Jeffers and “The Palace” of Tradition

[This piece appeared originally in Jeffers Studies (7.2, 2003; pp. 15-23).]

In 1935 Random House added Robinson Jeffers’ most popular collection, Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (the expanded version of Tamar originally published in 1925) to its Modern Library series, which offered general readers inexpensive, widely distributed editions of classics and important contemporary literature.  This reissue reflected the company’s sense that interest in Jeffers extended beyond those who sought out poetry in literary bookstores, and it amounted to a declaration that Jeffers was a significant literary figure, not just a momentarily popular writer.  Critical discussions of Jeffers have often drawn on this Introduction, because it is one of the few accounts he offered of his development as a poet, and it is his clearest statement of his rejection of the aesthetic agenda of his modernist contemporaries, especially Pound and Eliot, with their emphasis on poetic collage and formal experimentation.  Like much of Jeffers’ prose the piece is so lucid and direct that there seems little reason to peek behind the edges of the page, yet Jeffers carefully shaped the story he tells in the Introduction, and recognizing this can deepen our sense of the Introduction and its implications.

*

In the months leading up to their marriage in August 1913, it is clear that Jeffers and Una Call Kuster were committed to Jeffers making his way as a writer.  It is less clear that they had decided he should focus on being a poet.  In an August 12, 1913, letter to a friend, Una Jeffers reports that “it’s prose we’re working on very hard—short stories and long” since “poetry doesn’t feed hungry mouths—leastwise not contemporaneously,” and she adds that Jeffers had written his one published short story, “Mirrors,” “about six months ago” (RJN 64.9) Another letter refers to a novel to be called Man Maker (SL 9).  But by May 1914 (about the time of the episode he would later narrate in the Roan Stallion Introduction) Jeffers had switched his allegiance fully and decisively back to poetry.  “The Palace,” an unpublished poem dated May 22, 1914 apparently marks the switch:

Let us reenter the ruined palace again.

Let us clean the weeds from the walls;

And raise up the fallen columns, and roof against rain

The large and beautiful halls.

 

This palace was builded of old; it is comely and great;

No coward nor slave in the world

Had a hand in the work, nor has entered the outermost gate,

Nor has seen the high banner unfurled.

 

Is the throne-room spacious and wonderful?  Shakespeare made it.

He adorned it with statues of kings.

And the firm foundation takes root where Wordsworth laid it

In the permanence of natural things.

 

The shafts of the columns were carved by no other than Milton,

Of clear marble from quarries afar;

And golden at top is the tower Shelley fashioned, and built on,

Spiring its tip to a star.

 

But smaller men came; and men are so easily tired;

And great good is so heavy to hold;

And, Well for our fathers, they said; but the good they desired

Was good in its time, but is old.

 

Let us go forth from the palace; the stair is too long,

Too steep; and the courts are too broad;

And our feet grow tired in the hallways, where strengthened with song

Our fathers of old time trod.

 

They called in the curlew to cry in the empty rooms;

The dock and the thistle to dance

In clefts of the wall; they quarried the marble for tombs;

They despoiled their inheritance.

 

Is it not better? they said.  The wind in the weeds

Is a better harp than a harp.

And too obvious a beauty is common, and the soul needs

Savors more strange, more sharp.

 

We find the great beauty grows wearisome.  Also a crowd

Is gathered to praise it.  We get

Small joy out of music too shining and sunlight too loud,

We lovers of twilight.

 

And yet?

 

For surely the palace is comely.  And marble is polished

Though covered with moss or with dirt,

And life—has that died?  Or the beauty of life been abolished?

Or the girdle of Orion been ungirt?

 

We have lived in the palace and loved it.  We love not in vain.

Let us stand on the strength of the walls

To make firm the fine shafts of the columns and the roof against rain

The large and beautiful halls. (CP 4.440-41)

 

It would be easy to dismiss this stilted piece as the sort of conventional exercise an anxious novice might write to buck himself up.  But Jeffers wrote this poem two weeks after the couple’s first child died soon after being born.  This suggests “The Palace” is not a mere exercise but documents a recommittment to the ideal of poetry after the flirtation with the more pragmatic path of fiction.  Poetry, not the entertaining diversion of novels and short stories, offers solace.  Poetry, not fiction, offers true vocation.  And Jeffers here implies that he has been called to “reenter the ruined palace” and “raise up the fallen columns”—and that he is determined to heed the call.

If writing “The Palace” was more than an exercise, as the timing of it suggests, the poem offers important clues to Jeffers’ sense of poetry at this point.  Most obviously he was still committed to traditional forms (meter, rhyme, regular stanzas), as if the call to make poetry new, the experiments of imagism and free verse, had not yet reached the provinces of Southern California.  But that would be to underestimate the success of Harriett Monroe’s Poetry and the reach of her advocacy of Pound, those Pound advocated, and the Carl Sandburgs and Vachel Lindsays that Pound probably wished would disappear.  And too, Jeffers was aware enough of life beyond the provinces that he had planned to move to England—as smart young American poets were then expected to—after the baby was born (the outbreak of the war in Europe, instead, deflected the Jeffers to Carmel).  But above all, it would be to miss the implicit critique in “The Palace” of these poetic trends.  The palace of the tradition of poetry is in ruins not because it is old or played out but because the “smaller men” of the fifth stanza have decided it is “old,” have “tired” of their responsibility to it, and have found the great voices of the past too intimidating.  These “lovers of twilight” have “despoiled their inheritance” by wandering off “To attend to the wind in the weeds.”  “The Palace,” then, is not just Jeffers’ declaration that he will honor the tradition but also a defense of that allegiance and a critique of those who have “wander[ed] off.”

Equally important is the way “The Palace” suggests how Jeffers then viewed the poetic tradition.  While the tradition might, as he then understood it, demand of the neophyte mastery and use of traditional forms, the tradition was more than obedience to this formalism.  It was also the challenge to thematic seriousness, the expectation that poetry be memorable and significant poetic statement, and it was a commitment to the ideal (as different as Milton’s and Shelley’s visions of that ideal might have been).  That there is nothing particularly distinctive about the canon Jeffers projects in the poem, nothing of the radical recasting of the poetic past that Pound and Eliot were pushing for, is true, but this points, I’d suggest, less to Jeffers’ more conservative or less adventurous or less independent reading of the canon and more to his conviction, or need, at this point to commit himself to an established order of value—to commit himself, that is, to a significant, meaning-giving communal enterprise (just as Eliot, that individual talent, would commit himself first to the “tradition” and then subsequently to the Church of England).  The poet of “The Palace” is clearly not the poet of Tamar and the work that followed it, and one might conclude that the desire to be part of the tradition, to be the poet who continued and extended it, was simply a phase and that this is the constricting skin Jeffers sloughed in order to emerge as the more radical voice he became.  But Jeffers’ own comments about his development, his various arguments about poetry, and what the various recovered poems from these years suggest is that his development needs to be understood not as an effort to break free of the tradition and literary past but as a series of steps, some productive, some not, as he worked to fashion a viable way to extend the tradition that would be adequate to the challenges of the modern moment as he understood it but would not be, in either Pound’s or Eliot’s sense of it, modernist.

*

Jeffers builds the Introduction to the Modern Library Roan Stallion, which he says “might be entitled ‘Meditations by a Water-main,’” on an anecdote of carrying firewood back from the “farther woods” and stopping to worry over how to “attain” that “originality, without which a writer of verses is only a verse-writer” and not a real poet.  The probable date for this actual or composite moment of “bitter meditation” is fall 1914, shortly after the move to Carmel but before the death of his father that December and the writing of the initial narrative poems in Californians early in 1915 (Jeffers notes in the Introduction that he was then “twenty-seven,” that this was “twenty-one years ago” and “three or four years” before the earliest of the Tamar poems, details that also point to fall 1914).  This moment of anxiety, occurs, that is, soon after “The Palace” and his decision to renew the tradition, and in this moment of doubt Jeffers remembers thinking, “I was already a year older than Keats when he died, and I too had written many verses, but they were all worthless.  I had imitated and imitated, and that was all.”  As a mere imitator, the Jeffers of 1914 was failing both the challenge of the past and the challenge of the present:

The more advanced contemporary poets were attaining it [the “originality” that made a “verse-writer” a poet and that he still lacked] by going farther and farther along the way that perhaps Mallarmé’s aging dream had shown them, divorcing poetry from reason and ideas, bringing it nearer to music, finally to astonish the world with what would look like pure nonsense and would be pure poetry.  No doubt these lucky writers were imitating each other, instead of imitating Shelley and Milton as I had done,…but no, not all of them, someone must be setting the pace, going farther than anyone had dared to go before.  Ezra Pound perhaps?  Whoever it was, was original.
Perhaps this was the means to attain originality: to make a guess which way literature is going, and go there first.  Read carefully your contemporaries, chart their line of advance, then hurry and do what they are going to do next year.  And if they drew their inspiration from France, I could read French as well as any of them. (CP 4.385)

Jeffers then interrupts his critique to note for “shame’s sake” that this was youthful “competitiveness” and an inappropriate concern with “trends” and adds:

It seemed to me that Mallarmé and his followers, renouncing intelligibility in order to concentrate the music of poetry, had turned off the road into a narrowing lane.  Their successors could only make further renunciations; ideas had gone, now meter had gone, imagery would have to go; then recognizable emotions would have to go; perhaps at last even words might have to go or give up their meaning, nothing be left but musical syllables.  Every advance required the elimination of some aspect of reality, and what could it profit me to know the direction of modern poetry if I did not like the direction?  It was too much like putting out your eyes to cultivate the sense of hearing, or cutting off the right hand to develop the left.  These austerities were not for me; originality by amputation was too painful for me.
But—I thought—everything has been said already; there seems to be only this way to go on.  Unless one should do like the Chinese with their heavy past: eliminate one’s own words from the poem, use quotations from books as the elder poets used imagery from life and nature, make something new by putting together a mosaic of the old.  A more promising kind of amputation; one or two noble things might be done that way, but not more, for the trick would pall on western ears; and not by me, who never could bear the atmosphere of libraries since I escaped from my studious father’s control. . . . I was standing there like a poor God-forsaken man-of-letters, making my final decision not to become a “modern.”  I did not want to become slight and fantastic, abstract and unintelligible.  I was doomed to go on imitating dead men, unless some impossible wind should blow me emotions or ideas, or a point of view, or even mere rhythms, that had not occurred to them.  There was nothing to do about it. (CP 4.385-86)

Jeffers’ apparent point in this critique masquerading as a story is that he was able to stay the course in spite of his bout of doubt and that this perseverance, this faithfulness to his talent, produced the “originality” that the reader who had purchased Roan Stallion was holding.  The story also suggests that the path to real and substantial originality is to continue to write within the established models of the tradition until the “new” insight offers itself; the preparation for originality is imitation, not deliberate experiment.  But there is more to the story than this.  The critique of “Mallarmé and his followers” is so extensive that it overwhelms the telling of the story, and it comes to function not just as a description of Jeffers’ apprenticeship (the anxiety he felt as he realized his contemporaries were no longer imitating the past) but also to stand as a defense of the kind of poet he became.

It is clear from the Introduction that Jeffers understood that his work, in spite of the extent of his audience in 1935 and the praise of some reviewers, was at odds with what the more advanced theorists of the day (taking their cue from the high modernist campaign for image, compression, and collage and against discursiveness and narrative) believed significant modern poetry should be.  It is also clear, both from the Introduction and “The Palace,” that he did want his poetry to be significant; to be popular was not enough.  In the Introduction he uses two strategies to suggest that his work matters: one personal and emotional, the other analytic and argumentative.  On the emotional level his story of doubt by the “Water-main,” his concern that he would not find his “originality,” gently mocks his youthful naiveté; it also (more importantly) implies that his subsequent “originality” is authentic, and if this is so, it not only justifies him in writing differently than his contemporaries and against the critical grain but obligates him to do so.  The unfashionableness of his work becomes a sign of its authenticity; it becomes part of the significance of the work.  That Pound and Eliot were writing from different principles was simply irrelevant (in spite of the critical cachet of their work).  For the story the Introduction presents, this would suffice; there would be no need for Jeffers to go on and analyze the poetic road not taken to validate the one he took.  But in the piece he not only to critiques the aesthetic principles of those he classes as “followers” of “Mallarmé’s aging dream,” but asserts that these principles lead to a poetry that is “slight and fantastic, abstract and unintelligible.”  Such poetry may involve great skill and might become momentarily fashionable, but it lacks real significance, because it is a poetry that “advanc[es] by progressively eliminating “aspect[s] of reality.”[1]  While both the more emotional anecdote of the “Water-main” and the more analytical critique of “modern” poetic experimentation function to defend Jeffers’ practice against the charge of being unfashionable, they are somewhat at odds with each other.  The story itself positions Jeffers as an authentically original poet whose work happens to develop along different (but equally legitimate) lines from his more fashionable contemporaries.  The analysis of Pound et al as followers of Mallermé and their campaign of originality by amputation is polemical and goes farther; it suggests that Jeffers’ position is legitimate (even if unfashionable), while the “modern” approach is misguided, lesser, and illegitimate.

Jeffers’ claim that he chose not to become a “modern” has typically been read by those who dismiss his work as an indication that he had little understanding of the aesthetic aims behind modernist experiment and that he chose to write in an aesthetic vacuum rather than rise to the modernist challenge (as if he were, in fact, a kind of lesser, misguided Whitman who lacked the true talent to make his aesthetic independence count), but the dissonance between the two levels of the Introduction points to something else.  What Jeffers sees in the “modern” is a series of “advance[s]” into greater and greater abstraction (the “austerities” of “originality by amputation”) that are actually a series of retreats from the practice of poetry as a significant public art.  This part of the Introduction, that is, amounts to a restatement of the critique in “The Palace.”  In backing away from the responsibility for significant content (“ideas”) and the elements of poetic language (“meter,” “imagery,” “recognizable emotions”) that would raise the engagement of those “ideas” to an imaginative pitch that would make them memorable and their exploration significant (even cathartic), the modernists were (in Jeffers’ reading of them) not only ignoring their responsibility to engage and extend the tradition but also reducing poetry to an intricate, elegant, accomplished but potentially trivial exercise for a small coterie of admirers.[2]

Whatever one makes of Jeffers’ conclusions about the dangers of high modernism, his critique (if we look beyond the simple declaration about choosing not to be a “modern”) suggests he knew what he was rejecting.  The critique also suggests that he saw his own experimentation with narrative poetry (though against the tide of contemporary fashion) as experiment within and on behalf of the tradition.  For Jeffers, modernism was a well-intentioned but misguided rejection of the substance, ambition, and obligation of the tradition; his goal was originality within the context of the tradition.  And by implication at least, his comments in the Introduction suggest that he had sought to develop his own modern approach without amputating ideas or meter or recognizable emotion.  But if Jeffers is clear about what poetry should not be (“slight and fantastic, abstract and unintelligible”), he says little in the Introduction about what it should actually be or how poetry in the modern period was to be of the tradition yet original (beyond the implicit invitation to read the poems of Roan Stallion as examples).  He does, though, offer a significant clue—at least in the manuscript.

In the Introduction as published Jeffers names Milton and Shelley as the poets he was still imitating in 1914 as he worried over his more advanced contemporaries playing leap frog in their imitations of each other.  The manuscript, written in thick, smudgy pencil, shows, however, that this sentence first read, “instead of imitating Wordsworth as I had done.”  “Wordsworth” is crossed out and “Shelley and Milton” added in its place.  As Jeffers worried about his lack of originality that fall in 1914, Milton and Shelley were plausibly central to him; the manuscript adjustment could, then, be simply a correction made to improve the accuracy of the account.  But Jeffers’ concern in the Introduction was not historical accuracy; it was, instead, how to cast this story of his apprenticeship so it would help validate his work as a significant alternative to the “modern.”  To confess to a youthful enthusiasm for Milton and Shelley was a safe move.  Even if touches of both can be found in the sense of rhetoric in his mature work, neither seem to account for the direction, character, or style of a narrative like Tamar (however much the narrative turns on a kind of revolt against fate and moral order, however much the situation of Shelley’s The Cenci hovers in the background).  Jeffers could admit to this part of his past without risking that it could be used to explain away or minimize the implicit claim to originality that is key to the authority he seeks to establish in the Introduction.  In naming Wordsworth, though, he would have run just this risk.  For one thing, Wordsworth became a much more central figure for Jeffers and his development than Milton and Shelley and inviting scrutiny of this could compromise the claim to radical originality.  Also, in the mid-1930s Wordsworth was out of fashion, with both the modernists and the New Critics.  Wordsworth was, it seemed, too discursive, too repetitious, too rhetorical to be a great poet.  Whatever his historical importance for British Romanticism and as Coleridge’s poetic ally, he was, finally, too prosaic and too prone to direct statement to be worthy of emulation.  For Jeffers to place his work in the context of Wordsworth (even as a past that he might claim he had outgrown) would be to invite the conclusion that his own discursiveness and willingness to incorporate direct statement, even his use of narrative, was simply a misguided continuation of what those he hoped to influence were apt to see as Wordsworth’s own flaws and limitations.

*

The Roan Stallion Introduction is, I think, typical of Jeffers’ prose comments on his career.  The surface is clear and lucid.  The sense of anecdote seems generous and genuine.  We are, it seems, invited to trust both the tale and its telling—so much so we may be apt to overlook how carefully Jeffers has shaped a piece for its specific occasion and in support of his aesthetic agenda.  If the surface is reminiscence, the undercurrent may well be polemic, and this, I’d suggest, makes them even more important to our efforts to understand his sense of his work and his achievement.

Notes

[1] Even though Jeffers here is recalling his sense of things in 1914, when Imagism was flourishing, his description of modernist poetry and poetics seems to reflect, as well, the intervening publication of  The Waste Land and perhaps as well some of Pound’s post-Imagist work.  Jeffers’ rejection of the logic of modernist experiment is also apparent in “Poetry, Gongorism, and a Thousand Years” from 1948.

[2]  Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998) explores, among other things, this emphasis of Pound and the modernists on cultivating various elite audiences rather than emphasizing a broader, more general readership.