Didactic Confession: Where Does Jeffers’ “Sign-Post” Point?

[This piece appeared originally in The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter 89 (1994)]

“Sign-Post” (a sonnet first published in 1935 in Solstice) is the sort of Robinson Jeffers poem his detractors love to hate, and part of the reason is its didacticism:

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
Make your veins cold, look at the silent stars, let your eyes
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man.
Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes;
Things are the God, you will love God, and not in vain,
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature. At length
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.

The speaker’s assurance (we are seemingly asked to believe the speaker is already redeemed) and the way the poem foregrounds its message was unfashionable when it appeared and is still unfashionable: no irony for the New Critic to uncover and savor, and at first pass both our current deconstructors and new historicists would likely conclude that the poem is simply too simple to be an occasion for demonstrating the poet’s failure to realize the roots or implications of his work’s evasions.  We could, it’s true, note the way Jeffers contrasts images of health and sickness, strength and weakness, to create a figure of rebirth that is naturalized yet religious, then use this to show how the poem’s concluding gesture escapes (or transcends) the speaker’s rhetoric, and thereby argue for the poem’s resonance and complexity.  But having done so, we would still probably have to admit that the way Jeffers subordinates the poem’s images and figures to its rhetoric and the way the pronoun “you” in the early lines enforces the speaker’s authority seem part of an attempt to construct a poem that would allow us (poor lost readerly souls) to take to heart this Truth the poet offers and redeem ourselves with it.  And having ‑admitted this much, it would be hard to counter the opinion held by too many of the critics and teachers who set the agenda for what is to be read that Jeffers tended to write versified tracts rather than poems.

One response would be to question both the basis and adequacy of current definitions of poetry; some theorists and scholars have begun to do this, though none (that I know of) have noticed the possible relevance of Jeffers to their arguments.  Another response would be to note that “Sign-Post” is not the only sort of shorter poem Jeffers wrote.  In such early 1920s pieces as “Natural Music” and “Point Joe” he manages to invoke a nature that is whole, transcendent, and potentially redemptive, yet does so without emphasizing the speaker’s separation from (and authority over) the reader.  Even in the mid-1930s he was also writing poems like “Oh Lovely Rock” that dramatize the speaker’s apprehensions of nature’s beauty and capture complex moments of awareness in which we, as readers, are invited to participate.  If we were, really, to want to argue a case to an imagined array of appropriately fashionable literary theorists, we would likely begin with poems such as these, or even some of the narratives, rather than a piece like “Sign-Post,” which is (arguably) a lesser poem.  But whatever our grander strategy or our specific tactics, at some point we would need to confront the sorts of issues raised by “Sign-Post” and similar pieces like “The Answer,” if only because we tend to believe (I think) that they—in their doctrinal clarity and the speaker’s assurance that he is justified in instructing his readers/listeners—reveal aspects of the “real” Jeffers that should guide our reading of the poems that are less doctrinal and dramatically more complex.  This may be a reason why (i.e. that sense that here is Jeffers in a nutshell) “Sign-Post” has been anthologized from time to time.  At the least it’s a reason to want to understand as much as we can about the actual nature and basis of the authority Jeffers has his speaker assume in the poem and his own relationship to the claims he has his speaker make.

As it happens the character and authority of the speaker in “Sign-Post” as published and what seems its original draft—a manuscript, titled “Crede Experto,” in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library—differ markedly.  The manuscript begins with a note, “But free, / and like one born of a rock, not a woman,” that anticipates the poem’s closing line.  The actual draft begins a bit below this and shows that the poem was originally a longer piece with a quite different beginning:

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.

When Jeffers abandoned this draft he apparently hadn’t yet resolved these lines to his satisfaction, though it seems he planned to arrange them as a pair of quatrains.  But even in their unfinished form they set up a dramatic and rhetorical situation that is markedly different from the one in the finished version.  In this first draft the speaker is not indicting the reader’s failings but his own, and his failings are both human and poetic.  He (not the reader) needs to be instructed, to be reminded, about what is important.

As it happens the remainder of the draft closely approximates the final version, but even these fourteen lines, their images and claims, function differently in this first draft, because the quatrains Jeffers would later delete establish a quite different sense of speaker and occasion.  In the original version the “you” in the ninth line (“You’re civilized, crying to be human again: this will tell you how”) is the poet/speaker, not the reader (as it is when the revision of this line becomes the first line of the finished poem).  In the original draft, the lines that become the final poem show the poet diagnosing himself, and they dramatize the speaker’s attempt to recover his assurance.  The poet exhorts himself, not the reader, to recover from having become too “civilized.”

In the original draft the lines that become the final poem (everything that follows the two discarded quatrains) evolve through various cancellations, rephrasings, and insertions.  These workings further clarify the original intent and mood (even though the precise sequence of revision and in some cases the final form of the lines in the draft cannot be completely determined).  At one point, for instance, l.10 began, “You will look back as God.”  And a few lines later the speaker in one stage tells himself “You will see it [The poor doll humanity] without disgust or desire.”  In l.12 the phrase “Its qualities” once continued “and significance, feature by feature”, and the line concluded “even to be human”.  And in the final line, Jeffers originally characterized the air as “woundless.”  In the original draft, that is, the context provided by the discarded opening and the alternate material shows that what Jeffers was first writing was in part a confession that he was deeply fascinated by—deeply enmeshed in—human desire, that he struggled with a sense of disgust and of being wounded by his humanness, that his tendency to pronounce on politics and history in the poems of this period did not necessarily stem from some ultimate strength and the privilege of some transcendent perspective that set him completely above and beyond his readers, and that he was the one who needed the guidance (the reassurance) of a “sign-post” that might point a way beyond these frailties.

But if in these workings the speaker/poet is wounded not “woundless,” part of “the poor doll humanity” rather something more assured and beyond it, what does that mean for our understanding of the quite different poem Jeffers constructed from this material?  Do we, for instance, reinterpret the “you” of the final draft as the speaker himself rather than the reader?  Do we reread the finished poem as a drama of doubt and affirmation rather than an assured teaching?  To some extent the way we answer such questions as these will turn on our specific critical perspective—New Critical, Deconstructive, reader-response, whatever.  More importantly, though, the dichotomy between the poem Jeffers set out to write and the one he actually published makes clear that the speaker we encounter in the final draft is a figure Jeffers constructed, not a transparent portrait of what he was or thought he was.  The dichotomy also demonstrates that Jeffers chose, by and large, to efface or sublimate the matrix that generated the poem.  These aspects of “Sign-Post” raise fundamental questions about Jeffers’ understanding of himself, the nature of his poetic (including his sense of rhetoric and its place in his practice), and his sense of audience.  These are central issues for understanding the nature and significance of Jeffers’ work, issues we have only begun to explore.