Solace for the Hard Places: Jeffers, “Shine, Perishing Republic”

Big Sur Jeffers' residence

BIG SUR

I suppose every generation thinks it’s in crisis and, you know, they’re probably right, given the volatility of history; our time, no less so, as we make the transition to a new Washington regime that appears menacing to many of us seeking an America that fulfills its promise to promote the welfare of all its citizenry and not the interests of the privileged few, often White, endowed by wealth and power.

It’s in times like ours that I’m thankful for the healing repository of good poetry in its beauty, counsel and solace.

As I write, Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) sweeps into my mind as a poet with uncanny prescience of America’s soul-ache in his own time, expressed in maybe his finest poem, “Shine, Perishing Republic.” What follows is his relatively short poem, with my own commentary on each stanza, and a final summation:

The Poem:

1.

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens.

2.

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and deca-
dence; and home to the mother.

3.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stub-
bornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.

4.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thick-
ening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.

5.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught–they say–
God, when he walked on earth.

Commentary

Stanza 1.
In the initial stanza, the persona decries what he sees as burgeoning American imperialism taking its place among the nations. (Robinson lamented what he perceived as a growing “Caesarism.”). Note his “This America,” signaling out contemporary America in contrast perhaps to past America with its espousal of Jeffersonian democracy, harbinging Jeffer’s notion of genesis, maturation and decay in the subsequent stanza.

A striking image also occurs here of lava hardening to depict the insensitivy of a nation, other than for an inconsequential few who protest—“only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out.”

Stanza 2:
What follows is Jeffers’ use of the cyclic, a favorite motif, reflecting his wide reading in Voto, Spengler and Nietzsche. That nature poses not only genesis, but decline suggests consolation. In the scheme of things, humanity must inexorably yield to Nature’s conquest. So much for its arrogance or self-importance. Here, the line rhythms of the stanza’s conclusion reinforce the persona’s notion of the cyclic.

Stanza 3:
A startling, accusatory address begins the stanza: “You making haste on decay.” You perhaps refers to the individual as well as the nation. We who are mortal or perishing committing the folly of investing in the ephemeral (i. e., making haste on decay) should be accepting of our mortality, whether of Self or Nation. Dissolution or demise is Nature’s law.

Whether life is long or short, life is to be affirmed: “meteors (short-lived) are not needed less than mountains (longevity). Everything has its place in Nature’s scheme of things. The imperative then is to live life passionately: “Shine,perishing republic. ”Shine” perhaps also connotes life lived nobly, or honorably. Or like the last shine, as of a fire’s glow just before it goes out. Cf. Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gently into that good night.”

Note the speaker’s insistence that “life is good”; that is, when lived rightly, despite its governance by mortality.

Stanza 4:
Employing archetype, Jeffers emphasizes that we needn’t capitulate to the nation’s malaise centered in its cities as opposed to the sanctuary of the mountains offering transcendence. In essence, plurality often imposes its own tyranny.

Stanza 5:
The speaker would have his children live cautiously in a time such as this, i.e, with tempered idealism in regard to collective humanity with its intrinsic capacity for chicanery and despotism (“a clever servant, insufferable master”) avoiding the fate of other idealists like Jesus:

Summary: History proceeds in repetitive cycles, implying we learn little from it in ameliorating the human condition in its enamorizing power with its resulting despotism. Live apart with integrity and passion in the solace of Nature. As Jeffers memorably expressed it in his poem, “The Beauty of Things, “To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things/…to feel /Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural/Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.”

In essence, Jeffers gives counsel on how to live in the context of what Buddhists might equate with Dhaka, or disillusion. Given our post-election malaise, I find it’s advice worth heeding.

–rj

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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