“It is out of fashion to say so”: The Language of Nature and the Rhetoric of Beauty in Robinson Jeffers

[This essay was originally published in the volume Ecocritical Aesthetics: Language, Beauty, and the Environment (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2018), edited by Peter Quigley and Scott Slovic.  Permission to reprint, copy, etc. remains with Indiana University Press, which has kindly extended permission to post this piece here.  Should you happen to quote from this essay, please use the print copy as your source and cite Ecocritical Aesthetics.]

In his 1914 essay “Vorticism,” Ezra Pound explains that “In a Station of the Metro” was initially “a thirty-line poem,” which he “destroyed . . . because it was what we call a work ‘of secondary intensity.’” He then, he notes, “made” from it “a poem half that length” and finally distilled that into the two-line imagist jewel so frequently anthologized. For Pound, “the ‘one image poem,’” by setting “one idea . . . on top of another,” offered him a way “out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion” (89).[1] The year and a half that Pound reports that it took him to fashion “In a Station of the Metro” illustrates his meticulous craftsmanship, but what matters for this discussion is how he characterizes his “metro emotion,” in these comments, as merely the ore from which the precious metal of the poem is to be smelted: “In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective” (89). When this happens, it seems, the dialectic of the merely “objective” (the world out there) and the merely “subjective” (the accidental matters of personality and experience), which are the “being about” that characterizes “secondary intensity,” are thereby transcended, transfiguring the referentiality of “secondary intensity” into the primary intensity of the fully aesthetic. To Pound, it seems, “In a Station of the Metro” is neither a beautifully crafted comment on reality nor a beautifully crafted act of self-reflection or self-expression. It is, instead, itself beauty and itself a reality; it has been derived from the initiating experience or its subjective dynamics but is no longer bound to either. For Pound, “In a Station of the Metro” ceases to be a poem of secondary intensity when it is liberated from its occasion and thereby ceases to be a comment on its origin or a mere reflection of it and becomes, instead, through the poet’s craft and genius, its own reality—an aesthetic and (thereby?) self-authenticating reality.[2]

Neither Pound nor “In a Station of the Metro” are the focus here, nor are the various critical paradigms of his era and ours that would see his comments as self-evident and synonymous with “poetry.” But his comments offer a productive contrast to an early remark of Robinson Jeffers from an unused Preface dated “June, 1922”: “The poet is not to make beauty but to herald beauty; and beauty is everywhere; it needs only senses and intelligence to perceive it” (4: 374). This remark helps delineate the fundamental division between Jeffers and his modernist contemporaries. For Jeffers, beauty is necessarily outside the poem. The poet, by being able to respond to beauty, is able to construct a poem that “heralds” beauty, and the poem thereby offers the reader a way to “perceive” the beauty to which the poem is witness but which the poem does not and cannot contain. In Jeffers’ view the “objective” and the “subjective” are not transformed into the poem, which then both contains and escapes them in transforming them. Instead, the poem provides a means to move from the subjective to a heightened awareness of the redemptive beauty of the objective, which is necessarily prior to, subsequent to, and beyond the poem. The poem enacts a subjective engagement of the world beyond the poet and the poem, and this engagement enables a heightened awareness of nature (an “objective”) that is validated by nature’s perceived beauty. Jeffers, that is, imagines the poem as, for the poet, an act (even more a process) of witness and thereby as, for the reader, a means of witness. As such, his poems aim at being (and, from Pound’s perspective, are necessarily) works of secondary intensity.

That Jeffers’ poems can be seen as works of secondary intensity has contributed to his frequent critical dismissal. If his poems are about things, if they are comments on them, and if they are (worst of all) discursive and rhetorical, then they have failed to transcend their “objective” and “subjective” origins, and they have, thus, failed as well at being poems—or at least good or significant poems. While it is true that Jeffers “failed” at being Pound (or Eliot, for that matter), what has been insufficiently understood is that he was not concerned with transcending (in the sense of escaping) what Pound would see as the objective and subjective, but was forgoing such transcendence (the transcendence of the aesthetic object, the beauty of the “well-wrought urn”) in order to engage the objective and subjective and determine, by exploring the terms of their interplay, the nature of beauty and its meaning for the regarding self. That Jeffers’ poems are at least in part reflections on our relationship to nature helps explains why his work has interested those concerned with environmental literature, in spite of the way his emphasis on the beauty of nature risks converting the physical world, the environment, into an aesthetic category.

Jeffers’ late lyric “The Ocean’s Tribute” (especially if considered in the context of its preliminary workings) helps clarify both his oppositional relationship to his modernist contemporaries and the significance of beauty for his environmental poetics. The poem, I’d also suggest, implicitly functions as an argument for the necessity of secondary intensity if poetry is to matter for our participation in the natural world that is, after all, the basis of our being.


Published as a broadside by the Grabhorn Press in 1958, “The Ocean’s Tribute” is a seemingly casual, even naïve, piece that can be read as little more than a conventional celebration of a conventional scene using the typical details of a sunset—“purple cloud, and the pink rose-petals over all and through all”—to validate the claim of “very beautiful.” The poem, though, is both richer and literarily more ambitious than its simple surface suggests. Moreover, it demonstrates something of how Jeffers understood the triad—the trinity?—of art, beauty, and why “beauty” is fundamental to both his aesthetic project and his environmental vision.

The conversational tone and pacing of “The Ocean’s Tribute” suggest that it is simply a casual, offhand moment of observation awaiting the better making of an Ezra Pound so that “a thing outward and objective” might be “transform[ed]” into “a thing inward and subjective”:

Yesterday’s sundown was very beautiful—I know it is out of fashion to say so, I think we are fools
To turn from the superhuman beauty of the world and dredge our own minds—it built itself up with ceremony
From the ocean horizon, smoked amber and tender green, pink and purple and vermilion, great ranks
Of purple cloud, and the pink rose-petals over all and through all; but the ocean itself, cold slate-color,
Refused the glory. Then I saw a pink fountain come up from it,
A whale-spout; there were ten or twelve whales quite near the deep shore, playing together, nuzzling each other,
Plunging and rising, lifting luminous pink pillars from the flat ocean to the flaming sky. (3: 439)

That this “Tribute” is “out of fashion” is evident both in its occasion (a sunset) and how the rhetorical declaration that bridges the first two lines seemingly casts it as merely an illustration of an abstract proposition. Any self-respecting New Critic of the era would, clearly, dismiss the poem for failing to rise above secondary intensity. However, the sketch from which Jeffers derived the first two-thirds of the poem suggests that this failure to transcend secondary intensity was, in part, the point, and that he was not simply failing to write an imagist masterwork but openly rejecting the aesthetic paradigm of modernism in order to aim at something quite different:

I was admiring a magnificent sundown—it is not done now but I do it, I think we are fools
If we refuse the inhuman beauty, to chase our own minds and make quotations—or abstractions,
Which are meaner and easier—it builded itself, purple and gold, pink, green and apricot, and the great sculpture,
Of purple clouds flying northward rank above rank and the pink rose-petals over all, and a scythe moon
Caught in the glory. But the ocean below, dull slate-color,
Denied the light. I saw a pink fountain come up,
A whale-spout (5: 890-91)

In the completed poem, “it is out of fashion to say so” functions implicitly as a rejection of modernist poetics and the critical orthodoxy of mid-century derived and elaborated from it. The equivalent unit in this initial sketch makes that rejection explicit. The speaker is not merely noticing a sunset, nor simply praising it. He is, instead, actively engaging it. And such “admiring” of nature’s “inhuman beauty” stands as the opposite of “mak[ing] quotations” and “abstractions”; it is a rejection of such making. The speaker in this initial draft is the opposite of those who “chase” their “own minds” because they “refuse the inhuman beauty” and end up reduced to the inauthenticity of merely following “fashion.”

Were “The Ocean’s Tribute” primarily a critique of modernist poetics (or perhaps more specifically the critical “fashion” derived from it, which, at midcentury, had contributed to the eclipse of Jeffers’ reputation), the poem would be of some interest as a polemic. But in both the initial sketch and the completed poem, the polemical gesture is a parenthetical that contextualizes what follows rather than being either the poem’s central action or its point. The polemical impulse, as an initial reaction to the recognition of beauty in nature, initiates the poem’s imaginative and aesthetic action, not because the poem is to celebrate the sunset as a kind of coded criticism of modernism but because the impulse to polemic is something to be overcome by turning away from “fashion” (and the concern with recognition and status it implies) in order to turn to “admiring” the “inhuman” and “superhuman” world—both by means of (through) its “beauty” and for its “beauty.” The poem, then, is neither a critique of modernism (though such a critique is present) nor a landscape painting in words—a celebration of a particular sunset. Instead, it is (in spite of its brevity) a dramatic piece in which the tension between the impulse to celebrate the sunset and the recognition that this “is not done now” drives the assertion that “I [still] do it,” which in turn drives the desire (need) to reconnect the inhuman and the superhuman by “admiring.” As such, the admiring is both the action generating the poem and what the poem does. And as such, the dramatic presentation of admiring (engaging through admiring) that follows the parenthetical yields a poem—and a poetics—in which the poem is a record of the process of perceiving, engaging, and responding to an occasion (through aesthetic awareness) rather than an aesthetically crafted object that transcends the engagement that might have occasioned it (and which is validated through the skill of its making and the degree to which the realized work subsumes, even consumes, its occasion and occasioning).

“The Ocean’s Tribute” is not, then, a conventional description of a sunset. Rather, it is an enactment of an aesthetic process. And the poem, through this enactment, demonstrates not only that the sunset is “beautiful” but also that actively “admiring” (engaging) such phenomena as sunsets to perceive beauty establishes that beauty is beyond fashion. In the poem, beauty is not merely something decorative the artist ascribes to reality or something the artist fashions through his or her artistry. Instead, beauty is fundamental to the self’s relationship to nature, to reality, and it is, and crucially so, redemptive.


The way the finished version of “The Ocean’s Tribute” functions as a dramatized enactment of consciousness is perhaps clearer if one considers why Jeffers might have broken off the initial sketch to start the poem over. In the initial sketch, the speaker is characterizing what he has seen—and admired—in order to support the assertion that “we are fools” if we “chase our own minds” instead of focusing on the “inhuman beauty.” The key to how the description functions in this preliminary attempt at the poem is the word “glory” in the fifth line: “a scythe moon / Caught in the glory.” Here, “glory” characterizes the details of the sunset which the speaker has been presenting and through which he perceives the “scythe moon.” Functioning as a kind of summary or recapitulation, “glory” is more literal (the matrix of light and color) than it is figural (glory as an exalting, a divine splendor). And this literal dimension of “glory” as light, in turn, controls the next sentence: “But the ocean below, dull slate-color, / Denied the light.”

In the fragment, the figural possibilities of “glory” are occasioned by the literal features of nature (in this case the lights and colors of the sunset) but are not actually part of nature. The speaker, that is, can cast natural light metaphorically as “glory,” but the light of nature is simply light, whatever beauty we may ascribe to it. As such, the ocean can deny neither the actuality of light nor its glory, and this reduces the claim (“the ocean . . . Denied the light”) to an allegorical construction. It reflects the speaker’s efforts to project a significance for nature through the drama he invents for it. The claim reflects the speaker’s desire to participate in nature, but the drama exists only in the speaker’s “own mind” rather than in (or as) the “inhuman beauty” (Jeffers 5: 890). Having set out to reject “abstractions” as “meaner and easier,” the logic of the speaker’s relationship to the scene he remembers and constructs for the reader traps him into figuring the “inhuman” as a humanized allegory—an abstraction.

In developing the completed poem from the preliminary draft, Jeffers subtly but decisively alters the speaker’s relationship to beauty and nature. Exchanging “inhuman beauty” (in the fragment) for “superhuman beauty” (in the completed poem) is one element of this. Characterizing nature as “inhuman beauty” projects it as a nonhuman object for human contemplation. Characterizing nature as “superhuman” recasts it as a potentially transcendent, comprehensive being, which contains the human as an element within it. As such, nature (here the sunset) shifts from being something that happens to elicit “admiring” to something that is, instead, a dynamic reality that can be contemplated—and implicitly worshipped. In the initial fragment nature is a “great sculpture” —a structure. In the completed poem, it is a “ceremony” enacting itself—a process. The former invites (aesthetic) awareness; the latter invites worshipful participation. In the fragment, that is, affirming the sunset’s beauty (and rejecting the modernist paradigm) leads to the more passive (and conventional) act of using the imagination to celebrate nature for its beauty. In the completed poem, rejecting the modernist move of “dredg[ing] our own minds” leads to the more active (and radical) move of using perception, extended through imagination, to recognize nature as process (ceremony) rather than object, and then, through perception and imagination, to participate in the “ceremony” through the parallel (but lesser) process of building up the poem in parallel to nature building up the sunset. In the finished version, the poem, thus, is not only an affirmation of “glory” but also a means by which the speaker (and potentially the reader) participate in it. As such, the poem becomes a part of the celebration. And even though nature necessarily transcends the poem and remains beyond it, the speaker (as actively contemplating awareness) and the reader are drawn into the ceremony through the poem. In “The Ocean’s Tribute,” then, engaging nature through creative awareness leads to the poem as a record of creative engagement, which in turn the reader can use as a script with which to engage nature.

By casting the sunset as a “ceremony” that nature itself enacts (or that God enacts through nature) instead of treating the sunset as “the great sculpture,” Jeffers, in effect, reverses the logic of Pound’s operation of distilling the “secondary intensity” of his “metro emotion” into “In a Station of the Metro.” Where Pound tries “to record the precise instant when a thing outward transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective,” Jeffers tries to enact (and record) the process by which the contemplating figure of the poet moves beyond the inwardness of the subjective in order to participate in the “superhuman beauty” that contains, but necessarily transcends and outstrips, the perceiving self. In Jeffers, consciousness, “a thing inward,” is drawn “outward,” and the poem both records that process and provides a script for it. As such, the poem must be of secondary intensity because, for Jeffers, it is most fully and powerfully a poem when it is about something rather than when it is being something. And this, I’d suggest, further clarifies Jeffers’ rejection of the tenets of modernism: In Pound, the procedure of consciousness matters only because a poem has resulted from it, and the poem both embodies and erases that process. In Jeffers, the procedure of consciousness is the poem, and the poem matters not by being an artifact of primary intensity but by enacting—and testifying to—the primary intensity of the “ceremony” that elicits it and to which it points. Because of this, the poem, for Jeffers, is a process moving outward from “our own minds” rather than one of “dredg[ing] our own minds,” and the poem must (as the record and result of a process) enact a change in consciousness, which is why the “I” of the speaker necessarily remains present in the poem—but not as a static point of perspective, nor as a didactic authority over the material, but as the locus of consciousness, with consciousness functioning as an evolving process rather than a static awareness, as the three instances of “I” in “The Ocean’s Tribute” illustrate.

Although seemingly flat, static, and clearly stylistically unfashionable, “I know” and “I think” (in the opening line) and “I saw” (in the fifth) reflect the speaker’s changing relationship to consciousness, nature, and expression that the poem enacts. What the “I” knows is the “fashion” of what poems should be—a certainty that functions to impel the poem onward but is of little value in itself. What the “I” thinks (a matter involving an element of doubt) is that “we are fools” to regard nature and poetry in this way—a proposition to be tested and one which leads to the initial connection outward to the “sundown” and its beauty, and from there leads to the claim (not as metaphor but as intuitive apprehension) that the sundown “built itself up with ceremony” and the recognition of the interplay of colors—the “great ranks / Of purple cloud” and the “rose-petals over all and through all.” What the “I” eventually sees (in a kind of visionary moment), then, implicitly counters the hope and doubt of “think” that opens the poem and deepens and intensifies the mere “know[ing]” of the opening line. Jeffers, that is, in the completed version shifts the poem from being an evocation of the sunset’s beauty offered as a refutation of current poetic and critical “fashion” to being, instead, an attempt to experience the sunset’s beauty and thereby connect the self to nature and understand the self as an element within the “superhuman beauty of the world” and in relationship to it.

The significance—dramatically and thematically—of this progression from “I know” to “I think” to “I saw” becomes clearer, I’d suggest, in the context of the “ocean” seeming to “Refuse[] the glory” of the “ceremony,” how this threatens the speaker’s affirmation of nature and desired connection to it, and how this also threatens the speaker’s attempt to demonstrate the validity of a poetics focused outward on nature rather than inward on the self. This threat is implicit in the seemingly unneeded word “itself.” It is the “ocean itself“ (italics added), not the speaker’s perception of the ocean or his imaginative projection of it, that “Refuse[s] the glory” of the “ceremony” by maintaining its “cold slate-color.” If the ocean is disconnected from, and impervious to, the “glory” that is seemingly “over all and through all,” or if the ocean is, in its “cold[ness],” antithetical or impervious to the ceremony, then the speaker’s initial impression of the sunset, of nature, as “ceremony” and “glory” becomes a misapprehension and fails to be a proof of the need to turn from “our own minds” to regard, instead, “the superhuman beauty.” If the ocean is a revelation of an absolute nonhuman materiality, then imputing beauty to nature is an act of the mind. If beauty is simply a result of the “dredg[ing] of our own minds” rather than a result of “admiring” the “superhuman beauty of the world,” then imputing beauty to nature is delusional. While celebrating the desire for beauty in spite of the reality of perception can be, as Wallace Stevens demonstrates, a validation of the imagination’s redemptive power, that is neither the demonstration Jeffers is trying to make nor the position he is attempting to validate.

The dilemma created for the speaker in recognizing that the ocean, as “cold slate-color,” seems not to participate in the “ceremony” is the poem’s experiential and conceptual crisis. And the “Then I saw” that follows needs to be understood not simply as a continuation of the initial description but as a transformational pivot that reimagines, actually reperceives, the ocean’s seeming unresponsiveness to the “glory” as the speaker shifts from observing “the superhuman beauty” that he has been describing to participating in “the superhuman beauty” that he is discovering. As such, this response marks a decisive shift in the poem from what might be termed ordinary observation (the I “admiring” nature) to visionary participation (the I within and of nature, a part of it even as apart from it in the act of observing).

This pivot from ordinary observation to visionary participation is implicit in the shift in the procedure of the description that follows “Then I saw.” In the “turn[ing]” to the sundown’s beauty in the opening lines, the speaker moves from the general (or categorical) to observed particulars. The recognition of “Yesterday’s sundown” as “very beautiful,” thus, initiates the catalogue of the particular features of how “it built itself up.” Following “Then I saw,” the speaker moves in the opposite direction—beginning with perceptual detail, then inductively proceeding to the conceptual or categorical recognition that identifies the detail (but without reducing its figural force):

             Then I saw a pink fountain come up from it,
A whale-spout;

For the speaker, the spray of water against the horizon is literally pink because of the sundown, and by participating in the “over all and through all” of the “rose-petals,” it projects a possible bridge between “cold slate-gray” and the “glory.” Moreover, the detail evokes (even as it alters and naturalizes) the conventional Christian figure of the fountain as God’s Word and a renewal of faith. For the speaker, through the altered, more participatory, and visionary mode of seeing initiated by “Then I saw,” these qualities and implications precede the detail that the fountain is “A whale-spout,” which in turn leads to the shift in focus from the sunset’s interplay of light and color to the play of the whales, who are enacting nature (rather than, like the speaker, observing it) and “lifting luminous pink-pillars from the flat ocean to the flaming sky.”

The centrality of the whales to Jeffers’ initial conception of the poem is underscored both by its original title, “Whales at Sunset,” and by the lines (discarded) that ended the poem as it was first completed:

A whale-spout; there were ten or twelve whales quite near the deep shore, playing together,
Nuzzling each other, spouting rose-color tribute from the dark ocean to the glowing sky, as if
The whales also were singing glory to God. (5: 890-91)

Here, the whales, through their “tribute,” link the “dark ocean” to the “glowing” sunset as if they, too, “were singing glory to God.” In this discarded ending, noticing the whales complicates the speaker’s sense of the ocean. The “cold” and seemingly blank slate is a feature of the ocean, the appearance of its surface; it is not the ocean as what we might now term an ecosystem. Perceived as an environment for the whales, the ocean becomes a vitalized context rather than inert otherness. As participants capable of “playing together,” the whales both enact and represent the ocean’s “tribute.” While the ocean itself does not sing glory to God, elements within it and of it do.

This original ending of the poem, then, seemingly celebrates the value of turning from “our own minds” in order to turn, instead, to nature. Regarding “superhuman beauty” reveals its “ceremony” and enables one to join in nature’s celebration of its “glory.” Jeffers’ revision to these final lines, though, both complicates and problematizes this affirmation. In the discarded ending, the poem’s religious ambition is explicit and its religious affirmation is seemingly unequivocal. Yet the “as if” that ends the penultimate line signals a degree of uncertainty on the speaker’s part by casting the detail of the “rose-color tribute” as metaphorical and the whales’ “singing glory to God” as the speaker’s imaginative projection onto the scene rather than his visionary apprehension of it. While the discarded ending makes the religious desire of the poem overt, the speaker remains separated from nature, even as he regards it and imagines through it, rather than participating in it. He sees nature “as if” it is “very beautiful” and “as if” it is “singing glory to God.” Perception (what one actually sees) and imagination (what one constructs from perceptual data) remain different, potentially antithetical matters connected only by the speaker’s desire. And if this is the case, then “beauty” is potentially only a construction of “our own minds” rather than an integral feature of “the superhuman,” by and through which we know it (or at least recognize that we participate in it).

In the poem as published, Jeffers both simplifies and complicates the discarded ending. He deletes “as if” and cancels the characterization of the whales “singing glory to God” as if they are consciously aware of, and choosing, the religious implications of their actions. Jeffers also converts “dark ocean” (with its overtone of depth and mystery) into “flat ocean,” which more nearly parallels the description of the ocean as “cold slate-color” in the fourth line. Most crucially, he shifts the speaker’s noticing the whales and their spouts from being the poem’s culmination (an occasion for the speaker to cast the whales as the central players in an allegory of nature) to the whales being, instead, a catalyst that occasions the speaker’s intensified awareness of the wholeness of “the superhuman beauty,” with that being the poem’s culmination.

In the discarded ending, perception (noticing the whales as part of the scene) occasions an imaginative projection, and this projection creates a meaning for the scene. However, this meaning is imposed on the scene; it expresses the speaker’s desire rather than being drawn from the scene and inherent in it. In revising the ending, Jeffers reimagines this dynamic, so that the poem ends by enacting the primacy of nature (its “superhuman beauty”) rather than the power of the imagination to construct beauty from what the self is able to perceive. In the discarded (penultimate) ending, perception is raw material for the imagination to act upon; in the revised ending, perception occasions an intensified awareness of what is observed, and the speaker resists the temptation to overwrite (as in the discarded ending) the scene’s nonhuman actuality with human meaning. In the discarded ending, perception generates an enabling fiction that reduces (and partly humanizes) the “superhuman beauty.” In the final ending, perception leads to a visionary participation in the observed scene. The speaker is drawn out into a participation in the “superhuman beauty” that contains but vastly exceeds the human.

The two endings, that is, enact different relationships to nature: one a reversion to the romanticism (Wordsworth in particular) that is one source of Jeffers’ poetic, the other a move beyond it. In the more traditional or conservative move of the discarded ending, “superhuman beauty” is subsumed into the imagining mind—as if the self is able to possess nature. But this more conventional move involves allegorizing nature, thereby setting the self apart from nature and buffering the self from its extreme otherness (“the nothing that is,” as Stevens puts it in “The Snow Man”). In the more modern (though not modernist) move that recasts romanticism (rather than, as in modernism, rejecting it), imagination, subordinated to the “superhuman beauty,” deepens participation in nature by intensifying perception. In the discarded ending, imagination subsumes and controls (and thus to a degree erases) perception. In the ending of the completed poem, imagination both draws from and intensifies perception, subsuming the mind into the reality of what is seen in order to achieve a visionary awareness that places the self within the “superhuman beauty.” Instead of perception leading to an imaginative construction, a fiction (Supreme or otherwise) that functions as an interpretation, perception enables (and is subsumed into) visionary participation.

The clause that makes up most of the last line of “The Ocean’s Tribute” —“lifting luminous pink pillars from the flat ocean to the flaming sky” —exemplifies this participation in nature through perception that is simultaneously literal and visionary, and it also marks the moment when the speaker, in this drama of consciousness, achieves it. The whale spouts seen against the backdrop of the sundown’s “pink rose-petals over all and through all” are literally “luminous pink pillars,” and the figural dimension of the language intensifies the perception of what is actually present in the scene (in contrast to imagining the whales “singing glory to God” in the discarded ending, where the figural turn moves beyond the actual, converting it into an allegorical tableau). At the same time, perceiving the “pillars” of the whale spouts as an expressive action from within the “flat ocean” links the ocean “to the flaming sky,” projects the scene as a whole as implicitly a temple—one that the speaker, by attending to “the superhuman world,” enters in what is finally, implicitly, an act of worshipful participation. It is this participation in nature’s “glory” within its temple and through its “ceremony” that the speaker declares with the seemingly flat “I saw.” What the speaker has come to see through the process the poem records is neither the literal surface of the scene nor how the imagination can aestheticize the scene. Rather, the speaker has discovered (or recovered) —through deliberate attention to the world beyond the self—the possibility of achieving a moment of unreflective participation in the “glory” as an element in its scene.


For Jeffers, I’d suggest, poetry both derives from and enables a heightened attention to the world—especially the world of natural phenomena beyond the self. The poem is a linguistic construction that records this process of moving outward from the self (“our own mind”) in order to engage the “ceremony” nature enacts and thereby achieve moments of visionary awareness of the “glory.” And this recording of the speaker’s dramatic participation in nature and transformation through it, which is to say the poem, offers the reader a way to imaginatively reenact the process and move toward heightened awareness—an awareness that is necessarily beyond the poem but which authenticates it. The didactic claims and mimetic elements in Jeffers’ lyrics, thus, are not ends in themselves but, instead, elements that contribute to the speaker’s movement toward engaging the “superhuman beauty” through visionary perception. The disclosure that the poems offer is ultimately not a lesson validated by the poet’s authority over the reader but rather the possibility of the reader’s own heightened awareness through the poem’s dramatic simulation of the speaker’s need to “turn” from the self in order to “turn” to what is beyond the self (and as such both the poem and the poet point to an authority neither possesses). The poem as a construction of language can be a means to awareness but is necessarily secondary to awareness. It can neither contain nor be awareness, even as it moves toward what is beyond it. As such, the poem is a matter of (what Pound would term) secondary intensity. For Jeffers, the poem enables awareness, which is its justification, its value. For Pound, the poem is a perfected linguistic system that embodies the craft of its making and transcends (by transmuting) both the objectivity of its occasion and the subjectivity of the maker.

Jeffers’ insistence that the natural world must be attended to for its own sake rather than culled for impressions that can be converted into aesthetic objects helps explain his relevance for the canon of environmental literature. His advanced training in biology and forestry in his college years and his knowledge of developments in contemporary astronomy contributed to his being a careful observer of the natural world, and across his mature work he consistently acknowledges nature’s materiality, assigns it primacy, and stages it as both the domain of ultimate meaning and the context within which human meaning is to be determined. But Jeffers is not, finally, a poet of science. Rather, he is a poet informed by science. In “The Ocean’s Tribute,” the “cold slate-color” of the ocean and the “glory” of “the flaming sky” are simultaneously engaged (perceived) as natural phenomena and apprehended as a visionary occasion—a dialectic of the literal and the transcendental, in which Jeffers’ training in the sciences and his poetic roots in such figures as Wordsworth and Emerson, with their different envisionings of nature as infused with divinity, each play a part.[3]

For Jeffers, a key to his ability to acknowledge nature as the materiality of “the ocean itself, cold slate-color” yet envision it as a “ceremony” enacting a transcendent yet materialistic divinity is the way he understands “beauty” as a mediating term between self and nature and between perception and vision. Beauty links the scientific and the visionary and enables the self to attain moments of vision that include, rather than reject, the actuality of nature. For Jeffers, the purpose of the poem is neither to contain beauty nor to be beautiful.[4] Rather, the purpose of the poem is to enable readers to deploy their “senses and intelligence” and thereby “perceive” what the poem points toward. The poem is a mediation through which the reader engages beauty.

These two moments from Jeffers’ career—the early Preface and the late lyric—both underscore the importance of beauty to his conception of poetry and suggest that the poem should testify to beauty rather than, itself, be beauty. But neither specifically addresses the status of beauty, other than to suggest that beauty has to relate in some fashion to the world beyond the self rather than be solely a matter of “our own minds,” even as beauty has to be experienced by the perceiving self—must, that is, be available to the self through the process of “I saw.” That Jeffers was aware (at least as his career proceeded) of the question of how beauty might be both of the mind and of nature is evident in Themes in My Poems, the script he developed for a series of poetry readings he delivered in 1941. To introduce “The Excesses of God” (a lyric from 1920 but one left uncollected until Be Angry at the Sun in 1941), he wrote:

I spoke a moment ago of the beauty of the universe, that calls forth our love and reverence. Beauty, like color, is subjective. It is not in the object but in the mind that regards it. Nevertheless, I believe it corresponds to a reality, a real excellence and nobility in the world; just as the color red corresponds to a reality: certain wave-lengths of light, a certain rhythm of vibrations. It was Plato who defined beauty as the effulgence—the shining forth—of truth” (4: 412-13).

The manuscript from which Jeffers finalized the script shows that he originally further specified “beauty” as “the effulgence of truth—truth shining—like a light from a lamp” (5: 966).[5]

Jeffers senses that beauty is not itself real (an objective aspect of nature) but is instead subjective—a matter of how the self responds to the reality that is not the self but in which the self participates. Yet beauty is not simply a reflection of, or construction from, the self’s desire (as if the self’s construction of beauty were a transcending of nature); instead, beauty is a kind of action or transaction between self and nature enabled by correspondence. As such, the subjective response Jeffers designates as “beauty” is elicited by the real (in its full materiality and otherness) through the active regarding of the world beyond the self (and self-consciousness) that converts passive perception into “admiring,” so that the self experiences beauty both as and through the correspondence that places the self within the “nobility” of the world. In responding to beauty, the self participates in the “universe,” experiencing it as simultaneously both material and ideal. And it is beauty (again, more as action or process than state or object) that enables and authenticates the participation and places the self in a position of reverence toward the universe.

Because beauty is a matter of how one relates to the universe (in both its ideal and material dimensions), it is not the poet’s task to fashion beauty from nature (in works of what Pound would term primary intensity), nor is it the poet’s task to praise nature for its beauty (in what would be works of secondary intensity). It is, instead, the poet’s task to engage beauty through dramas of perception and from that process create scripts of engagement, through which the reader can, similarly, look outward from the poem and move beyond it in order to experience correspondence.

For Jeffers, then, beauty is related to aesthetic practice but is, at its most fundamental, related to creation and “reverence” for it. The “effulgence,” the “shining forth,” is God’s expression—an expression through, rather than in, the “object” and one that, when properly regarded, joins the self and God in a “love.” None of this is to erase or diminish the conditions of material existence, which include unceasing change and death of the self. Rather, this stands, in Jeffers’ work, as the transcendent positive (through beauty to visionary awareness beyond the material self) that is the other side of the coin to the materiality of the self and thereby the self’s inevitable absorption back into materiality. In “The Excesses of God” Jeffers celebrates this “superfluousness”:

Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells,
And make the necessary embrace of breeding
Beautiful also as fire,
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music:
There is the great humaneness at the heart of things,
The extravagant kindness, the fountain
Humanity can understand, and would flow likewise
If power and desire were perch-mates. (1: 4)

The materiality of the physical world and its processes do not “need” “beauty.” But the “superfluousness,” which can be seen by committing to “the great humaneness at the heart of things” rather than to “power and desire,” is God’s “extravagant kindness”—a gratuitous, inexplicable affirmation, a “fountain” of divine energy and spirit. Similarly, the physical world and its processes have no “need” of the poem. It, too, is “superfluousness”—it “corresponds”; deriving from a recognition of “superhuman beauty,” it echoes, and its secondary intensity thereby participates in the primary intensity (rather than being a separate, and as Jeffers would understand it an alienated, intensity).


Jeffers quite clearly recognized that his understanding of the nature of beauty and the beauty of nature was “out of fashion,” and “The Ocean’s Tribute” functions as both an acknowledgment of that and a demonstration of a contrary, even oppositional aesthetic. The natural world was not a backdrop for cultural activity; the natural world was the primary reality—the fundamental to which the cultural was a kind of harmonic. Precise observation—geological, biological, astronomical—informed by contemporary science was central to his practice and his aesthetic. In a way that can strike us as prescient of contemporary concerns, he emphasized the natural world (as materiality and material process) as a greater reality than human desire and human production. Yet nature was not, for him, either an ultimate reality or an ultimate meaning. In “The Ocean’s Tribute” Jeffers articulates his belief that to turn from the world’s “superhuman beauty” to “dredge our own minds” (as he understands the modernists to do) is to be a fool. The contrary failure—suggested in the poem but not explicitly articulated—would be to turn from the world’s “superhuman beauty” to dredge only the materiality of nature and natural process.

For Jeffers, knowing nature through the more objective perceptual mechanisms of science is neither an end in itself nor sufficient. The challenge implied in “The Ocean’s Tribute” is to move beyond the subjectivity of self within culture (the modernists) and the objectivity of science (in which the self’s participation in what is perceived is set aside) and instead to apprehend (through the “shining forth” of “beauty”) the “ceremony” that is “built” as nature enacts itself and affirms the “glory” infused through it. In “The Excesses of God,” a quite early poem, this “superfluousness” is explicitly God’s expression of its own transcendent being. In “The Ocean’s Tribute,” a very late poem, the use of the passive voice in the crucial “it built” shows Jeffers stopping short of naming the power or agency that generates the “ceremony.” In the early poem, beauty derives from, and is our proof of, a more comprehensive reality termed “God.” In the later poem, beauty is the nexus of the mystery of our relationship to the natural world and its “ceremony.”

When Jeffers wrote “The Ocean’s Tribute,” its seeming didacticism and discursiveness appeared to mark the poem as a product of secondary intensity—a celebration of beauty rather than itself being beauty. Moreover, its emphasis on the natural world rather than the psychological or cultural world made it even more unfashionable. Ironically, Jeffers’ concern with beauty is what now threatens to make him unfashionable, or at least retrograde, in the context of environmental literature, in spite of his emphasis on the reality and primacy of the natural world. The political, ethical, and scientific dimensions of our contemporary environmental crisis will not be understood through beauty nor solved by expressing it. Yet “The Ocean’s Tribute,” I’d suggest, points to the inadequacy of treating the aesthetic and utilitarian as dichotomous. Beauty was not, is not, a by-product of the aesthetic—and thereby a subjectivity opposite to more objective understandings of nature. For Jeffers, beauty was, and is, the basis of (and product of) engaging the self’s participation in nature, in universe—and thereby an “effulgence,” a “shining forth,” that draws us beyond the inadequate binary of subjective and objective.


[1] The parallels Pound proposes between mathematics and poets in this same essay further underscore the contrast between his “modernist” aesthetic and Jeffers’ modern aesthetic.

[2] T. S. Eliot’s widely reprinted 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” further develops the modernist rationale for this view.

[3] Writing to Jeremy Ingalls on November 9, 1932, Jeffers offers that his “‘philosophy’ . . . came, such as it is, from life and prose, science and the like. Perhaps a gleam from Lucretius on one side and Wordsworth on the other.” Below his signature, he then adds, “Poe captured me when I was very young; I had almost forgotten. Emerson interested; Whitman never did.” In these remarks Jeffers erases, as much as affirms, his interest in Wordsworth and Emerson, but his revision to the introduction to the 1935 Modern Library edition of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems is worth noting in this regard. In the Introduction as published, Jeffers notes his interest in Milton and Shelley in his apprentice years. The manuscript shows that Jeffers originally wrote, “I was still busily imitating Wordsworth,” then scored through “Wordsworth,” replacing it with “Shelley and Milton.” The revision is, I’d suggest, rich with implication. At the very least it shows that Jeffers could be, in his remarks for publication and his remarks to others, somewhat reticent about his poetic influences and allegiances. See Karman (141), and also Jeffers (5: 941).

[4] The already quoted sentence from the June 1922 Preface—“The poet is not to make beauty but to herald beauty; and beauty is everywhere; it needs only senses and intelligence to perceive it” —is worth recalling here.

[5] For the textual history of “The Excesses of God,” see Jeffers (5: 314-16).

Works Cited

Jeffers, Robinson. The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume One, 1920-1928. Ed. Tim Hunt. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1988.
              The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Three, 1939-1962. Ed. Tim Hunt. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1991.
              The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Four; Poetry 1903-1920, Prose, and Unpublished Writings. Ed. Tim Hunt. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000.
              The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Five; Textual Evidence and Commentary. Ed. Tim Hunt. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2002.
Karman, James, ed. The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers: Volume 2, 1931-1939. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2011.
Pound, Ezra. Gaudier-Brzeska. New York: New Directions, 1970.