Dark Stones

Though the Second World War brought out the worst in Robinson Jeffers, his post-war collection The Double-Axe and Other Poems, with the most satanic verses judiciously omitted, showed much to be admired, though its brighter spots generally glowed with a dark light.

Cassandra

In a legend of ancient Greece, the prophetess Cassandra was cursed by the god Apollo because she wouldn't "sleep" with him. The curse rendered the people unable to believe her prophecies. In his poem Cassandra (SP 579), Robinson Jeffers argues that the curse was toothless, seeing that “men hate the truth”: they wouldn't have listened to Cassandra without the curse, because as a genuine prophet her words were true.

Cassandra has long been one of my favorite Jeffers poems, though my affection for it has been tempered by the realization that the poem's assertion that “poets honey their truth with lying,” can be applied to Jeffers, for all the self-mythologizing he did as well as his incessant efforts to mold his world to his views. For this reason, Cassandra plays its own part in the myth-making by asserting that Jeffers was an uncompromising truth-teller.

That said, Cassandra remains true in spite of (and in light of) the apparent hypocrisy of its author. The craft of the poem is quite impressive, for the “mad girl” seems rather hawk-like, and as such is rather Jeffers-like. Her eyes stare. Her mouth screeches. Her fingers are long and hook-like.

One aside: did Jeffers really have to use the word “liefer?” This wasn't the only time he used the word. He used it in At the Fall of an Age and The Inhumanist. He even put it in the mouth of a rancher in Give Your Heart to the Hawks—and Mara! Perhaps this is a sign of just how cloistered Jeffers was throughout his life. Or do cowboys actually like to use the word?

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When Jeffers wrote “the poets honey their truth with lying,” he may not have intended for it to apply to him as well, but it does nonetheless. Since Cassandra must be the best example of a Jeffers poem about truth (and lies), we should perhaps go into detail.

Jeffers based his vow to “not tell lies in verse” on Nietzsche:

Another formative principle came to me from a phrase of Nietzsche’s: “The poets? The poets lie too much.” I was nineteen when the phrase stuck in my mind; a dozen years passed before it worked effectively, and I decided not to tell lies in verse.

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Forward (1938)

But Nietzsche’s statement in this regard was nuanced. Here is some of what Nietzsche had to say about poets in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Chapter 39), from the mouth of Zarathustra himself, the poet-prophet whom Nietzsche regarded as the great icon of all truth tellers. The passage begins with a recollection of one of Zarathustra’s disciples:

‘I heard you say that once before,’ answered the disciple; ‘and at that time you added: “But the poets lie too much.” Why then did you say that the poets lie too much?’ ...

Zarathustra acknowledges the statement without admitting to being fully truthful himself:

‘So what did Zarathustra once say to you? That the poets lie too much?—But Zarathustra too is a poet.’
‘Now do you believe that he was telling the truth here? Why do you believe that?’
The disciple answered: ‘I believe in Zarathustra.’ But Zarathustra shook his head and smiled.
‘Belief does not make me blessed.’ he said, ‘least of all belief in me.
‘But given that someone said in all seriousness that the poets lie too much: well he is right. we do lie too much. ...’

Did Jeffers ever tell lies in verse? He did, though he was generally inclined to be brutally frank. The poem Carmel Point is probably his best example of lies told in verse (see our discussion on that poem). Aside from that, Jeffers did bend the truth about his role in the construction of Tor House in several poems (Apology for Bad Dreams,1  Tor House,2  and Salvage3). There is also cause for doubt as to whether the red-tailed hawk featured in the poem Hurt Hawks was actually a “redtail.”

It should be crystal-clear that none of this questioning of Jeffers’ honesty threatens to devaluate this poem. The poem remains true, even as Jeffers happened to tell occasional lies in verse. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “Jeffers too was a poet.”

 

Advice to Pilgrims

In 1944, Jeffers’ Cassandra proclaimed “religion, vendors, and political men” the greatest of liars, though he noted that poets are hardly bastions of honesty. Advice to Pilgrims, apparently written before Cassandra, briefly addresses the machinery of dishonesty. It could hardly be more concise. Jeffers begins by admitting that the senses and the mind both deceive us, yet he maintains that we may “trust them a little; the senses more than the mind, …” Regarding the mind, he assesses intuition as capable of extremes of honesty and dishonesty. What can lead “the mind’s pilot” into dishonesty, he suggests, are the twin poles of fears and wishes (desires, broadly defined). He considers the fear of death the most powerful of fears, and so suggests that one “trust no immortalist,” as belief in immortality is a sure sign that one has lied to oneself out of an inability to face death with honesty. As for the desires, Jeffers sees the need for love to be the most beguiling, and so goes so far as to say “trust no mother’s son”, that is to say, trust no one.

For practical measures, the poets advises that the pilgrim to avoid guides, whether they be politicians or prophets. Finally he advises that one avoid people in general.

Advice to Pilgrims has been included in the following anthologies:

  • The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford, 2001; ed. Tim Hunt
  • Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1965

 

The Inquisitors

This is one of those Jeffers poems that glows in one’s memory. The deep mountain valley, the great forest dwarfed by fantastic titans, and the fear and wonder of the passerby as he witnesses a grotesque inquisition all make for an image that sticks to the ribs, though the poem is in places rather artless and didactic

The Inquisitors (SP 589–90) has been included in the following anthologies:

  • The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford, 2001; ed. Tim Hunt
  • Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1965

 

Dawn

Too many of Jeffers’ poems end in a tidy pronouncement that seems to betray a lack of confidence in the reader—or conversely, a lack of confidence in the poet. Dawn (CP 3:211) is not one of those poems. Like Apology for Bad DreamsDawn ends with a grand image. In the former case, the image was one of multifarious beauty. In the case of Dawn the ending is an eruption of grotesque cruelty. This is perhaps not a poem that one would want to take home to mother, but I find it beautiful — beautifully troubling.

Dawn has not yet been anthologized.

 

The King of Beasts

The King of Beasts (CP 3:138) is not the most “poetic” poem, but it makes a solid point, and it is probably one of the better examples of Inhumanism as advocacy for animal welfare (as Thomas Hardy might have conceived that genre). This short poem presents a dark indictment of humanity that links its cruelty to animals to its cruelty toward its own.

Not the most poetic, that is, but not lacking in poetry. There is a twist of angst to it, a knife-twist if you will, that a similar piece, Memoir (Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems), lacks. In this poem, Jeffers muses that, considering all of the terror that man inflicts upon other animals, it is quite “just and decent” that he should commit horrors upon his own kind. This is a startlingly anti-chauvinist statement, arguably militant in tone. The poem will certainly be too dark for the likings of many, but I think the gravity of the reality of human cruelty calls for such angrily honest poems.

I am so struck with the gravity of the assessment “it is just and decent” that I have at times been disappointed the poem doesn’t end with it, but instead ends with a prediction. The prediction is presented modestly, though, and I think can been taken as more of an assessment of human nature than a prophecy.

The King of Beasts has not yet been anthologized.

 


[1] SP 142

[2] SP 181

[3] CP 3:421

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