By John Courtney,
Vice-President, Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation
The Big Sur and Monterey Coast Range still impart
a powerful sense
of elemental forces. Grizzlies are gone, but cougars, frequent wildfires in
the hills, and winter storms and violent surf are still humbling reminders
of our personal fragility and insignificance. Jeffers was possessed by the
spiritual reality he perceived in this world about him. He sensed unity in
all existence and in the Universe as a whole. His own words describe this
I believe that the Universe is one being, all its parts are different
not in a man's shape
He approves the praise, he [God] that walks lightning-naked on the
Pacific, that laces the suns with planets,
The heart of the atom with electrons: what is humanity in this
cosmos? For him, the last
Least taint of a trace in the dregs of the solution; for itself
the mold to break away from, the coal
To break into fire, the atom to be split.
This identifies some of the characteristics of
Jeffers' divinity. God is not
anthropomorphic in any way, not reflected in any of man's sensibilities.
Jeffers' God of violence and power weaves galaxies and atomic universes
because this is its nature. Mankind is "in the dregs" because man will not
allow himself to join in the solution but holds himself apart from the rest
of life. Jeffers' point being that one must look beyond humanity in order to
become truly human. Man's mind may be unique in the world but man's mind is
a product--not the measure--of the external world and does not elevate him
In his poem The Answer Jeffers offered his most concise theological
pronouncement on the conduct of human life. The poem concludes with:
...and man dissevered from the earth
and stars and his history … for contemplation or in fact...
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the
divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful
confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.
When the human consciousness finally emerged
during the course of its
hundreds of thousands of years of development we were finally able to look
back in wonder, awe and astonishment at the earth in its cosmic
surroundings. We found purpose and meaning in our spiritual connection to
the earth and cosmos. Modern religions have largely abdicated this role.
Jeffers advises that to become truly human we must reestablish our rightful
relationship to nature or we will face the consequences. He saw our consumer
culture as symptomatic of our spiritual deprivation and our human
Inclusive in Sign-Post is Jeffers response to allegations that his
spirituality is too hostile to be livable. Civilization, described elsewhere
by Jeffers as a "transient sickness" corrupts man with false beliefs and a
mistaken sense of security. Sign-Post is a theological directive written by the poet who
has no dogma to dispense--except the fundamental realization that transcendence is needless
if the realization of divine immanence is achieved within the real world.
This perception is the basis of Jeffers Pantheism.
Civilized, crying how to be human again: this will tell you how.
In his final years, with his beloved wife Una now
gone, Jeffers continued to
write. In his final narrative poem Hungerfield, Jeffers concludes with a
note to his wife which explains his understanding of death.
Here is the poem, dearest: you will never read it
nor hear it. You were more beautiful
Than a hawk flying; you were faithful and a lion heart like this
rough hero Hungerfield. But the ashes have fallen
And the flame has gone up; nothing human remains. You are
earth and air; you are in the beauty of the ocean
And the great streaming triumphs of sundown; you are alive
and well in the tender young grass rejoicing
When soft rain falls all night, and little rosy-fleeced clouds float
on the dawn.---I shall be with you presently.
Jeffers often refers to life in the state of
earnestness as most beautiful,
most symbolic of his God. In Hurt Hawks he states:
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Jeffers believed that people need no Redeemer for
they already have a savior
who ministers indifferently to all; they all become part of God when
consciousness is dissolved in death. In Meditation on Saviors Jeffers
And having touched a little of the beauty and seen a little
Natural Music (a poem written soon after
Jeffers' spiritual awakening) if
considered carefully, is capable of elevating one out of one's human
solipsism. The poem suggests that the entire period of human history is in a
certain way nothing, a sound on the wind.
The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child's; or like some girl's breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.
Jeffers was the most popular poet in the United
States in the 20s and early
30s. His popularity diminished with his criticism of his country's
involvement in World War II. Critical acclaim was little regarded by
Jeffers; he continued writing without concern. Intellectuals was written in
this period and gives us further insight to his concept of God and reflects
Jeffers' growing desire to be separate from the masses to whom he served as
the solitary herald of the "inhuman God."
Is it hard for men to stand by themselves,
They must hang on Marx or Christ, or mere Progress?
Clearly it is hard. But these ought to be leaders.
Sheep leading sheep, "The fold, the fold,
Night comes, and the wolves of doubt." Clearly it is hard.
Yourself, if you had not encountered and loved
Our unkindly all but inhuman God,
Who is very beautiful and too secure to want worshippers,
And includes indeed the sheep with the wolves,
You too might have been looking about for a church.
He includes the flaming stars and pitiable flesh,
And what we call things and what we call nothing.
He is very beautiful. But when these lonely have traveled
Through long thoughts to redeeming despair,
They are tired and cover their eyes; they flock into fold.
Some, confronted with Jeffers' stark rejection of
love for humanity, find no
further interest in the poet. They short change his work by their failure to
look through to his intent. Jeffers' rejection is no more than a shifting of
emphasis from the self to the world, from the part to the whole. It involves
a new scale of values when it substitutes an appreciation of and delight in
the outer world for the will to power and the extension of the self. It is
much less a rejection than an affirmation. Jeffers said:
It seems to me that the whole human race spends too much emotion on itself.
The happiest and freest man is the scientist investigating nature, or the
artist admiring it; the person who is interested in things that are not
human. Or if he is interested in human things, let him regard them
objectively, as a small part of the great music. Certainly humanity has
claims on all of us; we can best fulfill them by keeping our emotional
sanity; and this by seeing beyond and around the human race.
One aspect of Jeffers often missed is his
celebration of existence. The sole
purpose of his life's work was the discovery, understanding, and expression
of, The Beauty of Things.
To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things--earth, stone and water,
This poem emphasizes the destiny of mankind; to
"break the somnambulism of
nature" with our consciousness. Jeffers sought to unify the world of nature
and of man with his theological insight but he wrote also to those humans of
the future that might best aspire to this potential. In Carmel Point he
As for us:
The Beginning and the End, published
posthumously in 1973, contains some of
Jeffers' most deeply theological poems. The first of the volume, The Great
Explosion, provides a definition of God:
He is no God of love, no justice of a little city like
Dante's Florence, no anthropoid God
Making commandments: this is the God who does not
care and will never cease. Look at the seas there
Flashing against this rock in the darkness--look at the
tide-stream stars--and the fall of nations--and dawn
Wandering with wet white feet down the Carmel Valley
to meet the sea. These are real and we see their beauty.
The great explosion is probably only a metaphor--I know
not--of faceless violence, the root of all things.
This is Jeffers' God who tortures himself, chiefly
through violence, to
discover himself. Violence, seen as the creative force, can be beautiful in
that it is part of the ceaseless cyclic monistic nature of God.
Jeffers has been faulted for his didacticism yet what could be more
important than the realization of the ecological consequences of our impact
on the planet? What could be more effective in changing this error in
judgment than the rethinking of our world-view? Only this will bring us to a
true ecological balance. Jeffers offers us this visionary lesson and extends
to us the opportunity to reenter the world. He celebrates the natural world
and invites us to share his vision. But first we must return to it and
perceive it as a sacred balance--not as a profane resource. In Jeffers'
pantheism, God is impersonal and transtheological--an undefinable power which
is the source, purpose and supporting ground of all life and being. The
creation itself is God, and our search for understanding this God is a
search which begins by understanding our own insignificant position within
The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure
Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony
The writings of Dana Gioia
©John Courtney 2000
Back to Natural/scientific pantheism
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