Robinson Jeffers - Pantheist poet
By John Courtney,
Vice-President, Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation
Robinson Jeffers' evocations of the divine in nature are so powerfully
depicted in his poetry that he has served to revive our modern religious
sensibilities. His spiritual insights were in three major areas: First, he
has inspired mankind to see the world anew as the ultimate reality. Second,
he perceived and described the physical universe itself as immanently
divine. And finally, he challenged us to accept the ultimate demands of
modern science which assign humanity no real or ultimate importance in the
universe while also aspiring us to lives of spiritual celebration attuned to
the awe, beauty and wonder about us.
A brief biography will assist in an understanding of the distinctly thorough
preparation Jeffers acquired prior to writing poetry. Robinson Jeffers was
born in Pennsylvania in 1887. His father, a professor of languages and a
Doctor of Divinity, aspired to have his son join the clergy. To this end he
sent young Jeffers to European boarding schools as well as devoting himself
to his son's education. Consequently, by the time Robinson was twelve he was
able to read Latin and Greek and speak German and French and had a thorough
knowledge of the Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian tradition. His father was a
firm disciplinarian and devoted clergyman yet he also saw that Robinson was
kept abreast of the latest scientific concepts including Darwinian
Jeffers education continued with studies of literature, history, medical
school and forestry, frequent visits to observatories (his brother was a
research astronomer), and constant reading of scientific books and journals.
This background prepared him, according to Hyatt Howe Waggoner, as "the only
modern poet whose work is widely held to be important who has accepted
without any qualification the views of life and man explicitly offered or
implicitly suggested by the traditional scientific texts."
Jeffers poetry transcends the implications of Christian belief and human
egoism that suggest that our existence is somehow central to the purposes of
a God or of the Universe. This is important to remember when reading Jeffers
because his poetry can be difficult in its didactic insistence of the evil
inherent in our assumption that we stand above and apart from the world. He
saw clearly that the pollution of the environment, the destruction of other
species, the squandering of natural resources, the recurrent urge to war,
the violence of our cities as the inevitable consequence of a race out of
harmony with its own world. Jeffers rejected all formal systems of mass
belief or worship and had an inherent distrust of saviors as people who are
driven by a restless will to power.
Jeffers and his wife Una moved to Carmel in 1914. He described the
mid-California coastal area of the Monterey Coast/Santa Lucia Range as the
chief actor in his poetry. It was the beauty of this area that marked the
final shift of Jeffers' spirituality from hand-me-down Christianity to a
very personal pantheism. As he proclaims in "My Loved Subjects," a poem
published posthumously: "Mountain and ocean, rock, water, and beasts and
trees / Are the protagonists, the human people are only symbolic
When Jeffers came to this beautiful and still wild area he was determined to
be a poet but he had been unable to find an original voice. It was while
walking in the wilds of these surroundings that he was inspired to another
world-view than that given him by the history of Western culture. As the
anthropologist/author Loren Eiseley said of Jeffers: "Something utterly wild
had crept into his mind.The seabeaten coast, the fierce freedom of its
hunting hawks, possessed and spoke through him. It was one of the most
uncanny and compete relationships between a man and his natural background
that I know in literature."
His poetry indicates the cosmic perspective he gleaned from observing life
at his home in the wilderness of the Pacific shore. He sensed divinity in
the beauty and the earnestness of the Universe as evident in the forces
about him. Within the poet there came to focus a world-view and mystic
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
expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each
other, therefore parts of one organic whole.This whole is in all its parts
so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am
compelled to love it and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this
whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love and there is peace,
freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one's affections
outward toward this one God, rather than inwards on one's self, or on
humanity, or on human imaginations and abstractions--the world of spirits.
Defining this "one God" became the chief objective of his poetry. He
concerned himself with important theological issues, analyzed them, passed
judgment upon them and eventually formulated a credo uniquely his own.
In the mid-20s Jeffers published Roan Stallion. The first book written after
his spiritual awakening, Roan Stallion was an attempt to capture in
narrative verse the overwhelming mystery of mystic experience. In this
story, suffused with symbol and myth, Jeffers intervenes with this
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.
Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity,
Let that doll lie. Consider if you like how the lilies grow,
Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity
Make your veins cold, look at the silent stars, let your eyes
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man.
Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes;
Things are the God, you will love God, and not in vain,
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature. At length
You will look back along the stars' rays and see that even
The poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.
Its qualities repair their mosaic around you, the chips of strength
And sickness; but now you are free, even to become human,
But born of the rock and the air, not of a woman.
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;
intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him;
beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying
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
of the beauty of things, [people] magically grow
Across the funeral fire or hidden stench of burial
themselves into the beauty they admired.
They are not to be pitied but very fortunate: they need no
savior, salvation comes and takes them by force,
It gathers them into the great kingdoms of dust and
stone, the blown storms, the stream's-end ocean.
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,
Beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars--
The blood-shot beauty of human nature, its thoughts, frenzies and passions,
And unhuman nature its towering reality--
For man's half dream; man, you might say, is nature dreaming, but rock
And water and sky are constant--to feel
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest's diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the intricate ideas,
The love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.
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:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
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
Resources and recommended reading list:
The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure
William Everson 1988
Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in his Narrative Poems
Robert J. Brophy 1976
Shining Clarity: God and Man in the Works of Robinson Jeffers
Marlan Beilke 1977
"Themes in My Poems" The Book Club of California 1956
Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony
William Nolte 1978
Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers
Edited by William B. Thesing 1995
Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California
James Karman 1995
The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers 1927
The writings of Dana Gioia
©John Courtney 2000