Robinson Jeffers’s late poem, “The Ocean’s Tribute,” opens with the seemingly off-handed comment:
Yesterday’s sundown was very beautiful—I know it is out of fashion to say so,
I think we are fools
To turn from the superhuman beauty of the world and dredge our own minds
Jeffers, though, here signals a great deal about his poetry and his understanding of his relationship to his contemporaries. For Jeffers, beauty is not made but perceived, and he sought to write poems that would awaken such perceptions in his readers. He was, for these reasons, willing to use his poems to point to an actual world and to speak as if directly to the reader, both of which set him at odds with, and made him and his work “unfashionable” to, his Modernist contemporaries, such as Pound, Eliot, and Stevens, and to the critics who championed their work.
Jeffers based his approach to poetry on a few basic principles. He explained these variously in the introductory notes he wrote for some of the collections, perhaps most directly in the Preface he wrote (but did not use) for Tamar and Other Poems, where he asserts that “poetry’s function” is “the passionate presentment of beauty” and to be an “intensification” of life, not a “refuge” from it. For poetry to do this, he believed, it must “be rhythmic, and must deal with permanent things, and must avoid affectation.” Where his Modernist contemporaries stressed the imagination’s power to transform the actual world, Jeffers sought to intensify perception and thereby deepen our awareness of the natural world. While his contemporaries sought to redeem us from the ordinary by creating an aesthetic alternative to it in their poems, Jeffers sought to use his poems to comment on the ordinary with such precision and power that we might discover a divine dimension within it. In the poetry of Modernism, the poem becomes the world; in Jeffers’s work the poems are, instead, acts of witness to the world and attempt to intensify our awareness of it.
In “The Ocean’s Tribute” Jeffers tells us openly that this particular sundown was “beautiful,” and he tells us, just as clearly, that this is the beauty that matters. The poem is a means to this end, not an end in itself. The sundown is primary; the poem matters to the extent that it increases our awareness of what is prior to, behind, and greater than the poem. Jeffers believed poetry should bring us to reality rather than transform or replace it. Poetry’s task was to engage “Permanent things” (as he put it in “Point Joe”) and to reveal the permanence beyond the poem. The lyric flights in his work, the narrative probing, the historical pronouncement, the excoriations of human solipsism in all its individual and collective forms reflect Jeffers’s intense search for the permanence and beauty in the world of things, in Nature.
The depth, and compelling authenticity of Jeffers’s search and his witness to it may be one reason why his work continues to speak to readers who sense that our technological environment places us in a false relationship to space, time, and the physical world and why it continues to speak to those who sense that the social and cultural “reality” the mass media offers is, finally, insufficient and alienating. Jeffers’s vivid evocations of California’s Big Sur region, especially in his shorter lyrics and meditative poems; his ability to recast classical tragedy in contemporary terms in his great narrative poems and major dramatic poems; and the way his poetry not only celebrates what he once termed “transhuman” beauty but also uses history, politics, science, psychology, and philosophy to probe the tragic implications of human tendency to blind itself to this “transhuman” beauty also help explain the power of his work for a wide range of contemporary readers.
Illinois State University
author of the five-volume edition The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers published by Stanford University Press