This month’s Poetry Sunday features another poem 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, 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.)
In today’s poem, Jeffers writes of his own home, Tor House, and contemplates whether the work of his hands will survive the passage of time. Nature, in its eternal renewal, will survive; and the cosmos will remain – and I’m in awe of his description of the constellation Orion, spanning a nearby valley like a lamplit bridge – but Jeffers predicts that humanity, and our works, will eventually sink like ghosts into the depths of the earth.
If you should look for this place after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some remnant.
But if you should look in your idleness after ten thousand years:
It is the granite knoll on the granite
And lava tongue in the midst of the bay, by the mouth of the Carmel
River-valley, these four will remain
In the change of names. You will know it by the wild sea-fragrance of wind
Though the ocean may have climbed or retired a little;
You will know it by the valley inland that our sun and our moon were born from
Before the poles changed; and Orion in December
Evenings was strung in the throat of the valley like a lamp-lighted bridge.
Come in the morning you will see white gulls
Weaving a dance over blue water, the wane of the moon
Their dance-companion, a ghost walking
By daylight, but wider and whiter than any bird in the world.
My ghost you needn’t look for; it is probably
Here, but a dark one, deep in the granite, not dancing on wind
With the mad wings and the day moon.
Other posts in this series: