Robinson Jeffers, Dimensions of a Poet

By Robert Brophy | Go to book overview

3
Robinson Jeffers and
the Uses of History

Robert Zaller

“You HAVE DISFEATURED TIME for timelessness”: so Robinson Jeffers apostrophizes himself in “Soliloquy” (CP 1: 215). Few poets have ever sought more distance from the quotidian, the ephemeral, the merely historical.

Permanent things are what is needful in a poem, things
temporally

Of great dimension, things continually renewed or always
present.

Grass that is made each year equals the mountains in her past
and future;

Fashionable and momentary things we need not see nor speak of.
(CP 1: 90)

Jeffers's conception of human history and its place in a wider cosmos is fully implicit in these lines. Value for him was above all perdurable; in contrast, the “fashionable and momentary” were beneath notice. But value did not imply stasis. There was no still point of the turning world for Jeffers as for Eliot, no imagined haven or transcendence beyond the vicissitudes of change, even for divinity. Existence was alterability, and endurance, the pathos of the temporal, could be predicated only of that which did not lapse rather than that which did not change.

The essential distinction in Jeffers's verse is therefore between the ephemeral and the perdurable rather than between the temporal and the eternal. The ephemeral is the unrepeatable; what succeeds it annuls it and extinguishes all trace of its existence. The sign of the ephemeral is singularity, the sport in nature; novelty, the fashion in culture. It appears in nature as a random flaw in design, an accident; in culture, however, it is an effect of morally deficient intention, of frivolity.

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