A Poetics of Witness: Jeffers’ “Salmon Fishing” and the Apology in “Apology for Bad Dreams”

[This essay was written for A Festschrift for Robert Brophy, a special triple issue of Jeffers Studies (V10, N2; V11, N1; & V11, N2).  The discussion of  “Salmon Fishing” included in the piece is adapted from a talk, “Lyric Ritual: Jeffers and the Poetics of Post-Romantic Witness,” presented to the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics in October, 2002.  This brief, introductory note was not included when the essay was published in Jeffers Studies:
Given the occasion of this issue of Jeffers Studies, I hope a brief anecdote is appropriate.  My first encounter with Robert Brophy’s work wasn’t with Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems.  Rather, it came shortly before that book was published, when I read “Structure, Symbol, and Myth in Selected Narratives of Robinson Jeffers,” Brophy’s 1966 PhD dissertation.  I was a student home for the holidays, and it was a very gray (and I think) rainy day in December 1969.  I had navigated deep into the library at the UC Berkeley, past the various guardians at the gates, to a room of bound dissertations, and in a nook in that windowless room, I turned the pages of Brophy’s typescript, taking notes furiously for the undergraduate thesis I would write the coming semester (I still have the notes, smudged but legible).  Over the fall I had been assiduously reading the 1938 Random House Selected Poetry and the relatively small set of books that had been published on Jeffers to that point, but “Structure, Symbol, and Myth in Selected Narratives of Robinson Jeffers” had something I had found nowhere else, and I knew I was reading something that truly mattered and that was making an important difference in how I would read and understand Jeffers.
It should also be noted that Robert Brophy was unfailingly steadfast in encouraging the serious study of the poetry of Robinson Jeffers and an unfailingly generous mentor to those of us who have followed him.]


Robert Brophy’s Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol was not the first book on Jeffers.  Earlier studies, including those by Lawrence Clark Powell, Radcliffe Squires, and Frederic Ives Carpenter, still have valuable things to teach us.  But Brophy’s book regrounded the project of reading of Jeffers, and the approach he articulated has informed much, if not most, of the important work on Jeffers in the years since.  Earlier scholars had focused on such matters as Jeffers’ philosophical roots; they had emphasized the nature and significance of the claims that Jeffers might be advancing through the poems; and they had debated how to categorize the long poems generically.  What made Myth, Ritual, and Symbol so productive a turn in the history of Jeffers’ scholarship was that Brophy largely sidestepped matters such as these and instead turned his attention—and ours—to the question of how the poems might work structurally and symbolically.  He asked us, that is, to focus on how to read the poems and to build our theorizing from that ground.  In part he did so in order to counter the then all but total rejection of Jeffers by the New Critics and the academy by showing that the poems, especially the long narrative and dramatic poems that were then critically least acceptable, could be read closely and that their meaning derived from their aesthetic and structural dimensions instead of existing separately from them.  Now, some forty years later, the New Critics are themselves in eclipse, a dusty historical episode boxed away in a back corner of the critical attic, but Brophy’s project continues to matter.  The most obvious reason would be that Brophy’s demonstration of the nature and importance of Jeffers’ use of ritual and mythic structures and imagery remains a productive, indeed necessary, approach to the long poems.  His research clearly established the depth of Jeffers’ interest in, extensive command of, and use of ancient myth and ritual and his productive awareness of the work of the Cambridge anthropologists, especially Gilbert Murray and Jane Harrison, and their theories about the ritual and mythic substructure of Greek tragedy.  But Brophy accomplished something even more fundamental in Myth, Ritual, and Symbol.  Instead of arguing for ancient myth and ritual as the meaning of the poems, Brophy identified them as elements within the poems that help us understand how the poems work and thereby to participate more fully in the poems.  By demonstrating that any effort to understand Jeffers must start with the process of experiencing the poems through engaged close reading, he made it necessary to read Jeffers’ texts as poems first, with matters of doctrine and philosophy having to be understood through the process and experience of the poems.

But in spite of the value and power of Brophy’s approach in Myth, Ritual, and Symbol and in spite of the compelling readings of core texts of the Jeffers’ canon that his book offers, we are still struggling to come to terms with Jeffers’ at times seemingly simple work, and the achievement and significance of the long poems remain matters of debate and disagreement.  What was Jeffers doing, and why does it matter?  The questions still trouble us, and their urgency is not simply a matter of how to justify Jeffers’ significance to those in the academy who focus on American poetry yet continue to overlook his work (though this is an important goal); even more it is a matter that those of us who are convinced of Jeffers’ achievement and cultural and historical importance continue to sense that the poetry outstrips our individual and collective efforts to account for it.

Brophy’s recent essay, “Jeffers’s ‘Apology for Bad Dreams’ Revisited,” is a case in point.  In it, he reconsiders the powerful and influential reading of this key poem that he developed in the final chapter of Myth, Ritual, and Symbol, and his renewed questioning of the poem leads him to conclude, “And thus my search for the deepest meanings of ‘Apology’ for me remains frustrate.  Jeffers’s intent remains ambiguous (13).  And he adds, “Closing, I can only remark that my more youthful conclusions have become doubts; I have had second thoughts over the full meaning and dimensions of ‘Apology for Bad Dreams’” (13).

Brophy’s second thoughts about “Apology” matter deeply.  In Myth, Ritual, and Symbol he casts the poem as a paradigmatic ars poetica in which Jeffers systematizes and justifies his poetic project, especially his narratives.  Moreover, his analysis of “Apology” functions as a summative coda to his demonstration that (as he put the matter in the Epilogue to Myth, Ritual, and Symbol) understanding Jeffers requires attending carefully and fully to his “mythic intent, ritual structures, and allied imagery patterns” (286).  Potentially, then, Brophy’s recent “doubts” challenge us, at the least, to continue to question the process and meaning of “Apology,” and they may, as well, call into question the use of “myth-ritual analysis and archetypal criticism” (xi) that Brophy outlined in the Foreword to Myth, Ritual, and Symbol and then developed through his readings of “Tamar” and other crucial long poems.

I do not know how far Brophy would extend his recent “doubts” about his earlier reading of “Apology for Bad Dreams,” but I want to argue that his premises in Myth, Ritual, and Symbol remain productive and sound.  These include his claims that “Jeffers had familiarity, competence, and conviction in dealing with myth and ritual”; that sacrificial motifs and patterns are central to his perspective and to his poems; and that his specific awareness of these motifs and patterns relates not only to his reading of classical literature but also to “the findings of the newly burgeoning science of cultural anthropology—as reported in such works as Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Jane Harrison’s Themis, F.M. Cornford’s The Origin of Attic Comedy, and Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (7).  We should, I believe, continue to take it as a given that Jeffers knew this material and drew heavily on it, especially in the long poems, but Brophy’s revisiting of “Apology” suggests we need to continue to explore and extend the paradigm he established in Myth, Ritual, and Symbol.  That myth and ritual are crucial to Jeffers’ poetry should remain a given.  Precisely how Jeffers understood myth and ritual and how they function in the poems continue to be crucial questions.  While these matters can be addressed most fully through the narratives, especially the narratives of the 1920s, including the “Point Alma Venus” fragments and The Women at Point Sur, the shorter poems can offer important clues.  In particular, I’d like to suggest that Jeffers revisions to “Salmon Fishing,” revisions that appear to coincide with him developing his mature voice and stance, provide a possible context for considering Part IV of “Apology for Bad Dreams.”


Jeffers wrote “Salmon Fishing,” the evidence suggests, in December 1920, as he was working out the techniques and assumptions that would typify his mature poetry.[i]  Two preliminary typescripts survive: one typed soon after the poem was written, the other apparently from 1923 when he was assembling a preliminary version of Tamar and Other Poems (CP 5: 317-321).  The two typescripts show Jeffers moving toward the poem’s final conception, and a reworking of the latter two thirds of the poem written in pencil across the bottom of the two typescripts documents yet another step in the process.  Across the drafts, the basic scene remains the same, and the tone seems to shift little.  Yet the revisions, though perhaps subtle, fundamentally alter the poem’s resonance and implications, and they reflect a fundamental change in Jeffers’ relationship to nature and how the poems enact his relationship to nature.

In the 1920 typescript the “anglers” are a flat, intrusive presence; they “torture” the fish against the backdrop of the “Red ash” of a solstice “sundown,” which implicitly indicts their actions:

Autumn and evening rains make the earth young-blooded,
The southwind shouts to the rivers,
The rivers open their mouths and the salt salmon
Nose up into the rapids;
In Christmas month against the smoulder and menace
Of a long angry sundown,
Red ash of the dark solstice, I have seen the anglers
On the rocks and in red shallows
Reel out their lines to torture, silent men
Playing the three-foot steelheads,
And land their living bullion, the bloody mouths
And scales full of the sunset
Twitch on the rocks, no more to wander at will
The wild Pacific pasture, nor wanton and spawning
Race up into fresh water.

In this draft nature figures as renewal, pleasure, energy—even speech (“The southwind shouts to the rivers”), while the human figures not only intrude on nature’s dialogue with itself but disrupt it with violence and death.  The relationship between the human actors and nature is a simple (even simplistic) dichotomy, and the speaker’s pronouncement of “hav[ing] seen” all this seems an example of the overly naïve voice and rhetoric that detractors too often assume characterizes Jeffers’ work, in which a misanthropic speaker rejects human kind for its destructive violence and longs to be part of an edenic, pre-human nature.  (How such a rejection of human violence and a longing for a redemptive nature might, at this point for Jeffers, relate to his anguish over World War I and the intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic crisis it precipitated for him, would, I’d suggest, be worth considering.  Such a reading might well cast “Metempsychosis,” the original version of “The Hills Beyond the River,” which would have been written about the time as the original draft of “Salmon Fishing” as a complementary poem).

In the second typescript of “Salmon Fishing” Jeffers rephrased a number of lines.  The adjustments to the first half leave the poem’s underlying logic essentially unchanged, but the revisions to the middle are another matter.  The speaker no longer sees the “anglers” as “Reel[ing] out their lines to torture” but instead sees them, in what is now the “Red fire” of the solstice sunset, this way:

                           I have seen the anglers,
Like dark herons, like priestlings
Of a most patient mystery, at the river-mouth
Perch the rocks and lash the pool there.

This revision naturalizes the “anglers” by equating them with the “dark herons” that also fish the river mouth.  The anglers are no longer figures outside nature who disrupt its wholeness and violate its tranquility, and the poem no longer posits violence as something the human figures impose on an otherwise peaceful nature.  The anglers’ actions are still acts of violence and death (the “living silver” of the fish still “Twitch on the rocks”), but this violence, the violence that they enact, is now the violence that is both within nature itself and fundamental to it.  Anglers and herons both kill the fish they harvest, but this violence does not violate nature; it is more simply an aspect of the destruction, renewal, and continual transformational flux that is nature—a nature which contains anglers, salmon, and herons.  This revision also presents anglers, herons, and salmon as all enmeshed in a ritualized and sacrificial landscape of fire and blood.  In this draft, the “long angry sundown” of the earlier typescript has become a “storm-prophetic sundown,” a “Red fire of the dark solstice,” rather than “Red ash” (an image that better fits a moment of actual ritual sacrifice and also underscores the implicit analogy later in the poem, where the salmon’s bloody scales are “full of sunset” as they “Twitch on the rocks”).

The 1923 typescript is, I’d suggest, a stronger, more complex work than the 1920 version, but it is also muddled or contradictory in at least one way.  The anglers seem both to participate in nature’s flux, as herons do, but also to stand above or outside it as “priestlings,” which projects their fishing as being of a different sort and order than the herons’ fishing.  While violence has been shifted in this second draft from being something man enacts on nature to being a fundamental feature of nature itself, human violence seems to be both within and of nature, yet also outside of it, of a different order, and even unnatural.  In part, this difficulty is in the image itself.  Salmon fishers do not consciously direct their fishing as a sacrificial rite (however many private quirks may be part of their fishing).  In part, the difficulty is rhetorical and conceptual.  It is the speaker of the poem who sees the fishing as if it is a ritual.  More logically, this figure who “has seen the anglers” would function as the priestling, but the voice in the poem stops short of assuming that authority for the scene’s actions and imagery.

The revision Jeffers developed in pencil across the bottoms of the two typescripts in the next stage of rewriting suggests that he recognized the promise of the trope of sacrificial ritual in the 1923 typescript and that he may also have sensed that he hadn’t quite resolved the implications of casting the anglers as “priestlings.”  In this penciled revision, the workings for line 6 and following read in part:

                                       I have seen the anglers
On the rocks and in red shallows
Draw landward their live bullion, the bloody mouths
And scales[?] full[?] The wild Pacific pasture,
Nor wanton and spawning race into fresh water.
The men were stranger to gaze at,
Dark forms against the fading red,
Pitiful, cruel, primeval,
Like the priests of the people that built Stonehenge,
Dark silent forms, performing
Remote solemnities in the red shallows
Of the river’s mouth at the year’s turn,

This sketch complicates and extends the revisions made to the middle of the poem in the 1923 typescript.  For one thing, the speaker’s act of looking and responding shifts from the largely passive pronouncement “I have seen” to the more openly engaged reaction of “The men were stranger to gaze at.”  This shift makes the figure of the anglers as “priests” a characterization that the speaker comes to as he tries to make sense of why they are “stranger to gaze at.”  In these revisions, that is, the speaker seems both to see the anglers as of nature (as herons and salmon are of nature) and yet also to see them as different than herons and salmon (“stranger”) in part because they are able, as the speaker is, to observe and reflect.  As such, their strangeness is less their consciousness per se than their ability to give themselves up to (and into) the moment as Jeffers imagines the herons would, even though the anglers, like the speaker, also have the capacity to step back and contemplate.  In these revisions, then, a dichotomy (or more a dialectic) is emerging between active, unreflective participation on the one hand (what might be termed participation in the never ending flux of being) and standing apart to contemplate on the other (what might be termed consciousness), and it is the speaker of the poem who both recognizes this dichotomy and enacts it in creating the figure of the anglers as priests, whose ability to function as if priests for the speaker is that they are unaware of their priestliness and even unaware of their ritual actions and the landscape’s ritual dimension.  At the very least, the speaker in this revision is a more active figure in the poem; he is dramatically engaged in the scene and its implications in a way quite different from the initial 1920 typescript.

Jeffers recast the poem’s middle section yet again in developing the final version as published in Tamar, where it reads:

In Christmas month against the smoulder and menace
Of a long angry sundown,
Red ash of the dark solstice, you see the anglers,
Pitiful, cruel, primeval,
Like the priests of the people that built Stonehenge,
Dark silent forms, performing
Remote solemnities in the red shallows (CP 1: 6)

In this reworking the speaker is again at a somewhat greater distance from the scene and its actions.  It is now a “you” who is hearing the poem (either as the reader or as an aspect of the poet in a kind of internal dialogue), and it is this “you” who “sees” the anglers as “performing” nature’s central mystery of destruction and renewal against the winter solstice sunset.  In this iteration of the poem, it is the implied “I” who is speaking, and this “I” offers the equation of anglers as priests not as the scene’s truth but instead as a figure that pushes the listening “you” to move beyond either the mystery of ancient priests or contemporary ones, for beyond these mediations we come face to face with the “solemnities in the red shallows,” and the violence, beauty, and renewal of “bloody mouths/And scales full of the sunset,” which is (and which typifies) the ceaseless change that is the ground of being.  In the final form of the poem, the reader is asked to recognize the figure of the anglers as priests and the details that evoke human ritual but then to move through this mediation to acknowledge and affirm instead the deeper sacrificial process of nature, in which we participate unconsciously as victim and victimizer.  This deeper process confronts us with our own inexorable vulnerability to the flux of being, but it is also, if our act of contemplation is sufficiently charged and active, not only sublime beauty but authentic beauty.

“Salmon Fishing,” then, functions through a kind of gazing as action that can in a casual reading seem merely a simple scene simply presented.  Yet the poem involves a complex mix of imagined being in nature and standing apart from nature to contemplate its beauty (including the beauty of “scales full of sunset”), and as it happens Jeffers makes the dialectic of action and reflection that is implicit in “Salmon Fishing” quite explicit in “Continent’s End,” a lyric from 1922, where the figure of the sun’s “tides of fire” evokes the fundamental reality of all being, its recurring destruction and renewal, while the sun as a figure of “the eye that watched before there was an ocean” evokes both an awareness of destruction and renewal and an awareness from within destruction and renewal.  This is the participation in nature and consciousness of nature that Jeffers attempts to enact and explore within his poems.  This project can seem a reversion to the romantic mode in the sense that nature is the ground of value and the poet’s role is to intuit that value and evoke it for us through his witness.  But the nature that Jeffers intuits is not Wordsworth’s.  It is not just a matter of the shift from the Lake Country to the California coast.  More, it is a matter of how Darwin and modern astronomy intervene and recast nature as something that must be recognized (and experienced) as material process in which the speaker is enmeshed (as are the poet and reader).  Moreover Jeffers’ sense that consciousness is both a means to become aware of nature and yet what sets us apart from it and can thereby alienate us from it, means that evocations through acts of witness can never be the truth of the matter.  The truth of nature outstrips language, even the language of the poem, because nature is no longer understood as God’s language or God’s handiwork or God’s revelation but because nature is itself divinity, God, and the challenge is not to recognize what God says in and through nature but to understand the terms of our participation in nature and thereby experience our being in and as nature more fully.  This is why Jeffers’ poems so often move through reflections on consciousness and nature to reach moments where what is truly important occurs as we imagine moving beyond the poem to a particular moment of engaged awareness that the language can perhaps trigger and partly direct us toward but not fully express or enact, possess or contain.  The poem, that is, functions as a liminal space in which nature can support moments of visionary awareness and acceptance and which can contain and validate (albeit tragically from the human perspective) moments of acceptance of, and reintegration with, the ceaseless flux of being.  In an ironic way, the poem enacts consciousness in order to place consciousness not at the peak of a hierarchal psychology of the sacred (as the moment when the self transcends itself to realize divine vision) but in order to demonstrate its insufficiency, which allows us to value and experience more properly its redemptive force.

The complexity of “Salmon Fishing” is also apparent in the way the figure of the priests functions.  For the anglers to be priests within this ritualized and sacrificial scene (and fully one with natural flux), they must, it seems, be unaware of their priestliness and the ritual over which they preside.  The speaker’s awareness of their symbolic resonance and the resonance of the scene might lead us to figure the poem’s speaker as in some way the actual priest, with the reader and perhaps the speaker’s less aware or engaged self functioning as congregants.  However, the speaker’s very awareness of the implications of the scene which enables him both to project the angler’s as priests and to imply the irony of their unconsciousness (that is, the way their blindness to their role and the symbolic dimensions of their action give them their priestly identity) compromises to some degree his immersion in being (including its violence).  The implicit tragedy of the scene is not simply (and perhaps not even primarily) its sacrificial pattern or the violence within nature that inevitably drives loss and death.  The tragedy of the scene is also that one can imagine—and even stage—the simultaneity of being’s “tide of fire” and consciousness as “the eye that watched” but not actually become that simultaneity.  The speaker’s act of figuring the anglers as priests functions both as a desire for a similarly unmediated, unreflective immersion in the business of nature and as a kind of celebration of the speaker’s ability to see what the anglers do not see—the beauty of the whole which is intertwined with its unceasing sacrificial renewal.  This casts the speaker of the poem, finally, not as a priest through whom we participate in the ritual he enacts on our behalf but instead as a witness both to the beauty of the scene he presents and to the necessity of his participation in that beauty (a participation which is necessarily his own eventual death and dissolution).


This approach to “Salmon Fishing,” in which the poem enacts consciousness and being through the ritualized scene, points to several possibly useful connections.  For one, it suggests one reason why Jeffers eventually chose not to publish “Metempsychosis,” probably written in 1920 and perhaps related to the same phase of work as the original version of “Salmon Fishing.”  In “Metempsychosis,” the speaker imagines becoming one, physically, with the land, so that its creeks and his veins, for example, become through a kind of metaphorical fusion one and the same.  This was a significant step toward the view of nature in Jeffers’ mature aesthetic but not finally adequate.  In “Metempsychosis,” Jeffers acknowledges his (and our) full participation in the materiality of nature and its process (including dissolution and renewal), but in this poem, he creates this participation by imagining that he can simply erase the complication of consciousness (conversely, in the late poem “Vulture” that imagines a similar becoming fully one with and through nature, the union with nature requires moving beyond consciousness and returning to the flux of nature through the physicality of death).  Acknowledging the materiality of being and one’s full participation in it is to align one’s self with the “tides of fire,” but the desire to set aside consciousness is, finally, just that, a desire.  The approach to nature in the initial draft of “Salmon Fishing” resembles the approach in “Metempsychosis.”  In revising “Salmon Fishing,” though, Jeffers moved well beyond “Metempsychosis,” and these reworkings underscore the importance of the comments he made in his April 24, 1926 letter to Donald Friede, a letter written while he was struggling with the “Point Alma Venus” fragments out of which not only “Prelude” and the “The Women at Point Sur” emerged but also “Apology for Bad Dreams”:

             The story [Point Alma Venus], like Tamburlaine and Zarathustra, is the story of human attempts to get beyond humanity.  But the superman ideal rather stands on top of humanity—intensifies it—ends in “all too human”—here the attempt is to get clear of it.  More like the ceremonial dances of primitive people; the dancer becomes a rain-cloud, or a leopard, or a God.  The protagonists are a paralytic old farmer, a preacher who has renounced his faith, a weak imaginative boy who kills his father.  The episodes of the poem are a sort of essential ritual from which the real action develops on another plane. (SL, 68)

In the first two sentences here, Jeffers makes it clear that he sees his project as something other than the heroic (but implicitly misguided) attempt to transcend the “all too human”; instead, he suggests his effort is “to get clear” of “the all too human” altogether.  These sentences evoke, without naming, the perspective of “Inhumanism.”  The next sentences, though, are less clear conceptually and syntactically, but they are highly suggestive and, I believe, crucially significant.

There are several facets to the puzzle: first, who or what is “More like the ceremonial dances of primitive people”?  The meditative process out of which the poem emerges?  The imaginative action of writing and/or reading the poem?  The dynamic unfolding of the poem itself?  And if the episodes of the poem are “essential” and a “ritual form” (or ritual action), what is the other “plane” where the “real action” of this ritual unfolds?  We could attribute any lack of clarity in this passage to its being in a letter where one might write impressionistically and with minimal reflection and revision.  However, Jeffers was often quite precise in his letters and seldom deliberately vague.  Moreover, in this letter he is writing about something that he has, it seems, been wrestling with in the poetry (including “Apology for Bad Dreams,” which would have been written around this time).

Most literally, the argument here seems to be that this never completed attempt at “Point Alma Venus” is an “attempt” to “get clear” of “humanity” by having the poem’s action function like a “ceremonial dance,” which parallels, derives from, and symbolically expresses “the real action,” which “develops on another plane” (literally, it seems from comments earlier in this letter, the Coast landscape itself).  If so, who is trying to “get clear” of “humanity” is clearly key.  Judging from the revisions to “Salmon Fishing” and the way the characters do and do not understand themselves in the narratives of this period, the answer seems to be that the consciousness that generates and narrates the poem is seeking to “get clear” by imagining characters who enact rituals which express the nature of which they are a part.  The characters are, like the angler/priests in “Salmon Fishing, absorbed in their participation and not conscious of the ritual they enact or its symbolic resonance.  If so, then, it is the poem’s speaker who achieves, through the mediation of the human figures he has evoked, moments of awareness.  And these moments come from (and through) the ceremonial actions he has perceived (and imagined), which he evokes through the poem.  Through these representations, mediations, and processes, the speaker aligns himself with (and accepts) natural process (“rain-cloud”), unselfconscious being in nature (“leopard”), and the simultaneity of the flux of being and totalizing awareness (“a God”).

As in “Salmon Fishing,” the presumed speaker of this uncompleted narrative imaginatively fuses with the world he draws from the process of nature and creates in order to reach an interlude of extended consciousness that includes both non-human nature and a sense of the human viewed from a perspective beyond the human.  However, what is key is that Jeffers does not project the poet or speaker as becoming “God” or “a God.”  The poet is figured more as a witness who can perceive the implicit ritual surrounding him and who can, then, by attending to this “real action” on “another plane” become conscious of—and express—the being of “rain-cloud,” “leopard,” and “a God.”  The speaker, through the mediations and processes he perceives and enacts, comes closer to accepting and celebrating the “God” which would be their totality.  Here, as in “Salmon Fishing,” the poet is less the transcending agent of the aesthetic world than a participant in it, a witness, and this rhetorical position, and its logic, may well extend to “Apology for Bad Dreams.”  If so, “Apology” may be less an apologia for the poet’s dreams (in which Jeffers attempts to justify his aesthetic and practice to the reader) than an apologia for God’s dreams, which are our reality (in which Jeffers, or if one prefers, Jeffers’ persona, attempts to understand and accept God’s ways in order to bear witness to them and celebrate them properly).


In the Foreword to the 1938 Selected Poetry Jeffers offers this explanation of “Apology for Bad Dreams”: “Cruelty is a part of nature, at least of human nature, but it is the one thing that seems unnatural to us; the tension of the mind trying to recognize cruelty and evil as part of the sum of things is what made the poem” (CP 4: 394).  Jeffers’ comments of this sort could at times be the truth of the matter but not the whole truth (as, for instance, his comment in the Introduction to 1935 Modern Library edition of Roan Stallion, and Tamar and Other Poems about having imitated “Milton and Shelley” in his apprentice years, when the manuscript for this piece shows he had instead originally noted that he had been imitating “Wordsworth”—a more revealing and critically resonant admission that he chose to elide), but in this instance Jeffers may well be pointing openly to the core of the matter, and if so, the “tension” that he suggests “is what made” “Apology for Bad Dreams” parallels the tension that he was progressively engaging as he transformed “Salmon Fishing” through the series of revisions.  Recognizing this can help us address one of the interpretive cruxes in “Apology”—how the pronouns function in Part IV, which reads:

He brays humanity in a mortar to bring the savor
From the bruised root: a man having bad dreams, who invents victims, is only the ape of that God.
He washes it out with tears and many waters, calcines it with fire in the red crucible,
Deforms it, makes it horrible to itself: the spirit flies out and stands naked, he sees the spirit,
He takes it in the naked ecstasy; it breaks in his hand, the atom is broken, the power that massed it
Cries to the power that moves the stars, “I have come home to myself, behold me.
I bruised myself in the flint mortar and burnt me
In the red shell, I tortured myself, I flew forth,
Stood naked of myself and broke me in fragments,
And here am I moving the stars that are me.”
I have seen these ways of God: I know of no reason
For fire and change and torture and the old returnings.
He being sufficient might be still.  I think they admit no reason; they are the ways of my love.
Unmeasured power, incredible passion, enormous craft: no thought apparent but burns darkly
Smothered with its own smoke in the human brain-vault: no thought outside: a certain measure in phenomena:
The fountains of the boiling stars, the flowers on the foreland, the ever-returning roses of dawn. (CP 1: 210-11)

If the impetus to “Apology” was at least in part to acknowledge—and accept—“cruelty and evil” as natural rather than “unnatural” (and thereby part of the God and the divine presence in the order of things rather than apart from and in opposition to them), then the “He” that opens this section should, it seems, be read as “God,” as should the repetitions of “He” that initiate the third, fifth, and thirteenth lines.  This context also suggests that the “man having bad dreams who invents victims” is not only lesser than God (i.e. “only the ape of that God”) but also mistaken.  The poet’s task, as witness, is not to imitate God but to perceive, accept, and celebrate God.  The poet’s task is not to invent victims but to perceive victims, even more to perceive the ritual and sacred resonance of victimhood, including God’s own self-elected victimhood within nature and natural process which is in some sense also the condition of his being (here, again, the dialectic from “Continent’s End” of “tides of fire” and “eye that watched” is implicit).  And at root this means to perceive one’s self as participating in this victimhood.

The challenge to the poet, that is, is to focus on God’s act of “bray[ing] humanity” to release “spirit.”  It is not the poet’s place to break the “atom.”  The poet’s task is to bear witness to God’s breaking of the “atom,” and this requires the poet, the speaker, the consciousness that is generating the poem, to bear this witness both in the sense of bearing the vision of the released spirit and of bearing being an “atom” that is being “bray[ed]” and broken.  For the poet to face up to God’s injunction to “behold me” as God breaks itself “in fragments” and “move[s] the stars that are me,” the poet must embrace his own psychic fragmentation.  The challenge, here, to the speaker, the poet, is not to function as a lesser to God (as, that is, “a God”) through imitation and invention but instead to accept one’s participation in God’s ceaseless becoming (which is ironically to accept one’s dissolution) and by being willing to be “broken” for the glory and beauty of “God’s” process of releasing spirit attain a visionary glimpse of that glory.  To attain this holistic appreciation (to get “clear” of humanity rather than “beyond” it), the speaker must set aside concern for self and identity, and the poet must recognize that the attempt to “ape” God would be to evade, in part, these challenges.  It would be to pretend to “know” the “reason/For fire and change” and why God, in spite of “being sufficient” is not “still.”  These matters are beyond “reason”; they are simply the ways of God who is, for the speaker/poet “my love.”  Accepting that there is “a certain measure in phenomena,” while “thought” is “Smothered with its own smoke in the human brain-vault” (and, thus, finally inside and obscured by subjectivity rather than “outside” and “certain” in its measure) is to recognize that one can only partly understand God and being.  This means that one must accept that one can neither grasp a final meaning nor invent one.  And in turn, recognizing and accepting this condition prepares one to experience the beauty of both “The fountains of the boiling stars” and “the flowers on the foreland” and also to intuit that such beauty is both ever-disappearing and “ever-returning” (in this context it is useful to note that the phrase “roses of dawn” not only alludes to a recurring figure in Homer but that the image, implicitly joins “boiling stars” and foreland “flowers” into a single, comprehensive beauty).

Read in the context of “Salmon Fishing” and Jeffers’ comments in his April 24, 1926 letter to Friede, “Apology for Bad Dreams,” especially Part IV, shows Jeffers diminishing the poet’s role, not elevating it.  It shows him offering the figure of the poet less as the prophet or priest presiding over his characters, more as the participant in and through their being.  As such, “Apology” is less a celebration of the poet’s aesthetic powers than it is a self-chastisement not to aspire to be God’s “ape” and to accept instead one’s condition as “atom” to be broken.  In this way, “Apology” resembles the original strategy for “Sign-Post.”  The original opening verse paragraph (later discarded) shows that the “you” being exhorted in this seemingly didactic poem was originally, explicitly the speaker himself, not the reader (CP 5: 558).  Similarly, in Part IV of “Apology” the speaker, the poet, exhorts himself to accept the challenge of being a witness to “God” and not to give in to the temptation to be as if “a God” through attempting to “ape” “God.”


We have wanted, I think, to read “Apology for Bad Dreams” as a poem in which Jeffers explains—and justifies—his narrative practice to his readers, an ars poetica.  However, the development of “Salmon Fishing” reflected in Jeffers’ revisions to it, the letter to Friede, and the Foreword to the 1938 Selected Poetry all suggest that we should attend seriously to the word “Apology” in the title of “Apology for Bad Dreams” and the possibility that Jeffers did actually mean the poem as an apologia for the existence of “cruelty and evil” as strands within the totality of being which is God.  Implicitly (in turn) Jeffers is then apologizing not for there being violence in his own poems but instead for the difficulty he has had in accepting these realities.  If so, “Apology” does not celebrate the poet’s bad dreaming as a sign of his special strength or vision or authenticity but rather calls his relationship to this bad dreaming into question.  The poet’s goal, the human goal, is not to seek redemption through creation but to seek it through participatory contemplation in natural (and divine) process that enables moments of redemptive awareness.

Perhaps ironically reading “Apology” as an apologia and not an ars poetica may provide important insights into Jeffers’ aesthetic.  On April 30, 1926, six days after Jeffers wrote Friede about how the “essential ritual” of “Point Alma Venus” “develops on another plane,” he wrote Friede again to tell him that it had become “dreadfully clear” that the poem “would not do” and that he would have to “pick the thing to pieces” and start over.  As explanation, Jeffers offers that the poem had become “too long, too complicated, and, from the attempt at compression, neither clear nor true” (CL 70).  The transcription of “Point Alma Venus” suggests that the last quality, “true,” may well have been the key to Jeffers discarding the poem.  As Jeffers’ final attempt at “Point Alma Venus” progresses, the narrator becomes increasingly a spectator to his characters and their issues, and as the narrator becomes more alienated from the characters and the world of the poem, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine how the projected arc of the plot would yield the compelling catharsis that marks the endings of both “Tamar” and “Roan Stallion.”  The core of the problem is the figure of Old Morehead, even though he is in some ways the most interesting creation in the poem.  Jeffers constructs this “paralytic old farmer” (as he puts it in the first of the two letters to Friede) as having a comprehensive awareness of all the physical life of the region; of present and future; and of conscious and unconscious energies of all the other characters.  His awareness makes him as if a God, and he is suffering the agonies of all the poem’s agonists.  He is not literally the God who “brays” the characters, but he experiences the pain of the “bray[ing]” and, it seems, anticipates or experiences something of the “savor” and the “naked ecstasy.”  The figure of the “old farmer,” though, does not “invent” the characters through which he experiences nor their suffering.  Within the logic of the poem, they are “invented” by God, but in reality, of course, they are the invention of the poet, the narrator, who is, in this way God’s “ape.”  The problem—aesthetically and conceptually—for Jeffers (what makes the poem, it seems, not be “true”) is that it is Old Morehead who functions as the “witness” in this aesthetic economy—not the speaker or Jeffers, who has deferred himself into a position of projecting and imagining Old Morehead’s witnessing.  Put another way, the problem is that the poet and speaker has positioned himself as the God, not as the atom.

What Jeffers perceived as the failure of “Point Alma Venus” has to do, I would suggest with failing to fulfill the terms of Part IV of “Apology for Bad Dreams.”  The challenge, Part IV suggests, is not to invent characters who are victims (to “ape” God) but instead to use the imagined characters to enmesh one’s self in the flux of being and to bear the risk of becoming one’s self the sacrificial victim.  In “Point Alma Venus,” the characters—Barclay, Edward, Old Morehead—bear the risk, not the narrator.  In “Tamar” and “Roan Stallion,” though, the speaker, the narrator, bears the risk both through and with his characters.  Tamar’s transgressions are, at a different level, the speaker’s, and this is also the case in “Roan Stallion.”  This is partly evident in the various passages in the two narratives where the speaker interrupts the narrative to react to it.  It is also, I think, evident in one of the cruxes of “Roan Stallion”—what actually happens physically between California and the stallion on the hill top.  Some have read the passage as implying an intensely transgressive union; others have read the passage as evoking a symbolic union.  I would suggest the passage leaves the actuality of what happens between California and the stallion unclear and that the actual transgressive act is that of the speaker imagining the simultaneous possibility of physical and symbolic union.  It is the speaker’s risk and vision that give the passage its energy and which the imagery is expressing.  What makes “Tamar” and “Roan Stallion” different than “Point Alma Venus” is that Jeffers in the first two risks an intense psychic participation in the transgressive violations projected and enacted in the poems.  In these poems, the speaker is also sacrificial victim (atom not ape).  In “Point Alma Venus,” Jeffers had written himself out of the poem, leaving his characters to bear existence and as a result cutting himself—and us as readers—off from any possibility of catharsis and visionary awareness.  He had, that is, sacrificed the possibility of witness.

The probable time frame for the composing of “Apology for Bad Dreams” suggests that it was written around the time Jeffers came to recognize that “Point Alma Venus” had failed and would have to be abandoned.  And if this was the context for “Apology,” it underscores the possibility that the poem was less an occasion for Jeffers to codify his aesthetic and explain it to the reader than it was an occasion where he was trying to understand why “Point Alma Venus” was different from “Tamar” and “Roan Stallion,” where he had gotten off track, and what he needed to do to get back on track.  As such, the poem is not an argument in verse about how his poems function and why this is justified—an ars poetica in the usual sense—but a poem in which Jeffers attempts to reorient himself, to turn away from the temptation to “ape,” and to re-accept that awareness can only emerge from recognizing and experiencing that one is an “atom” being “bray[ed].”  The probable time frame for composing “Apology” points to one other possible connection—“Prelude.”  If “Apology” is, in part, an attempt to reconnect the perspective of witness in “Salmon Fishing” to the process of his narratives, it is, I think, worth noting that the narrative that Jeffers tackled after “Apology” was “Prelude,” where the speaker’s participation in the figures of the narrative (from the rocks to the oil-tanks to Onorio’s desire for a symbolic and literal crucifixion) is even more evident than it is in “Tamar” and “Roan Stallion.”


My sense, as I’ve tried to suggest here, is that Jeffers wrote “Apology for Bad Dreams” less as an explanation or justification of the material and methods of his long poems than as a reminder to himself of the limitations of poetry and the poet’s perspective.  Approaching the poem this way has several possible benefits.  For one, it underscores how “Apology” may anticipate such later self-critiques as “Love the Wild Swan.”  But perhaps most basically, approaching the poem less as an ars poetica and more as a poem of witness (akin in spirit and rhetoric to “Salmon Fishing”) brings “Apology for Bad Dreams” clearly into the center of Jeffers’ career-long meditation on the divinity of nature and the need to celebrate it—and the intense difficulty of doing so.  Recognizing this we are, I’d suggest, better positioned to continue the examination of how Jeffers understood myth and ritual and how these matters, especially ritual, function in his work, and as we continue this examination we will, at each stage and step, be renewing our indebtedness to the interpretive project Brophy framed and initiated more than forty years ago in Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems.


[i]  For a discussion of the dating of “Salmon Fishing,” see The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. (5: 56)

Works Cited

Brophy, Robert.  Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems.  Cleveland: Case Western Reserve P, 1973.
——-.  “Jeffers’s ‘Apology for Bad Dreams’ Revisited.”  Jeffers Studies 8.2 (2004): 3-19.
Jeffers, Robinson.  The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. 5 vols. Ed. Tim Hunt, Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1988-2001.
——-.  The Point Alma Venus Manuscripts (transcribed by Rob Kafka, as yet unpublished)
——-.  The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers 1897-1962.  Ed. Ann Ridgeway, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P, 1968.