural. The hermit elaborates on his life:
The town's eight miles off, I can fetch food and no one follows me home.
I have water and a cave
here; and no possible lack of material. I need, therefore, nothing. As to
companions, I make them. ...
What more? Sympathy? Praise? I have never desired them and also I have
never deserved them.
The hermit-sculptor lives only to form some ideal of humanity in stone, he says. But his sculptures are laughable to God, for they reflect only what the sculptor's sad eyes have seen of the world. Still, the hermit tells his visitor, his sad eyes have peace, for they have seen sunrises and stars.
"I hope," he said, "that when I
grow old and the chisel drops,
I may crawl out on a ledge of the rock and die like a wolf.
The narrator concludes that he will not reveal where the hermit lives. Nor has he ever returned to visit him. "While he lives," says the narrator, "let him alone."
With the creation of a hermit character, Jeffers began reflecting on other radical forms of life, on the apocalyptic roles of prophets and saviors, in part, perhaps, to clarify the role of the poet. The poet shows reality, but the prophet applies an insight to this showing. The prophet does not prescribe but interprets. Perhaps that is the new role Jeffers perceived for his artistry in this period.
In contrast, the savior takes up the additional role of showing, applying, prescribing, and saving -- the added burden of a vision of self as meritorious enough to claim divine grace. The savior is not an example but an avatar, if not divinity itself. But to desire to save a people is to misconstrue the vision of the poet and the prophet, to project the vision outward, to lose the self to madness. The savior's role, projecting the vision outward and assigning authority to it is the opposite of Jeffers' hermit. Salvation is an individual path for self, one that only inner insight will lay out for pursuit.
As for the people, I have my
rock, let them find theirs.
Let them lie down at Caesar's feet and be saved; and he in his time reap
their daggers of gratitude.
The savior's mistake is to see good and evil residing in a meritorious people, and to desire to obliterate the evil. But the people are neither good nor evil. What drives the savior beyond the prophet's role of mere observation, Jeffers argues, is a madness of desire.
Love, the mad wine of good and evil, the saint's and the murderer's, the mote in
the eye that makes its object
Shine the sun black; the trap in which it is better to catch the inhuman
God than the hunter is own image.
The above important passages from "Meditation on Saviors" show a new stage of Jeffers' thought. The Gospel allusions turn the salvific motive on its head, Calvinism pushed to its contradictory end. The seeker after God will only encounter himself and, worse, the true horror of God's indifference. These thoughts will culminate in Jeffers' play, "Dear Judas," where his exploration of the theme of prophet versus savior explores the disillusion of Judas with the misdirected desire of Jesus to expend himself for the masses.
Throughout the 1930's, the lyric poems craft a view of nature that begins a reconciliation> Jeffers strikes out to balance disdain for the contrived human world with the panoply of nature. Anger gives way to philosophical reflection. Jeffers states that "God is very beautiful" but "hardly a friend of humanity." In "Sign-post," he offers advice to those "who want to be human again":
Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity,
Let that doll lie. Consider if you like how the lilies grow,
Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity
Make your veins cold, look at the silent stars, let your eyes
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man.
Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes.
Things are the God, you will love God, and not in vain.
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature. ...
Now you are free to become human.
But born of the rock and the air, not of a woman.
In "Flight of Swans," Jeffers warns that a follower of such a meditation
Will not wend himself into hopes nor sicken with despairs.
He has found the peace and adored the God: he handles in autumn
The germs of far-future springs. ...
No escape, you have to inflict and endure; surely it is time for you
To learn to touch the diamond within to the diamond outside,
Knowing that your angry choices and hopes and terrors are in vain,
But life and death not in vain; and the world is like a flight of swans.
In "Nova," Jeffers writes:
The enormous invulnerable beauty of things
Is the face of God; to live gladly in its presence, and die without grief or
fear knowing it survives us.
And in "The Answer":
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.
Although he has clearly profited from a close reading of sages, in "Theory of Truth" Jeffers refers negatively to Lao-tzu, Buddha, and Jesus. They embarked on the pursuit of truth but mingled, as he puts it, their own "impurities" with their visions of what is. This is an inevitability of which he, too, is guilty, but the important point is o be conscious of that personal quest and its desires. The sages he names produced thoughts and reflections that the world would deem insanity, for who but "the tormented would seek truth?"
Indeed, the private agony, reflects Jeffers, "muddles the finding." The named sages were too tormented. They would annul the universe to "annul the suffering." Is the search for truth, therefore, doomed to frustration and the fragmentation of wisdom? Yes, Jeffers concludes, "until the mind has turned its love from itself / and man, from parts to the whole."
1940's & 1950's
The advent of World War II brought a fateful diversion to Jeffers' artistry. His poems became didactic, polemical, and restless, foreseeing the war in the late thirties and vociferously warning against it, and then, in the forties, actually opposing United States involvement. The Double Axe (which introduces the term "inhumanism") was published with an unprecedented disclaimer from Random House, Jeffers' long-time publisher, stating its disagreement with Jeffers' politics. The editors did not realize how Jeffers' politics was inextricably linked to his entire work.
The preface to the 1948 The Double-Axe and Other Poems elaborates on inhumanism, though the meaning by then was implicit to long-time readers. All of his previous work, Jeffers points out, has been nothing less than an effort
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. [Inhumanism] offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate, and envy.
[Inhumanism is] the devaluation of human-centered illusions, the turning outward from man to what is boundlessly greater. The attitude is neither misanthropic nor pessimistic, nor irreligious."
Jeffers returned to his sense that the human response to life is a devotion to aggression, frivolousness, and dissipation. Referring to humanity, he states that
more than half of its energy is devoted to self-interference, self-frustration, self-incitement, self-tickling, self-worship. ... The rest [of human energy and effort] we discharge onto each other in conflict and charity, love, jealousy, hatred, competition, government, vanity and cruelty, and that puerile passion the will to power.
Inhumanism is a philosophy of turning away from this contrivance of human culture and towards nature, a "colder saying" he acknowledges, but a
counsel of perfection, i.e., a direction-giver, a guide though it cannot be a rule: "Turn away from each other" to that great presence of which humanity is only a squirming particle. ... Turn outward from each other, so far as need and kindness permit, to the vast and inexhaustible beauty beyond humanity. This is not a slight matter, but an essential condition of freedom, and of moral and vital sanity.
In these later years, Jeffers did not supercede his better works in terms of poetry. But the quotable insights multiply, and need no narrative context. Passages from poems of The Double-Axe and Other Poems and Hungerfield and Other Poems (1953) emphasize content over impression. They deliberately confirm his point of view. In "Original Sin," after reflecting on the continuity of violence and dismissing the notion of primitive man as benign (he has described the tribal burning of a downed mammoth), Jeffers writes,
As for me, I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.
But we are what we are; and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;
And not to be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;
And not fear death: it is the only way to be cleansed.
In "De Rerum Virtute," alluding to "De rerum natura" of Lucretius, Jeffers writes:
All things are full of God
Winter and summer, day and
night, war and peace are God ...
One light is left us, the beauty of things
The immense beauty of the world, not the human world.
In his last poems, Jeffers ended on these themes, addressing the foolishness of human dreams that do not concern the birds, the fish, nor the eternal God. Only nature is beautiful, the very beauty of God. He muses in "On An Anthology of Chinese Poems" at how those ancient poets "loved landscapes and solitude." In a final memorable poem, "Vulture," Jeffers, ever observant of nature's web, of sky, sea, forest, and animals, reflects on how the dead become part of this bird, not a thought that evoke revulsion, ugliness or morbidity, but affirms the supremacy of the natural cycle:
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment, what a life after death.
Robinson Jeffers evolved a philosophy of life that confronted deep psychological issues and the problems of society and civilization. Through his poetry, and with years of reflection, Jeffers sought to resolve basic philosophical questions through the observation of nature and the very landscape of his daily life. Jeffers' philosophy of inhumanism, resonating with solitude and a complex search for consolation, is a valuable work of creativity.
The works of Robinson Jeffers are collected in 5 volumes as The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988-2001. Selections are published as the 750+ page The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001. Among literary commentators and biographers are Louis Adamic, William Everson, Lawrence Clark Powell, Ward Ritchie, Robert J. Brophie and Robert Zaller. An excellent resource is Zaller's book The Cliffs of Solitude, A Reading of Robinson Jeffers, published by Cambridge University Press, 1983 and reprinted in paperback in 2009. Also noteworthy is Amy Reiswig's "Robinson Jeffers, Hermit of Carmel: Recontextualizing Inhumanism," a McGill University Masters thesis (2000) that links inhumanism with the tradition of eremitism; available on the web at: digitool.library.mcgill.ca:8881/dtl_publish/3/30207.html.