At the Birth of an Age

The feature piece of Solstice and Other Poems is the stage poem At the Birth of an Age (CP vol. 2), “derived,” in Jeffers’ words, “from the closing chapters of the Volsung Saga.” This saga is a 13th Century Icelandic chronicle of older Germanic legends. Jeffers’ interest in the Norse sagas was not unique. Ever since Richard Wagner based his great Ring Cycle on a German epic based on the Sagas, these Germanic tales had become a major cultural phenomenon. J. R. R. Tolkien had obviously been influenced by the stories when he wrote his stories about dwarves and cursed rings. Hitler and the Nazis were, faithful to their nationalistic passions, enthralled by the Ring Cycle. The Sagas grew even more popular during the Great Depression. They seem to have given many people—particularly Germanic people—a sense of romance in a former glory at a time when the modern world seemed a profound disappointment. In 1934, Robinson Jeffers began to write At the Birth of an Age and thereby joined this social movement.

The prologue of At the Birth of an Age features some stark and troubling words (CP 2:420):

“… the characteristic restlessness of the age, its energy, its extremes of hope and fear, its passion for discovery, I think are bred from the tension between two poles, of Western blood and Oriental religion.”

Western blood? What does Jeffers mean by blood? Race?

As for the “Oriental religion,” Jeffers was a disciple of Nietzsche.  This was made evident by his own remarks, and also by Roan Stallion and Point Sur, but it would be spelled out more explicitly by At the Birth of an Age. Jeffers saw Christianity as a kind of disease, and on the decline. Though he observed that “the Christian pole is undergoing constant attrition …,” he also saw what he called “Christian ethic” something that was presently strengthening in the form of “generalized philanthropy, liberalism, socialism, communism, and so forth,” but this he saw as a sign of social degeneration, and something that would ultimately vanish.

Returning to his language of opposing poles, he writes “the racial pole is weakened by the physical and especially the spiritual hybridization that civilized life always brings with it; …” (CP 2:420)

So Jeffers appears to be saying that an end to Christian civilization might someday bring a cultural resurgence of the “Western” race. This was not a Nazi vision of a thousand-year Reich, but a dream of a more primitive—or classical—society, more akin to Heideggar’s utopianism, though Jeffers was certainly no utopian. As he had summed it up in November Surf (1932), he dreamed of a time when the human animal “regains / The dignity of room, the value of rareness.” (SP 381)

Though acknowledging the benefits of civilization, he saw Western civilization as a bi-product of East-West “hybridization” that would eventually be survived by simpler, more purely racial societies, free of the tensions applied by exotic religions and philosophies.

In this stage poem of sorts, Jeffers identifies the white lady Gudrun as his protagonist. He employs her as a symbol of our hybridized age. To do so, he presents her as a Western woman who prostitutes herself to Attila (the Hun) out of resentment against her brothers who murdered her lover Sigurd (AKA Siegfried). This plot is Jeffers’ invention, and bears only cursory resemblance to the saga. Gudrun’s sibling resentment is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s characterization of Christianity as ressentiment, but Nietzsche was never so racial in his outlook: Gudrun has betrayed her people.

Attila, for his part, represents Oriental influence, and in this, he represents Christianity. To this purpose, Jeffers indicates that Attila has a Christian officer, while Gudrun for her part keeps a Christian woman, Chrysothemis, as her dear slave. Gudrun is contemptuous of her slave’s religion, yet she has tied herself to it through her husband and a slave who follows her like a timid, cowardly shadow.

After Chrysothemis tells her master that she would always “turn the other cheek” no matter how badly she might be assaulted, Gudrun strikes here and accuses her:

“Coward. Slave. A slave by nature.” (Scene V)

This is an obvious reference to Nietzsche’s term “slave morality.”

This work also shows the influence of Heraclitus of Ephesus, whom Nietzsche admired:

“… peace; that’s nothing, not-being; …” (Scene XI; CP 2:482)

Gudrun goes into more detail in Scene VIII as she watches her slave sleep:

“A slave’s dream, but a sweet one,
That love is her law and God. …” (CP 2:454)

Gudrun has gone out of her way to scheme revenge upon her murderous brothers. She finally executes her plan successfully, but then experiences reservations. She attempts to find a way to undo the damage, but she is too late. Her brothers are killed in an act of rebellion. Gudrun is, it seems, something of a Hamlet: an overly reflective person of excessive conscience who is made a coward by it. This was of course Jeffers’ primary theme since Thurso. Gudrun’s sin, as she begins to see it, is inaction, but then she redeems herself in suicide. Soon after she kills herself, she encounters Christ and finds him deeply regretful of having deceived humanity. He sees the error of his ways, yet in the end he is too much a Christian to see the light: the truth of the world is not love or charity. As the poem reaches its conclusion, it expands into a chorus of supernatural voices. The ghostly scene is so abstract and expansive—with Gudrun, Christ, Woden and crowds of acolytes sharing the stage, that it becomes difficult to see it ever being realized as a stage production.

It has been suggested that Attila here was being applied as a parallel to Hitler, as the term “Hun” was applied as a derogatory term for Germans at the time to paint them as barbarians. But if Jeffers was trying to make Attila seem like Hitler, he was certainly not depicting the legendary Hun as a white supremacist; on the contrary, Jeffers depicts Attila as definitively non-European; even toad-like, going into grotesque detail about the facial characteristics of Orientals.

Not one to mince words, Gudrun’s brother Hoegni observes (Scene II; CP 2:424):

“… Huns look like toads: … Pop eyes, no noses, toad color …
… Nose-holes / Where a nose ought to be …”

And from Gudrun’s mouth we hear of the violation of her white body by the filthy Hun (Scene VIII; CP 2:455):

“I have … made myself the Hun’s flattering harlot, …
Lived in the filth of his camp, lain in the sweat of his bed, my cold white body accepting entrances
It ought to have died not to endure. No wonder my mind’s divided in two: how can I tell
Which half’s the real one? … It’s because I’ve lost religion; travel and the Christians corrupt me. …”

This is Jeffers’ image of “Western civilization,” which he regards more a half-breed than truly Western.

Jeffers probably did see Hitler as a dangerous aggressor at the time, but then he thought the same of Roosevelt, and one did not see Jeffers going out of his way to warn the world specifically about Hitler. He had even less to say about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. I think it important that Jeffers never wanted to be seen as taking sides in European affairs, and there is clearly something much more than current events going on in this particular composition.

Though 1937 would generally be seen as the year when Robinson Jeffers would succumb to depression and premonitions of impending death, it seems that the content of his labors in 1934 and 1935 may have indicated a mode of thought that might have encouraged a personal sense of alienation as the world prepared for a return to war. Whereas Thurso’s Landing and Give Your Heart to the Hawks had indicated a detached, apolitical frame of mind, Solstice appears to show Jeffers crafting a solution, something of a primitivist vision for humanity, in that he had diagnosed a disease that he believed would someday see its end in the future of the human race.

Jeffers did not seem to pull back from this ambitious vision; not at least within a couple years. At the Birth of an Age was a work of significant size—his longest stage poem, yet Jeffers included it in his Selected Poetry (1938), though he did not include any post-1933 narratives in that collection. When Tim Hunt recast Selected Poetry in 2001, he included little more than a page of this problematic work. Hunt, upon closer inspection, selected precious little from the years 1934 to 1947, and he was arguably justified in doing so (I would have liked Mara to have been included).

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