Robinson Jeffers was a poet of great depth and ability; the voices of the speaker’s in his poetry are mystical, finding wisdom on the mountaintop above failure of the communal people to envelop the magnanimity and breadth of nature; prophetic, in damning the forgetful, lethargic, and insulated living of twentieth century American life; vitriolic, in brutally honest, incising diatribes dissecting the iniquitous ego of man; and philosophical, with a hawkish eye on life and the beauty of things.
Jeffers wrote poetry of manifold genres, styles, and rhythms, such as narratives, tragedies, lyrics, and sonnets, as well as numerous other metrical experiments which developed into jagged lines resembling the craggy Pacific coast where he matured as both man and poet.
Critically, Jeffers is praised mostly for his shorter poems. Frederic Carpenter, a noted Jeffers critic, explains in his book, Robinson Jeffers, that “they [the shorter poems] are as unconventional as the long ones, and show an even greater variety. Very few are lyrics in the strict sense, although many give expression to a single emotion, and a few actually sing” (96).
Indeed, with grave sincerity from strong voices, Jeffers’ short poems sing his messages to readers, most often by employing symbols of nature in tightly woven verse with messages brusquely stated. In his shorter poems, Jeffers uses rocks and hawks to symbolize the natural strength ideal for combating some human weaknesses: namely, the fear of death, communal living (turning blindly from nature), and solipsism.
Jeffers’ poetic subjects were chosen specifically for their quality of permanence, lasting beauty, and organic realism. As is noted in William Nolte’s book of criticism, Rock and Hawk, Jeffers decreed: “Permanent things, or things forever renewed, like the grass and human passions, are the material for poetry; and whoever speaks across the gap of a thousand years will understand that he has to speak of permanent things, and rather clearly too, or who would hear him?” (65-66).
So it became of Jeffers to pen his capacity for contrasting permanence—as symbolized through nature—with transient, insignificant and infinitesimal mortal concerns, exposing the impotence of the ephemeral by juxtaposing it alongside the grandeur of the interminable—the power and beauty of the universe.
Jeffers’ most heavily used symbols in his poetry, as commented on by literary critic Robert Brophy, are rocks and hawks: “Hawks are god like, totem birds, representing what is noble and fierce. Rock is a consistent image of God, mysterious chthonic presence and stoic endurance; it is volcanic origins, the bones of mother earth” (Brophy).
In the autobiographical poem “Oh, Lovely Rock,” Jeffers’s speaker insists upon mortality as an end not to be met with fear, but to be perceived and experienced as is: inevitable, natural, cyclic, beauteous, and the only means to achieve true peace. Upon describing a midnight camping scene with his son in a “pathless gorge” (line 1), noticing by the light of a few dying embers a slab of centuries old “light-grey diorite…/ smooth-polished by the endless attrition of slides and floods” (ll. 10-11), the speaker comes to perceive “this fate going on / Outside our [man’s] fates” (ll. 14-15). Encompassed by the vast expanse of night and the brightness of the campfire illuminating his mind’s eye on the rock, the speaker climbs a new height in his perception, essentially breaking down the value man’s caprice in the lucid glow of this powerful symbol:
I shall die, and my boys
Will live and die, our world will go on through its rapid agonies
of change and discovery; this age will die,
And wolves have howled in the snow around a new Bethlehem:
this rock will be here, grave, earnest, not passive: the energies
That are its atoms will still be bearing the whole mountain above:
And I, many packed centuries ago,
Felt its intense reality with love and wonder, this lonely rock. (ll. 15-17).
These final lines of the poem illustrate the perceived insanity inherent in man’s fear of death by juxtaposing it alongside the rock, which is shown to withstand centuries by nature of its design, consequently inviting the reader to consider his/her mortality as what it is, but a natural end for a creature created for an impermanent existence.
Thus man and nature are united in a cyclic perception true to the natural course of human life without the taint of fear betraying one’s sense of self and placement in the natural world. Nor does the speaker ascribe self-worth for the sake of some malady of self-aggrandizement, but instead to call attention to the wonderment of one’s role in being alive to witness beauty for one minute moment in time without fantastical dreams of one’s role in the universe. Through the quiet dignity of the enduring stone, Jeffers offers a symbol of strength to combat the weakness that is losing sight of one’s true nature.
In his own critical analysis of Jeffers’ poetry, Brophy writes “[o]ne need not go far in Jeffers to find that all his images are cyclic: cycle is the truth of the stars, the life of the planet, the fate of man, insect, and flower. Cycle moves through birth, growth, fullness, decay, and death” (Brophy).
As is exemplified in his poem, “The Low Sky,” Jeffers’ images are congruent with Brophy’s astute observation. In “The Low Sky,” Jeffers again employs stone as a symbol of solidified repose while simultaneously addressing the reality of mortality not as a burdensome end, but inevitable with regards to completing the life cycle.
The speaker of the poem describes one lying inside of a tomb where “no vulture is here, hardly a hawk” (line 1) and where mortality is welcomed for sowing the seeds of nature. The speaker discerns: “But one to whom mind and imagination / Sometimes used to seem burdensome / Is glad to lie down awhile in the tomb” (ll. 7-9), suggesting peace from the lifelong war of consciousness as a gift in one’s death.
In the final stanza, the speaker creates an image of placidity appealing to the reader’s sense of sound, pairing the stones with the loss of one’s organic composition: “Among stones and quietness / The mind dissolves without a sound, / The flesh drops [emphasis mine] into the ground” (Jeffers 466), tersely explicating ecological truth in death as one’s form merges with the elements and is no longer in conflict; is no longer warring with the chaotic dissonance of consciousness that can drive a wedge between man and nature, birthing monstrosities of a blackening, storm-addled mind.
Jeffers spoke candidly of the suffering born of conflict that will invariably arise in one’s life; he is quoted in William Nolte’s Rock and Hawk speaking on the matter:
We believe in humility; but we also believe in masculine pride and self assertion. I think that this spiritual conflict creates a strain in our psychology and in the heart of our culture that has been extremely fruitful both of good and evil, of greatness and intensity, as well as of self contradiction and hypocrisy and frustration. (23)
As “masculine pride and self assertion” aid in the creation of the “strain in our psychology and in the heart of our culture,” they mask the mind’s eye in darkness, shrouding in infinite blackness the objective participation of ourselves in the natural world free of self-imposed burden, and instead inspire the provincial whims of the self that call one to suffer for want of the unattainable.
Through Jeffers’ masterful use of the hawk as a symbol of strength in his shorter poems, he illustrates yet another image of natural beauty that could be used to counter the noxious impulses of the communal man. One strong example of this is the poem “Hurt Hawks,” in which Jeffers utilizes the hawk as a symbol to communicate values of strength and nobility in the face of dogged pusillanimity and civilized self-indulgence.
“Hurt Hawks” is a poem that celebrates the strength inherent in wild nature. The speaker of the poem contrasts feral simplicity with communal living, going so far as to claim “communal people” (line 15) as divorced from the realm of “[t]he wild God of the world” (line 15):
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him. (ll. 15-17)
Jeffers begins “Hurt Hawks” with exemplary use of imagery. The hawk, otherwise known as a bird of prey recognized for its seizure of the open air from which it looks down upon the smaller creatures of terra firma, is instead introduced in this poem to the reader as a fractured, impoverished land dweller with a gruesome injury: “The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder, / The wing trails like a banner in defeat” (ll. 1-2).
Such an ominous beginning might lead one to discern that a much darker consequence is yet to come. Indeed, the somber tone achieved from presenting the image of the broken wing is intensified by the substantial terms used in the speaker’s description of the impairment.
Jeffers’ diction, specifically the word pillar, a term used to refer to the hawk’s broken shoulder bone, evinces the strength the speaker ascribes to the hawk, inciting the reader to recall that a pillar, in an architectural sense, denotes what is used to uphold great structures, maintaining their staunchness. The pillar, by design, is a tool implemented to check the challenges presented by both nature and time, as the wing is designed by nature to keep the hawk alive and commanding in its natural domain—the air.
The phrase “banner in defeat” also adds to this somber tone of broken strength implied by the previous line, creating an overall image of something stalwart faced now with a new, threatening reality. As is nodded to in the third line of the poem, a bird of prey without able wings is a bird doomed: “No more to use the sky forever but live with famine / And pain a few days:” (ll. 3-4).
However, despite this desolate introductory image of the hawk, its consummate strength is not weakened; only that of its wing is. The inner ferocity of nature’s design that marks the hawk remains intact.
In fact, even when faced with sure death, grounded in territory unfamiliar to it beyond the occasional ground level swoop of weaker prey, the hawk’s natural strength is reinforced through the recognition of what it symbolizes in the eyes of other animals: “cat nor coyote / Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without / talons” (ll. 4-6).
The speaker also reveals that “[t]he curs of the day come and torment him / At distance” (ll.10-11). What these lines share in sense, and, most importantly, what’s unveiled for the reader, is the hawk’s innate power. Even when crippled by injury, forced to become an anomalous land-animal surrounded by other hungry and physically unimpaired hunters (cat, coyote, curs), the hawk’s sovereignty is still not diminished.
Despite their craven taunts, the cat, coyote and curs instantly recognize the hawks power and consequently stay safely at a distance from it. Jeffers’ speaker, again, through key word choice, compels the reader to see an animal injured in body, yet not without fierce presence, as mongrel dogs will torment only at a distance, and the cat and coyote, with all of their reign in the animal kingdom, still fear the hurt hawk’s talon attack.
Jeffers’ masterful use of symbolism and imagery in “Hurt Hawk’s” creates a significant impression of natural power while also prompting the reader to consider what he or she might lose sight of if concerned only with the preservation of life. Combating the distinctively human quality of arrogance with the wild and domineering beauty of the “intemperate and savage” (line 16) hawk, Jeffers conveys the strength of his subject by contrasting it with the less-than-noble attributes of wayward bipeds.
In “Rock and Hawk,” Jeffers’ most widely used natural symbols are paired together in a poem in which a falcon perched on a gray rock crowning a headland is offered as the “emblem to hang in the future sky” (ll. 10-11).
This symbol is chosen by the speaker over the cross—religion being artificial, a product of man subject to falsity and savior-dreams that can lead one to inspire suffering and experience crippling affliction. Brophy notes that “for Jeffers there is only matter and energy; there is no spirit, or soul, or immortality (these being merely man’s attempts to escape the cycle [of life and death]). God endures forever; man is a temporary phenomenon, something of an anomaly in the universe because of his megalomaniac self-regard” (Brophy).
In just twenty one lines, Jeffers’ philosophy of “Inhumanism”—essentially to turn outward from one’s self—takes precedence through this mystic voice. Comparing and contrasting both the falcon and the rock, the speaker describes:
[B]right power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
Life with calm death; the falcon’s
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive
Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
Nor success make proud. (ll. 13-21)
These final lines of “Rock and Hawk” work to evaporate human suffering (for self centeredness) in the midst of two such noble, permanent symbols of the natural world. Jeffers shows beautifully, simplistically, the eternal light of permanence in “Rock and Hawk,” casting the perilous sufferings of the thinking creature into the darkness of self from which in vain one must crawl to reason, insofar as the length of one’s subjective fetters permit.
In a critical article examining Jeffers’s work, Peter O’ Leary, contributor to the Chicago Review, writes that “he [Jeffers] seems to say to us, bluntly: I have never known the love of God, and never will. I cannot see this life as cipher of Divine Will; neither am I a solipsist or narcissist, in love with men. I find only the natural world consistently superior to anything else” (O’ Leary), supposing—as many critics have unanimously agreed—that Jeffers’ poetic focus is not man, but first man in relation to the natural world and cosmos, as for him this relationship (if not spoiled by mortal weaknesses) exemplifies the only immutable truth of the beauty of experience and things. From that particular truth, if he so chooses by cleansing from his mind the muck of sordid thought, man can become part of a better life; one conjoined with organic wholeness.
In the poem “Signpost,” Jeffers’ speaker plainly vituperates the civilized man and solipsism completely devoid of any reservation. In the first three lines of the poem, the voice of the speaker calls man to listen closely to a new voice speaking in opposition to the cacophonous drone of his civilization.
This new voice of clarity decrees that man climb a new height or perish within the walls of his civilization—the same walls of which symbolize his frame of mind under the weight of his fantastic abstractions: “Civilized, crying how to be human again: this will tell you how. / Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from hu- / manity, / Let that doll lie” (ll. 1-3).
The speaker also implores the reader to “[l]ean 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” (ll. 4-6), again explicitly warning against calamitous self-absorption. The final six lines of the aptly titled “Signpost” offer insightful direction to the reader so that transformation may be actualized:
You will look back along the stars’ rays and see that even
The poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.
Its qualities repair their mosaic around you, the chips of strength
And sickness; but now you are free, even to become human,
But born of the rock and the air, not of a woman. (ll. 9-14)
With those final lines, the speaker unequivocally delivers his steadfast solution for how one can achieve a wholesome life, defeating the solipsism that would surely prevent one’s capacity to do so.
Jeffers was a poet of broad vision; his keen, curious, and discerning eye mused intensely on the action surrounding and pulsing through the life of things.
Having found himself in California’s coastal Carmel region, veritably secluded from industrious life, it is no great wonder that the ever-enduring elements of the age-old wilderness he lived in should have found their way into every measure of his poetic endeavors. Peter O’ Leary comments that “his [Jeffers’] life in poetry was resolutely maverick, and deeply strange. He knew himself especially through the avian world, not as a hawk—even though he made totems of the raptors—but as a gralliform, a solitary night heron” (O’Leary).
As is evident in his poetic outpourings, Jeffers fought tirelessly to put a tourniquet on the spiritual wounds of his race, spending a life contemplating a path out of the puerile suffering over amorphous chimeras brought to life in the eyes of those fearing death, losing sight of their natural existence.
Jeffers’ disparate poetics earned him a place of critical ambivalence, one reserved for both reverence by few, and damnation by many (his outspokenness against President Franklin Roosevelt and WWII having not a little to do with that).
Frederic Carpenter insists “the one quality of his [Jeffers’] poetry, upon which most critics have agreed is its ‘power.’ At best it appeals immediately to the reader’s imagination and arouses powerful emotions” (144); these emotions Jeffers creates through his skillful delineations of pristine symbol’s of the natural world, predominately rocks and hawks, which offer readers strength and insight to combat some human weaknesses, namely, fear of mortality, grief, and solipsism, that they may be moved instead by the beauty of the natural world than suffer private delusions.
Brophy, Robert. “Robinson Jeffers.” A Literary History of the American West. Texas Christian University Press, 1987. 398-415. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. Carol T. Gaffke and Margaret Haerens. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale Research, 1997. Literature Resource Center.
Carpenter, Frederic L. Robinson Jeffers. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962. Print.
Jeffers, Robinson. Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Random House, 1959. Print.
Nolte, William H. Rock and Hawk. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1978. Print.
O’Leary, Peter. “Robinson Jeffers: the man from whom God hid everything.” Chicago Review 49.3-4 (2004): 350+. Literature Resource Center. Web.