The Thickening Empire: Jeffers’ Struggle with History

[This paper was delivered at the May 1990 American Literature Association conference.  The poem “Invasion” is included in Volume Three of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.  The workings for the poems and for the collections Be Angry at the Sun and The Double Axe are now available in Volume Five of The Collected Poetry.]


Robinson Jeffers typically stressed that one should look beyond the self and the flux of the moment—the mere accidents of personality and circumstance—to contemplate the greater reality of the natural world and its cycles.  His poems invite us to imagine him atop his tower—at “continent’s end”—turning his face to the glories of yet another Big Sur sunset and his back on society’s decay.  But this image reflects the ideology of the poems more than the actual experience behind them, and I would like to suggest that this is something Jeffers, in spite of his pose, was willing to have us recognize (perhaps even wanted us to recognize), since his poems (I’d argue) are less statements of truths, than dramatizations of the struggle for truths that he can glimpse and in part name, but not fully embody or realize.  With Jeffers, that is, the poems show us less the serenity of truth achieved than a will to achieve truth, and as such part of their richness comes from the implicit conflict between the pose (the assurance) and the actuality (the doubt).

In particular I would like briefly to consider Jeffers’ political poems of the late 1930s and the 1940s.  These show with particular clarity the way assurance and doubt often coexist in his work; moreover the details of their publication indicate Jeffers’ own conflicting sense about how much to admit these doubts to his readers.  For in spite of his repeated insistence that we contemplate a nature beyond both the world of the individual and the political and social world, Jeffers’ poems repeatedly (perhaps obsessively) examine current affairs, current politics, and explore historical explanations for the prolonged crisis he found in a world lurching from world war to world war to cold war.  I realize that accounts of the career tend to set these explicitly political poems off from both the earlier and later work, but this dichotomy between the ideology of the work and the experience of it (both the experience that generates the poem and the one the poem offers the reader) persists throughout the career (though it likely intensified in this period).

Jeffers’ ambivalence about his political poems is apparent in the Note that introduces Be Angry at the Sun (1941).  He “lament[s),” what he terms, “the obsession with contemporary history that pins many of these pieces to the calendar, like butterflies to cardboard,” but even though history pins and deadens the poems, he asserts in the next paragraph: “Yet it is right that a man’s views be expressed, though the poetry suffer for it.  Poetry should represent the whole mind.”  These comments reflect two different senses of poetry: in the first it is (rather should be?) an imitation that celebrates nature’s transcendent, redemptive beauty.  In the second, it is self-expression, a kind of witness; rather than a mimesis of the world and its processes, it becomes a mimesis of the unfolding struggle to make.  The note suggests Jeffers wants us to believe that his earlier work had attained this first mimesis and that it is only the struggle with despair at impending war that reduces him to the second.  He, thus, implicitly invites us to segregate these poems of history from his earlier poems of nature.

Jeffers might well have found this division appealing as he assembled Be Angry at the Sun.  It cast his earlier work as serene, assured, realized in contrast to the ambivalent and anguished, all too immediately “human” experience of the present work.  But the conflict for Jeffers between these modes had been there all along.  In practice he had always understood poetry as a product of human consciousness, which meant for him that it was inevitably a record of conflict, since human consciousness—in addition to the conflicts introduced by desire—is always in part consciousness of our separation from nature as well as our participation in it.  And this meant that his poems celebrating nature had always been dramatizations of this consciousness, of “a man’s views,” as much as they’d been imitations of nature, butterflies free of the pin and cardboard. As such, Jeffers’ desire for a poetry that would be as beautiful, independent, and integral as the nature he postulated had always been desire, not reality, though this, I’d suggest, is a major source of the work’s power and significance.  True, the late 1930s and the 1940s were a period of crisis, but this crisis tested, perhaps strengthened, and made more visible what was already fundamental in Jeffers, since the work had been all along as much the drama of a struggle to make, as a record of nature’s beauty.

That Jeffers might, in the late 1930s, have wanted to portray his earlier work as serene and assured, rather than as a series of dramas of the attempt to believe, is understandable.  These were years of personal, not only political, crisis for him.  After Such Counsels You Gave to Me (1937) and assembling the 1938 Selected Poetry, Jeffers suffered what was for him a prolonged dry spell, made doubly difficult by such episodes as what seemed the attempted suicide of his wife.  The accelerating war in Europe compounded matters, since he assumed from the beginning the United States would become involved.  Whatever the precise interaction of these crises, they challenged Jeffers’ conviction that his struggle with his vision of a nature of beauty yet conflict had prepared him to face and accept the worst life might offer.  He seems to have found his earlier sense of a tragic acceptance that would still justify praise giving way to a doubt that threatened him not only with his own despair but worse (at least aesthetically) with silence.  (Something of the personal terms of this moment can be glimpsed in a poem like “My Dear Love.”)

The earliest major piece completed for Be Angry at the Sun, “Come Little Birds,” suggests Jeffers first tried to write himself out of his malaise by ignoring political developments.  But by August 1939 he was drafting short, specific reactions to current events with such titles as “Helsinki Bombed, Nov. 30 ’39” or more simply “February, 1940.”  Some of these pieces were so fragmentary that Jeffers considered treating them as a kind of collage or series to be titled “Commentary,” “Memoranda,” or (significantly for the “Note” he’d later write) “On the Calendar.”  Some of the more fully developed of these (“The Day Is a Poem” and “The Soul’s Desert,” for instance) appeared in Poetry in December 1940.

These “memoranda” or “days” are an important part of Jeffers’ attempt to assess the war.  They record “current history” and document his struggle to overcome his grief and anger—his struggle to recover an equanimity that would confront the horror yet transcend it.  Significantly, though, a provisional table of contents shows that Jeffers at first planned to omit these political poems from Be Angry at the Sun.  Jeffers, that is, so lamented his “obsession with contemporary history” that he considered shaping the collection to obscure that obsession and the threat it posed to his assertion (an assertion fundamental to his project) that nature, properly contemplated, could redeem and contain (not deny or erase) human conflict.

Significantly, Jeffers did, though, finally choose to include these political poems.  Perhaps he thought them too good to omit, but his doubts about their merit suggest otherwise.  Rather, I’d suggest, his own honesty required he include them.  If the political crisis and his own temptation to despair were, in fact, matters he couldn’t face—couldn’t incorporate into his vision and aesthetic—then his assertion of nature’s redemptive beauty had itself to be questioned—was being questioned—and he couldn’t pretend otherwise.  If his only concern had been to make beautiful artifacts, butterflies for the display case, it would be one thing, but the character of his ambition meant he had to offer solutions he’d tested, proved, in his own experience or no solutions; he couldn’t offer what he knew to be false solutions. History can only be transcended if it is first faced and engaged.  And if poems are to admit how much we live in our current histories, history can’t be wished out of the equation.

The issues at stake in Jeffers’ temptation to edit himself in Be Angry at the Sun are clearer if we frame it with an earlier political poem, “Shine, Perishing Republic,” and a later one, “Invasion.”  “Shine, Perishing Republic,” written 1922 or 1923, projects the events of current history as a “natural” process, a form of nature with its own specific rhythm of growth and decay that can be contemplated (with equanimity) for its beauty, just as other natural phenomena, can be contemplated.  Faced with an “America…heavily thickening to empire,” the poet/speaker smiles “sadly,” remembers “that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth,” and argues for a contemplative distance that would allow one to appreciate the beauty of the “perishing republic” as one would “meteors” or “mountains,” since all express the “mortal splendor.”  Part of the force of the poem comes from the way Jeffers’ subsumes historical phenomena to natural phenomena, and then treats both as forms to be appreciated for their “beauty.”  This much is apparent, but what goes with it (and the poem’s success ultimately depends on it) is the sense of a speaker who fully recognizes and accepts (though “sadly”) his own “perishing” nature, his own vulnerability that he shares with flower, meteor, mountain, and republic.  The poem blends not only natural and political realms, but comic assurance and tragic recognition, timelessness (as repetition) and the time-bound consciousness of mortality.  The poem is serene, yet it is as much an expression of the mind of the man within time as of the butterfly’s beauty.

The serenity of “Shine, Perishing Republic” is in part what Jeffers laments he cannot achieve in Be Angry at the Sun, yet the difference comes not from the way circumstances have invalidated his aesthetic, his poetic, but the way circumstances have complicated what it means for him to hold that aesthetic, that poetic, and this could only be faced by recording the conflict, since expressing the “whole mind” had been fundamental to the aesthetic all along.  Significantly, the aesthetic crisis of the war made the equation between nature, circumstance, and beauty not only more difficult for Jeffers to maintain, but more necessary and visible, which “Invasion” demonstrates.

Subtitled “(written May 8, 1944),” “Invasion” appeared originally in The Double Axe (1948), Jeffers’ most notorious volume.  The manuscript includes a series of notes, some toward what apparently would have been a preface for the collection and some that anticipate the poem (perhaps indicating it was in some sense a byproduct of considering the preface):

Preface—it was forced on me, I tried to avoid it—refer back to “Rearmament” 1934//Long poem also—forced on me—obsessive.  A picture perhaps of the emotional state of the time.//It is a feminine role—I dislike it—one ought to choose one’s subjects.//The wasted effort, the ridiculous dreams.//That children a hundred years from now in the future of America will not be sick for what these fools and animals are doing to-day.

The sheet also shows that Jeffers was again considering treating these short poems of current history as a sequence, this time to be titled “The Political Animal” or (as another sheet shows) “Mornings in Hell.”  And finally, the sheet has a note anticipating the poem’s strategy: “Take the horrors of the time…observe them carefully…but for emotion—the aesthetic emotion//You gain the landscape far beyond the horror.”  Here, as in the Note for Be Angry at the Sun, Jeffers apologizes for his obsessions but also insists that the poems are justified as “a picture of the emotional state of the time,” which must then include the poet’s own immediate testimony of his emotional state.  Yet this concern with the “horrors,” though “observed carefully,” must yield to the “aesthetic emotion,” “the landscape far beyond the horror.”  For this equation to work, again, the horror must be real, must be horror, but so must the aesthetic transcendence. The poet’s “mornings in hell” must be redeemed by moments of vision and acceptance, even if these moments will lack the serenity of “Shine, Perishing Republic,” and even if they will document a degree of doubt, of will sustaining the assurance in the face of the evidence for doubt.

In “Invasion” itself the collision between the world of nature and the world of history is particularly visible, as is the assertion that both can be seen as “beauty.”  Significantly, though, not only does the poem seek to equate nature and history (as does “Shine, Perishing Republic”) it argues that the equation must be seen as beauty, making the drama of belief, the will of belief, the doubt of belief, an explicit part of the poem.  In the process, the surface serenity of the earlier work is lost, but not without a compensating gain.

(written May 8, 1944)

Europe has run Its course, and whether to fall by its own sickness or ours is not
Extremely important; it was a whittled forepeak and condensation of profuse Asia, which presently
Will absorb it again.  (And if it had conquered eastward and owned the Urals, would yet be absorbing it.)
Freedom and the lamp have been handed west.  Our business was to feed and defend them; it was not our business
To meddle in the feuds of ghosts and brigands in historical graveyards.  We have blood enough, but not for this folly;
Let no one believe that children a hundred years from now in the future of America will not be sick
For what our fools and unconscious criminals are doing to-day.

                                                                                                                    But also it is ghastly beautiful.  Look:
The enormous weight is poised, primed and will slide.  Enormous and doomed weight will reply.  It is possible
That here are the very focus and violent peak of all human effort.  (No doubt, alas, that more wasting
Wars will bleed the long future: the sky more crammed with death, the victims worse crushed: but perhaps never
Again the like weights and prepared clash.)  Admire it then; you cannot prevent it; give it for emotion
The aesthetic emotion.

                                          I know a narrow beach, a thin tide-line
Of fallen rocks under the foot of the coast-range; the mountain is always sliding; the mountain goes up
Steep as the face of a breaking wave, knuckles of rock, slide-scars, rock-ribs, brush-fur, blue height,
To the hood of cloud.  You stand there at the base, perched like a gull on a tilted slab, and feel
The enormous opposed presences; the huge mass of the mountain high overhanging, and the immense
Mass of the deep and sombre Pacific.—That scene, stationary,
Is what our invasion will be in action.  Then admire the vast battle.  Observe and marvel.  Give it the emotion
That you give to a landscape.

                                                    And this is bitter counsel, but required and convenient; for, beyond the horror,
When the imbecility, betrayals and disappointments become apparent,—what will you have, but to have
Admired the beauty?  I believe that the beauty and nothing else is what things are formed for.  Certainly the world
Was not constructed for happiness nor love nor wisdom.  No, nor for pain, hatred and folly.  All these
Have their seasons; and in the long year they balance each other, they cancel out.  But the beauty stands.

That the “beauty stands” is by no means a transcendental given.  The claim is willed, bought by the imitation of the “whole mind” as it grapples with the realities of the calendar.  The poem becomes a drama of the desire and need for belief, and the drama becomes a witness that belief is, within certain limits, possible.

Significantly, Jeffers chose not to present “Invasion” and the other shorter poems of The Double Axe as “mornings in hell,” and the two prefaces he did eventually write for the volume (one used, one set aside during his arguments with Random House about the book) along with the order he finally gave the poems seem intended to deny the experience of writing the poems and to highlight the poems as a kind of prophecy: of history transcended more than history engaged and survived.  But in spite of the architecture Jeffers created for the book, the poems themselves still contain and reveal the actual condition of their composition, the mornings of struggles to face history, its “horror” and despair, yet affirm a “landscape” beyond it.  And as such, perhaps ironically, it is the way the “butterfly is pinned to the calendar” that allows the poems their beauty and authority, just as it is the way the poems reach for a paradoxical (and probably impossible) simultaneity of engagement and transcendence that makes their vision of history compelling and significant.  And perhaps when we’ve reached this point, we’re in a position to begin to consider the way “nature,” “history,” and “beauty” were for Jeffers not stable categories, but terms that mutually constitute and define each other, and from there I think we can begin to understand more clearly, more fully than we have, the richness of Jeffers’ work (the richness beyond the didactic claims that partly inform it) and its significance for an understanding of the various projects of modern American poetry.