[Originally published in Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet, Ed. Robert Brophy. New York: Fordham University Press, 1995. 64-83.]
Robinson Jeffers’ narrative poems were in large part the basis of his initial success in the mid-1920s. The sweep of their long lines was in striking contrast to the compressed, fragmented surface of much Modernist experiment, and their plots—often turning on incest and sexual violence—were compelling at least in part because they were shocking. But overall the narratives have been a problematic factor in Jeffers’ reputation. For one thing, by the mid-1920s most serious readers of poetry no longer considered the narrative a viable form, and Jeffers’ use of it seemed to mark him as a poetic reactionary in a generation of poetic radicals. For another, later generations of readers have been less shocked by the narratives’ actions and correspondingly more bothered by their seemingly excessive nature and tone. As a result, some have rejected Jeffers as a serious figure altogether, while others, Robert Boyers for one, have chosen to defend his work by trying to shift attention from the narratives (which Jeffers assumed were his main claim to significance) to his lyrics and short meditations. This impulse is certainly understandable; the best of the shorter pieces have an exemplary austerity and an impressive control of rhetoric and pace. But dismissing the narratives is a mistake, in spite of the problems they present. If they are the main impediment to establishing Jeffers as one of the major poets of his generation, they are, at the same time, the best means to make that case.
Various readings of the narratives have been advanced in recent years. Robert Brophy has explored their mythic elements and ritual structures; Robert Zaller has developed a psychoanalytic reading of them; Patrick Murphy has suggested they be approached dialogically as “verse novels”; and most recently William Everson has argued that the narratives are for Jeffers (and through him for the reader) a form of religious action. Much, though, remains to be done. I suspect, for instance, that we would learn a good deal about the nature of Jeffers’ narrative practice and its implications by following out his own hints in later years (in the Introduction to the 1935 Modern Library reissue of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, for instance) that his turn to narrative was at least partly shaped by his rejection of Imagism and early Modernist attempts at a poetry of collage. Such an investigation might well show us that Jeffers thought of narrative—at least his approach to it—as a radical aesthetic gesture, however much it might differ from the radicalism and experiment of his Modernist contemporaries. In this piece, though, I want to concentrate on the way Jeffers’ sense of nature helps explain his particular approach to narrative. In particular I want to suggest that his sense of nature and his strategies for narration are inextricably linked and that recognizing this link can give us additional ways to account for the violence of the poems and that this can help us clarify what our stake in this violence may be as readers. For the sake of space my focus will be one of Jeffers’ briefer and most admired narratives: “Roan Stallion,” first published in 1925 in Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems.
Jeffers’ view of nature was likely shaped in part by his graduate work in biology while a medical student, his graduate work in forestry, and his general interest in the discoveries of astronomy and physics in the early years of the century. These encounters immersed him in systems that celebrated levels of order and conflict beyond the human will, and his investment in them likely complicated his search for his voice as a poet. His earliest collection, Flagons and Apples (1912), shows him straining to adopt the aestheticism of the Pre-Raphaelites and turn of the century verse, a gesture fully in character for poets of his generation in their apprentice work but one complicated for him by such antithetical lessons as Darwin. While art affirmed (or was supposed to) that imagination and human making were central, science did not. And the often stilted, self-conscious quality of these early poems may reflect not simply Jeffers’ uncertainties about the nature and validity of poetry in a world defined partly by the perspective of science but also his tendency at this point to write poems more as an attempt to escape these uncertainties than to engage them. It took Jeffers some years to realize that he could incorporate the perspectives of science into his poetry—that indeed his double allegiance gave him little choice in the matter. And in part his turn to narrative reflects his search for a mode that would allow him to explore the complexities of his desire to affirm beauty and human meaning and yet also affirm his recognition of the insignificance of human desire and will in the natural order that science revealed.
By the time of “Roan Stallion” the view of nature Jeffers had derived at least partly from his engagement with science had become fundamental—both thematically and formally—to his narrative work. In the mature poems nature figures as a kind of ultimate reality that comprehends the physical world and the life’s different orders into a single, all-encompassing organism that we know (to the extent that we can know it) both by its materiality and its perpetual alternation of destruction and renewal. In particular Jeffers is compelled by this quality of transformation, and his focus on it is largely the way he moves beyond the positivism of late nineteenth century science to formulate a “nature” that is both scientific and aesthetic. In a key 1920 lyric, “Continent’s End,” he images nature as both an ultimate material process—”tides of fire”—and simultaneously as a unifying awareness—”the eye that watched”—produced by this flux, bound to it, yet comprehending and transcending it. Nature, that is, is more than matter and process; it is the energy behind them and an awareness emerging from them. As such it is (at least at this level of abstraction) both material and ideal.
The dualism in this vision of nature (nature as material process/nature as transcendent awareness) helps shape Jeffers’ approach to narrative. Nature’s vision of itself—that full simultaneity of participation in the flux of being and transcending consciousness—is only partially and intermittently available to us as individuals. Only nature at its ultimate, as God, can unify experiencing and knowing, and even for God, knowing cannot be separated from the experience of destruction and renewal, a process which we can only imagine at the human level as a kind of suffering. And even at this ultimate level that Jeffers imagines, nature cannot fully know itself; it cannot translate itself into knowledge, since that would require being able to escape the transformations that are its basic condition. Jeffers’ sense of nature, that is, allows the action of knowing but does not allow translating knowing into something as final and fixed as knowledge; that would abstract knowing from being. Knowing can only emerge from experience and is dialectically bound to it.
At the human level, our ability to be and know nature is necessarily less than nature’s own, and human knowing is further compromised in Jeffers’ view by our desire to blind ourselves to our participation in the flux of being and to substitute the illusion of knowledge for the risk, pain, and redemption of knowing (a knowing which is at best partial and temporary because of our human limits). As such, knowing is most likely when circumstances compel us to confront the flux our being—our immersion in “the tides of fire.” The other possibility is to enter these “tides” willingly, and this is a key to Jeffers’ narrative practice. Through imaginative imitation (a form of participation in nature), we can imitate nature and partly discover/experience its terms, its paradoxical unity. We can enter “the tides of fire” and momentarily know “the eye that watched.” Partly because of its capacity for scope and partly because it could be used to enact process, narrative offered Jeffers this potential for imitation and discovery.
Narrative was for Jeffers, then, a way to probe the limits of our ability to experience nature’s reality and our capacity to become conscious of it. It was a strategy for using the figures of the poem to imitate and enter nature’s process and thereby draw both poet and reader into moments that might temporarily approximate nature’s simultaneity of being and knowing. As such, his narratives are not, as most narratives are, stories about characters but rather “stories” about nature. As Jeffers himself later noted,
one reason for writing narrative poetry … [is] because certain scenes awake an emotion that seems to overflow the limits of lyric or description, [and] one tries to express it in terms of human lives. Thus each of my too many stories has grown up like a plant from some particular canyon or promontory, some particular relationship of rock and water, wood, grass and mountain. (Jeffers Country 10)
The characters, that is, serve to express nature, not the reverse: they are images that reveal nature’s flux, their actions enact that flux, and the pain of their being exists to engage us in nature’s process and bring us through it to the momentary and partial simultaneity of being and knowing which is as close as we can come to nature’s ceaseless simultaneity of the “tides of fire” and “the eye that watched.”
As such the characters and their acts are a means to nature, not ends in themselves, and we seldom identify with them as people even when they are at their most compelling. In a way this relative lack of identification seems to invite a kind of passive spectatorship that would undercut the process of participation the poems must enact to be successful, but the poems, as Jeffers suggests, take their basic emotion not from the characters but from “scenes” and what they “awake” for the poet and through the poet for the reader. The consciousness at stake in the narratives is not, that is, the consciousness of the characters so much as the consciousness of nature, poet, and reader, and becoming too involved in the characters as individuals would actually tend to reinforce the exclusively human perspective, the blindness, the poems attempt to counteract. The key point here is that Jeffers’ narratives are, in effect, dramas of consciousness, and they take their particular energy from the tensions Jeffers find inherent in human consciousness.
For Jeffers consciousness figures as both a kind of redemption and a kind of damnation—perhaps more a redemption intertwined with a damnation. It awakens us to nature’s beauty and gives us the power to identify with and participate in its transcendence. But this identification—and the transcendence—is always partial and temporary, since consciousness is also self-awareness. Unlike the organisms and objects about us, we are always at least partly aware of ourselves; we know nature from our individual and collective perspective as one of its parts. We can neither see the whole nor what it would be like to see as the whole, and our sense of the beauty comes only from participating in nature’s flux. As a result, the actual transcendence of knowing is always rooted in our recognition of the pain of being, mortality, and our own insignificance as individuals and species. In Jeffers there is no final escape from being, and this sense of being beyond time yet in it prevents us from participating fully in the flux of the moment. It alienates us from the being it enables us to know and celebrate. Just as being precludes full knowing, knowing precludes full being. Only God (the power that acts through and is nature) escapes the paradox and is fully both. At best, as Jeffers said in a different context, we are “the ape of that God”(“Apology for Bad Dreams”). We can imitate but not attain God’s being and awareness. This is both the despair of the human condition and its significance. For in our aping we may momentarily realize nature—our pain in it and the beauty of and beyond it. By glimpsing the whole, we may at moments grasp, yet escape, our mortality.
As such, the narratives deflect the kind of identification we expect to have with the characters as a way of relocating human intensity, not denying it. In the narratives, that is, we identify less with the characters Jeffers creates than (through them) with the poet’s and our own struggle to know and momentarily face nature’s flux. As a result, reading the poems is to reenact the poet’s own struggle to enter nature’s flux through his imaginary characters. Thus, much of the actual force of the poems comes from our participation in the narrator’s evolving relationship to his characters and changing distance to them. This is what draws us into nature and consciousness and convinces us that the poems start from Jeffers’ own intensity (as they must if they’re to reach the pitch of knowing). This does not, though, mean the narratives are a kind of covert confession or the sort of self-reflexive gesture we associate with more recent literary experiments. If they were either, the focus would be, finally, on the poet’s personality, and the poems would leave us as locked in the human world, as isolated from nature, as would focusing on the personality of the characters. What it does suggest is that the poems are a real process, though an imaginary world, through which we join the poet as he apes God and through which we come to exist and know within the same general limits he does.
Many of Jeffers’ narratives explore characters whose views of the world deny nature’s fundamental force. These are often ranch people a generation removed from the frontier and their parents’ Protestant certainty. In spite of the intense beauty of the landscape they inhabit (the Big Sur coast and mountains of California), their world has been shaped more by society, culture, and history than the land they work, and as a result, they experience the land (or at least the society it supports) as constriction and deprivation, even when they value the escape from town and city that it seems to afford. In these poems the central characters typically discover the nature they’ve denied and are destroyed by it when its power shatters the false consciousness they’ve erected between themselves and it. In “Roan Stallion,” though, Jeffers uses a different sort of figure to approach nature: a woman, California, who seems so fully part of the landscape through which she moves that she all but embodies it. For her society is the distant abstraction, nature the immediate presence, and she, unlike her counterparts in the other narratives, has experienced the terms of being, not denied them. But in spite of this grounding, she too must suffer and discover. Although she participates in nature, she has not actually faced its problematic implications—she has not yet become conscious. Nature for her is still something to be known, and she must, like the figures in the other narratives, discover the fracture between being and knowing. For her, though, her different route to the moment of vision alters both what she suffers and what she discovers. Instead of the violence of nature, she suffers what might be termed the violence of consciousness, and for her the fracture between being and knowing is something she experiences as a momentary realization of what Jeffers would call God.
Ironically, California’s simplicity as a figure is the basic problem in writing the poem and reading it. Although her immediacy, her lack of introspection, immerses her in nature’s flux, it also makes her largely unknowable to herself and others. It (including her relatively limited resources for self-expression) stands as a kind of preconsciousness that poet, narrator, and reader are already too distanced from nature and too self-aware to experience directly; we can only infer something of her world from her actions. Actually it would be more accurate to say that we know her through the narrator’s (largely implicit) actions of imagining (projecting) the poem, and this makes the poem, in effect, two intertwined processes: a tracing of California’s discovery of the terms of being as she enters consciousness through her desire for the stallion and the narrator’s own attempt to evoke her discovery in such a way that he (and we as readers) sufficiently set aside our own consciousness—yet without losing it—to enter her world. As such, the poem is paradoxically an attempt to lose, but not lose, consciousness through the process of California gaining hers. As readers we can enter fully into neither process, but the interaction between the two becomes a kind of refraction that makes the process of consciousness (both the narrator’s and California’s) sufficiently real that we too confront the fracture between being and knowing. Through California (or more properly the poet’s attempt to imagine her) we realize something of the tragic world (at least from the human perspective) of God’s knowing through its own ceaseless transformations, its unfoldings and dissolutions.
This complexity of narration in “Roan Stallion” is, as it must be, something we all but overlook. If we were to focus on it while reading the poem, we would lose our sense that California’s struggle is real. But if we do not sense the narrator’s attempt to imagine the character, project her world, and confront it, we would remain, finally, alienated from the poem’s process. The poem, that is, must establish the “reality” of both the character’s world and the narrator’s (though subordinating the latter) if the poem is to work.
The poem’s opening verse paragraphs demonstrate how Jeffers posits California’s world as real yet invented, interpreted, and to be interpreted. Emphasizing sound and action, the opening lines treat the physical world as immediately present and all but transparent: “The dog barked; then the woman stood in the doorway, and hearing iron strike stone down the steep road / Covered her head with a black shawl and entered the light rain; she stood at the turn of the road”(179). Most obviously this unit asserts California’s immediate reality; she hears and stands in the rain. Less obviously it signals our distance from this world. Although the dog’s bark presumably calls the woman out, the narrator does not link sound and act. We are onlookers, not participants. We have the details, but not the context to interpret them, and for the narrator to offer California’s thoughts at this point (for instance, California heard the dog bark and realized the wagon would soon be there) would lessen both the immediacy of this physical world and the impression that she (in her all but unconscious state) embodies and expresses it. These opening lines, that is, push us to suspend momentarily our habit of fitting whatever we encounter into a human and social frame, and to that extent they push us toward the immediacy of the perceptual world and are a first, if minor step, outside the world of consciousness into the world of being (though it should be noted that this world of being is not actually California’s).
In part, though, the success of this opening unit is also a measure of its failing. Uninterpreted actions and details cannot draw us into California’s world nor establish its implications, but neither can interpretation, since its appeal to known patterns and values undercuts the immediacy of perception. Here again the opening lines are suggestive. A second look shows that they do not actually set interpretation aside altogether. Although the narrator simply juxtaposes the bark and the woman in the doorway, he does link her stepping into the rain to her “hearing iron strike.” In part this marks the difficulty of setting aside our habits, but it also demonstrates how the narration itself becomes a part of the action. By offering the link, the narrator moves toward the world of his character and gives us what he imagines to be her perception and her reaction. He then leaves us to infer (as he has presumably done but as she does not need to do, since we react to our own perceptions more than we note and interpret them) that the sound of iron is a wheel of an unseen wagon. We are, that is, moving into a curious realm where we are in part outside the character and aware of a reality physically immediate and distinct from her yet inside and seeing through her perceptions—perceptions that are immediate enough that they seem, appropriately enough for the poem, prior to thought.
By itself the shift within the opening lines might seem inadvertent, or not there at all, but it anticipates the narrator’s greater presence in the rest of the opening verse paragraph. The woman, we discover in the third line, is “nobly formed…erect and strong as a new tower”(179). These qualities help define her particular presence, but do so by stressing the kinds of abstractions the opening avoids, abstractions that reflect the narrator’s world as much as the character’s and that help justify the way the narrator next reifies her into a kind of regional emblem:
…she was only a fourth part Indian; a Scottish sailor had planted her in young native earth,
Spanish and Indian, twenty-one years before. He had named her California when she was born;
That was her name; and had gone north. (179)
The narrator attributes the naming to the sailor, but the merger here of genealogy, history, and name—the hybrid California of the present and the earlier “native earth”—brings us out of the world as the character knows it, beyond the world of the sailor, and toward an allegorical dimension that originates with the narrator, or poet. (The sailor might also have meant the name allegorically, but if so, the narrator’s allegory here erases, rather supplants, that earlier gesture.) This passage, then, extends our ability to interpret more than our ability to participate. It replaces perception with abstraction. But the effect is not, finally, of abstraction, because the implicitly interpretive motion within the first two lines has prepared us to experience interpretation as itself a motion that retrospectively extends the narrator’s stake in his own material back to the beginning. We experience the narrator, that is, not simply as a source or place of interpretation but as an action in the way he moves from recognizing a quality, “nobly formed,” to interpreting it through the greater abstraction of the simile “strong as a new tower,” to creating the incipient allegory that closes the passage. And taken as a whole the first verse paragraph casts the act of perception (which opens it) and the act of interpretation (which closes it) as complements that ground and intensify each other.
The narrator’s changing relationship with his own imagining is an important part of “Roan Stallion’s” power. The process, though often implicit, creates the sense that we participate in California’s world even as we know we stand outside it. This is something the opening of the second verse paragraph demonstrates. Like the poem’s first lines, it imitates the sequence of California’s perceptions as it presents the nearing horse and wagon, but these lines are richer because we read them as a kind of reaction to the first part’s all but allegorical conclusion. Without seeming to violate California’s perspective, the details are both her perceptions and the narrator’s (and our own) implicit interpretations of them. For California the figure on the buggy seat, her husband Johnny, is literally twisted around to hold the stallion’s halter. To us, the word “twisted” (suspended at the line’s end for emphasis) and his eyes, “burnt-out” with “fortune in them”(179), combine to evoke his moral squalor and alienation from the vitality California represents even before we observe his exploitation of her. Moreover, Jeffers’ approach to narration (whether we respond to it explicitly or implicitly) is more than a strategy to enrich our participation in the character and the details of her world. It is also a thematic factor. The narrator’s interaction with the figures he presents makes him an implicit character in the poem; he exists not simply to relate an already made and interpreted set of elements but as a device to experience and discover what is latent, inherent, in the set. The story, that is becomes two stories: the story of California and the stallion (foregrounded through most of the poem) and the story of the narrator who invents the elements of the first story, immerses himself in them, and struggles toward vision by means of them.
This second narrative (implicit early in the poem) becomes increasingly visible and significant as the narrator progressively deepens California’s conflicted relationship to being and consciousness and as she and the narrator each move toward their intertwined moments of crisis and vision. In the first phase of the poem, the narrator is least involved and least visible. He invokes the figures, then (largely) stands aside as an observer and lets the realistic elements of California’s basic situation drive the poem forward. The initial situation is a relatively simple one. Her husband, “an outcast Hollander … shriveled with bad living,” wins a stallion by “luck” (180). For her, its power and beauty become an intensely troubling presence that measures the pathetic Johnny and her own compromises. Whether these compromises are by chance or design isn’t important. Either way, the stallion confronts her with the limits of her own being, and her desire for it, or what it represents, impels her toward recognizing nature’s power. Most simply the stallion leads her to discover that she can only be alive to her world, including the stallion’s beauty, through consciousness (both the pain that produces it and the pain of consciousness itself).
At first, California desires the stallion but fails to recognize this. Instead she resents it as an emblem of her own exploited condition. Like the tired buckskin mare Johnny leaves in her care, she works, goes without, and passively accepts male vanity and privilege. Although she does not yet consciously admit the implications of this, the narrator progressively fuses mare and woman into a single figure, as California first prepares the mare for the trip to Monterey and then returns. This is, again, in a sense the narrator’s action; he draws an equivalency California would not (at least yet) accept or recognize. But in crossing the storm flooded ford she responds in ways that presume the equivalency. Touching the mare’s “animal surface” as it shakes “like the beat of a great heart,” she imagines a “water-stallion” about to, as she puts it, “‘curl over his woman'” (184). And for her the crossing becomes an experience of nature as a kind of sexual violence writ large (the water stallion’s mating) even as it becomes an attempt to deny that realization through the appeal to the guiding innocence of baby Jesus (her vision of a baby surrounded by angels with “bird’s heads, hawk’s heads” and holding “A little snake with golden eyes” underscores the intensity and ambivalence of her vision) (185).
As the ford scene suggests, the identification of mare and woman is by no means a simple matter. It involves more than simile or metaphor. The woman is not like a mare, nor is she a mare (or the other way around). Either way of understanding the identification, for us as readers or the woman herself, would impose human terms on it, reduce it to a symptom to be explained by some system or other, and thereby deny the vision’s significance. Rather mare and woman are alike in each expressing a more comprehensive, fluid, and powerful dynamic, in which the ongoing process of destruction and renewal, of energy becoming matter and matter energy, is like the sexual dynamic (rather the sexual dynamic is like it). In this sense, the equation between mare and woman points to a reality that is neither of them but in which each participates. Significantly California need not recognize this archetypal alignment for it to call forth the water stallion (and possibly the archetype, if that’s the best term for it, works only if she does not recognize it). But recognize it or not, the water stallion constellates the desires and fears the stallion represents but which she can neither express nor act on nor deny. The water stallion expresses, or rather is, nature as power, and California’s immersion, her figurative coupling with it, is a baptism into nature that then leads to the need for consciousness, and the beginning of consciousness brings her conflicts to the surface but in no sense resolves them.
In the first phase of the poem, then, the stallion initiates California’s discovery of nature as power, but we see this discovery primarily through the narrator’s imagery and her actions, because she herself is still not prepared to set aside her ambivalence and recognize what the stallion is and represents. In addition, she thinks through her senses. This, the root of her participation in nature, enables her to respond to the stallion but means she has few terms to represent her relationship to it or her confusion. The ford scene, though, not only confronts her with the world she has entered through her desire but also offers her for the first time metaphors, a vocabulary, to explore it, and this initiates the poem’s second phase in which California’s attempt to express the issues through the images she has experienced drives her farther into her own being, farther into consciousness, and to a second and more comprehensive merger with nature’s power and a second and more volatile moment of vision.
In California’s initial meditation after the ford scene (the start of the poem’s second phase), she hates but doesn’t hate the stallion; sees it as part, but not part, of Johnny’s vanity; dismisses it is a mere animal, “too cheap to breed,” yet fantasizes it “rang[ing] in freedom, / Shaking the red-roan mane for a flag on the bare hills”(187). Her growing awareness of her confusion and ability to express it is particularly evident when she describes her experience at the ford to her young daughter. A mare has been brought up to be serviced; California, though she wants to watch, stays indoors and tries to distract the child by telling “once more about the miracle of the ford” (187). However, in her account of how “the little Jesus” lighted her way to save her, she substitutes terms that evoke the water stallion, the figure that mediates her sense of the actual stallion. She inadvertently refers to the Virgin Mary as “‘the stallion’s wife,'” and God becomes first “a red-roan mane” “rang[ing] on the bare blue hill of the sky,” then “‘the shining and the power. The power, the terror, the burning fire [that] covered her over,'” and then “‘the hooves'” and “‘terrible strength'” to which the Mary/stallion’s wife gives herself “‘without thinking'”(l87-88). The account conflates California’s vision at the ford, the biblical annunciation, her own intuition of the archetypal mating of divine and human as an inexpressible covering of power, and it fuses these elements into a story that begins to express the dynamic of being and define her possible participation in it. As such, it testifies to her increased awareness, but this awareness is itself complex and conflicted. As she comes to recognize nature’s inherent power and flux, the “tides of fire,” she also begins to sense that accepting this power means being “covered” not simply with “the shining and the power” but also the “burning.” Her growing awareness of this potentially alienates her from being even as it draws her more fully, more consciously, into it; unlike the Mary/stallion’s wife of her story who gives herself to “the hooves” “without thinking,” California is already enmeshed in a form of thinking—her attempt to tell the story of her vision (more her attempt to tell her vision as a story?).
The way California nervously disavows these substitutions as she tells the story indicates both her partial understanding of what she senses and her intense ambivalence about it. She desires the flux of being yet intuits that “shining” and “strength” can be “terrible.” The scene outside the corral further intensifies her ambivalence; it is both an occasion for the stallion to be “The power, the terror, the burning fire” and yet an exploitative denial of that power—a mere transaction that celebrates (even as it indicts) Johnny’s degraded and degrading pretense to the stallion’s power. Ironically Johnny himself underscores this disparity when he, after the stallion finishes, confronts California. His “face reddened as if he had stood / Near fire, his eyes triumphing,” he brags that he’ll return the following night and “show her how the red fellow act, the big fellow”(188). Johnny here confronts California with the split between his own debased use of the stallion to gratify his desire for personal power and her own sense (and selfless recognition) of its power as a form of beauty. Doing so, he inadvertently catalyzes her to act and precipitates her (and the narrator’s) second visionary moment. Least importantly, he sets in motion the forces that destroy him.
In the scene that follows, California’s actions again initially testify to her partial awareness of the nature and conflicted implications of her desire. Most simply she wants to deny the cheap lust and mere reality of Johnny’s world that constricts her much as the stallion’s corral constricts its freedom. She wants to escape both the constriction and her own sense of the contradictions that enmesh her. She wants to escape to the “shining open” hills and the “enormous night” where she imagines she may find God “brooding his night”(190). In effect, she wants the ecstasy of the ford without the terror. She wants the peace outside the flux of being, the transcendence of the “eye that watched,” a world with the “Father himself’ that is prior to (or beyond) both the mating of the Mary/stallion’s wife with the “burning fire” and her own empty servicing of Johnny—acts which, like the stallion serving as stud, evoke the larger flux that sexual desire points to and in part expresses. At the same time her choice of the stallion to carry her to see “the Father…brooding his night” shows that her flight is also toward the dimension of the vision at the ford which was its terror and which she now in part desires. She wants not only to see God but to become the stallion’s wife, to mate with God. This, though, is something she cannot explicitly admit without confronting the stallion’s beauty and power as both the agency of her desire for God and the God she desires. She cannot, that is, admit that the stallion has come to be for her God’s embodiment or God itself (a distinction perhaps significant for us as readers but not for her) without also affirming a desire to immerse herself in the “tides of fire.” Still, it is no accident that her image of God quickly shifts from a “brooding” “Father” sitting “cross-legged, chin in hand” to a figure “Leaping the hills, shaking the red-roan mane for a flag”(190).
Simply describing California’s story (both the one she imagines and the one she acts out) and her images for it suggest that “Roan Stallion” is inherently allegorical, but these elements do not, finally, construct an allegory. That would imply that the narrator (or the poet) had a godlike ability to stand outside the flux of being and use the mediation of the work to interpret the world from a secure and transcendent position. Such authority, though, would divorce being from knowing and deny their interdependence. It would affirm one at the expense of the other. This is not to argue that “Roan Stallion” is without an allegorical dimension but rather to suggest that this allegorical dimension functions as a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is not a frame containing the poem’s significance. Instead, the allegorical is a capacity the narrator uses to begin to bring nature’s terms into consciousness, and these terms then become, like the terms he has California invent for her own conflicted desire, both potentially enabling and disabling. They can be evaded, or they can be engaged and overturned through the risk of action—violational action. The allegory, that is, exists to be outstripped, and it must be if the poem is to imitates nature’s process and enable narrator/poet/reader to approach God’s simultaneity of being and knowing. This means that the poet must refuse the temptation to use the poem to enact meanings in the usual sense and instead use it to enact himself through the figures he creates. Moreover, he must do so by immersing himself (in as total and voluntary a manner as God) into their being and consciousness—including the violational excess—and committing himself to it. Failing to do this would reduce the poem to encoded (and false) knowledge and make the poem a trap, an illusory escape from the conditions of being and consciousness.
In “Roan Stallion” the narrator/poet’s moment of crisis coincides with California’s own and takes the form of two extended passages that interrupt the narrative. The first provides the transition to the poem’s third phase and bridges between Johnny’s threat to be “the big fellow” on his return and California’s ride into the hills. The second coincides with (actually substitutes for) California’s momentary and violational union with the stallion/God. In both, the narrator speaks in his own alternately lyric and declamatory voice. In part the comments gloss the process California enacts, but more importantly these breaks in the story invite us to see it as something the narrator has invented (and is inventing) out of his own need to push beyond his own conflicted desires. As such the narrator’s telling of the story—the flashes of insight, the evasions, the momentum and falterings—are analogous to California’s own attempt to discover yet control her story as she tells it to her daughter. And even though the abstract assertions about “Humanity” and “Tragedy” in these passages (especially in the first) might seem to make this the moment when the poem becomes fully (if obscurely) allegorical, it is actually the point where the poem escapes (one might say consumes) its allegorical tendency and where the narrator (more properly the poet) commits himself to the risk of “aping” the knowing which is God by committing himself to the fire of being.
The placement of the first intrusion suggests how it functions. Having brought California to her conflicted desire to become the Mary/stallion’s wife, her terror at the prospect, and her all but recognition of her own contrasting and degraded mating with Johnny, the poet must choose what is to happen to her and what his stake in it will be. Like California he must decide whether or not to mount the “bare” and “shining” hill. Although the speaker’s language here tends toward the abstract and cosmic (and thus differs fundamentally from the language he has given California and into which he has made her), it is nonetheless (significantly and appropriately) a language of crisis, and his attempt in the passage to summarize God, violence, and tragedy is less an attempt to explain what the poem means or has meant than his attempt to will himself fully into the process of the poem and complete it. Thus, when the narrator declares that “Humanity is the start of the race…the coal to break into fire,” the claim stands not simply as a proposition but as a testimonial gesture revealing his own need to “break into fire” if he is to make a “praise”—to become the “praise”—of the God that “walks lightning-naked on the Pacific.” As the narrator recognizes, “humanity” (including the poet) is “the last/ Least taint…of the solution” of being, but “the praise” is something “He approves” (189-90).
Here, as in the poem’s beginning (even though the tactic differs) the character’s world and the narrator’s world elicit, shape, and constitute each other. The narrator’s metaphors extend our sense of California, but his own reactions demonstrate that she herself (her desire, passion, and confusion) is a metaphor, a figure rather, impelling his own motion toward accepting the tides of fire and attaining a moment of consciousness beyond the usual abstraction or convention that passes for knowing. She is the “vision that fools him / Out of his limits”(189), just as her “desire” fools her out of hers (and just as the poem perhaps fools us out of ours). And as such, the narrator must decide whether to risk the vision she represents. To risk the violation, though, he must do more than simply invent what his character will experience and then distance himself from it through his ability to interpret it psychologically or symbolically. Instead, he must commit himself through his full power of imagination to experience the violation he creates for his character as if his own. And the language of this intrusion, thus, marks the beginning of a kind of simultaneous implosion (in which the figures of the poem collapse into the narrator and the narrator into the poet) and explosion as the violational leap beyond norms and limits into the beauty of nature’s flux “Slit[s] eyes in the mask” of the invented structures that usually protect and alienate us from what “walks lightning-naked on the Pacific” and “laces the suns with planets, / The heart of the atom with electrons”(189). With the intrusions the poet not only violates his narrative, his poem, but commits himself to his characters and rises to the risk of violation in and through them.
The intrusions also mark a commitment to something that outstrips language and its categories. Words, metaphors, and the figures we construct from them can point to being’s flux and power; they can even enact processes that confront us with our conflicted, partial relationship to it and trigger moments of vision; they cannot, though, become or control that being. And this is particularly apparent in the second intrusion, which closes this phase of the poem and which pushes the limits of language and knowing even further, all but erasing the distinction between California’s story and the act of imagining it. The passage follows the narrator’s brief description of California and the stallion on the “calvary” of the hilltop, where she kneels to the stallion, “draggled” but “brokenly adoring” and “pray[ing] aloud.” She addresses it as “God,” “fear,” “strength,” and above all “clean power,” then lies “weeping” before it (193). The narrator then modulates into his own moment of vision, a vision that corresponds with hers, derives from his attempt to imagine hers, yet is finally not hers, since hers cannot, he claims, be known. But out of that unknowable “lightning,” he imagines “a crucified man [that] writhed up in anguish” and then “A woman covered by a huge beast in whose mane the stars were netted … [that] Smiled under the unendurable violation, her throat swollen with the storm and blood-flecks gleaming / On the stretched lips”(l94).
In one sense, the narrator’s failure to offer California’s “actual” thoughts or actions contradicts his ability (and willingness) to do so earlier in the poem, and this failure is even more problematic in that this intrusion does not simply bridge between two moments in the plot but effaces one of its most crucial moments. However, the narrator is not simply being coy or choosing for the sake of decorum to leave what happens between California and the horse unsaid. Rather, to describe it (whatever the it might be) would either force the reader to treat it as a literal event and psychologize it or to treat it as symbolic and push it toward the realm of myth. Either would turn the poem toward a statement of knowledge and away from participation and discovery. For the moment to be fully violational it must be the speaker/poet enacting and experiencing it. And this must happen at a pitch where what is imagined and the act of imagining outstrips language and where language (as it consumes itself) becomes a momentary light. At this level it doesn’t matter whether the vision is first her image of Christ and then her actual mating with the stallion, her image of Christ and her dream of mating with the stallion, or the narrator’s own violational imagining of both imposed on the figure of California. The competing explanations (as with the vision at the ford where the vision might be hysterical hallucination, allegorical emblem, etc.) do not really count, even though the need to explain and the possible explanations paradoxically intensify the passage’s reality even as they reveal it as an imagined act. What becomes real in the passage is the narrator’s (and our) discovery of the different realities and the correspondences that modulate yet unify them, and through this strategy the poem evokes as a reality (yet does not contain or embody) a simultaneity of “unendurable violation”/absolute and transcendent vision which is beyond time, yet is in time and momentary and on the verge of collapse even as it attains its greatest pitch.
It is, thus, no surprise (in fact the logic of Jeffers’ narrative practice in part determines this) that powerful as California’s vision is (rather the vision of the fused figure of narrator and California) neither the vision nor the fusion can be sustained, and this limit shapes “Roan Stallion’s” final phase, a coda to the vision on the “calvary” of the hilltop. When Johnny, the next night, tries to fulfill his boast that he can “‘show her how the red fellow act,'” California leads him to the corral where she allows the stallion to trample him, then, “moved by some obscure human fidelity” shoots the stallion(l98). California’s reasons (though presumably experienced more as a kind of impulse) for standing by while the stallion reduces Johnny to “A smear on the moon-lake earth” are easy to imagine; her reasons for then shooting the stallion perhaps less so, though the “human fidelity” seems to be the daughter who pleads with her to shoot. But whatever California’s precise motivation, the significance of the moment is clear. In the moment before she shoots the stallion, “Each separate nerve-cell of her brain flaming the stars fell from their places / Crying in her mind”(198). In this moment she again becomes human, and the stallion again becomes a horse. In the narrator’s vision of California’s vision, her skull is “a shell full of lightning,” and her vision is like the “atom bounds-breaking” that, in its release of energy, becomes “self-equaling, the whole to the whole”(l94). The vision itself, the ecstasy, has been the release of the individual nerves from the bounds of identity, and here the tug of the human link ravels the nerves (and identity) together again. Similarly, in the same passage the narrator has imagined her as “A woman covered by a huge beast in whose mane the stars were netted,” and as the stars fall, the image falls, both for her and him. She has lapsed, as inevitably she must, back within the limits of human visions. The slits of the mask have closed, and she “turn[s] on her little daughter the mask of a woman/ Who has killed God”(198).
In this final moment of the poem we see the narrator’s full stake in it. Simultaneously, killing the stallion is an act to release the energy, the spirit, and a rejection of it. Appropriately, the gesture is loaded and paradoxical for both character and narrator. For California killing the stallion is tragic enough, but the last sentence indicates it is equally, yet differently, tragic for the narrator. The “smell of the spilt wine [that] drift[s] down hill”(198) at the close suggests how much the poem has been about sacrifice: the sacrifice of Johnny to the stallion, the stallion to the daughter and human limits (or to God), the sacrifice of California to the narrator. But California’s lack of selfawareness and language (though it enables her to experience her desire so completely) means she neither sees this fully nor realizes its implications. The narrator, though, does. F or him it doesn’t matter that California’s act can be explained, since its significance is not what it reveals about the human world and condition but what it reveals (or allows us to glimpse) about nature and God. For if “the essence” is “the white fire” that forms and consumes itself, all incarnations are partial and temporary, and all vision (fated or chosen) an act of self-sacrifice. In a primary sense this is the “Tragedy” of the poem, not the violence or pain, not even the destruction, but that vision, the appreciation of the beauty beyond the violence, is at best partial and temporary. As such the narrator imitates—but only imitates—God’s own perpetual coming into consciousness and God’s own sacrifice; and our participation becomes not only a recognition of a world beyond our own limits and suffering but a recognition of the world’s own unending destruction and renewal in which the only transcendence is itself incarnation, limit, pain—and beauty.
This essay is an extension of “Nature, Narrative, and Knowing: Jeffers and the Mode of Roan Stallion,” the introduction to The Yolla Bolly Press edition of Roan Stallion. I would like to thank the press and James Robertson for permission to publish the reworked sections.
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Brophy, Robert. Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems. Cleveland: P of Case Western Reserve U, 1973.
Everson, William. The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.
Hunt, Tim. “Introduction.” The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Vol I. Ed. Tim Hunt. Stanford: Stanford UP,
——. “Nature, Narrative, and Knowing: Jeffers and the Mode of Roan Stallion.” Roan Stallion. By Robinson Jeffers. Ed. Tim Hunt. Covelo, CA, 1990: Yolla Bolly P.
——. “The Problematic Nature of Tamar and Other Poems.” Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers. Ed. Robert Zaller. Newark, DE: U of Delaware P, 1991.
Jeffers, Robinson. “Apology for Bad Dreams.” The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Vol I. Ed. Tim Hunt. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1988.
——. Flagons and Apples. Los Angeles: Grafton, 1912. Cayucos, CA: Cayucos Books, 1974.
——. “Introduction.” Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems. New York: The Modem Library (Random House): 1935.
——. “Introduction.” Jeffers Country: The Seed Plots of Robinson Jeffers’ Poetry. Ed. Horace Lyon. San Francisco: Scrimshaw P, 1971.
——. “Roan Stallion.” The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Vol I. Ed. Tim Hunt. Stanford: Stanford UP,1988.
Murphy, Patrick. “Reclaiming the Power: Robinson Jeffers’s Verse Novels.” Western American Literature 22 (1987): 125-48.
Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Cambridge UP, 1983.
 For more on this point see Hunt, “Nature, Narrative, and Knowing” 1-2 and Hunt, Collected Poetry xxi-xxiii.
 For a discussion of how Jeffers seems first to have adapted this sense of nature in the lyrics of the early 1920s see Hunt, “The Problematic Nature of Tamar and Other Poems.”
 Murphy suggests that these intrusions function dialogically and that Bakhtin’s emphasis on narrative as a process and form of action can be usefully applied to “Roan Stallion” and the other narratives. This, I’d suggest, is partly true. In a dialogical reading the characters are presumed each to have a kind of ideological independence, and the narrative is imagined as the site where these perspectives compete and play out. The author does not dictate which perspective should be privileged or authoritative. Although California is more than simply a counter illustrating some predetermined meaning and although the poem’s stress on participation and confrontation subverts translating it into final statements or a single, static interpretation, the poem remains largely governed by the author’s perspective. The poet (or his narrator) invents and projects the narrative figures not for the sake of their own dialogue but in order himself to act through them. The poem retains an authorial center, and what dismantles monological authority is less the competing voices of the characters than the way they become counters in an oddly hybridized meditative ritual or ritualized meditation that enmeshes us in our problematic relationship to the dynamic of being and knowing. In “Roan Stallion,” for all its indeterminacy, it is the sense of an authorial center that makes the process seem sufficiently real to be compelling, and the poem’s indeterminacy derives in part from the way we sense that this authorial presence is in the process of becoming through the action of the poem.
 For a discussion of “Roan Stallion’s” sacrificial patterns see Brophy 75-110.