This month’s Poetry Sunday features two poems by Robinson Jeffers, an American poet of the early twentieth century. Born 1887 in Pennsylvania, Jeffers was the son of a Presbyterian minister who taught his son Latin and Greek. Nevertheless, Jeffers did not follow in his father’s footsteps. Rather than theology, he became enthralled at a young age with the natural world, and became an avid outdoorsman and follower of scientific discoveries in biology, astronomy, and other areas.
Jeffers found his voice as a poet in the first decade of the twentieth century when he moved to Carmel, on the California coast. He would live there for the rest of his life with his wife, Una, in a granite home called Tor House which he built himself. Jeffers found in the wildness and isolation of the coast, combined with his scientific background, a potent inspiration for poetry. Most of his poems are about the stark and awe-inspiring glories of nature – the “astonishing beauty of things”, as he called it. Jeffers also wrote much about human civilization, which he viewed, Thoreau-like, as decadent and corrupted, inferior compared to the clean, fierce freshness of the wilderness. (The fact that he lived through two world wars seems to have given him a certain cynicism about the destructive tendencies of civilization.) His poetry is well-known in the modern environmental movement. His published works include Californians (1916), The Women at Point Sur (1927), Be Angry at the Sun (1941) and The Beginning and the End and Other Poems (1963).
Jeffers’ religious views were pantheistic. Rather than the anthropomorphic, miracle-working god of Christianity, he believed in a god that exists as the sum total of all natural forces – “the wild God of the world”, he wrote in his poem Hurt Hawks. In Roan Stallion, he mused, “Not in a man’s shape / He approves the praise, he that walks lightning-naked on the Pacific, that laces the suns with planets, / The heart of the atom with electrons”. Jeffers’ deity was “no God of love”, “no anthropoid God making commandments”, but rather “the God who does not care and will never cease”. Like nature itself, he shows no mercy and grants no afterlife, and is often violent and savage, but nevertheless spins out astonishing and luminous beauty to fill the world. (Read more here and here about Jeffers’ pantheist views.)
Their Beauty Has More Meaning
Yesterday morning enormous the moon hung low on the ocean,
Round and yellow-rose in the glow of dawn;
The night-herons flapping home wore dawn on their wings. Today
Black is the ocean, black and sulphur the sky,
And white seas leap. I honestly do not know which day is more beautiful.
I know that tomorrow or next year or in twenty years
I shall not see these things—and it does not matter, it does not hurt;
They will be here. And when the whole human race
Has been like me rubbed out, they will still be here: storms, moon and ocean,
Dawn and the birds. And I say this: their beauty has more meaning
Than the whole human race and the race of birds.
At the equinox when the earth was veiled in a late rain, wreathed with wet poppies, waiting spring,
The ocean swelled for a far storm and beat its boundary, the ground-swell shook the beds of granite:
I gazing at the boundaries of granite and spray, the established sea-marks, felt behind me
Mountain and plain, the immense breadth of the continent, before me the mass and doubled stretch of water.
I said: You yoke the Aleutian seal-rocks with the lava and coral sowings that flower the south,
Over your flood the life that sought the sunrise faces ours that has followed the evening star.
The long migrations meet across you and it is nothing to you, you have forgotten us, mother.
You were much younger when we crawled out of the womb and lay in the sun’s eye on the tideline.
It was long and long ago; we have grown proud since then and you have grown bitter; life retains
Your mobile soft unquiet strength; and envies hardness, the insolent quietness of stone.
The tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars, life is your child, but there is in me
Older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye that watched before there was an ocean.
That watched you fill your beds out of the condensation of thin vapor and watched you change them,
That saw you soft and violent wear your boundaries down, eat rock, shift places with the continents.
Mother, though my song’s measure is like your surf-beat’s ancient rhythm I never learned it of you.
Before there was any water there were tides of fire, both our tones flow from the older fountain.
Other posts in this series: