Roan Stallion

            … If one should ride up high might not the Father himself

Be seen brooding his night, cross-legged, chin in hand, squatting on the last dome? More likely

Leaping the hills, shaking the red-roan mane for a flag on the bare hills.1

Whereas Robinson Jeffers had depicted the destructive course of human narcissism in Tamar, in Roan Stallion he turned to elucidate on human religion. In a nutshell, Roan Stallion is about a woman, part Indian, part Spanish, and part Scot, in several aspects a personification of California, whose religion becomes a hybrid of Catholic Christianity and stallion worship. She comes to worship a stallion that in the end kills her barbarous husband. Though the death of her husband, an “outcast Hollander,” seems to be no great loss, California is compelled to kill the stallion—her God—ostensibly because it has killed a man. In doing so, California exhibits “some obscure … fidelity” to her species.2 As such, she is no great Inhumanist. Though there is a white fire of God at the heart of her smoke-smothered mysticism, her striving for transcendence is nothing extraordinarily noble, but rather a selfish human flourish that is doomed to end in violent tragedy.

Early in the story, California has a vision of the baby Jesus draped in hawk-headed angels and light.3 Later, she mentions the vision to her daughter, and speaking of the mother of Jesus, says:

… The power, the terror, the burning fire covered her over … 4

The word power here is likely a hint at divinity. The phrase “covered her over” may possibly have a sexual connotation in this context, as there are references in the poem to a sexual relationship between Mary and God that California desires to re-enact with the stallion-god. When a man brings a mare to the stallion, California wants to watch. Instead, she stays with her daughter Christine and tells her about Jesus and Mary, she accidentally refers to Mary as “the stallion’s wife,” adding “she gave herself without thinking.” California repeatedly strays to the cabin door, presumably desiring to watch the stallion cover the mare, and in her tense striving to resist the temptation strikes her beloved child, who in part represents the Christ child.5 This is not the only time in Jeffers’ catalog that self-restraint would explode into violence.

The tension scarcely abated, California paces before the cabin with restless, fire-like energy:

She moved sighing, like a loose fire, backward and forward on the smooth ground by the door.

Likewise, the night air seems to have fire in its exhalations:

She heard the night-wind that draws down the valley like the draught in a flue under clear weather.6

California then steals away to visit the stallion and prays:

Oh if I could bear you! / If I had the strength. O great God that came down to Mary, gently you came. But I will ride him / Up into the hill, … 7

Thus California opts to ride the stallion as a substitute for an impossible act, and later she refrains, “If I could bear you.” We ought to keep in mind that in mounting the stallion (rather than vice versa), California has not forsaken sexual desire:

Desire had died in her at the first rush, the falling like death, but now it revived, / She feeling between her thighs the labor of the great engine, the running muscles, the hard swiftness, …8

California’s personal religion is not a sterile, anti-sexual puritanism. Her Christianity is about conception—the act of creation, and the beauty of it. There is no phallic penetration in this poem between stallion and woman (though desired by the protagonist, it is impossible), yet herein we surely witness sexual intercourse between California and her eternal Beloved, her God.

Just as Mary—bride of God—had been covered in divine fire,9 California’s mind would be filled with fire while she is covered by the red stallion at the eroto-mythological “climax” of the poem. California prostrates herself before the stallion and prays to him as God. Suddenly nothing is there but a great fire. In the midst of the fire, human myths are born and myths die in a kind of orgasmic image-storm:

            …. The fire threw up figures

And symbols meanwhile, racial myths formed and dissolved in it, the phantom rulers of humanity

That without being are yet more real than what they are born of, and without shape, shape that which makes them:

The nerves and the flesh go by shadowlike, the limbs and the lives shadowlike, these shadows remain, these shadows

To whom temples, to whom churches, to whom labors and wars, visions and dreams are dedicate …10

Just as sexual intercourse brings about the birth of biological creatures, this religious intercourse gives birth to the myths that rule humanity. The scene ends with the fire burning in California’s mind (rather than her loins):

Figures and symbols, castlings of the fire, played in her brain; but the white fire was the essence,

The burning in the small round shell of bone that black hair covered, that lay by the hooves on the hill-top.11

Is this “white fire” merely a fire of the human mind? It should go without saying that it burns in California’s brain. That being a given, does this fire represent something more primal than the brain itself?

Jeffers elucidates upon this in Apology for Bad Dreams and also in a draft of a letter dated 5 November 1944, leaving little doubt that all the fire and shadows in her head were more akin to the shadows in Plato’s cave than anything representing enlightenment.

Just past the mid-point of the story, the poet had taken the stage to deliver a brief sermon that refers to what one must presume to be the self-same white fire:

Humanity is the mould to break away from, the crust to break through, the coal to break into fire,

The atom to be split. …

Tragedy that breaks man's face and a white fire flies out of it; …

                 … for itself, the mould to break away from, the coal

To break into fire, …12

This sounds a bit like Nietzsche (and with regard to tragedy, Schopenhauer). Here we present some Nietzsche for comparison:

I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. … The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes!

Thus Spoke Zarathustra13

Has California, then, overcome her humanity? Has she broken away from the mold? Her choice to shoot the stallion after it has killed Johnny tells us that she remains faithful to her species, regardless of her object of worship. Her religion, though full of fire and smoke and directed towards an inhuman animal, remains a human religion. She will at last kill her God to retain her fidelity to her race.14

This is not a Nietzschean story. In a Nietzschean context, the killing of God would have been a sign of maturity; for Jeffers it is just the sad, mundane reality of man. The use of the stallion as God-manifestation renders this more truly a Jeffers story. Also, there is a sense of something universal here that Nietzsche may not have endorsed. Nietzsche disliked universals. Jeffers speaks of his pantheistic God in a reverential tone, whereas Nietzsche speaks of a God who is dead; God being a stand-in for universals in general. For Jeffers, man is something to break away from by virtue of the natural limits of the species and the contrasting beauty of God. The beauty is to be loved, but the limits of the species are to be borne in mind:

Tragedy that breaks man’s face and a white fire flies out of it; vision that fools him out of his limits, desire that fools him out of his limits, …15

For Nietzsche there are no hard limits, and no God above or beyond—not even a pantheistic God.

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There are other poems in which Jeffers speaks of fire as a kind of primal essence. We have already cited verses from two short poems included with Tamar that serve as good examples of this. In The Tower Beyond Tragedy, published alongside Roan Stallion, the character Orestes speaks of having found Jeffers’ Nirvana:

      … to go behind things, beyond hours and ages,

And be all things in all time, in their returns and passages, in the motionless and timeless center,

In the white of the fire …16

In this passage, Jeffers is not suggesting that the white of the fire is in anybody’s head. Evidently, his use of this construct is pantheistic, with the universe-entire represented by a fire and the divine, timeless core represented by the white of that fire.

Arthur Schopenhauer, it should perhaps be noted, famously argued that the great value of tragic poetry is in its power to lead the audience toward extinction of self (Nirvana):

We see in tragedy the noblest men, after a long conflict and suffering, finally renounce forever all the pleasure of life and the aims till then pursued so keenly, or cheerfully and willingly give up life itself.17

What is meant here by “giving up” is more a Buddhist (or even Islamic18) sense of surrender than corporeal suicide. Robinson Jeffers follows this model in The Tower Beyond Tragedy, arguably with an overdose of didacticism.

 

[1] SP 126

[2] SP 134

[3] SP 121–122

[4] SP 124

[5] SP 123–124

[6] SP 126

[7] SP 127

[8] SP 128

[9] SP 124

[10] SP 130

[11] SP 131

[12] SP 125

[13] Prologue, §3

[14] See Bennett, pg. 96 (or pg. 102 in the 1966 ed.).

[15] SP 125

[16] SP 113

[17] Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation, Book I.

[18] “Islam” translates to “submission” or “surrender.”

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