July 12, 2019

The Dark Visions Of Robinson Jeffers

During a recent morning walk, I was arrested by the sight of a bird’s flight high up above me. For a brief moment I watched it elegantly glide upon a current of wind before landing atop a monstrous catalpa tree. Determined to know what it was, I stopped and stood, eyes squinted, waiting for a better view. Then, another bird joined it on a nearby branch, and they silently faced each other as if engaged in some sort of telepathic communication. The distinct shape of their heads betrayed their identification and I gasped at the realization that I’d just been moved by the incredible beauty of a vulture—a despised species of bird considered so unsightly by most.

I think I somewhat inherited this recoil towards vultures from my sister. There were many of them in her old neighborhood, and on many occasions, she expressed her dismay at the ominous feeling they evoked when she saw them perched on rooftops—large, silent, still, and watching. Waiting. I agreed. But now, I realize that the foreboding they can inspire is really a strange sort of awe, like one who’s stumbled upon the presence of something powerful and otherworldly, like a burning bush named G-d. Several days after admiring that vulture’s graceful soar, I serendipitously turned a page and discovered “Vulture,” a poem written by Robinson Jeffers found in an anthology of his work that I’d been reading off and on. Reading the poem, I felt exactly what he’d invoked on paper, the unlikely kinship between a human and a bird of prey.

Robinson Jeffers’ poetry was deeply affected by the mystery of nature.

In turn, he himself was an enigma, by temperament a “cold and undiscriminating” hermit, silent—“allowing the cliffs and clouds and rolling sea to speak for themselves.” Enraptured by the sublimity of nature, he was repulsed by the folly of humanity, viewing people as a ”contagion of consciousness,” a ”botched experiment that has run wild and ought to be stopped,” and other misanthropic tropes. To him, “the hawk’s predatory strike is beautiful; the rifle-toting hunter, contemptible.” Notwithstanding, I believe he saw the potential for greatness in his fellow man buried somewhere deep beneath all the foolishness.

Prophets, by definition, see beyond the present. They see the truth, which isn’t always pretty. And Jeffers, not unlike a marginalized seer on some street corner, declared the end of days:

“Jeffers’ poetry transcends the implications of Christian belief and human
egoism that suggest that our existence is somehow central to the purposes of
a God or of the Universe. This is important to remember when reading Jeffers
because his poetry can be difficult in its didactic insistence of the evil
inherent in our assumption that we stand above and apart from the world. He
saw clearly that the pollution of the environment, the destruction of other
species, the squandering of natural resources, the recurrent urge to war,
the violence of our cities as the inevitable consequence of a race out of
harmony with its own world. Jeffers rejected all formal systems of mass
belief or worship and had an inherent distrust of saviors as people who are
driven by a restless will to power.”

In the book, The Wild God Of The World (2003), an anthology of Jeffers’ best and most central poems, prose, and letters, one can find traces of his pantheistic world-view—something he never overtly expressed much but that permeated most of his work. In “Vulture,” he describes the “sublime end of one’s body” as being scavenged by a vulture—becoming one with it through this consumption, and as a result, sharing in its existence. This belief in the interconnection with nature is best expressed in a letter to “Sister Mary James Power”—a principal at a girls’ Catholic school who requested to learn more about Jeffers’ “religious attitudes.”

In his response to her inquiry, Jeffers explains that his perception of the physical universe is as something immanently divine. This was something Jeffers accepted as inexplicable, outside of the realm of poetry, but it made him live and write as he did, full of curiosity, and always moved by a desire for truth and balance—despite the bleakness of his vision.

LETTER TO SISTER MARY JAMES POWER [October 1, 1934]

Dear Sister Mary James:

Your letter should have been answered sooner, but there have been so many visitors and other events the past fortnight.

As to my “religious attitudes”–you know it is sort of a tradition in this country not to talk about religion for fear of offending–I am still a little subject to the tradition, and rather dislike stating my “attitudes” except in the course of a poem. However, they are simple. 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.) The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one’s affection outward toward this one God, rather than inward on one’s self, or on humanity, or on human imagination and abstractions–the world of spirits.

I think that it is our privilege and felicity to love God for his beauty, without claiming or expecting love from him. We are not important to him, but he to us.

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. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.

(An office of tragic poetry is to show that there is beauty in pain and failure as much as in success and happiness.)

There is nothing here that has not been more feelingly expressed in my verses; but I thought that a plain question deserved a plain answer.

Sincerely yours,
Robinson Jeffers