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Robinson Jeffers: Peace Poet

A celebrated American bard, hailed by the critics as the bright shining star of the “California poets,” delivers the manuscript of his long awaited book, and his publisher—a major source of much of the nation’s literary cachet—sends a note chirping merrily that “the whole staff is buzzing with anticipation.” That buzz, however, soon turns to […]

A celebrated American bard, hailed by the critics as the bright shining star of the “California poets,” delivers the manuscript of his long awaited book, and his publisher—a major source of much of the nation’s literary cachet—sends a note chirping merrily that “the whole staff is buzzing with anticipation.” That buzz, however, soon turns to a growl as the author’s antiwar views come under their disapproving scrutiny.

Even as editor reassures author “how meaningful and important every word you wrote has been to me,” he is nonetheless “disturbed and terribly worried” about those “frequent damning references” to the president. The book, the editor sadly concludes, “will feed the prejudices of the wrong people, especially those who have tried so hard and so vindictively to discredit him.”

The poet’s work is subjected to severe editing. Entire poems—10 in all—are excised. When the volume is finally published, it bears an extraordinary editorial note averring, “in all fairness to that constantly interdependent relationship, and in all candor,” the publisher “feels compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet in this volume.” The editor’s note concludes with the smug self-assurance of one who knows his reiteration of the conventional wisdom renders him practically unassailable: “Time alone,” he intones, “is the court of last resort in the case of ideas on trial.”

It’s a tale for our times. The persecution of a liberal artist by conservative philistines and ideologues, the author a victim of the Bush cult, right? No? Well, then, it must be the story of some fellow-traveling Dalton Trumbo-like figure out of the McCarthy era, whose poetry of a slightly pinkish hue got him called on the carpet. Wrong again.

The poet is Robinson Jeffers, poet laureate of the Old Right, whose censored volume of verse, The Double Axe, published in 1946, shocked his longtime editors at Random House, where Bennett Cerf would not countenance reference to “the cripple’s power-need of Roosevelt.” In “The Love and the Hate,” a long narrative poem that did pass the censor’s test, Jeffers conjured a dead soldier who comes back to haunt his parents. Incorporating virtually all the political themes of the pre-war conservative opposition, the boy-corpse mourns the present fate of

The decent and loyal people of America,

Caught by their own loyalty, fouled, gouged and bled

To feed the power-hunger of politicians and make trick fortunes

For swindlers and collaborators.

Not missing a beat, the poet peers into an ominous yet strangely hopeful future:

For a time’s coming—fairly soon, you’ll not see it—when the ends of the earth,

from east and west, one world, will close on your country

Like the jaws of a trap; but people will say, be quiet, we

were fooled before. We know that all governments

Are thugs and liars, let them fight their own battles; and

the trap is closing, and an angry spirit

Will go through the camps whispering mutiny in conscripts’ ears

Jeffers’s vatic vision is our present, down to the angry spirit whispering mutiny: his uncanny premonitions elevate his poetry to the realm of prophecy.

Known for his violent, searing imagery, which was usually the instrument of a merciless insight into the tragedy of the human persona—its narcissism, its narrowness, its primordial viciousness—Jeffers’s gaze, as war approached, was turned on the follies of the “radio parrots,” “the crackpot dreams of Jeanne d’Arc and Hitler,” and “the paralytic Roosevelt”—all phrases cut by the editors of Random House. Delving into Jeffers’s molten rush of imagery, we see the world through the eyes of an intransigent “isolationist” in the midst of the post-war triumphalism. In “Fantasy,” Jeffers jolts his readers—then and now—by juxtaposing the German and American warlords as future objects of obloquy:

Roosevelt, Hitler and Guy Fawkes

Hanged above the garden walks,

While the happy children cheer,

Without hate, without fear,

And new men plot a new war.

That, too, was cut, and yet the rest was no less unforgiving. “Powerful and armed, neutral in the midst of madness, we might have held / the whole world’s balance and stood / Like a mountain in a wind,” wrote Jeffers, shortly before the war began. The craggy-faced poet’s perspective reflected the dominant view among conservatives of the time and also their sense that it was too late to do anything about it: “We were misled and took sides. We have / chosen to share the crime and the punishment.”

The chorus of jeers that rose up from the critics was deafening: “A necrophilic nightmare!” declared Time magazine. “His violent, hateful book is a gospel of isolationism carried beyond geography, faith or hope,” scolded the Library Journal. The Milwaukee Journal concurred: “In this truculent book, Robinson Jeffers … makes it clear that he feels the human race should be abolished.” His critical reputation shattered on the rocks of the postwar One-World consensus, the poet never regained his former stature. As William Everson wrote in the foreword to the 1977 edition: “Hustled out of decent society with antiseptics and rubber gloves, The Double Axe was universally consigned to oblivion, effectively ending Jeffers’ role as a creditable poetic voice during his lifetime.”

It was a long way to fall. In 1932, Jeffers’s visage, seemingly chiseled from granite cliffs of his beloved California coastline, gazed out from the cover of Time magazine. Acclaimed by critics as America’s foremost poet, Jeffers’s career had taken off after the publication, in 1924, of Tamar and Other Poems, which, for The Nation’s Mark van Doren, evoked “the beauty and strength which belongs to genius alone,” while James Daly in Poetry, declared Jeffers “unsurpassed by any other poet writing in English.”

The poet’s self-published book was republished the next year, by Boni and Liviwright, as Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems, with two additional long narrative poems of the sort that came to be associated with the Jeffers style. The poet’s course was set.

Jeffers had a powerful sense of place: his poems seemed carved out of the flinty solemnity of the northern California shore. As Loren Eisley put it: “The seabeaten coast, the fierce freedom of its hunting hawks, possessed and spoke through him. It was one of the most uncanny and complete relationships between a man and his natural background that I know in literature.”

Jeffers’s evocations of the Big Sur coastline, with its craggy beauty and eternally gray skies, are today often mistaken for paeans to a simplistic pantheism. Yet the sweeping vistas were but backdrop to searing portraits of the people who inhabited this forbidding country of towering rocks, cold mists, and shrieking hawks. His narratives had about them an air of Greek tragedy, a classical beauty of form and theme that gave expression to Jeffers unique vision of humankind as a tragically flawed creature whose base cleverness contrasted with, and even defiled, the impersonal majesty of the natural world.

Jeffers and his wife Una had come to Carmel in 1914, when it was a veritable wilderness. There the poet apprenticed himself to a stone mason and built a cottage and a two-and-a-half story tower made of boulders brought by horse from a nearby rock quarry and hauled up from the beach with his own hands. Tor House stood low, clinging to the bare promontory of rock—or “tor”—that meets the sea like the “prow and plunging cutwater” of a ship, as Jeffers put it. Hawk Tower rose high over the waves, gazing out at the limitless horizon. Until his death in 1962, a steady stream of poetic polemics and prophecies sallied forth from the solitude of that stone tower that would delight, scandalize, astonish, and finally anger and alienate.

The politics that horrified the critics in 1946 had been present from the beginning, although they did not offend quite so much in the 1920s, when “Shine, Perishing Republic” saw print:

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence;
and home to the mother.

The organic fate of all republics is empire and inevitable decay: “home to the mother,” back to the deep dark earth, whose loamy embrace awaits us all. There is about this poem the clarity of a premonitory dream: “and protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out.” How eloquently this speaks to our present helplessness as we resign ourselves to our rulers’ imperial delusions and hurtle down the road to yet another war. Yet it is useless to despair, Jeffers counsels:

Life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly

A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:

shine, perishing republic.

This slide into the abyss is as natural as life itself, which can only end in death. All civilizations, like all human beings, rise up, flower, and ripen and decay, returning to the earth from whence they sprang. Even the mighty American Empire sinks into over-ripeness and begins to rot. We all go home to the Mother. Still, the stench of it offended Jeffers’s nostrils, and he became a bit of a recluse:

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening

center; corruption

Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there

are left the mountains.”

A sign outside Tor House warned away uninvited guests, and Jeffers regularly turned away would-be acolytes who came to sit at the feet of the poet. He was temperamentally unsuited to the demands of a following and besides, that was a futile path to tread, as the poet pointed out:

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,

insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught—
they say—

God, when he walked on earth.”

Yet the poet could not avoid the trap himself. Years later—“Watching the blood-red moon droop slowly / into black sea thought burst of dry lightning and distant thunder”—the threat of another world war reared its ugly head in Danzig, where the “sick child” Hitler, on Sept. 19, 1939, was “invoking destruction and wailing at it,” and the day was

A poem: but too much

Like one of Jeffers’s, crusted with blood and barbaric omens,

Painful to excess, inhuman as a hawk’s cry.

“The Day is a Poem” appeared in Be Angry at the Sun, written in the run-up to war and published in 1941, a volume that provoked an uneasiness in the critics and the literary world in general. “Come Little Birds” depicts a sibyl-like woman who conjures the spirits of the dead. As her sons light a bonfire and the ghosts come crowding around it, one cries out

‘God curse every man that makes war or plants it.’
(This was in nineteen twenty, about two years after the armistice.)
‘God curse every congressman that voted it. God
curse Wilson.’

The poet Stanley Kunitz warned Jeffers that if he didn’t get with the program, and “accept moral obligations and human values,” he would “range himself on the side of the destroyers.” The Marxist critics of the New Masses and the fellow-traveling press, who had initially embraced Jeffers’s poetry because they mistook it for an indictment of “decadent” capitalism, noted his lack of “social consciousness”—and, of course, disdained his antiwar stance, which no longer suited the party line.

Jeffers did not care that the literary commissars had expelled him: he had never joined their ranks to begin with, having been a registered Republican all through the darkest days of the New Deal. With stoic endurance, he looked down at his “socially concerned” critics from a very great height. “Corruption and empire” were inevitable: one might as well “be angry at the sun” for setting. Still, he had to play his part in the drama as it unfolded:

The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.

The tortured voice of a modern Cassandra rose up from his tower of stone, hard, unyielding, even as he chided himself for the sheer futility of it:

You are not Catullus, you know,
To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
From Dante’s feet, but even farther from his dirty
Political hatreds.
Let boys want pleasure, and men
Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.

In 1941, Jeffers was invited by the Library of Congress to go on a nationwide lecture tour, which took him to Washington, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Salt Lake City, and he was far from shy in speaking out on the issue of the day. This hardly endeared him to the Marxist critics or the Roosevelt administration, and the cries of horror went up and out. Jeffers was even accused of having fascist sympathies, but his stern voice was neither deterred nor silenced.

Against the “emerging Caesarism that binds republics with brittle iron,” his was a lonely voice crying out against “the age of decline and abnormal violence,” when men are “frightened and herded increasingly into lumps and masses.” The fear that was spreading like an evil mist was paralyzing our ability to reason, because “a frightened man cannot think and the mass mind does not want truth, only democratic or Aryan or Marxian or other colored truth.” However, “the truth will not die,” and mankind may even find it again. Conflict was inherent in the nature of man, “much more than baboon or wolf,” and yet “a clear shift of meaning and emphasis from man to not-man can make him whole.”

While Jeffers wrote political poetry, he was hardly a mere polemicist. His views were rooted in his essentially conservative view of human nature, which he insisted on calling “Inhumanism,” perhaps as a goad to the “humanist” liberals who had hopped on the war bandwagon with such alacrity. “Inhumanism,” as Jeffers defined it, had nothing to do with being inhuman and everything to do with his allegiance to the permanent things, such as the transhuman magnificence of creation. “Turn away from each other to that great presence to which humanity is only a squirming particle,” he advised his audience on his 1941 tour. “Love your neighbor as yourself, that is, not excessively if you are adult and normal, but God with all your heart and mind and soul. Turn outward from each other as far as need and kindness permit to the vast life and inexhaustible beauty beyond humanity.”

Commonly misperceived as, alternately, the pantheist precursor of the California sandal-and-beads set and the misanthropic “inhumanist,” Jeffers was none of these things. If “time alone is the court of last resort in the case of ideas on trial,” as the editors of Random House would have it, then, by this standard, Jeffers was a seer of singular insight, whose divinatory art has survived the transient fashions of politics and stood the test of time.

Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com and author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.



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