Here’s a cosmic truism: The end of the Earth is just another item on the universe’s to-do list. The poet Robinson Jeffers understood this reality. That such a perspective need not be bleak is something he spent decades telling readers. Until his death on Jan. 20, 1962 -- 50 years ago -- Jeffers celebrated the “transhuman magnificence” of nature, the beautiful things both vast and near that can provide even a 21st century reader with solace, even if we are often a muddled, ugly species and even if all things, as they do, fade away.
Jeffers built a stone house and tower on the rugged Carmel coast in the early 20th century, long before he had neighbors, and he lived there for decades with his wife, Una, and their twin sons. The son of a minister and a student of language, literature, forestry and medicine, Jeffers took time before finding his mature, mythic, sometimes bloated voice. The poet had chosen to live deliberately, like Thoreau, but unlike him, Jeffers stayed put. And Jeffers’ Walden was more violent, more jagged. He wrote lyric poems about hurt hawks, the relentless Pacific, the endurance of stone, the follies of humans turned from nature. He also composed long narrative poems that read almost like ancient Greek tragedies recast to the California headlands; these poems have not fared as well over time as the lyrics.
But those epics thrust Jeffers into the national literary spotlight. He was enormously popular in the 1920s and 1930s -- he was once on the cover of Time -- but fell into disfavor quickly with his antiwar stance in the 1940s. When he died, Jeffers was largely forgotten by the literary establishment. Readers attracted to his environmental sensibility, however, have never let him go.
Robinson Jeffers was California’s first important poet, and he remains, in some ways, its most imposing -- because he grapples with questions that speak directly to our ongoing predicament.
If we acknowledge that the central problem facing our species is how to live more equitably in a biosphere we are rapidly unraveling, beneath a sky we are rapidly warming, then Jeffers becomes not a regionalist of historical note but a figure of commanding contemporary consequence -- flawed, to be sure, but necessary. The flaws, at least as some see them, include an uncomfortable tendency to an almost Old Testament misanthropy. “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” he said (in)famously in “Hurt Hawks,” perhaps his best-known line from his most anthologized poem. That’s a very unsettling statement, even though some people may sympathize with the impulse.
In his short poems, Jeffers can modulate this surly voice more frequently than some critics have supposed. Though it’s true he never strayed far from the oracular stance that nature is savior and humans are trouble, I wonder why this is such a bad thing. In any case, here are quiet lines from Jeffers’ last book, “The Beginning and the End,” published in 1963, the year after his death. They’re from a poem called “Salvage,” a favorite of mine:
It is true that half the glory is gone.
Motors and modernist houses usurp the scene.
There is no eagle soaring, nor a puma
On the Carmel hill highroad, where thirty years ago
We watched one pass. Yet by God’s grace
I still have a furlong of granite cliff, on which the Pacific
Leans his wild weight ...
Jeffers goes on, considering what is gone (his beloved wife) and what remains (trees that herons nest in, the material universe as a kind of divinity). He still “can feel the beautiful secret/In places and stars and stones .../I wish that all human creatures might feel it./That would make joy in the world, and make men perhaps a little nobler -- as a handful of wildflowers.”
That “beautiful secret” is the radical focus of Jeffers’ poetry, the comforting influence of nature, experienced directly (“I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers,” he writes in one sonnet) but also as revealed, at least at times, by science. Drawing on his forestry and medical studies, and with a brother who was an astronomer, Jeffers could write a poem such as “Nova,” about the death of a star, and “Memoir,” about the suffering of lab animals and the starvation of war-torn refugees. The title poem of “The Beginning and the End” is a kind of astronomical creation myth. Science could be abused, Jeffers knew, but it could also illuminate the universe.
Disciplines as diverse as ecology and cosmology reiterate what Jeffers articulated: We are a tiny strain in the cosmos. This insignificance is both freeing and humbling. It can guide us through petty passions; it can help us steward the living world. Jeffers called his approach “inhumanism,” which he set against human selfishness. The coast landscape -- pelicans, rivers, salmon, storms, wild grasses -- fed Jeffers’ sense of glorious, fitted connections. He is the ultimate poet of biophilia.
For some, his repetition of subject and stance can bore, but for others, reading a Jeffers lyric poem can be akin to meditation. He takes us out of ourselves, the way a wild swan or planet flaring between parted clouds can. This is why he is still read. Befriended by Ansel Adams, admired by a cadre of nature writers that included Loren Eiseley, invoked in books and on calendars by conservation organizations such as the Sierra Club, Robinson Jeffers is a kind of poet laureate of the environmental movement. When Stanford University Press issued “The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers” in 2001, an academic journal asked me to do a review. That journal was not in the humanities. It was science.
“Coarse, limited and defective in self-knowledge,” Harvard’s Helen Vendler once said of Jeffers. Yet even she noted that Jeffers’ “descriptions of nature are made with an intent eye.” That intent eye sees what came before us, what is here right now, what lasts without us, what is threatened by us, what fades away. And though our track record may be spotty, Jeffers, for all his misanthropy, once said that his fellow humans “might go far/And end in honor...” It’s true. We might.