[This essay was originally published in the volume “Constructed Witness: The Drama of Presence in Robinson Jeffers’ Lyric Voice.” The Wild That Attracts Us: New Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2015), edited by ShaunAnne Tangney. Permission to reprint, copy, etc. remains with the University of New Mexico Press.]
Our instinct is to read the “I” in a lyric or meditative poem as if it is the poet’s directly personal, unmediated voice—unless, that is, the poem’s tactics preclude this, as they do, for instance, in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”[i] We tend to take the poem’s “I” as “natural,” even confessionally personal, unless forced to acknowledge it as constructed, and this tends to be the case even though we know that poems are, if we stop and reflect, sets of words, deliberatively constructed and placed on a page, rather than unmediated acts of an actual person speaking to or with us. And we tend to hear the “I” who speaks a poem this way, even though the modernist paradigm for the rhetoric of the page and its ensuing post-modernist complications have taught us that the transparent “I” is always an illusory construction; have revealed that our desire for the poem to present a natural or authentic “I” is driven by suspect, unacknowledged ideologies; and have preached that only hopelessly naïve poets write as if the “I” speaking the poem could be actual, unitary, and legitimate. Critically, we have been schooled to believe that a modern or contemporary poet who writes as if the “I” of the poem is directly the poet’s own voice is sliding down the slippery slope that leads directly to the dreaded swamp of romantic solipsism and (thereby) has earned critical damnation from the Peters at the gate who decide who shall enter the heaven of canonicity and who shall be sent away into the dark realm of mere historical interest.
One of the major critical complaints about Robinson Jeffers—a factor that sets him at odds aesthetically with his modernist contemporaries and which makes him particularly suspect to those committed to the view that “reality” is linguistically constructed and so essentially fictive—is his seeming insistence on featuring a seemingly transparent, seemingly authoritative, “I” as the speaker in his shorter poems. Jeffers is, it seems, precisely that naïve figure we have been taught to shun—the one who believes in the coherence of his own subjectivity, trusts that what he perceives is actual rather than socially constructed, and compounds his sins by anthropomorphizing the natural world through a feeble indulgence in the pathetic fallacy—even as he celebrates that world as separate from humanity and castigates humanity for its failure to recognize its participation in the materiality and process of this natural world. Jeffers’ seemingly naive belief that he can be present in the poem and present to the reader who hears his comments through the marks on the page as if they record his actual speaking is apparent in the opening of “Point Joe,” first published in Tamar and Other Poems (1924):
Point Joe has teeth and has torn ships; it has fierce and solitary beauty;
Walk there all day you shall see nothing that will not make part of a poem.
I saw the spars and planks of shipwrecks on the rocks, and beyond the desolate
Sea-meadows rose the warped wind-bitten van of the pines (CP 1:90)
The poem seems to present the “I” as an authoritative witness to the scene. Moreover, the distance between the human world (the speaker’s consciousness) and the natural world (the materiality of the “Point” and the “Pacific Ocean”) seems minimized by giving the Point a kind of animation (it has “teeth” and can “tear” ships) and by the way the speaker aestheticizes the scene: the “fierce” Point has a “solitary beauty,” which is so co-extensive with the scene and so deeply infused in it that every feature and aspect of the Point can “make part of a poem.” The speaker’s act of seeing (“I saw”) is, it seems, a kind of necessary completion. The speaker perceives—and testifies to—the “beauty”; the speaker perceives, and validates for the reader (explicitly addressed in the second line as “you”)—the coherence—the wholeness, of the scene, which a less inspired (less poetic) glance might miss. In “Point Joe,” it seems, Jeffers (as “I”) speaks to us (as “you”) from and through the poem, not simply sharing his responses but presenting his insights—his access to the truth—for our edification.
Jeffers’ didacticism, here, is less explicit than in such pieces as “Signpost” and “The Answer” from the mid-1930s, but even so, the difference between the opening of “Point Joe” and “Prufrock” couldn’t be clearer. When Eliot offers Prufrock saying “Let us go then you and I,” we clearly understand that the “I” in no way represents Eliot and is in no way Eliot’s speech. The “I” in Eliot’s poem is a construction; Prufrock’s subjectivity derives from Eliot’s in the sense that Eliot has made the poem, but Prufrock’s subjectivity is not directly Eliot’s subjectivity (the equation between Eliot and the collage of figures represented in and at times “speaking” within The Waste Land is a more complex instance of the equation in “Prufrock”). Similarly, we understand that the “you” (if the “you” exists at all outside Prufrock’s fictionally projected subjectivity) is neither directly or simply the poem’s series of readers. In “Point Joe,” however, the speaker addresses us as the reader as if we could be present as an actual “you” to the speaker. In “Prufrock,” the reader has no existence for Prufrock. In “Prufrock,” the natural world—that “sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table”—exists only in and through Prufrock’s subjectivity. To assess the aesthetic rightness of what Prufrock’s observations present, we look inward, not (as we would in “Point Joe”) outward.
That “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Point Joe” operate differently is clear, and it is easy to see how we could conclude that the one is complex and sophisticated, the other simplistic (if not without a certain power), regressive, and naïve. But the “I” in “Point Joe” is not as direct or transparent as it seems. While “Point Joe” allows (as “Prufrock” does not) for a naïve reading, the poem also supports a more reflective engagement, one which problematizes the identity and the authority of the “I” that speaks in the poem, even as it (paradoxically) reinforces the authority of the poem.
The particular nature of voice, the “I” which “speaks,” in “Point Joe” becomes clearer if we briefly consider an earlier, unpublished poem, Jeffers’ revisions to it, and his possible reasons for omitting it from Tamar and Other Poems. In late 1919 when Jeffers wrote what he initially titled “Coast-Range Creeks,” then “Metempsychosis,” he was still working out the model for the relationship of the self to Nature that would inform his mature work. “Metempsychosis” marks a key moment in this process. In its initial, surviving version, the poem reads:
Coast-Range Creeks Metempsychosis
Coast-range creeks, veins of the body of mine that will not die
When this spirit is nothing and this flesh new dirt and the eager eye
Sucked its last and is drunk with darkness—I am content I think to cease,
I rejoice no death will drag you peaks and slopes down to that peace.
Neither failure of the blood will flag you fountains nor fever choke,
Canyon creeks that are my arteries, hair of forest and body of rock.
If long hence and after a thousand thronged millenniums you go down
I will go, the last of me then, and the endless dance of suns go on.
Therefore I turned from the high lamps and limited to low hills my love.
Sweet you are immortality enough, identity enough. (CP 4:337 and 5:299-300)
In the poem, the speaker imagines the surrounding landscape as a living being, figurally a body, and the speaker’s metaphorical sense that creeks are, then, “veins” supports two key moves: first, it enables him to project an equivalency between his own body and the landscape’s “body”; second, it enables him to imagine subsuming his own body into nature’s body. If the speaker’s body is an element in the landscape’s more comprehensive, fundamental and enduring body, then the speaker’s own physical death is deferred “a thousand thronged millenniums.” This is not the eternal life after death of Christianity; but it is a glimpse of “the endless dance of suns,” and it is, the speaker asserts, “immortality enough.”
In celebrating the beauty of Nature and casting Nature as the ground of meaning, “Metempsychosis” reveals Jeffers’ debt to such central figures of British and American romanticism as Wordsworth and Emerson. But there are crucial differences. The speaker’s recognition of the metaphorical correspondence of the self’s physical body to the landscape’s physical body to the physical body of the cosmos or universe does not lead to apprehending a divinity that transcends its material manifestations even as it comprehends them. The speaker does not attain a consciousness beyond the transitory reality of being embodied. There is no moment of becoming a “transparent eyeball”; no moment where the poet/speaker takes imaginative possession of the scene by seeing the divinity expressed through it. Instead, the poem enacts a kind of imagined self-burial and replaces a resurrection of the soul, of spirit, with a physical oneness with nature as materiality through the materiality of the body that has “cease[d]” being either self or soul. “Metempsychosis,” that is, enacts a process that is more similar to Poe—the material consuming, even extinguishing spirit,[ii] but instead of horror, the speaker experiences a partial “immortality” that is “Sweet” and an “identity” within and through being one with nature that replaces the “identity” that one has through consciousness.
More could be made of the religious implications of the poem’s language and how the poem enacts, yet subverts, the paradigmatic romantic scene of the self in the presence of Nature, but for this discussion what matters more is the way the speaker as “I” functions within the poem. This “I” is the seemingly unitary, authoritative “I” that we are expected to treat with suspicion. Yet this “I” is not simply “content to cease”; rather the “I” is “content I think to cease”—an assertion undercut with doubt. The insertion of “I think” does something else, as well, which is even more crucial to understanding how the “I” works in Jeffers’ lyrics and meditations. If the line were to read “I am content to cease,” the claim would represent not only a conclusion that the seemingly authoritative figure of the poet had already reached; it would also cast the poem as a kind of report in which the poet takes the truths he possesses and reports them to us in figurative language. “I think,” instead, casts the poem as the speaker’s process of searching for the assurance of being “content to cease.” It makes the poem implicitly dramatic. The horror of Poe at the recognition of one’s physicality and the material decay that is the body’s death becomes a latent presence in the poem—a pressure that the speaker seeks to offset through the imaginative union of the speaker’s body into nature’s body. The poem figuratively is a self-burial of the body to find a way to “rejoice.” The poem discovers, for the speaker, the possibility of loving the “low hills” as a sufficient immortality through “turn[ing] from the high lamps” of transcendent (disembodied) consciousness. In effect, then, the speaker of the poem enacts his authority through the paradoxical move of erasing and renouncing his subjectivity—his, if you will, “I-ness.” The poem, that is, attempts to gain its authority through portraying the poet’s desire for a renunciation of authority. And the power of the poem is in part the paradoxical way it expresses a desire for an erasure of consciousness through a heightened moment of consciousness.
The details of the typescript for “Metempsychosis” indicate Jeffers prepared it for an unpublished collection that he compiled late summer or fall 1920, and he prepared at least one more version of the poem for a second unpublished collection that probably dates from spring 1921. [iii] For this second version of the poem he made several minor changes to the phrasing, altered the title to “The Hills Beyond the River,” and added four lines scavenged from “The Beginning of Decadence,” a poem he’d included in the earlier table of contents but was discarding from the revised collection:
The Hills Beyond The River
Coast-range creeks, veins of the body of mine that will not die
When this spirit is nothing and this flesh new dirt and the eager eye
Sucked its last and is drunk with darkness—I am content I think to cease,
I rejoice no death will drag you peaks and slopes down to that peace.
Neither failure of the blood will make you faint nor its fevers choke,
Canyon creeks that are my arteries, hair of forest and body of rock.
If long hence and after a thousand long millenniums you go down
I will go, the last of me then, and the endless dance of suns go on.
Therefore I turned from the high lamps and limited to low hills my love.
Sweet you are immortality enough, identity enough.
. . . . . As while life lasts I am content with the stone belts of my own house,
Windows opening west over salt water and south to the coast-range brows,
Walls on a rock above the sea, and granite ecstasy kept clean
By its very narrowness from much that troubles luckier men. (CP 4:337)
These added lines almost certainly refer to Tor House, the stone cottage Jeffers helped build in August 1919 and where he lived the rest of his life, and they cast Tor House as both a refuge from the ordinary give and take of social life (“troubles” in the final line is, clearly, ironic) and a vantage on the “granite ecstasy.” In “The Hills Beyond the River,” “the stone belts of my house” are yet another “body” for the speaker—a temporary, transitional one that, like the imagined self-burial earlier in the poem, offers a kind of escape from self-hood and identity but without requiring the speaker “to cease” into the full merger with the being of Nature which erases consciousness.
Whether “The Hills Beyond the River” is a better poem than “Metempsychosis” is open to debate, but the added unit alters the original poem in significant ways. For one, the speaker now inhabits a privileged position vis a vis “luckier men,” who are not in the presence of the “granite ecstasy” and may also lack the vision to see it. For another, the imagined act of becoming one with Nature by foregoing consciousness (“When this spirit is nothing”) and taking on the body of Nature (“this flesh new dirt and the eager eye . . . drunk with darkness”) is replaced with a position for the speaker where he stands aside from Nature—above it and protected by the “belts” he has constructed (literally the “belts” are Tor House, figuratively they are perhaps also the poem). In “Metempsychosis,” consciousness is a transitional and problematic power: it allows us to recognize the beauty of nature as material process; it enables us to apprehend the possibility of unity with (and salvation through) the materiality of Nature; and it confronts us with the necessity of loss, since this unity can only be achieved by letting go of consciousness (“this spirit is nothing”) and becoming one with Nature’s body (“Canyon creeks that are my arteries, hair of forest and body of rock”), which is a form of living that can only be attained through death.[iv] In the revised version of the poem, “narrowing” one’s life so that one sees Nature directly heightens consciousness, and this in turn enables one to become a privileged witness to the “granite ecstasy” (rather than “drunk with darkness”). Nature becomes an occasion for transcendence (a heightened awareness but also a kind of separation) rather than a ground of being that replaces both the temporary ecstasy of transcendence and the anguished desire for it. (Or to put the matter somewhat parodically: in “The Hills Beyond the River,” the poet can have his cake and eat it too; in “Metempsychosis” the worshipful individual becomes the cake.)
We cannot know precisely why Jeffers recast “Metempsychosis” as “The Hills Beyond the River.” There are, though, several possible reasons, and they can help us clarify how the “I,” the speaker, functions in “Point Joe.” One possibility is that Jeffers simply wanted to salvage the lines from “The Beginning of Decadence” that celebrate Tor House and tagged them onto “Metempsychosis” as a way to do that. This was plausibly at least part of the motivation for the revision, but Jeffers’ revisions to “Suicide’s Stone,” a poem written about the same time as “Metempsychosis,” suggest an additional factor.
The speaker of “Suicide’s Stone,” as published in Tamar, is a suicide who addresses the living (“you”) from the perspective of “we dead.” While the speaker tempts the living with death’s peace, the poem (as distinct from the speaker) challenges us to reject the speaker’s failure in having “denounced the covenant of courage” (CP 4:306). However, the situation is quite different in the untitled handwritten manuscript from which Jeffers developed the published version. In the earlier draft, the speaker is contemplating suicide and seeking to resist the temptation. In the earlier (original?) draft, the speaker is, that is, “hungering” for death, yet seeking to remain faithful to the “covenant of courage,” rather than be “mongrel-proved” by taking his own life (CP 5:292). The original draft of “Suicide’s Stone” and “Metempsychosis” both express a desire to off-load the burdens of identity and a desire for a mode of being other than life; both, that is, express a desire for “peace” that is linked with death. While “death” and its implications are imagined differently in the two poems, the linkage between them is clear, and both “Metempsychosis” and the unpublished manuscript version of “Suicide’s Stone” can be read as deeply confessional poems, in which Jeffers is searching for a mode of awareness, a mode of being, that would offer a way to move beyond pain and despair.[v]
In revising “Suicide’s Stone,” Jeffers erased (or perhaps only obscured) its apparently personal dimension. Similarly, in recasting “Metempsychosis” as “The Hills Beyond the River,” he partly erased the openly personal desire and vision of the original draft. For Jeffers, adding the brief fragment from “The Beginning of Decadence was, I’m suggesting, a way to assert his stoic patience and affirm his being “content” within the “stone belts” of the house and to have this replace (or overwrite) the confession in the original of the desire to erase the self through a literal or figural death in order to “rejoice” in participating in the body of nature. In the revision, the house figures as a kind of alternative body that is intermediate between the self’s body and nature’s body. Rather than a halfway house, it might be cast as a kind of halfway body or (what is within the logic of the poem its equivalent) a half way grave. In any case, as an alternative body, the house preserves the self (for a time), protects it (by “narrowing”) from at least some of the pain of living, and provides windows (a vantage point) from which to contemplate (through consciousness) Nature “while life lasts.” “The Hills Beyond the River” replaces the redemptive self-burial (the suicide) of “Metempsychosis” with the “covenant” of “courage” and endurance attested to in the revised “Suicide’s Stone.” Doing so, it projects the speaker as an exemplary figure (at least a witness and potentially a priest), declaiming from the place of worship he has erected and exercising the imaginative authority he has been granted as some kind of gift or earned through his contemplation and art.
In “Metempsychosis,” Jeffers enacts a romantic relationship to nature yet subverts the relationship of self to Nature that we would expect as part of it. Nature is a ground of meaning, and the inspired individual can recognize this. But the inspired individual can only participate in Nature’s meaning, its beauty, by sacrificing self and consciousness to it. The visionary awareness of Nature is simultaneously a recognition of the possibility of transcendence through (and literally in) nature and a tragic recognition of separation from nature; moreover, consciousness that allows one to recognize the possibility of transcendence is simultaneously what prevents full transcendence by making us aware of our own mortality and pain. Vision is vision of Nature, vision of one’s separation (through visionary awareness) from Nature, and vision of the possibility and necessary cost of becoming one with Nature and being. Vision cannot possess; instead it reveals the gap between the self and Nature (a gap created precisely by consciousness and awareness of self as a separate being within time). As such, vision both reveals Nature as the ground of being and meaning (and beauty), and it confronts the self with a tragic challenge—to embrace its own dissolution, its erasure, in order to be of the “beauty” rather than to be aware of the beauty (since to be aware is necessarily to be separate from it).
The way “Metempsychosis” evokes the redemptive power of Nature yet joins it to the tragic (for the self) cost of realizing that redemption anticipates the perspective Jeffers would begin developing consistently a year or so later, first in such key lyrics as “Salmon-Fishing” and “Continent’s End” and then in “Tamar” and the narratives that followed it. An obvious question is why he did not include it in Tamar, even though he included poems such as “The Truce and the Peace” that were even earlier than “Metempsychosis.” The problem, I’d suggest, with both “Metempsychosis” and the original draft of “Suicide’s Stone” is that they were too overtly personal. In both, we see Jeffers struggling with an all but overwhelming despair, and the “I” speaking these poems is an individual confessing his doubt to himself and struggling to move beyond it. In “Suicide’s Stone” as published and in “Metempsychosis” as revised into “The Hills Beyond the River,” the “I” can still be identified with Jeffers, but the “I” who is “content with the stone belts of my own house,” is, ironically, a less personal figure. This “I” is not Robinson Jeffers an individual tempted to suicide and struggling to perceive meaning and beauty; this “I” is “Jeffers,” the “poet” who has embraced “narrowness” perceives the “granite ecstasy,” and has been granted or achieved the authority to speak of it to mere “luckier men.” The “Jeffers” who speaks “The Hills Beyond the River” is not Jeffers; he is the figure of poet—a construction in part derived from the visionary moment engaged and evoked through “Metempsychosis” but a construction which also obscures, alters, and even falsifies that visionary moment. And this suggests that Jeffers withheld “Metempsychosis” because it was too confessional and that he withheld its recasting as “The Hills Beyond the River” because it had become, while no longer personally revealing, a poem that falsified the perception that generated it, replacing the radical reconfiguration of romanticism in the original with a more simplistic romantic view of Nature and a more conventional treatment of the speaker’s relationship to the reader / auditor.
At the very least Jeffers’ transformation of “Metempsychosis” into “The Hills Beyond the River” suggests that he was uncomfortable with revealing himself too directly or too fully to the reader, even as he wanted his more lyric and meditative poems to function as if the reader might be an actual auditor—a “you”—responding to the “I” speaking the poem. The “I” in the lines drawn from “The Beginning of Decadence” and added to “Metempsychosis” is a public figure, not a personal one. It is “Jeffers” as “I” rather than “me” as “I,” and as such the speaker’s authority does not, then, reside in or derive from the self’s actual nature or experience (the self’s actual desire, pain, doubt, and such) but rather from the poet’s ability to envision something derived from that experience and which attains or enacts a coherence beyond it. If so, the “truth” of the poem does not reside in the integrity or authority of the self that writes it but rests in the coherence and visionary reach of the poem that the flawed self constructs through the poem and lodges within it. The constructed “I” gives the reader as “you” access to what the actual “I” has only been able to glimpse in actual life yet has managed to enact—to create—within the writing. For Jeffers, the authority of the self who writes is suspect; what matters is the authority the poet can construct, since this authority (and the poem enacting it) can be partially freed from the private (and compromising) need that is its occasion. For Jeffers, what matters is the way the piece of writing, the poem, functions as a mediation to the Nature beyond the writing self.
A brief glance at a later poem, “Sign-Post,” from Solstice and Other Poems (1935), underscores the way Jeffers sought to locate the authority of the poem not in his own, biographical visionary experience but in the world beyond the self and in the poem’s power to offer witness to it. As published, the poem is a sonnet. The octet instructs the reader (addressed as “you”) to become “human again” by “lov[ing] things, not men.” To become “human,” one must “turn right away from humanity”:
Civilized, crying how to be human again: this will tell you how.
Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity,
Let that doll lie. Consider if you like how the lilies grow,
Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity
Make your veins cold, look at the silent stars, let your eyes
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man.
Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes;
Things are the God, you will love God, and not in vain,
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature. At length
You will look back along the stars’ rays and see that even
The poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.
Its qualities repair their mosaic around you, the chips of strength
And sickness; but now you are free, even to become human,
But born of the rock and the air, not of a woman. (CP 2:418)
The poem is clear in its instruction. To “become human” is something other than being “Civilized.” It is to be “born of the rock and the air,” which is to be re-born in the religious sense but not in “Christ” but in the “God” of “things” that the sonnet both evokes and celebrates. And the rhetoric of the poem seems equally clear: the speaker (the poet) knows what the reader does not. The speaker’s “eyes” have followed his “love” of the “Things” that are “God.” The speaker has been “born of the rock and air” and speaks from the authority of his grace.
The initial draft of the poem’s opening characterizes the speaker quite differently. As Jeffers first worked on the poem, it was apparently to open with two quatrains that would have preceded the published material:
I have done wrong to think about culture-ages.
I have done wrong to think about economics.
A poet has no business with dusty pages,
The world’s catastrophes and the world’s comics.
Not while the sea hangs on the granite shore.
Not while an apple hangs on the heavy bough
Or hawk on wind or an apple on the bough.
The hunter and the plowman laugh you to scorn,
You wonder how to believe again.
You’re civilized, crying to be human again: this is the way will tell you how. (CP 5:558-559)
This opening shows the speaker (presumably Jeffers himself here addressing himself as “I”) having failed to “love” the God of “things” and thereby suffering the alienation of being “Civilized.” In this conception of the poem, it is Jeffers (not the reader) who must recover his faith, must “Turn outward,” in order to “look back along the stars’ rays and see that even / The poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.” Here, as in “Metempsychosis,” the “I” speaks from a position of need, desire, even failure, while projecting a sense of the possibility of a redemptive relationship to “things” and God that the “I” has yet to fully achieve. In revising the poem, Jeffers masks his direct stake in, need for, the lesson the poem propounds. This elides the speaker’s identity as the “you” crying out in need of instruction and redemption.
In the original draft, “I” and “you” are both the speaker, the poet, Jeffers. In the poem as published, “you” becomes explicitly the reader, and it is only when we consider the published version in the context of the discarded opening that what the speaker shares with the reader and how this has occasioned the poem becomes visible. Here, as with the revisions to “Metempsychosis,” the question is why Jeffers altered the poem to obscure his personal stake, his own struggle. Again, the answer is probably partly his desire not to be confessional, not to reveal his own doubt and struggle. But there is also, I’d suggest, another aspect to this. In adding the lines from “The Beginning of Decadence” to “Metempsychosis” to construct “The Hills Beyond the River,” Jeffers located the authority for his visionary awareness of the “granite ecstasy” (the source of his “content”) not simply in Nature itself but also in his own special relationship to it—his privileged position of “narrowness,” his withdrawal from such things as “culture-ages,” “economics,” and “dusty pages.” And it is this “narrowness” that he has lost at the beginning of the initial draft of “Sign-Post.” In “The Hills Beyond the River” the I’s authority to assert the existence and value of the “granite ecstasy” is a special relationship to Nature—one the reader lacks. At first glance, the revision of the original conception of “Sign-Post” into the published sonnet, involves a similar construction of authority for the speaker, but there is a key difference between the authority asserted in “The Hills Beyond the River” and the authority constructed in “Sign-Post.” The opening line does not read, “Civilized, crying how to be human again: I will tell you how”; rather it reads “Civilized, crying how to be human again: this will tell you how.” It is, that is, the poem (“this”) that has the authority to speak to the reader, and it is the poem that has the authority to instruct the speaker as well. The poem has, paradoxically, an authority that the voice speaking the poem (both to the speaker as “you” and the reader as “you”) lacks.
The equation of “I” and “you” in the published version of “Sign-Post” is, clearly, not the “I” and “you” in “Prufrock,” but neither is it the “I” and “you” of Wordsworth and “Tintern Abbey.” The seemingly romantic vision of Nature as redemptive in “Sign-Post” and in Jeffers’ mature work as a whole is based on a different sense of Nature than Wordsworth’s, and it is not a reversion to the romantic paradigm but a recasting of that paradigm on modern, if not in the strict sense modernist, terms. In Jeffers’ work Nature is process, and what is permanent is change—a never ceasing rhythm of dissolution and renewal that is beauty yet, for the individual, pain. The ability of the self to become one with Nature in Jeffers’ work, thus, operates in a crucially different manner than it does in Wordsworth’s, where reflecting on visionary moments leads to a kind of fusion (a visionary reflection or reflective vision) in which the poet becomes one with Nature. In Jeffers’ work, vision and reflection reveal the transcendent and redemptive beauty of Nature but also reveal the self’s alienation from Nature.
This alienation can be overcome only by sacrificing the need for self in order to move beyond visionary awareness and reflection. This selfless immersion in Nature can be imagined, can be evoked, even asserted, in the poem, but can be realized only partly and temporarily in one’s actual life, precisely because the consciousness that allows one to apprehend the process of Nature and beauty is simultaneously what alienates one from full participation in the flux of Nature. In Wordsworth’s work, vision can be vision of/with/within Nature and an end in itself; in Jeffers’ work, vision can only be a glimpse of Nature and recognition of the gap between self and Nature—a gap that can only be fully bridged through the erasure of the self in death. In Jeffers’s work, vision is a means to an end.
While no manuscript material survives for “Point Joe,” Jeffers’ revisions to “Metempsychosis,” “Suicide’s Stone,” and “Sign-Post” offer a basis for considering his approach to voice in “Point Joe” and the sense of Nature developed in the poem. At first glance, “Point Joe” presents a seemingly direct and simple message: “Permanent things are what is needful in a poem,” and its corollary: “Fashionable and momentary things we need not see nor speak of.” If we focus on these two explicit claims, the poem demonstrates the speaker’s ability to see “things” and “speak” of them, and this ability legitimates his authority to pronounce on these matters for the reader.[vi] The poet knows the truth; the poet, through the poem, speaks truth for our edification; we, as readers, connect directly with the poet through the words he has offered us. Read this way, the poem has a certain power, and its assertions may even be true. But read this way the poem seems to rely not only on the authority of the speaker within the poem but the authority of the poet, of Jeffers, who stands behind the poem. If, that is, we take the didactic claims in lines11-14 as the point of the poem, what matters is not the poem itself but the Jeffers who proclaims and the truth or error of the proclamations. But the speaker’s relationship to the “things” presented through the poem and to these two statements is not quite this direct, nor is the speaker’s authority quite what it seems. The poem can be read as if it is Jeffers commenting from a privileged position on what he sees at Point Joe, sharing his reflections and his understanding of the truth of the lessons this scene offers, but such a reading fails to account for much of what is in the poem.
“Point Joe” is both a poem about the speaker’s relationship to Nature and about the writing of poetry—in particular poetry that seeks to express Nature. The poem’s opening offers the scene of the Point as a microcosm of Nature. The “beauty” of this Nature is “fierce and solitary.” And the poem presents a series of details that express this “beauty,” culminating in the “millions of flowerets” and how their “light beat up from earthward, and was golden.” For the speaker (perhaps, here, better understood as an observer) these details are seemingly progressive. The speaker first sees “the spars and planks of shipwrecks on the rocks,” a detail that evokes Nature’s indifference to human desire and activity; accepting this, the speaker’s attention moves “beyond the desolate / Sea-meadows” to (first) “the warped wind-bitten van of the pines,” then to the “light” of the flowers “suffused upward into the fog flood[ing] its vault.” As the speaker moves, that is, from the human perspective and begins to see Nature as it is, Nature becomes beautiful, as if he is entering Nature, both literally and figuratively as a kind of cathedral (Nature as a “vault[ed]” ceiling “golden” with light “beat[ing]” upward from the literal “ground” where the observer stands). The next move in the poem could easily be the conclusion, an inspiriting cadenza where the speaker celebrates the revelation of Nature’s transcendent and redemptive beauty triggered by the preceding details and images. Instead, the poem shifts away from the details of Point Joe as a specific landscape and as an exemplar of non-human nature to introduce an explicitly human figure: “One other moved there, an old Chinaman gathering seaweed from the sea-rocks.” If the golden light flooding the vault of fog draws the speaker toward an apprehension of Nature’s aesthetic beauty, the old man gathering seaweed confronts the speaker, instead, with an image of Nature as process and necessity, and it is this juxtaposition that elicits the claims that “Permanent things are what is needful” and that “momentary things” should go without mention.
In a typical romantic celebration of a natural scene, the recognition of Nature as necessity would lead to the apprehension of Nature as beauty, which in turn would catalyze an affirmation of this beauty as proof of transcendental spirit (the vision of “granite ecstasy,” for example, in the lines from “The Beginning of Decadence” tagged onto “Metempsychosis”). In “Point Joe,” however, the apprehension of Nature as beauty yields instead to an intensified vision of Nature as necessity. Recognizing this, we can see that the claims about “Permanent things” in lines 11-14 are, at least in part, the speaker’s reaction to this awareness. Although these claims can be (and often are) read as didactic pronouncements on the part of the speaker, they are also (and I’d suggest even more so) the speaker’s dramatized response to his realization that the detail of the “old Chinaman gathering seaweed” exemplifies the terms of existence and the relationship of the self to Nature in a way that is prior to and more fundamental than the golden light suffusing the vault of fog. It might even be said that the golden light, though beautiful and an instance of the pleasure Nature offers, is potentially misleading; for the speaker, accepting the man gathering seaweed as a part of the scene, a part of Nature, challenges the speaker to move beyond the pleasure of the flowers and the golden light and to accept that he, too, is enmeshed in process rather than able to stand apart or above it.
Here, again, the challenge is to accept the more fundamental erasure of self evoked in “Metempsychosis” rather than to deflect to the more superficial and conventional move of the privileged “I” in “The Hills Beyond the River.” This in turn adds to the implications of the figure of “Grass that is made each year equals the mountains in her past and future” in line 13. The “old Chinaman” “gleaning food” is not a mountain, but men “gleaning food,” generation upon generation, can “equal the mountains.” Ironically, the speaker’s awareness of this comes through his consciousness of Nature as process, and the awareness functions as a challenge to see consciousness as a means to unconsciousness (immersion in and participation in the cycle of generation to dissolution to regeneration) rather than an end in itself and a privileged state of being beyond time. The man “gleaning” seaweed does not observe Nature. Instead, he enacts it, which is to say he is “Nature.” And his participation in Nature requires no conscious reflection. He is, to this extent, more authentic and authoritative than the speaker precisely because he does not reflect on the nature of Nature and the nature of consciousness. He enacts a relationship to Nature that the speaker is able to contemplate but as yet (because he is contemplating) does not fully embody, enact, or realize.
In “Point Joe,” I’m suggesting, the speaker is not an authority pronouncing to the reader from a position of ultimate insight or visionary transcendence but is instead a dramatic figure within the process of the poem. And the poem’s final four lines exemplify this:
Man gleaning food between the solemn presences of land and ocean,
On shores where better men have shipwrecked, under fog and among flowers,
Equals the mountains in his past and future; that glow from the earth was only
A trick of nature’s, one must forgive nature a thousand graceful subtleties. (CP 1:90-91)
These lines can be read as if their function is to extend the claim that poems need “Permanent things” and to underscore the admonition not to “speak” of “Fashionable and momentary things.” The lines can, that is, be read didactically, but that reading doesn’t account for why “one must forgive nature” its “subtleties,” nor does it account for these “subtleties” being “A trick.”
If we read the poem as the privileged, authoritative pronouncement of the “I,” these final lines are a kind of afterthought; almost a throwaway. If, however, we consider the “I” as an actor within the poem’s drama of consciousness, the lines more clearly function as a conclusion to the poem and gain in richness and in power. The first of these lines recasts the specific of the “old Chinaman gathering seaweed” into the more generic figure of “Man gleaning,” framed by the “solemn presences” (not “the beautiful presences”) of “land and ocean.” This allows, in the third of these lines, for the figure of “Man gleaning” to be analogous to “Grass that is made each year,” which in turn drives the awareness that “Man gleaning” also “Equals the mountains.” For the speaker to perceive this, however, requires acknowledging and focusing on Nature as “solemn presences,” not Nature as “that glow from the earth” as the “millions of flowerets” illuminate the “vault” of fog with beauty. Such beauty is “graceful subtleties,” but it can trick us from seeing the more fundamental “solemn presences” and the more fundamental reality of generations of “Man gleaming.” If these lines are read as an implicit challenge to the speaker, the second of the lines takes on additional specificity and resonance: the “better men” who have “shipwrecked, under fog and among flowers,” implicitly include the speaker and serve as a critique of the speaker’s sense of the “golden” light earlier in the poem and a warning against seeing that as either the fundamental nature of Nature or an adequate figure for our participation in Nature. The final lines, that is, suggest that Point Joe is both a misleading and a revelatory scene. It can “trick” us, shipwreck us, with its graceful but tricky and finally insufficient subtleties or it can challenge us with a recognition of our fundamental identity—“Man gleaning.” As such, “Point Joe” is a poem that warns us against not only the temptation to be misled by “beauty” as the picturesque (as opposed to beauty as “solemn presences”); it is also a poem that warns us against the authority of the Poet who presumes to speak from a position of consciousness. As with “Sign-Post,” “Point Joe” is a poem in which we should attend to, and credit, the “this” of the poem rather than the “I” who is behind it or the “I” who speaks within it.
For Wordsworth, the “origin” of poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility, and this “emotion” generates “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” that the poem records and thereby preserves for the reader’s later appreciation. In this aesthetic, the poet’s “spontaneous overflow” is the “poetry”; the poem’s process and language are secondary—they mediate and represent; and the more transparently and fully this representation provides access to the poet “recollect[ing], the more complete and genuine will be the reader’s experience of the “powerful feelings,” which are the poem’s essence and which we credit as genuine because they have “overflow[ed]” from the poet’s own “spontaneous” inspiration.
“Point Joe” can, also, be read as if it is “recollected” “emotion” and a “spontaneous” sharing of a moment of visionary transcendence that records, validates, and celebrates Nature’s redemptive beauty—the golden light “suffused upward” that illuminates Nature’s “vault.” But “Point Joe” is not a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” as the speaker recollects, assesses, extends, and expresses a visionary moment in Nature and of Nature. Instead, the speaker’s original visionary moment is recalled in order to question, and the interplay of retrospection, introspection, and reflection disrupt tranquility. In Wordsworth, both the original moment of experience in the presence of Nature and the belated recollection of that “inspiration” (which the poem actually records) are visionary transcendence. In “Point Joe,” the visionary transcendence is only in the original moment prior to the poem, and recalling the moment is to recognize that the inspired moment is necessarily (so long as one remains alive and conscious) partial, temporary, and problematic—even misleading. It is a glimpse, not a realization, and it is a challenge to confront and accept the terms of existence within Nature. In “Point Joe,” the poem narrates a visionary moment, but the recalled moment cannot be a “spontaneous overflow” by which one renews participation in the visionary moment, because the visionary moment is the puzzle to be understood rather than a proof of divine energy and one’s ability to affirm it and participate in it. In “Point Joe,” recollection sets in motion a critique of the visionary moment, in which participation in Nature through consciousness and alienation from Nature through consciousness are dialectically intertwined.
In “Point Joe,” the desire of the “I” for the Wordsworthian “spontaneous overflow,” yet recognition that it is not sustainable and to some degree illusory, is evident in the speaker’s final comment, the wistful or stoic or hardbitten or serene characterization of “that glow” as “only / A trick of nature’s” that “one” (i.e. that he) “must forgive” (the dramatic indeterminacy of the mood here is, I’d suggest, part of the poem’s power). It is also present in the images that present the “glow.” The “light” that suffuses upward, in spite of its “golden” quality and its beauty, does not actually illuminate the sky, the cosmos, Nature; it illuminates “the fog” that obscures the sky and cosmos (Jeffers use of the fog imagery and the importance of the depth and vastness of the night sky as a glimpse of the cosmos that challenges the human fixation on the near and comforting perhaps offer additional perspective on this moment in “Point Joe”). In “Point Joe,” the authority of the poem derives from, inheres in, the drama of the speaker’s reflecting on the moment prior to or beyond the poem—a drama that exists within the poem because the poem is a construction that frames and alters the moment of visionary experience rather than being a re-experiencing of it through the “spontaneous overflow” of recollection. In Wordsworth, recollection—which is, implicitly a matter of re-experiencing—deepens and makes permanent the transitory moment of actual vision. In Jeffers, recollection is both a critical wrestling with the desire to recover the transitory moment of actual vision and reinhabit it and the recognition that this is only possible through death and the erasure of consciousness.
In “Point Joe,” Jeffers offers a seemingly transparent reflection on a local scene, and the “I” that speaks the poem can be read as if it is Jeffers directly addressing the reader and pronouncing from his privileged position as inspired (belated romantic) poet. Such a reading foregrounds the poem’s didactic moves (as if it were simply preachment overlayed on a landscape painting). But this approach misses what gives the poem its actual coherence and power, which is to say its authority. These reside neither in the biographical self (Jeffers the person) nor the visionary self but in the meditation the poem enacts. The poem matters not through Jeffers but through the process and adequacy of its meditation—not the “I will tell you” but “this will tell you.” To read the poem as if the “I” speaking the poem is directly and unreflectively Jeffers is, ironically, to bleach it of its emotional depth, and it is also to compromise its complexity and distort its implications. Rather than a celebration of the transcending of self and self-consciousness through the grandeur and divinity of Nature, “Point Joe” is a drama of consciousness, in which the challenge is to accept the cost of consciousness and the actual terms of oneness with Nature, which is to say death. Shadowing the heightened acceptance of the constructed “I” that speaks the poem is an exquisite alienation from Nature, which is, paradoxically, an intense recognition the beauty of Nature’s necessity rather than, more simply, the beauty of Nature’s beauty.
The relatively simple (narrative and descriptive) surface of “Point Joe” and the seemingly direct and unreflective nature of the “I” that speaks the poem mean that the poem is accessible to a wide range of readers. It also means that the poem can easily be underestimated and misread as if it is a naïve, unreflective recursion to something akin to Wordsworth’s romanticism. But the “I” that speaks “Point Joe” is not, as I’ve tried to suggest, Jeffers himself, nor is the experience recalled and narrated directly Jeffers’ own (though presumably it derives from his direct observations of Point Joe). And just as the logic of voice in “Point Joe” is not the logic of voice in the Wordsworth of “Tintern Abbey,” neither is the relationship of consciousness to Nature the relationship of consciousness to Nature in Wordsworth’s romanticism. To miss this is to miss the modernity of the poem.
Jeffers was adamant that he was not a “modern” (in the sense of being a “modernist”) and openly declared that he had, early on, turned away from his “more advanced contemporaries,” in particular “Pound” but also probably Eliot (CP 4:385). But Jeffers was, as his reworkings and discarding of “Metempsychosis” and the excisions from “Sign-Post” suggest, unwilling to write in a directly personal voice and unwilling to write confessionally. If the “I” that speaks the typical Jeffers lyric is nearer to Jeffers himself than Prufrock is to Eliot, both are, none the less, constructions operating as devices within implicitly dramatic structures, and both “Point Joe” and “Prufrock” (even with their major and important differences) are dramas of consciousness. If Eliot seeks to affirm the power of the aesthetic to redeem and Jeffers’ the power of nature to transcend even the desire for redemption, these differences do not erase the modernity they shared. And whatever the rightness or wrongness of these claims, I hope that it is at least clear from these examples that what I’ve termed the “constructed witness” in a poem such as “Point Joe” takes its authority, however problematic that authority might be, from what the poem enacts in its own “being” rather than through the personal authority of Jeffers as the writer of it. The “I” in Jeffers’ lyrics can seem transparent and authoritative but is, finally, neither. Whatever we ultimately make of Jeffers’ poetry, it is, I’d suggest, clear that he is not the naïve figure we have been taught to shun and that poems like “Point Joe” call for a mode of reading that both underscores the fundamental differences between the aesthetics of Jeffers and Eliot even as it underscores the modernity of both.
[i] One reason beginning students often struggle with “Prufrock” is that they can’t figure out how to hear Prufrock’s voice as if it is Eliot speaking. To read “Prufrock,” they must give up the conviction that writing, like speaking, is necessarily addressed to the reader as “you” and operate, instead, as if they are, as readers, neither relevant nor present to either Prufrock or Eliot.
[ii] Jeffers’ early admiration for Emerson (as documented in manuscript notes and his correspondence has been widely noted. His early interest in Wordsworth has been less widely noted, but the manuscript for the Introduction Jeffers wrote for the 1935 Modern Library reissue of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems shows that the admission that he had, in his apprentice years been “imitating Shelley and Milton” originally read “imitating Wordsworth.” At first glance, Jeffers’ interest in Poe might seem implausible, but the workings for what developed into the narrative Hungerfield show that he early on saw the poem as having some affinity with “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The possible relevance of Poe for “Resurrection” and The Love and the Hate merits, I’d suggest, further exploration.
[iii] See “Chronology” in The Collected Poetry, Vol. Five, especially pp. 51-52, and the textual entry, pp. 299-300, for “The Hills Beyond the River” in the same volume.
[iv] The title “Metempsychosis” points to this pattern of death and reincarnation, as distinct from death and resurrection. The mode of “life” after death imagined in the poem is not, that is, Christian. Moreover, the poem enacts a reimagining of “metempsychosis” in which the soul is reborn into Nature as a whole rather than a specific living being within nature.
[v] See pp. 47-54 of “Chronology” in Volume Five of The Collected Poetry for additional context.
[vi] Robert Zaller develops a different approach to “Point Joe,” in which sees the speaker’s “powerful assertion about ‘permanent things’” as being “uttered in Jeffers’ most commandingly authoritative voice.” See Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime, pp. 162-163.
Jeffers, Robinson. The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Ed. Tim Hunt. 5 vols. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1988-2001. Print.
Zaller, Robert. Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2012. Print.