I’ve long revered Robinson Jeffers’ poetry, ahead of its time in addressing humanity’s pillaging of nature and its consequence.
Formerly one of our most esteemed poets, even making the cover of Time Magazine (1932), Jeffers fell out of favor with the entrance of America into WW Il. Another outplay of human interests gone amuck, he wanted no part in it. It violated his concept of “inhumanism,” the subordinating of anthropocentric interests to nature’s primacy. By 1965, much of his work was out of print.
That is no shame. Other American poets, like Dickinson and Whitman, out of joint with their times, have suffered banishment to benign forgetfulness.
As he later explained in his 1948 preface to the Double-Axe and Other Poems, “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.”
I’m not unaware that his poetry has aroused controversy with its misanthropic tenor, long narrative poems replete with violence and latent pessimism about humanity’s future.
With the 2022 UN supported IPCC study just out, conducted by more than 500 scientists from 40 countries, and running 8,000 pages, documenting climate change acceleration and biodiversity loss, Jeffers deserves the reappraisal of his poetry now underway.
Jeffers’ antipathy towards humanity is expressed in his poem, “Original Sin”:
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
Much of his verse is rooted in Darwinian cataclysm. No Wordsworth, Jeffers wasn’t myopic about nature. He accepted its relentless tooth and claw interchange. Man, however, is the ultimate predator, which explains his hostility: “I’d sooner, except for the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” (“Hurt Hawks”).
Jeffers will not lament mankind’s ultimate passing:
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.
Nature deserves reverence. In his poem, “Nova,” he writes,
…we know that 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”
In “The Answer,” he pens that
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
Man has violated that wholeness. In “Animals,” one of my favorites, Jeffers movingly nuances man’s estrangement from his fellow creatures:
At dawn a knot of sea-lions lies off the shore In the slow swell between the rock and the cliff,
Sharp flippers lifted, or great-eyed heads, as they roll
in the sea, Bigger than draft-horses, and barking like dogs Their all-night song. It makes me wonder a little
That life near kin to human, intelligent, hot blooded, idle
and singing, can float at ease
In the ice-cold midwinter water.
Jeffers’ poetry isn’t always easy to understand. Immensely learned, he can be deeply philosophic, much of his verse influenced by his wide reading in Lucretius, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Spengler, Vico, myth and anthropology.
Gifted, Jeffers read classical Greek and Latin at age 5, and as a teen, was fluent in French, German and Italian. Along with his brother, he had been educated in private schools in Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, and Leipzig,
Recognized for his intellectual brilliance, he was admitted to Occidental College with junior standing, though only sixteen, graduating two years later. He went on to medical and forestry schools,dropping out to pursue his love for literature.
He settled with his beloved wife, Una, in Big Sur’s rugged landscape where the Santa Lucia mountains in Monterey County rise suddenly, adjacent to the Pacific ocean and not far from Carmel, a lush landscape of small farms and virgin redwood forest. I think of it as one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. Jeffers described it as “the noblest thing I have ever seen.”
Relishing its beauty and isolation, he built his own house, now open to visitors, out of stone wrestled up with his own hands from the beach below, and called it Tor House. It includes Hawk Tower, where he wrote his poems each morning by a window offering mountain vistas. From it, absent of mist, visitors can glimpse many of the 2,000 cypress and eucalyptus trees he planted and hand-watered. The grounds include a well-maintained cottage garden.
Tor House merits visiting. The docent quality may vary, but here Jeffers is rekindled, few places so associated with a writer as Tor House. George Gershwin, Martha Graham, and Langston Hughes would be among those paying homage. It’s in the dining room, laid out like an English pub, that he slipped into eternity.
Jeffers settled in Big Sur in 1914. Nearby Carmel had only 350 inhabitants.
In his forward to Selected Poetry, he relished the afforded isolation, “purged of its ephemeral accretions. Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white sea-gulls, as they have done for thousands of years, and will do for thousands of years to come.”
Jeffers inspired novelist Henry Miller to settle nearby, where he would remain until Jeffers’ death in 1962. Others, like Ken Kesey and Hunter Thompson, would follow. Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums has its partial setting in Big Sur.
Jeffers wasn’t a rabid romantic. He knew intrusion would prove inevitable, expressing his resentment in his acclaimed pastoral lyric, “Carmel Point.”
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
Poet Robert Hass deems Jeffers “the first American poet to grasp the devastating extent of the changes human technologies and populations were wreaking on the rest of the earth’s biological life” (“Introduction,” Rock and HawkA Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers).
Renowned physicist Freeman Dyson exclaims in The New York Review of Books that “Robinson Jeffers was no scientist, but he expressed better than any other poet the scientist’s vision. Ironic, detached, contemptuous like Einstein of national pride and cultural taboos, he stood in awe of nature alone. He stood alone in uncompromising opposition to the follies of the Second World War. His poems during those years of patriotic frenzy were unpublishable….I discovered Jeffers thirty years later, when the sadness and the passion of the war had become a distant memory. Fortunately, his works are now in print and you can read them for yourselves” (May 25, 1995).
Can I ever forget his magisterial “De Rerum Virtute,” alluding to Lucretius “De rerum natura”?
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
Jeffers’ reputation may have suffered time’s undulations—a change in taste, or political rebuttal, or rebellion against his insistent passion and human dislike, but for environmentalists, he remains its patron saint, and I know that I, for one, adore him.