The Satanic Verses

As Robinson Jeffers prepared the content for The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948), he went a step further than he had in Be Angry At the Sun and Other Poems in forsaking the poetics of beauty and eternity for the politics of the present, even stooping to vulgar name-calling at times. Such petty preoccupation with human affairs was contrary to Jeffers’ mission and spirit, just as Muhammad’s alleged “satanic verses” violated the monotheistic spirit of his ministry.

Jeffers had excused this loss of focus in Be Angry At the Sun, by citing a mandate for the poet to speak his mind:

… it is right that a man’s views be expressed, though the poetry suffer for it. [1]

These words were valid, but Jeffers was nonetheless contradicting his own principles, undermining his standing as a disciple of Shelley, and yes, undermining the quality of his art.

Was he speaking his mind or was he venting his spleen? While a professed Inhumanist, Jeffers demonstrated an ironic and sustained preoccupation with the human affairs of the moment. When writing about politicians—especially Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), he seemed marked not nearly so much with “crystalline interest” as with vitriolic disdain.

“On that great day the boys will hang Hitler and Roosevelt in one tree, ...” Jeffers fantasized in June 1941, adding as a seeming afterthought that these twin devils would hang together only in effigy. [2]

In What Odd Expedients (CP 3:137), Jeffers diagnosed “the cripple’s-power-need of Roosevelt,” whereas any paperboy could tell you that FDR’s “power-need” predated his polio and was visibly inspired by the example of his cousin Teddy, as he emulated the latter step-for-step. By 1942, Jeffers had Woodrow Wilson castigating FDR in Hell, saying, “You have too much murder on your hands. I will not speak of lies and connivings.” [3]

In Pourvou Que Ça Doure,[4] Jeffers, alluding to FDR’s affinity for gin and vermouth, bemoans statecraft having been corrupted “into the democratic gestures of a gin-muddled butcher-boy ...” Jeffers was in no position to throw stones, writing amid so many empty wine bottles. [5]

By mid-1943, Robinson Jeffers was advising Nazi Germany in yet another “suppressed poem” to fight nobly in defeat, like a hawk or a wolf.[6] By early 1944, Jeffers, claiming to simply be quoting a broadcast, was contrasting violence-minded American broadcaster-bombers against noble-minded German scientists.[7] It is perhaps fair to depict the violent minds of Americans in poetry, but when one does so while painting Nazi “scientists” innocent and progressive, the reader may have claim to legitimate grounds for nausea.

How can such obsession with the evils of America and such hatred for FDR be sold as, in Jeffers’ words, a “recognition of the transhuman magnificence?” It seems more like the solipsistic incest of humans obsessed with humans that he so often denounced. He sounded rather like Tamar in her mounting hatred for everyone around her. For a writer so ceaselessly refreshed by the beauty of nature, Jeffers spilled a remarkable volume of ink on human sin.

Add to that the narcissism of our photogenic celebrity-prophet. In another suppressed poem, Jeffers conceded a bit of “blood-guilt” as a price he must pay for his prophetic foreknowledge of events.

It is little wonder Jeffers didn’t attempt to publish these words until well after the end of the war. None of the above remarks, it turned out, was ever published until long after his death. He didn’t seem to express a desire to advocate for those poor censored poems. Perhaps he was embarrassed by them? He ought to have been ashamed.

I am inclined to hazard a guess that this dark turn had more to do with Jeffers’ personal life than with world events or American politics. Having lost his muse in the mayhem of success, Jeffers succumbed to temptation. In response, Una made an earnest attempt on suicide, the ultimate act of defiance. She recovered, and so did the marriage, but scars remained. Jeffers seemed unrepentant. He scolded Una, seeing her attempt on suicide as a selfish act (not to suggest that it wasn’t).

In September 1940, for the first time in history, Congress passed conscription into law, and the Jeffers boys, both 23, were suddenly draft age. By June of the next year, Jeffers was writing his first anti-FDR poem, and Una was experiencing health problems. Cancer was diagnosed, and soon thereafter America declared war. Una would fight cancer, on and off, for the rest of her days. This was the corrosive climate in which Jeffers wrote such vulgarities.

In summer 1948, with The Double Axe published and undermining Jeffers’ reputation, Una and Robin travelled to Ireland where he nearly died of pleurisy, the illness that had killed Thomas Hardy twenty years earlier. At 61, Jeffers was suddenly an old man. He would never again be strong enough for stonework. Not much later, Una’s cancer resurfaced. It took her life on September 1, 1950. She had lived 66 years.

 

[1] From an introductory note to Be Angry at the Sun.

[2] Fantasy (CP 3:109)

[3] Wilson in Hell (CP 3:117)

[4] The Double Axe (1977), pg. 166. I haven’t been able to find this one in Collected Poetry. A discussion on the poem can be found on CP 5:1034–5.

[5] Speaking figuratively. Jeffers had a well-documented weakness for drink, and wine in particular.

[6] Tragedy Has Its Obligations (SP 746)

[7] An Ordinary Newscaster (CP 3:127)

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