“The Great Wound” and the Problem of Reading The Beginning and the End

[This piece appeared originally in Robinson Jeffers Newsletter #79 (1991):  18-25.]

Robinson Jeffers’ later manuscripts show that he hoped to publish a final collection from the poems he was writing in the years after Hungerfield (1954), but he died, January 20, 1962, before doing so.  In spite of this, a final collection did appear in 1963: The Beginning and the End.  It was, according to a note on the dust-jacket, assembled by Jeffers’ “sons and secretary.”  We have, then, always known that the book is to some extent a collaboration between the Jeffers who wrote the poems and the people who later published them, but we have not, I’d suggest, typically considered what this process might have entailed or what it might mean for how we read this book and the poems included in it.  We have not, most simply, considered that The Beginning and the End might be a quite different collection from the one Jeffers himself might have assembled had he lived longer.

In large part it was Melba Berry Bennett, Jeffers’ “secretary,” who prepared the late poems for publication.  When the poet died, the family loaned her the manuscripts, and she selected which poems to use, chose the order for them, and prepared the transcriptions that Random House used for its setting copy.[1]  No one can doubt Bennett’s commitment to Jeffers’ work; she’d already written Robinson Jeffers and the Sea (1936), and she visited Jeffers periodically his last years to research her biography of him, The Stone Mason of Tor House (1966).  Unfortunately, the late manuscripts pose more questions than answers about how he might have handled this same material, and this means that Bennett’s task involved much more than simply presenting in print the material found on Jeffers’ desk.  She had, that is, to interpret and shape contradictory, often fragmentary material, and in the process The Beginning and the End inevitably became partly her vision of Jeffers’ work, not simply his own.

The nature of the manuscripts indicates the problems Bennett faced and the character of her solutions.  Although Jeffers did type a few late poems (likely those written shortly after Hungerfield), he left most of his late work in handwritten working drafts.  These, at the least, lack the final revisions he typically made when he typed poems for publication.  Many are also untitled, and the way Jeffers often mixed notes and passages from seemingly different poems on a single sheet (or spread a single poem across several sheets) makes it difficult to determine which units are “poems” and which are fragments.  Neither do the manuscripts indicate which poems Jeffers would have chosen to publish.  He did mark several with the notation “KEEP,” but most are not annotated.

To confuse matters further, Jeffers seems to have considered at least two quite different structures for his collection-to-be without ever settling on either.  One was to organize it as he had earlier collections—a long narrative accompanied by shorter poems.  In these last years he tried repeatedly to draft a final narrative but managed little more than various notes and fragments.  The other was to organize his various lyric, meditative, and narrative pieces (and possibly some autobiographical prose as well) into a kind of collage.  The notes rough out several preliminary, partial designs, and Jeffers may even have begun revising some lyric bits to stitch them into the sequence (see below).  He apparently, though, set this option aside to continue searching for a workable narrative situation, and one must conclude, I think, that he simply had not yet determined how he’d structure his final collection when he died.

Unless Bennett had additional evidence, the shape of The Beginning and the End must be regarded in light of these limits, and she did not likely have additional evidence.  Her primary concern when she visited Jeffers was the biography, and he, given his temperament and practice, was unlikely to have discussed his plans for the book even if she’d questioned him about them.  Nor did Bennett likely have much basis for asking questions, since she apparently had access to the late manuscripts only after Jeffers died.  Moreover, the differences between the manuscripts and The Beginning and the End suggest Bennett’s hand, not Jeffers’.  Her categories for grouping poems differ noticeably from those Jeffers considered.  The titles of many poems are ones she added, and the title of the book itself exists nowhere in the manuscripts, not even as part of the poem she titled “The Beginning and the End.”

Bennett’s willingness to title poems and invent categories for them (and titles for the categories) indicates her willingness to interpret the material.  In part the manuscripts gave her no choice (though she could have chosen to be more neutral by, for instance, leaving untitled poems untitled or arranging the work chronologically).  Still, The Beginning and the End is less Jeffers’ “book” than it is a kind of exhibit of his late work with Bennett as curator.  And although some may conclude that the exhibit she constructed does not (at least not seriously) affect how we read individual poems, we also need to recognize that the nature of the manuscripts required Bennett to do more than choose and sequence poems.  She had to decide, as well, what should be in individual “poems,” and these decisions do affect how we read individual “poems.

What appears in The Beginning and the End as “The Great Wound” illustrates the impact of Bennett’s decisions on individual poems, not just the book as a whole.  Bennett assembled “The Great Wound” from material on six manuscript sheets that likely date from 1957.  As she published it, the poem has three verse paragraphs.[2]  The first describes the moon being “torn / Out of the Pacific basin” (the manuscripts show two versions of this unit).  The second and third paragraphs form a second unit that posits an identity (or at least similarity) between the “myths” of “mathematicians and physics men” on the one hand and “The poet” on the other (this unit derives from three pages of workings that may or may not represent a finished draft).[3]

Unfortunately, the various manuscript pieces neither prove nor disprove that this material should be viewed as a single poem.  Bennett likely based her decision to combine the material on the manuscript sheet that has the complete draft of what she used for her first paragraph.  Above the passage and separated from it by a line are a series of notes.  One (“The moon torn out of the Pacific basin—how much greater event than the human race”) anticipates the paragraph itself.  The other three anticipate the concluding unit, which is drafted on other sheets.  The conjunction of notes for the latter unit with a draft of the first does not, though, prove that Jeffers planned to link these two impulses (origin of the moon and “myths” that work in spite of being untrue) into a single poem.  The notes simply exist side by side along with others on the bottom of the sheet that point to other poems and fragments (and perhaps the plan for organizing the book as a collage).  The sheet, that is, points in enough different directions that one can’t tell, finally, what Jeffers might have done with the various units of work.

The draft of the alternate version of the first unit (a two-page manuscript) also offers no proof that the two different units of “The Great Wound” are a single poem.  The bottom of the second sheet does show the phrase “Myth and Truth” (blocked off in a bottom corner below some crossed out notes), and this may have been meant as a title.  If so it may be a title for this unit in combination with the other (the unit that deals explicitly with myth), but placement of the phrase does not actually link it to the draft of the first unit which concludes above it.  The phrase is as likely (or more) to be either a provisional title for the second unit by itself, a provisional title for a section of the book-to-be (a unit of the never assembled collage), or a title for the book itself.

The single manuscript for the concluding two paragraphs offers even less reason to combine these units of work.  The three pages are a complex and problematic set of sketches and reworkings that may or may not result in a somewhat finished draft.  The way the draft seems to unfold suggests it was conceived as a poem in and of itself.  Nor does the draft suggest it is to lead anywhere else (certainly not back to an additional unit to be added as an introduction).  This is not to say that Jeffers might not have considered a kind of link between the unit about the moon and the unit about myth, but if so, it was likely after each had been drafted as separate pieces and with the idea that the two would be combined into a single and independent poem.

Not only do the manuscripts not indicate whether the two units of Bennett’s “The Great Wound” should be combined into a single poem, they do not really indicate which of the two versions of the first unit or paragraph is the finished one (if either is actually “finished”).  The unused version is longer and more elaborate than the one Bennett used, and the manuscript for it shows the crossed out phrase “Gouged out of the Pacific basin” immediately below the body of the draft in a position that could indicate either that it’s the note that generated the poem, which would then suggest it’s the earlier draft or that it’s a discarded title, which would suggest it’s the later one, since Jeffers usually only added titles when poems were completed or nearly completed.  Conversely the length of the two versions suggests that the one Bennett used is the later one, since Jeffers usually shortened poems and introduced greater distance between himself and his material as he revised.  To further complicate the matter, it’s possible that the longer version is actually Jeffers’ reworking of the shorter when he was thinking about utilizing it as part of one of his collage designs for the book.  In that case, it’s quite possible that the longer version would be the later one but actually the less finished and less independent unit, since it was perhaps only partially reworked and not really meant to stand alone outside of the unconstructed collage.

The manuscripts Bennett used for “The Great Wound” may well be more problematic than many of the late manuscripts, but they are by no means unique (nor is “The Great Wound” the only case where Bennett has apparently mixed and matched different manuscripts to construct “complete” poems).  And in any case, decisions such as the ones Bennett made in constructing the poem do affect our sense of the poem.  It is, of course, possible that her interpretation of “The Great Wound” is essentially the poem Jeffers would eventually have drafted, but all the manuscript evidence allows us to conclude is that Jeffers worked on these several, perhaps related, units of material at about the same time.  If Bennett has it “right,” it’s essentially luck of the draw.  (One of the few certainties is that the manuscripts offer no evidence for titling this material “The Great Wound.”  Bennett derived the title from line six of the unit she used as the opening paragraph.  In manuscript the line reads “the great ditch” with “wound” written above as an alternate.)

In any case, the rightness or wrongness of Bennett’s construction of “The Great Wound” is only partly the issue.  More importantly, these manuscripts demonstrate that any way of presenting these late poems (except, perhaps, in facsimile) involves interpreting them and casts any editor as a kind of unauthorized collaborator.  This does not make it wrong to edit and print this material.  Much, perhaps even most, of what’s in The Beginning and the End are units Jeffers would have completed, collected, and published had his health allowed.  Rather I want to suggest that the unfinished nature of these poems means we cannot read them as we read poems that Jeffers saw through press.  We must, instead, read them in their unfinished state by struggling with the manuscripts themselves (an at times exciting but often tedious, confusing, and frustrating process), or we must read them in some printed form, knowing that what we are reading is partly the interpretation of an editor.

And this leads to my main criticism of The Beginning and the End.  One should not criticize Bennett for assembling and interpreting the late work.  One shouldn’t, that is, complain that she mounted the exhibit.  One can, though, wish she’d chosen to acknowledge her agenda as curator and her procedures for the exhibit by adding a brief note characterizing the material she faced and her procedures when putting it in publishable form.  Her decision not to do this may well have been motivated by a kind of modesty, but her decision has obscured the provisional and fragmentary nature of much of this late work and encouraged readers to assume that her texts represent Jeffers’ decisions and intentions.  In part they reflect his intentions; they record his words.  But readers of The Beginning and the End should also understand that Bennett’s texts reflect as well what either seems to have been her desire (quite possibly admirable but by no means neutral) to construct, whenever possible, coherent and whole poems from the pieces she faced or her faith that the work was somehow more finished than the evidence indicates it was.


[1] Lee Jeffers, the poet’s daughter-in-law, confirmed (in a phone conversation with the author, May 1, 1991) this arrangement.  Bennett’s typescript for Random House shows that she chose and transcribed forty-five poems, arranged in four sections.  As published, the book has an additional three poem section, labeled “Uncollected.”  These were likely supplied by the poet’s son, Donnan, while the book was in press.  One of them, “Birds and Fishes,” had been used as part of a Steuben Glass exhibit, and the terms of the exhibit initially precluded re-publication.  The other two were typed on the Tor House typewriter, likely by the poet’s son, Donnan, from manuscripts that may have turned up after the family had originally given Bennett the manuscripts from Jeffers’ desk.  The manuscripts for Jeffers’ late poems, Bennett’s working transcriptions, and the typescripts Random House used to set the volume are all part of the Jeffers collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas.

[2] The Beginning and the End (New York: Random House, 1963), pp. 11-12.

[3] Transcriptions of these three passages are printed below.  These appear in Robinson Jeffers, The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Volume Three: 1939-1962, ed. Tim Hunt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 457-59.

[The two versions of the first verse paragraph of “The Great Wound”]

At the near approach of a star…huge tides
Agitated the molten surface of the earth.
The tides grew higher as it passed.  It tore from the earth
The top of one great wave:—the moon was torn
Out of the Pacific basin: the cold white stone that lights us at night
Left that great ditch in the earth, the Pacific Ocean
With all its islands and navies.  I can stand on the cliff here
And hear the half-molten basalt and granite tearing apart and see that huge bird
Leaping up to her star.  But the star passed,
The moon remained, circling her ancient home.
Dragging the sea-tides after her, haggard with loneliness.


I walk on my cliff above the Pacific Ocean and feel the tides
Moon-led call in the waters, or drive them west
And the shore’s bare: I think of the prodigious tides
An alien star raised when it shot by our orbits,
Challenged the sun and passed.  The earth was young then,
Her seas were not blue water but molten rock
And a huge wave of fire followed the star.
Higher the wave rose and higher like a bat’s wing flittering,
Trembling with love, against the cataract sky,
Until it broke away from the planet.  I stand on the cliff here
And hear the flesh of the earth tearing apart, and watch that huge bird
Lofting up toward her star.  The enormous gouge
She tore from the earth smoulders below at my feet, the fire-torn, moon-forsaken
Basin of the Pacific.  But the star had passed, that wild wave was left,
Hanging between earth and heaven.  She globed herself and became the moon,
Howled at by wolves, mistress of women and maniacs,—
Weeping in heaven, circling her ancient home, dragging the sea-tides after her, haggard with loneliness.

[The material Bennett used for the second and third verse paragraphs of “The Great Wound”]

The mathematicians and physics men
Have their mythology; they work alongside the truth,
Never touching it; their equations are false
But the things work.  Or, when gross error appears
They invent new ones; they drop the theory of waves
In universal ether and imagine curved space.
Nevertheless their equations bombed Hiroshima.
The terrible thing worked.

                                                 The poet also
Has his mythology.  He tells you the moon arose
Out of the Pacific basin.  He tells you that Troy was burnt for a vagrant
Beautiful woman, her face launched a thousand ships.
It is unlikely: it might be true: but church and state
Depend on more peculiarly impossible myths:
That all men are born free and equal: consider that!
And that a wandering Hebrew poet named Jesus
Is the God of the universe.  Consider that!