“The troublesome race of man, Oh Beautiful planet, is not immortal.”
-Robinson Jeffers, The Beautiful Captive
Jeffers was, as author James Karman so insightfully notes, of that generation that was awakening in 1910, coming to adulthood in a gilded, age of monstrous national ambitions, which Virginia Wolfe describes as the time when “…human character changed.”
Jeffers had been born, raised and educated in the very bosom of Christianity and, where his contemporaries of an intellectual mind retreated into atheism as the world at large embraced ever-increasing material prosperity at the cost of surrendering to banks and nations, Jeffers recoiled and refusing to release the notion of God from his vision, adopted a panoramic animistic creed derived from the subtext of ancient and classical poetry. Fluent in German—enemy of the age to his people—and the language of the ancients, Jeffers is shown by Karman to have mined the tragedies available in the surviving poetics of Homer and Aschylus, along with the examples of the recent masters of the form such as Walt Witman and Emily Dickenson. In Karman’s hands Jeffers is shown to have internalized modern and ancient poetic values such as “God is in a blade of grass” and “…accepting one of the poet’s heaviest burdens: the obligation in dark times to face and tell the truth,” looked at the blooming monstrosity of the Modern World, seeing the creation of the many federal entities under Roosevelt that “…—extended the supervisory reach of the Federal Government into virtually every aspect of American life,” into the lives of those whose forefathers had journeyed the longest to escape princes and owners.
With his historical-poetic grounding Jeffers saw these things in ancient terms just as he expressed his counter-current verse in pre-pagan, animistic sentiments. He sees in the “emasculated rulers” of his age and their vast systems of government, “The Dark Mother” embodied in Medea as the corrosive force of spiritual blight endemic and intrinsic to civilization. Jeffers is the realistic prophet of actuality, the man surviving the delusions of an earlier age to awaken to the next cycle of delusions based upon those delusions, even as the very masks are being changed by the gigantic actors of the world stage, his education and life span granting him the rare backstage pass as the ignorant masses trundle blindly on toward the jagged cliffs of reality.
Interestingly, Jeffers spent most of his years living among the cliffs and ocean-beaten rocks of the Pacific coast, where he built a stony house and tower out of the broken titans that he walked among. It was in such an instructive setting that Jeffers composed such poems of hybrid ancient-modern style as we might still reflect on in the lines below:
“Each moment of being is new: therefore I still refrain my burning
thirst from the crystal black
Water of an end.”
In James Karman’s hands Jeffers verse is couched in terms of his time, his place and the verse of the ancient poets who inspired him, a poetic examination of the poetic which least offends the ear.
Thank you, mescaline franklin, for the chance to read this book.