Constructed Sincerity: Voice and Nuance in Jeffers’ Short Poems

[This piece appeared originally in Jeffers Studies (6.1, Winter 2001, pp. 21-29), where it was introduced by this brief comment:
The goal of a critical edition is to present a writer’s work in a comprehensive, orderly, and accurate manner.  Although this necessarily involves critical judgment and even at times interpretive decisions, the editor has a responsibility to avoid imposing his own critical preferences and instead to present the work in as neutral a manner as he can.  An editor, then, is a sort of sous chef.  He washes the romaine, dices the carrots, and wonders about the dishes the chef will prepare from the various fixings.  Robert Brophy has kindly invited me to take off my sous chef hat and try a little cooking.  The piece that follows is the first of a projected series that will comment on some of the critical implications of the material presented in The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.]


Robinson Jeffers at times revised his short poems as he worked them into final form.  This is not particularly surprising.  Poets often adjust phrases, lines, and even whole units as they develop initial drafts into fully realized poems.  Indeed, they are expected to do so.  While many of Jeffers’ revisions are simply tinkering (changing a “the” to an “a” and the like), other changes alter tone and emphasis in ways that help clarify Jeffers’ relationship to the reader.  “Joy” from Roan Stallion, for instance, as first drafted read,

Though joy is better than sorrow joy is not great;
Peace is great, strength is great.
Not for joy the stars burn, not for joy the vulture
Spreads her gray sails on the air
Over the mountain; not for joy the worn mountain
Stands, while years like water
Trench his long sides. “I am neither mountain nor bird
Nor star; and I seek joy.”
The weakness of your breed: yet at length quietness
Will cover you and say “bon jour.” (CP 1.117 & 5.347)

Shifting the final line to the published reading of “Will cover those wistful eyes” probably strengthens the poem, but the initial version of the final line has a playfulness (even if we read that playfulness as having a sardonic edge) that many have assumed Jeffers lacked.  Similarly, the manuscript for “Inscription for a Gravestone” from Descent to the Dead shows the final two lines not as “I left the light precipitate of ashes to earth / For a love-token” (CP 2.125) (the published reading) but as

—I left the light precipitate of ashes to earth, . . .
Well . . . For a love-token. (CP 5.481)

In the case of “Joy,” Jeffers perhaps felt that “say[ing] ‘bon jour’” disrupted the mood of the preceding lines and read too much like a joke.  But his reasons for adjusting the ending of “Inscription for a Gravestone” are less clear.  The shift involves almost no change in the wording; the image of “the light precipitate of ashes” as “a love-token” is the same in both drafts of the lines; and the tone of the original draft is perhaps even a better match with the rest of the poem than the final version of the lines.  The revision to the ending of “Inscription for a Gravestone” can, then, seem simply a matter of tinkering, but the logic of the adjustment becomes clearer, I think, if we consider similar adjustments to the drafts of other short poems.

“Second Best” (first collected in Thurso’s Landing but probably written late in the 1929 trip to Ireland and England that was the occasion for Descent to the Dead) is another poem where Jeffers’ reworked the ending.  As published it reads:

A Celtic spearman forcing the cromlech-builder’s brown daughter;
A blond Saxon, a slayer of Britons,
Building his farm outside the village he’d burned; a Norse
Voyager, wielder of oars and a sword,
Thridding the rocks at the fjord sea-end, hungry as a hawk;
A hungry Gaelic chiefling in Ulster,
Whose blood with the Norseman’s rotted in the rain on a heather hill:
These by the world’s time were very recent
Forefathers of yours.  And you are a maker of verses. The pallid
Pursuit of the world’s beauty on paper,
Unless a tall angel comes to require it, is a pitiful pastime.
If, burnished new from God’s eyes, an angel:
And the ardors of the simple blood showing clearly a little ridiculous
In this changed world:—write and be quiet. (CP 2.132)

The poem turns on a contrast between two ways of relating to the world’s beauty: the direct, even desperate, participation in that beauty of our “Forefathers” with their “ardors of the simple blood” and the poet’s “pallid / Pursuit” of this beauty through the act of writing.  For our “Forefathers” beauty was a primary quality and the action of their lives; it was, as such, a matter of being, and something they might enact and embody without being conscious of it.  For the poet beauty is a secondary quality, imagined action, a “Second-Best.”  The poet, set apart from beauty, can become conscious of it, but his life is not itself beauty; beauty is something he can come to know but not something he can be (he can, that is, come to recognize the “earnest” beauty of the fishing boats in “Boats in a Fog” and the beauty of the simple, active life of the old rancher in “The Wind-Struck Music” and even evoke and express this beauty but can not directly and unreflectively enact or be this beauty because the writing of poetry is not the beautiful action of functioning directly and unreflectively in nature).

In “Second Best,” the first 8½ lines are primarily a descriptive list of how, as the speaker imagines it, people once lived.  The simplicity and directness of the syntax, as well as the way the lines unfold in the manuscript, suggest Jeffers had little trouble writing this unit.  However, the rest of the poem apparently took more effort.  For one thing the final 5½ lines are functionally more complex than the preceding lines.  They not only define the contrast of now to the then of the “Forefathers,” but they also evoke this contrast in such a way that the past is positive and the present is problematic, suggest how poetry and the poet relate to beauty, and show the speaker’s emotional response to the past as he has imagined it and how this response raises the possibility that poetry may be merely “a pitiful pastime.”  These lines are, that is, more complex rhetorically, and they are more loaded emotionally for the speaker Jeffers has created and for Jeffers himself.  The manuscript shows that it took Jeffers several tries to elaborate this final unit.  As first drafted, the poem ended:

Ancestors of mine.  I am a writer of verses.  The pallid
Pursuit of the world’s beauty on paper,
Unless you were sure of power and vocation, is a pitiful pastime.
But if you were certainly the greatest poet
That ever stood winged between the rock and the sun, the first ocean
And the last sky . . . . a pitiful pastime. (CP 5.488)

The most obvious difference between this original ending and the published ending is that the syntax is more direct.  Also, the speaker in the original draft is explicitly the poet (an “I” who is “a writer of verses”), this figure speaks in the first person, and his comments seem a kind of dialogue with himself (the “you” of the subjunctive phrases “Unless you were sure” and “if you were certainly”).  In the poem as published the speaker of the poem is instead addressing the poet (the “you” who is “a maker of verses”) as if this “you” is a second figure within the poem.  We may well believe that the speaker is, actually, another figure for the poet, but if so, he seems to be putting aside his identity as “maker of verses” to reflect on the writing of poetry from the perspective of a more generalized and comprehensive position.

The shift in voice between the original and final drafts of the ending supports a parallel shift in rhetoric and tone.  In the initial draft, the ending has the poet indicting himself for being a poet.  The lines are a kind of soliloquy, in which the speaker first dismisses poetry as “pallid”; starts to assert the possibility that poetry might be more than a “pitiful” alternative to earnest living if one had the assurance and “power” to confront and encompass the world as a whole (this would apparently qualify poetry as a “vocation” instead of mere “pastime”); then breaks off and after a pause laments or asserts or acknowledges that this glimmer of power and primacy is either not possible for poetry or not possible for the poet who speaks the lines.  In the original ending, then, the lines enact the poet’s sense of poetry’s inadequacy or his own inadequacy as a poet, and this casts the ending (explicitly) and the poem as a whole (implicitly) as the speaker’s recognition of belatedness to reality and his fear that either he has no “vocation” or that his “vocation” is trivial.  The lines, that is, function dramatically as a kind of confession, and the ellipsis in the final line marks the point where the speaker breaks off and gives up his attempt to evade his recognition that poetry is not life and that living is more fundamental and beautiful (even when desperate) than poetry.  That the move in the original ending is an indictment of poetry and of being a poet is underscored by the poem’s original titles: “Degeneration,” then “Degeneracy.”  Poetry, it seems, is a degenerate falling away from life and being a poet is a form of degeneracy.

When Jeffers typed this poem, he typed it with the original ending and then worked out the revised ending at the bottom of the typescript.  His first move was to soften the last two lines into:

And the simple delights of the blood being clearly in a changed world
Anachronistic: . . . scribble, poor clerk. (CP 5.489)

Here, the intensities of the past are not available to those in the present.  The “scribbl[ing] of poetry is lesser than the old intensity of living, but it may be that this is the best we have in the present and may even, as the published title has it, be the “Second-Best” option.  The “clerk,” then, is not so much evading life through writing as he is making the best of his historical situation.  He is “poor” but not through his own failing, and the final version of the ending further legitimizes pursuing “the world’s beauty on paper”:

Forefathers of yours.  And you are a maker of verses. The pallid
Pursuit of the world’s beauty on paper,
Unless a tall angel comes to require it, is a pitiful pastime.
If, burnished new from God’s eyes, an angel:
And the ardors of the simple blood showing clearly a little ridiculous
In this changed world:—write and be quiet.

The syntax, especially in the last few lines, is much less direct in this final version of the ending than in the original draft, but the unit seems to present poetry as something that needn’t be “pallid” if “a tall angel” (of intensity? of necessity?) “require[s] it” and if it is “burnished” into something original and direct (as if seen from “God’s eyes”).  If this can be managed, poetry can then itself stand as a kind of “angel” for the reader and remind us of the basic reality of “the ardors of the simple blood” that “this changed world” can otherwise make seem “a little ridiculous.”  This version of the ending offers the possibility that writing can also be a matter of getting one’s living in nature.  And if so, the poet’s responsibility is to stop worrying and talking about his anxieties and to “write.”

The final version of the ending is, then, less a dramatic soliloquy than a critique that leads to a moment where the speaker, from his more comprehensive view of history, nature, and consciousness instructs the “maker of verses.”  If we read the later draft against the initial draft, it’s as if Jeffers, through the process of revising the poem, works his way beyond the moment of doubt and anxiety that seems the occasion of the first draft and reaches a moment where he can instruct the aspect of himself that is “a maker of verses” and the reader about the role of poetry.  But if this is what happened, it underscores the indirectness of the syntax in the final ending.  If “Second-Best” both assesses and (within limits) praises poetry as a mode of engaging the world, why not state that more directly?  The reason, I think, has to do with why Jeffers may have wanted to subordinate the figure of the poet (the “I” who is “a writer of verses”) in the first draft to the speaker of the final draft who is either not a poet or is more than simply a poet (and can therefore address the “maker of verses” as “you”).  The way the initial draft of the ending can be read as not just a critique of poetry but a confession that the “I” who speaks the poem experiences this as a kind of “Degeneracy” allows the poem to be read as a record of a private occasion.  The speaker’s voice is perhaps genuine, but it is also personal, one might say even merely personal.  The value of the poem in this draft, its truth, turns in large part on whether we sympathize with the speaker’s personal experience.  In the published version, we still have a strong sense of a voice speaking to us in and through the poem, yet now the voice has become a more public voice, and the crisis in the writing of poetry is less the poet’s individual crisis and is instead more an occasion that drives a recognition about the nature of authenticity (for poets, for readers, and more generally for people) under the conditions of modernity.  This more public voice still has a personal aspect to it.  It is not the voice of God; it is not an oracular voice.  Instead it is a voice where the speaker (drawing from his own direct experience) imaginatively stands beyond that experience and speaks in a manner that is both personal and public.  In the initial draft, it is Jeffers, a particular individual, who is speaking the ending.  In the final draft it is the figure of the poet that Jeffers projects from his experience of being Jeffers-who-is-a-poet who speaks the ending, and this figure actually speaks as a kind of “we” rather than only an “I.”  If this speaker were only the “Jeffers” of the first draft, the poem could be simply dismissed as confessional.  If this speaker were a kind of all-seeing prophetic “I” rather than a figure speaking from the personal on behalf of the self and the reader, it would be the arrogant, didactic voice that Jeffers’ detractors tend to hear when they sample his work in passing.


“In the Hill at Newgrange” (from Descent to the Dead) and “Sign-Post” (from Solstice) are other instances where Jeffers’ direct personal stake in the poem is explicit in the original draft, then implicit or muted (but not eliminated) in the published draft.  The original draft of “In the Hill at Newgrange,” for instance opens with a stanza that makes clear how literally Jeffers was imagining this poem as a descent to the dead:

Not to envy the dead
Untimely, I contrived to leave
My sunlight and sup in their peace
The crusts of their ashy bread,
Not forever I believe
But with a dream of release.
I crossed a land and an ocean and crept
Into the hollow cairn and slept. (CP 5.474)

The poem as published lacks this opening and begins, instead, with what is the second stanza of the original draft.  “Sign-Post” is another instance.  The published version begins:

Civilized, crying how to be human again: this will tell you how.
Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity,
Let that doll lie. Consider if you like how the lilies grow,
Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity (CP 2.418)

Here, the assured and authoritative voice of the speaker (or as some would have it the authoritarian voice of the poet) seems to be instructing the reader (the “you” in these lines).  The manuscript shows that the original dynamic of the poem was radically different.  The initial workings for the opening read,

I have done wrong to think about culture-ages.
I have done wrong to think about economics.
A poet has no business with dusty pages,
The world’s catastrophes and the world’s comics.
Not while the sea hangs on the granite shore.
Not while an apple hangs on the heavy bough
Or hawk on wind or an apple on the bough.
The hunter and the plowman laugh you to scorn,
You wonder how to believe again.
You’re civilized, crying to be human again: this is the way will tell you how. (CP 5.558-59)

Here, the speaker of the poem is the one who needs instruction, and the speaker is addressing himself (as “you”), not the reader.

In general Jeffers seems to have wanted a voice that was personal enough that it could seem to be expressing direct experience, yet general and public enough that it would not depend on the merely personal for either its significance or authenticity.  The distinction parallels, I’d suggest, the difference between confession and witness, and if so, the problem for Jeffers with leaving “Second-Best” in its original form (titled either “Degeneration” or “Degeneracy” and with the original ending) is that it edges toward confessional revelation and fails to win through to witness.  And conversely, the problem with reading it, in its final draft, as simply prophetic utterance (rather than witness derived from the immediacy and pressure of direct experience) is that the poem becomes simply empty doctrine, which brings us back around to why Jeffers reworked the final two lines of “Inscription for a Gravestone.”  In the first draft of these lines, the dash, the ellipses, and the interjection “Well” all function to dramatize the speaking voice as a more personal, particularized “I” who is enacting a particular experience and moment of recognition:

—I left the light precipitate of ashes to earth, . . .
Well . . . For a love-token.

As reworked and published these minimally modified phrases function more as a claim or assertion that synthesizes and extends the poem’s preceding lines.  The image and the poem still have a personal quality, but in the final version the personal is what the poem builds from and builds on rather than being what the poem records:

I am not dead, I have only become inhuman:
That is to say,
Undressed myself of laughable prides and infirmities,
But not as a man
Undresses to creep into bed, but like an athlete
Stripping for the race.
The delicate ravel of nerves that made me a measurer
Of certain fictions
Called good and evil; that made me contract with pain
And expand with pleasure;
Fussily adjusted like a little electroscope:
That’s gone, it is true;
(I never miss it; if the universe does,
How easily replaced!)
But all the rest is heightened, widened, set free.
I admired the beauty
While I was human, now I am part of the beauty.
I wander in the air,
Being mostly gas and water, and flow in the ocean;
Touch you and Asia
At the same moment; have a hand in the sunrises
And the glow of this grass.
I left the light precipitate of ashes to earth
For a love-token. (CP 2.125)

In the poem as published the parenthetical lines in the middle are directly personal.  They show the speaker reacting dramatically to the recognition that the rest of the poem elaborates.  By setting these lines off as a parenthetical interjection, Jeffers is able to let this more personal and directly emotional moment ground the poem and authorize its voice without having it become the point of the poem or shift the poem’s authority away from the model for physical self, consciousness, death, and nature implicit in the series of images, observations, and claims.  He is able, that is, to tilt the poem toward witness and away from confession.  The original version of the final two lines, while appealing because they are more openly personal, would have tilted the poem back toward confession.


The voice Jeffers used in his shorter poems has often been seen as transparently and directly his own.  But the pattern of revisions suggest that he was carefully, persistently trying to shape a voice that might have the immediacy of a personal voice for the reader yet speak with greater resonance and weight.  This strategy of deriving a public voice that we read and hear as “Jeffers” from Jeffers’ actual, private voice has an analogue in T.S. Eliot’s practice.  Like Eliot, Jeffers seems to have believed that poems should transcend whatever merely private matter (whatever its intensity) might have been their occasion—a central point in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”  But unlike Eliot (at least the earlier Eliot) who opted for such strategies as the dramatic monologue in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the collage of represented speakers in The Waste Land to avoid first person speakers who might be identified with, or as, Eliot, Jeffers chose to create a version of himself, a persona, who might speak his poems without being directly (or only) personal.  My guess is that Jeffers was aware of what he shared with Eliot and how he differed from him.  It is even more likely that he saw his rejection of Eliot’s strategies (and Pound’s as well) at some level as an affirmation of the approach to modernity of another figure who similarly spoke from and of his experience to the reader but did so in a voice that was clearly more witness than confession—William Butler Yeats, the one modern poet Jeffers consistently acknowledged as a major figure.


A Note on Sources:

The manuscript for “Joy” is part of the Jeffers collection at Occidental College.  The manuscripts for “Second Best,” “In the Hill at Newgrange,” and “Inscription for a Gravestone” are held by the Beinecke Library of Yale University.  The typescript for “Second Best’ is in the collection of Jeffers material at the Harry Ransome Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin, and the manuscript for “Sign-Post” is in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library.