“Mornings in Hell”: Jeffers’ Struggle with Politics in The Double Axe

[The paper below was drafted for this year’s Robinson Jeffers Association annual conference (2/23-2/25, 2018).  It relates to a broader discussion I hope to develop in the coming months that would explore how Jeffers both conceals and reveals his personal stake in his material and and how this might problematize (and thereby enrich) the philosophical and ideological claims found in the poetry, which at times are treated as the primary feature of his work.  While the ideas the poetry presents clearly matter and deserve careful study, the ideas emerge from and exist in tension with the experiences recorded (or imagined) in the poetry.  The often cited claim from “Hurt Hawks” that the speaker would “sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk” is a case in point.  In the poem itself this claim is driven by the circumstance of the speaker as he confronts the hawk’s physical suffering and the emotional suffering he experiences as he must choose either to let nature take its course or end the hawk’s life.  The claim is not simply an abstract proposition, a claim, about the relative value of “hawk” and “man.”  Rather, the claim is embedded in a dramatized moment that both occasions the claim and contextualizes it.  The drama of the moment informs and inflects the claim; the claim intensifies and in part evokes the drama of the situation.  In the poem as poem, they are interdependent (see “The Voice within the Voice: Hearing Jeffers’ Poetry through the Letters“).  The paper below considers Jeffers’ successive recastings of The Double Axe as an instance where the the interaction of the drama of situation (termed “Witness”) and its interdependence with claim (figured as “Prophecy”) plays out at the level of a collection, rather than within a single poem.]


The theme, “Jeffers and the Political,” can be taken several ways.  It can indicate Jeffers’ vision of things political and, with it, how nature subsumes the political in his work.  There’s also the matter of how politics—and history—can contextualize his poems.  (For example, World War I is an implicit context for both Tamar and The Women at Point Sur.)  My focus is on a variation on the second of these: how, that is, the political crises of Jeffers’ era (World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, and the threat of nuclear annihilation as the Cold War took shape) were not just a context for his poems nor merely occasions for articulating what he eventually termed Inhumanism but how these political crises were also emotional crises that helped impel the poems, remain a presence in them, and should factor into how we experience and understand his work.

The poetry of the later 1930s and 1940s (especially in the context of relevant manuscript material) partly documents, partly transmutes, but also partly obscures the extent to which Jeffers’ seemingly serene and global political pronouncements might mask the doubt and even anguish from which they originate.  One could argue, of course, that such moments of doubt are merely private and thus irrelevant to understanding the poems as Jeffers finalized them for readers.  To do so is to accentuate the poetry’s ideological dimension.  This, however, tends to obscure their experiential complexity, which can lead to treating the poems as if they are simply verbal packages for a series of reductive propositions (nature is good) and didactic instructions (given the choice, kill the man, not the hawk).

The conference theme, that is, raises the question of whether Jeffers should be read as a Prophet pronouncing on his era or as a Witness enmeshed in its events and recording his reactions.  This question is particularly clear in The Double Axe, Jeffers 1948 collection of poems written during World War II and in its immediate aftermath.  The individual poems, viewed chronologically and through their revisions, stand as acts of witness.  They document Jeffers failing to maintain—and attempting to regain—his emotional equilibrium.  In one note, as he initially considered how to introduce the work, Jeffers writes, “The short poems are called ‘Dates to Remember.’ Many of them are dates.”  Even more revealing is the way an early plan for the collection gathers the shorter poems as a kind of chronological journal to be titled “Mornings in Hell” (it’s worth adding that “The Love and the Hate” was at this point titled “My Corpse is Huge”).  By the time Random House published the collection in 1948, Jeffers had dropped ten of the short poems, re-sequenced the rest, altered various phrases, retitled “My Corpse Is Huge,” and replaced the original, longer Preface with a shorter one.

In his 1976 study, In This Wild Water, James Shebl argues that the role Random House played in these changes amounted to censorship, and William Everson and Bill Hotchkiss, in their edition of The Double Axe, a year later, categorized the poems dropped from the 1947 version as “suppressed.”  However, the fuller documentation we now have for this episode (gathered in Volume Five of The Collected Poetry) suggests that Random House did not censor The Double Axe and that the changes Jeffers made in shaping the 1948 version were the final step in a process whereby a collection which would have emphasized the poems as acts of witness (“Mornings in Hell”) becomes, instead, a volume emphasizing the redemptive power of Inhumanism.  In its initial forms, The Double Axe foregrounds Jeffers’ struggle with the political.  The published Double Axe of 1948, instead, subordinates struggle, doubt, and even despair to philosophical assurance.  The Double Axe as first submitted to Random House in 1947 is betwixt and between these alternatives—less a confession of “mornings in hell” but not yet a consistent brief for Inhumanism.

My goal is not to re-litigate the censorship question (“Double the Axe, Double the Fun: Is There a Final version of The Double Axe,” originally published in Text takes this up).  Rather, I want to emphasize that Jeffers’ reshapings of The Double Axe show him moving progressively away from treating the book as a gathering that records personal doubt and despair to treating the book as cohesive demonstration (through the poems organized in it) of Inhumanism and its redepemptive possibilities.  The back story of the collection, then, is one in which the narrative “My Corpse Is Huge” reflects the collapse of the perspective that came to be called Inhumanism, while the subsequent, separate writing of “The Inhumanist” enacts a recovery—and codification—of this perspective.  And by 1948 the horror of “My Corpse Is Huge” (now re-badged in more conceptual, and less emotional, terms as “The Love and the Hate”) functions as a cautionary tale that illustrates the need for the philosophical attitude that “The Inhumanist” elaborates.  In part, this back story argues for the authorial integrity of the 1948 version, but more importantly it has implications for how we might read The Double Axe and for how we might read Jeffers’ work more generally.

This claim, I should note, assumes that how poems are contextualized by the collections that present them partly shapes our experience of the pieces and therefore, as well, our sense of their implications.  When Jeffers wrote “Suicide’s Stone” spring 1919 he was struggling with despair (as several unpublished poems written at the same time show).  But when he constructed Tamar in 1923, he framed “Suicide’s Stone” with two later poems, “To the Stone-Cutters” and “Wise Men in Their Bad Hours,” inviting the reader to see it as an assertion of stoic perseverance.  The poem as placed within the collection is not quite the same thing as the poem as drafted.  With The Double Axe Jeffers’ shifting strategies for the Preface reflect his changing sense of how to contextualize the collection and its poems—and thus his successive strategies for shaping how the reader would read the material.

The earliest conception exists as a series of notes, sketches, and partial drafts.  In this never completed Preface, Jeffers would have confessed his “bitterness” at the war and admitted his difficulties in coming to terms with it.  This Preface would have opened by quoting this sentence from the “War Delirium” section of George Bernard Shaw’s Preface to Heartbreak House (a play responding to World War I): “Only those who have lived through a first-rate war, not in the field, but at home, and kept their heads, can possibly understand the bitterness of Shakespeare and Swift, who both went through this experience.”  A slightly later sentence in Shaw’s text (but not Jeffers’ notes) adds, “I [that is, Shaw] should not have kept my own (as far as I did keep it) if I had not understood that as a scribe and speaker I too [as those in the military] was under the most serious public obligation to keep my grip on realities; but this did not save me from a considerable degree of hyperaesthasia.”  From here, the Preface was to pivot to the claim that The Double Axe “presents also more explicitly perhaps than previous poems of mine a new manner of thought and feeling.”  This Preface, had Jeffers completed it, would have opened by implicitly confessing his own “hyperaesthasia,” then have asked the reader to look beyond his temporary failure to maintain his emotional and aesthetic equilibrium in order to focus, instead, on his struggle to maintain his focus on what he terms “the astonishing beauty of things.”  By characterizing the poems as “in part a war diary in verse,” this Preface would have defined the poems as a record of striving to achieve this “new manner of thought and feeling”—not as demonstrations of having achieved it.  It would, that is, have asked readers to read The Double Axe as a drama of witness, not a set of prophetic teachings.

The Preface to The Double Axe as Jeffers initially submitted it to Random House in 1947 frames the collection quite differently.  Instead of alluding to Shaw’s “War Delirium” and casting the poems as a “war diary” of “Mornings in Hell,” Jeffers briefly notes that the poems were written during the war, then immediately minimizes the war’s importance: “But this book is not mainly concerned with the war, and perhaps ought to be called “The Inhumanist” rather than “The Double Axe.”  He then uses the rest of the Preface to develop what he calls “this new attitude, a new manner of thought and feeling.”  In this conception of the Preface (and thus the collection), World War I is the origin of this “new attitude” (not yet labeled Inhumanism), and World War II has merely “tested” (not threatened) it.  As such, the poems in The Double Axe can’t enact a recovery from “Mornings in Hell,” because there were no Mornings in Hell.  If there is no failure of vision, there is no recovery—and no drama of witness.  In the 1947 Preface, the Second World War is simply an occasion to re-ratify an “attitude” and the collection figures as a prophetic testament.

When Everson and Hotchkiss published this 1947 Preface in their edition of The Double Axe, Robert Brophy noted its “theme-defining function” and lamented Jeffers’ decision to replace it with the briefer Preface actually used in the 1948 Random House Double Axe.  To Brophy, the 1948 Preface seems, “an afterthought, an answer to the publisher.”  While Brophy is quite right that the discarded 1947 Preface more fully delineates “Inhumanism,” the 1948 Preface is not an “afterthought.”  The two Prefaces differ because they introduce somewhat different collections and because they advance different conceptions of the collection.

The Double Axe introduced by the 1947 Preface still contained the ten supposedly “suppressed” poems.  “An Ordinary Newscaster,” “The Blood-Guilt,” and the others from this group do not (in spite of the claims in the Preface) convey a “new manner of thought and feeling.”  They dramatize its absence—even its (if only temporary) failure.  They are the unhealed wounds, not the healed scars, of “Mornings in Hell.”  Similarly, the bitter political references—including the dismissive epithets applied to Roosevelt that so appalled Random House—reveal Jeffers’ bitterness as he was composing much of the volume, not the recovery of equilibrium as he composed “The Inhumanist.”  As such, the 1947 Preface is, I’d argue, a covert apology for what the 1947 version of The Double Axe had failed to manage.  It’s as if Jeffers is saying, “Here, this is what the poems are meant to do; don’t be distracted by the way at times they don’t.”  The 1947 Preface is an attempt to erase the extent to which the poems in the 1947 Double Axe still show their origin as acts of witness—as records of despair.

In the 1948 Double Axe as finally published by Random House, not only have the ten supposedly suppressed poems been excised, the remaining shorter poems have been rearranged, and the bitter epithets have been somewhat muted.  These changes reflect, I’d suggest, Jeffers’ attempts to bring the collection’s Inhumanist vision more consistently to the fore and push the wounds of “Mornings in Hell” into the background.  And this explains the brevity of the 1948 Preface.  The purpose of the discarded 1947 Preface was to define an “attitude” that the poems and volume did not fully or consistently convey.  In the 1948 Double Axe there is less need to define “Inhumanism” in an extended prose introduction.  Because the poems themselves now more fully reflect Inhumanism and demonstrate its efficacy, a brief note introducing the term and pointing onward to the poetry is sufficient.  And because the collection as a whole now more consistently Inhumanist in its tone, Jeffers is also more willing to admit the distress the war had caused him than he was in the 1947 Preface.  In the 1948 Preface, he admits that “The Love and the Hate” “bears the scars” of having been written during the war, even as he insists that it “is not primarily concerned with that grim folly” and that “It’s burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude,” in a word “Inhumanism.”  In this final iteration of The Double Axe, even “My Corpse Is Huge” (now titled conceptually as “The Love and the Hate”) can be presented as part of the continuity and wholeness of his vision, not its disruption.  And the remaining “shorter poems that tail the collection” are now fully expressions, in their different ways, of this same attitude” and not a record of “Mornings in Hell.  Move along, folks, no bitterness or doubt to be seen here.  All is philosophical assurance—even if marked by a scar or two to underscore the significance of this “attitude” and to give it a degree of human authenticity.  Ironically, muting his emotional distress in the 1948 Double Axe makes it possible for Jeffers to subordinate, yet incorporate that distress into his characterization of the volume in the 1948 Preface.

The differences between the 1947 and 1948 versions of The Double Axe deserve fuller exploration than I can manage here, but one more matter should be noted, and that is Medea.  The manuscripts show that Jeffers, in order to prepare Medea, stopped work on a narrative that would have paired with “The Love and the Hate” and been much closer to it in mood and manner than “The Inhumanist.”  Moreover, Medea opened on Broadway shortly after Jeffers submitted the 1947 version to Random House and before he reshaped it into the published 1948 version.  This means Jeffers was writing “Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years” at the same time that he was assessing Random House’s critique of the 1947 Double Axe.  This suggests that “Gongorism” is in part informed by his thinking about what to do with The Double Axe, and it suggests that the agenda for poetry articulated in “Gongorism” is the relevant context for assessing the final round of changes Jeffers made to The Double Axe.  As actually published in 1948 The Double Axe results, that is, from Jeffers coming to see such poems as “The Blood-Guilt” as too personal and entangled with time-bound matters (“Mornings in Hell”) and not sufficiently timeless to address readers a “thousand years hence.”  A desire not just to align the collection more nearly with the “attitude” of “Inhumanism” but also to align it with the aesthetic expressed in “Gongorism” (not Random House’s meddling), explains Jeffers cutting the ten short poems and muting the references to Roosevelt that might be dismissed as mere personal animosity and thereby distract from his analysis of the war, Western Civilization, and history.

A slight revision to line 7 of “Calm and Full the Ocean” exemplifies this.  As first printed in New Poems: 1944 and presumably as submitted to Random House in 1947, it reads,

But that’s not true; even the P-38s and the so-called Liberators are as natural as horse-flies;

The phrase “so-called Liberators” is a satiric pun—a dismissive sneer at using “Liberators” as a warplane’s name—and a rejection of the war rhetoric being used by the government and press. As revised in the 1948 Double Axe, “so-called Liberators” becomes “Flying Fortresses.”  While this revision probably pleased Random House, the change seems motivated more by Jeffers’ desire to address readers a thousand years in the future.  Not only is “Flying Fortresses” less time-bound, it is also less likely to distract from the potentially more troubling, fundamental, and significant implications of the simile “natural as horse flies.”

To open this piece, I set up a dichotomy between Witness and Prophet.  In its earliest configuration, The Double Axe was a record of wounds that had yet to scar, and in the initial Preface, Jeffers spoke as a Witness.  In the 1947 Double Axe, both wounds and the scars of healing are evident, even though Jeffers cast the Preface for this iteration of the collection in terms that denied the wounds of witness in order to emphasize the volume as a demonstration of Inhumanism’s therapeutic value.  In The Double Axe as published in 1948, the collection more consistently expresses Inhumanism, yet Jeffers chose, in the brief 1948 Preface to admit that volume includes “scars,” even as he insists that its central “burden” is “present[ing]” Inhumanism.  But why not simply, as in the 1947 Preface, assert Inhumanism as the volume’s meaning?  Why not go “Full Monty,” or rather Full Prophet, here?  I’d suggest that it’s because the position of Witness and the position of Prophet are, for Jeffers, necessarily a dialectic, not a dichotomy, and that this is another dimension of the recovery of aesthetic and personal equilibrium across the versions of The Double Axe.  If so, The Double Axe illustrates that in Jeffers’ work the authority arises from the pain of Witness, not the assurance of Prophecy, even though the pain is not itself authority.  The pain of Witness, that is, grounds but does not contain, the moments of Prophetic vision, and without the grounding of Witness, the Prophetic vision becomes merely abstraction.  Indeed, this volume and Jeffers’ work more generally is a double bitted axe.  Thematically.  Aesthetically.  Experientially.