The Poet as Prophet: The Life and Letters of Robinson Jeffers

By Jarman, Mark | The Hudson Review, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

The Poet as Prophet: The Life and Letters of Robinson Jeffers


Jarman, Mark, The Hudson Review


HOW MILD SEEM THE OBJECTIONS OF ROBERT FROST to the New Deal, in his 1936 volume A Further Range. In the long mock-eclogue "Build Soil," he concludes, "We're too unseparate" and "going home / From company means coming to our senses." His provocative "Provide, Provide," which Randall Jarrell called "an immortal masterpiece," argues the necessity of providing for one's own declining years or, as Frost often added when he read the poem aloud, "Someone else will provide for you. And how will you like that?" A Further Range irritated critics on the left, one of whom called it "a further shrinking." But if one occupies a political position on the right, Frost looks a bit like a prophet, as he anticipates what the right has long decried as socialism. Nevertheless, his objections to the establishment of the welfare state still have about them less the prophetic warning of a Jeremiah or even a visionary like St. John of Patmos, than the caveats of a Benjamin Franklin, which always imply a recognition of the other side of the argument. For a warning that seems visionary and prophetic compare "The Purse Seine" by Robinson Jeffers, from his 1937 book Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems-.

We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence;

we have built the great cities; now

There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated

From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent The

circle is closed, and the net

Is being hauled in.

Surely this is an apocalyptic manifestation of Robert Frost's worry that "we are too unseparate." But anyone who knows "The Purse Seine" is aware that it is a grander and more terrifying vision than anything in Frost's most tendentious poetry because the conditions it describes cannot simply be changed by an election or an amendment to the Constitution. In fact, Jeffers ends the poem: "There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay, and life's end is death." For Frost human civilization was a product of its own humanity and would continue to evolve in Bergsonian terms with one step back and two steps forward more or less eternally. But for Jeffers human civilization is as much a biological function as the schooling of fish, and just as a school of fish anticipates the net that will capture it, the increasingly technical interconnections and interdependence of the human network also anticipate their own end. At this point in human history, no matter what we may think of their poetry, it is Jeffers and not Frost who looks like the prophet. The question is really what sort of prophet does a poet make?

The role of prophet is given equal weight with the identity of poet in James Karman's new biography of Robinson Jeffers.1 Quoting Mark Van Doren's eulogy for Jeffers, in which Van Doren noted the difference between the poetic persona of his friend, "a figure of granite, rather than a man at all" and the "affectionate and humorous, warm-hearted and courtly man he knew," Karman emphasizes a point that Van Doren regards as almost irrelevant: the rightness or wrongness of Jeffers' argument. Van Doren believed that Jeffers' poetry had a power that would make it last into future centuries, right or wrong. But Jeffers' argument is the prophetic element and the one Karman emphasizes when he writes,

Right or wrong, the issues raised by Jeffers remain pressing; they are at the very center of public life; and the way we address them in coming years will affect, as Jeffers knew, not only the future of America, but the fate of humanity. The time is propitious, it seems, for a reexamination of Jeffers and for a careful consideration of the insights his poetry contains.

The fact is that since he died in 1962 there has been an ongoing and often unsatisfactory reexamination of Jeffers as a poet. His role as a prophet has been, until recently, tamed into slogans for the environmental movement, the stuff of calendar captions. …

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