Taking the Hawk’s Place: The Lyric Voice of Narrative in Jeffers’ Point Sur

[The aside to Jeffers colleague Jim Baird shows that this was written for a Robinson Jeffers Association conference, but I seem to have neglected to enter it on my CV and don’t remember the year.  The comments on “Doors to Peace” and “Metempsychosis” show that it was drafted before Volume Four of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers was published.  Both poems are included in that volume: “The Hills Beyond the River” (an expansion of “Metempsychosis”) in The Brides of the South Wind section and “Doors to Peace” in the section of Unpublished Poems and Fragments.  For a more recent discussion of “Metempsychosis,” in a different context, see “‘Walls on a rock above the sea’: Tor House as Place and Figure in the 1919 Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.”]


In the Foreword to the 1938 Selected Poetry Robinson Jeffers offered several explanations for omitting The Women at Point Sur, even though he thought it “the most inclusive, and poetically the most intense” of his poems.  Its length (175 pages in the original edition) was one factor; and, as he put it, “it is the least understood and least liked.”  For the most part attempts to rehabilitate Point Sur and establish it as the core Jeffers work have focused on clarifying the poem’s ideas and Jeffers’ attitude or attitudes toward them.  After all, this is what it would mean, it seems, to understand the poem and thereby come to like it, and Jeffers himself launched this project late summer 1927 when Mark Van Doren’s negative review led him to draft an explanation of the poem’s “intentions” that he sent in letters to both Van Doren and James Rorty (two of his most committed and professionally influential readers).  But I doubt that probing the poem’s ideas will ever get us much closer to a consensus about the centrality of this poem in the Jeffers’ canon or its degree of success or failure or the nature of its success or failure.  This is not to suggest that the poem lacks ideas and intentions (it, as Jeffers suggested to Rorty and Van Doren, may have too many of them too complexly and confusingly interwoven).  Rather it’s to suggest that the poem has not been (in Jeffers’ word) “liked” because we haven’t sufficiently “understood” how it works, the kind of process it unfolds, and how we, as readers, are expected to participate in and experience that process, and what the process yields and signifies.  The time I have this morning precludes developing the full argument that I’m pointing to, but I would like to consider—even if briefly—Jeffers’ complicity in our failure to come to terms with not simply his longest narrative but his most ambitious and far-reaching poem.

In the apologia/explanation of Point Sur that Jeffers sent Rorty and Van Doren, he portrays Point Sur is a kind of cautionary tale, a “warning” as he puts it, worked up “to show in action the danger of that ‘Roan Stallion’ idea of ‘breaking out of humanity,’ misinterpreted in the mind of a fool or a lunatic.”  I have several problems with this rationale.  First, it’s implausible that Jeffers would knock out a 2,000-line narrative as a corrective to a 300-line narrative.  Nor does the documentary evidence support this.  The final page of the “Roan Stallion” manuscript has a draft of a letter to a publisher (probably Boni & Liveright) in which Jeffers acknowledges an inquiry about publishing Tamar (then available only in the limited circulation Peter Boyle edition) along with additional work.  Jeffers notes that he has “two works in hand”—one, he says, “will be finished to-morrow” and this is presumably “Roan Stallion.”  He then adds:

The other is a story somewhat analogous to “Tamar” but wider in range and thought; I expect it will be a greater poem; but it is only half written and will not be in a state to show anyone for several months.

Comments in other letters and the manuscripts themselves suggest this other story is Point Sur (or rather some of the 300 pages of partial and preliminary attempts at Point Sur sometimes referred to as Point Alma Venus).  Jeffers, that is, was already well into what became Point Sur before “Roan Stallion,” and he apparently saw Point Sur as moving beyond both Tamar and “Roan Stallion”—not commenting back on, and correcting, those narratives.  Finally, Jeffers’ sense of Point Sur when he first finished it in February 1927 is worth noting.  In a letter to Donald Friede, his editor, he wrote:

I see (through the bore of copying) that “The Women at Point Sur” is a bit longer than “Tamar.”  But don’t let that alarm you; if it’s as long as a novel it’s as interesting as a good novel, besides being—I dare say—the Faust of this generation.

These are not the comments of a poet who has just completed constructing a didactic, cautionary demonstration of how not to read his prior work.

Jim Baird has previously explored the importance of Faust to Point Sur (am I right in remembering, Jim, that Jeffers met Una in a graduate seminar in German at USC where they spent the semester reading Faust?).  For this occasion, I want simply to note that Faust points to Point Sur as a poem that also explores the costs, rewards, and implications of transgressive or violational consciousness.  Faust can, of course, be read as something of a cautionary tale.  Goethe was not, we assume, advocating Faust’s exploitative treatment of others, but a stray comment on the “Roan Stallion” manuscript suggests that this cautionary element wasn’t what Jeffers had in mind when he invoked Goethe’s romantic masterpiece by claiming Point Sur was the “Faust of this generation”: “The hardship and power of poetry—to express, by means of the music-songs and cradle syllables of humanity, the wisdom of demons.”  This is not the comment of a poet interested in spending three or four years on a novel-length poem to demonstrate “the danger of that ‘Roan Stallion’ idea of ‘breaking out of humanity.'”  Rather, this is a poet intent on “breaking out of humanity,” willing to risk for “the wisdom of demons,” and hoping to find a way to bring that into the language and action of his work.  And if so, why didn’t Jeffers offer Van Doren and Rorty a more forthright defense of Point Sur—one that confessed that both he and the poem’s “hero,” the Reverend Barclay, were after the Faustian “wisdom of demons”?  Most simply, why didn’t he help us to understand this crucial poem instead of just noting, as he does in the Selected Poetry Foreword” our failure to “understand” it?

In part this decision not to produce the kind of theoretical pieces Pound and Eliot used to orient readers to their work fits with the usual image of Jeffers as aloof and austere, a prophetic poet committed to the timeless and willing to wait, as he claimed in “Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years,” for future readers rather than fawning after present readers.  But Jeffers was not as aloof and austere as the figure he projected through the voice of such oft-anthologized pieces as “Shine, Perishing Republic” and “Boats in a Fog.”  One root of his work is pain—his own, which he implies in “Memoir,” a brief piece from Such Counsels You Gave to Me, where he contrasts himself to some rancher friends who seem oblivious to the pain they inflict in dehorning their cattle for market, “whilst I like a dowser go here and there / With skinless pity for the dipping hazel-fork.” And another root is the search for visionary moments—and perhaps some ambivalence about their cost:


Sphere beyond sphere
Of blazing crystal….
I see the half moon rise at midday
Over the rocks in the air’s clearness.
The spirit of the moon with blazing wings,
The arms uplifted, the eyes in ecstasy,
Stands on that crystal round, as the others
On the pale hills…and the ocean
Rounds like a dew-drop, the huge dome
Hangs inconceivably above,
The spirit spiring from it,
The arms uplifted, the eyes in ecstasy,
And though the sun’s not to be borne
I see the spirit of the sun standing
On the unendurable dome of crystal,
Not looking down at his adorers,
The arms uplifted, the eyes in ecstasy
…Toward whom? Sphere beyond sphere,
Dome above dome the stars
Tower with winged figures
And the eyes of ecstasy…

I think they admire the silence
Outside the stars, what should light love
But that which having in itself
Enough, needs not to shine nor move?
Love, motion, light, and change, imply
Inward insufficiency;
God’s other shore knows none; they die
And all the suns will die to see.

I think…I think says the brain…
But the little spire with the eyes of ecstasy
On the brain’s dome is the life,
Not thinking anything,
But flaming…little fool you will cease
Flaming when you flame up to peace.

Jeffers probably wrote this piece while working on Point Sur, and the treatment of heightened consciousness, of the visionary, in the two can, I think, be usefully linked.  Yet Jeffers never published “Doors to Peace” nor (it seems) attempted to publish it.  Why? My guess is that it was too personal—too directly a lyric in his own voice instead of that of the persona he typically used in his short poems (short poems which are usually more meditative or didactic than lyric).  Given the number of instances in the manuscripts where Jeffers held back poems such as this and deleted the more openly personal moments from short poems (“In the Hill at Newgrange” and “The Answer” are two clear examples), the surprise is not that Jeffers chose to leave “Doors to Peace” unpublished but that he published a piece like “Memoir.”

But what does this have to do with Point Sur?  For one thing, it points to an odd feature of Jeffers: that the most intensely lyrical and visionary moments (at least in the published work) occur not in the short poems but in the long narratives: “The Caged Eagle’s Death Dream” unit excerpted from Cawdor for the Selected Poetry is one example, Onorio’s vision toward the end of The Loving Shepherdess is another.  Such visions are Jeffers’ own in that he composed them as part of the representational process of the narrative, and they are his in that he presumably means us to read them as expressions of what he perceived and believed.  But by subsuming these lyric, visionary flights in the narrative material he shifted the authority for them away from himself and placed it instead in the visions themselves and thereby declined the quintessential romantic move, where his own authenticity and the authenticity of the visionary moment would each validate the other.  Instead, his invented and represented visions are “true” because their resonance convinces us that they metaphorically express—and potentially connect us (and Jeffers) to nature’s dynamism and its consciousness as God.

But as “Doors to Peace” suggests these visionary moments within the narratives are in some instances at least not Jeffers’ representation of a vision he imagines for the dramatic context or for a specific character but are instead recastings of his own, more directly romantic visionary moments.  Here is another unpublished poem, this time from perhaps late 1919:


Coast-range creeks, veins of the body of mine that will not die
When this spirit is nothing and this flesh new dirt and the eager eye
Sucked its last and is drunk with darkness—I am content I think to cease.
I rejoice no death will drag you peaks and slopes down to that peace.
Neither failure of the blood will make you faint nor its fevers choke,
Canyon creeks that are my arteries, hair of forest and body of rock.
If long hence and after a thousand long millenniums you go down
I will go, the last of me then, and the endless dance of suns go on.
Therefore I turned from the high lamps and limited to low hills my love.
Sweet you are immortality enough, identity enough.

This is not yet the mature Jeffers, but it reveals the romantic foundation of his more mature and anti-romantic poetic.  And as it happens this trope—that of the metaphorical identity of body and landscape, where each expresses and extends the other—is the basis of one of the earliest attempts at what became Point Sur (an attempt that may precede Tamar).  In it the central character is a visionary figure whose heightened consciousness of self and region makes the physical and human world around him responsive to his thought, even as his body is so connected to the body of the region that he experiences through it—as if it is indeed an extension of his own veins and nerves and senses.  In fact, these motifs remain latent in the final Point Sur in the way Jeffers projects the characters as extensions of, and responsive to, the Big Sur landscape, in the hints that Barclay’s will and imaginings resonate out to both the other characters and the landscape, and finally in the person of Old Morehead, who is the most literal trace of the earlier figure.

What I’m suggesting is that part of our failure to understand Point Sur comes from our tendency to read it as if it is a narrative in the usual sense—i.e. a fiction that deploys character, action, and image to represent a particular world view and through this imagined construction perhaps persuade us to a particular view of its issues.  Instead, I would argue, Point Sur, in spite of its narrative elements, is a poem that functions as a kind of lyric, where the central action is the poet’s use of characters and situations to generate visionary engagements and to then use the narrative material to help structure and sustain this act of visioning.  Jeffers’ handling of Point Sur in the 1938 Selected Poetry points in this direction.  While he claims in the Foreword to have simply “omitted” this “longest” and “the most inclusive, and poetically the most intense” of the narratives, Selected Poetry actually includes a single page of Point Sur: Chapter XII, which opens:

Here were new idols again to praise him;
I made them alive; but when they looked up at the face before they had seen it they were drunken and fell down.
I have seen and not fallen, I am stronger than the idols,
But my tongue is stone how could I speak him?  My blood in my veins is seawater how could it catch fire?

A dozen lines later the speaker adds, “I made glass puppets to speak of him, they splintered in my hand and have cut me, they are heavy with my blood,” then closes with the injunction: “stammer the tragedy you crackled vessels.”  This is, I think, another comment (though more veiled and discrete) about “speaking the wisdom of demons.”  It also points to the speaker’s own stake—Jeffers’ stake—in his invented materials, which is also apparent—and more fully dramatized—in “Prelude” (Point Sur’s opening unit and the logical unit to have excerpted for Selected Poetry).  Significantly, “Prelude” begins with the word “I.”  And this first person, lyric voice controls the initial five verse paragraphs.  In them the speaker (Jeffers, it seems) confesses that “imagination” has betrayed his “solitude” and worries over his vocation as poet-discoverer.  This “tired and corrupt” speaker invokes a catharsis of “storm,” which seems both the storm of the imaginative act of breaking beyond the human and its conventional boundaries and the storm of the winter rains that break the yearly dry spell.  In the sixth verse paragraph, though, the poem shifts suddenly to narrative—an account of “Onorio Vasquez, / Young seer of visions” who watches his brothers play with a hawk they have “crucified” on the barn wall.  Onorio’s vision, catalyzed and mediated by the crucified hawk, weaves through the rest of “Prelude,” at times in language that echoes the lyric speaker’s initial invocation of “storm” in the opening five verse paragraphs.”  With the hawk’s death at the end of “Prelude,” Onorio’s visions also cease, and in the final lines Onorio—desperate to renew the visionary energy—tries to entice his brothers to nail him to the barn door in “the hawk’s place”:

…”You’d live long and be rich,
And nobody could beat you in running or riding.”
He chatters his teeth.  “It is necessary for someone to be fastened with nails.
And Jew-beak died in the night.  Jew-beak is dead.”

The next line initiates Barclay’s story: “The Rev. Dr. Barclay outgrew his profession.”

“Prelude” can be read as a brief narrative with an introductory lyric section, but it can also be read as a single extended lyric, in which the speaker’s willingness to reach beyond the oppressive and ordinary present to tempt “the wisdom of demons” throws up the figure of Onorio and drives a visionary moment which is, though expressed through the fictional figure, the poet’s own.  In “Prelude,” that is, Jeffers does not invent a vision for Onorio as part of the representation of this fictional character; rather Onorio, the poet’s invented figure, becomes the medium—and mediation—through which he experiences and expresses his vision.  And if so, Onorio’s vision of the crucified hawk is fundamentally Jeffers’ own, as is the apprehension that this vision is not only a glimpse of the basic condition of being but that the cost of such vision is a willingness—a need?—to assume the sacrificial role in order to continue the vision. It is, then, I’d suggest, reasonable to experience Onorio’s storm-fueled vision as Jeffers’ own participation in, and endurance of, the storm he has deliberately invoked in the opening paragraphs. And I think it is finally necessary, if we are determined to understand this poem, to remember the seemingly odd inclusion of Point Sur’s Chapter XII in the Selected Poetry—a unit which makes little sense by itself but which in the context of Point Sur shows the poet pointing to himself as not simply the one who sacrifices the figures he creates but as the one who sacrifices himself to create them and sacrifices himself through them for the sake of discovery, lyric intensity, and what I’ve loosely termed as vision.

Onorio (at least as far as we know within Point Sur) fails to convince his brothers to nail him to the barn door as sacrificial substitute for the dead hawk; but Jeffers, it seems, imagined himself as standing in for his fictional substitute.  Vision (in Jeffers’ world) requires pain and sacrifice.  What the close of “Prelude” implies is that the pain that drives the vision of Barclay and Barclay’s story is Jeffers’ own; it implies that the poem both results from—and is—a kind of imaginary self-crucifixion.  If so, this suggests a possible link between Point Sur and the brief poetic episode “A Redeemer,” from a year or so later. In “A Redeemer” the figure of the poet encounters a man who, in a type of crucifixion, wounds his hands in a chosen self-sacrifice.  It may be that “A Redeemer,” which can be read as a kind of projected dialogue between Jeffers and another figure of himself, stands as a further meditation on Point Sur.  But whether or not this is the case, it seems clear that Point Sur is not a cautionary tale with the Reverend Barclay as moral lesson.  Rather, it is a poem of violation and excess where Jeffers sacrifices himself through his characters and their actions to pose (like Barclay) the ultimate questions, and this does suggest that he meant what he said when he wrote Friede that he had written a “Faust for this generation.”