Turning from the High Lamps to Love the Low Hills: The Story the Story of Jeffers’ “Metempsychosis” Tells

[This piece  develops from a conference paper prepared for the 2019 Robinson Jeffers Association Conference: “‘Walls on a rock above the sea’: Tor House as Place and Figure in the 1919 Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.”

We often treat poems as if the words on the page are inevitable and timeless.  Poems wait for us as a beautiful rock might wait for us to pick it up, then turn it side to side to study its form, its material, its beauty.  Whatever the poem might tell us is there, fixed and final in the words the poet has chosen.  Such matters as when the poem was written, or how, matter about as much as the marble shards left on the studio floor after the sculptor has chiseled the stone to reveal the figure within it.  The debris testifies to the labor and craft, but the stages of work along the way are of no real significance.  And this would seem especially the case for the work of Robinson Jeffers, who declared he was committed to writing so clearly and with such emphasis on permanent things that his poems could be read a thousand years in the future.

But the stages of a poem as it’s being drafted can deepen—even alter—our understanding of the completed work.  And this is true for Jeffers, especially so for the poems he wrote following World War I and on into 1920 as he worked to find his way both stylistically and thematically.  In some cases, the poem’s final version may even obscure its original nature and thereby obscure what the earlier drafts might reveal about Jeffers’ development and the nature of his achievement.  “The Truce and the Peace,” a 1918 sonnet sequence eventually included in Tamar and Other Poems (1924), is a case in point.  It exists in a series of thematically distinct versions that reflect Jeffers’ changing sense of the world order following World War I.  As the promise of peace devolved into the corrosive compromises of the Versailles Treaty, his mood darkened from hope to despair and he became convinced that the terms of the peace were the conditions for another war (CP 5: 41-44 & 269-290).  The successive versions of “The Truce and the Peace” record and chart these changes in the poet’s perceptions and responses.  Even more revealing, however, are the poems Jeffers elected to omit from Tamar—work he at first planned to include in a collection entitled God’s Peace in November, and then, as he wrote new poems and discarded earlier ones, organized into another collection possibly to be entitled Brides of the South Wind (CP 5: 41-44 & 1055-1059).  Even though Jeffers discarded much of the work from this period, these omitted poems help clarify the crucial turn, both conceptually and aesthetically, in his poetry at the end of 1920 when he broke through to his mature voice.

One of the omitted poems is “The Hills Beyond the River.”  Jeffers wrote the initial unit of this poem (ten lines titled “Metempsychosis”) in the spring of 1919 and included it in tables of contents for projected collections under that title.  In early 1921, or perhaps as late as the spring, Jeffers constructed the final (and retitled) version of this poem by adding four lines adapted from another poem, “The Beginning of Decadence,” written in the spring of 1920.  “Metempsychosis” / “The Hills Beyond the River” has, then, a two-year history that coincides with a crucial period in Jeffers’ development as a poet, during which he moved beyond his transitional work of 1918-1919 (both formally and thematically) to such lyrics as “Salmon Fishing” (presumably initially drafted in December 1920[1]) which initiate his mature work, so powerfully gathered in Tamar and Other Poems.  Considering the differences between “Metempsychosis” (the poem’s initial state) and “The Hills Beyond the River” (its final version) helps clarify this transitional period by revealing not just a greater emphasis placed on nature as a central imaginative element in his work but also a shift in how he viewed the self’s relationship to nature, a shift that both problematized and energized his sense of the relationship of poetry to nature.  The story that the transformation of “Metempsychosis” into “The Hills Beyond the River” tells doesn’t provide a comprehensive account of how an aspiring apprentice poet became the distinctive, authoritative figure we know as Jeffers, but this story does bring into view a few of the critical and needed elements for such an account.

Oddly, the place to start this story is at its end—an omitted poem in its final expanded version entitled “The Hills Beyond the River” completed in 1921:

Coast-range creeks, veins of the body of mine that will not die
When this spirit is nothing and this flesh new dirt and the eager eye
Sucked its last and is drunk with darkness—I am content I think to cease,
I rejoice no death will drag you peaks and slopes down to that peace.
Neither failure of the blood will make you faint nor its fevers choke,
Canyon creeks that are my arteries, hair of forest and body of rock.
If long hence and after a thousand long millenniums you go down
I will go, the last of me then, and the endless dance of suns go on.
Therefore I turned from the high lamps and limited to low hills my love.
Sweet you are immortality enough, identity enough.
. . . . . As while life lasts I am content with the stone belts of my own house,
Windows opening west over salt water and south to the coast-range brows,
Walls on a rock above the sea, and granite ecstasy kept clean
By its very narrowness from much that troubles luckier men.  (CP 4: 337)

The poem shows Jeffers (in both the ten lines from 1919 and the concluding four composed in 1920) moving toward the long lines and cadences that would soon come to characterize his work, yet it also reflects his earlier commitment to traditional forms, meter, and rhyme (here a mix of full and slant rhyme).  Arguably, “The Hills Beyond the River,” as finished, is a variation on that most traditional of forms, the sonnet, using a somewhat longer verse line and with a concluding unit of four lines instead of six (as in the Italian sonnet) or two (as in the Shakespearean sonnet).  And in the spirit of the sonnet, the final unit enacts a thematic and emotional turn (here further marked by the expanded ellipsis that initiates it).  This concluding unit clearly alludes to Tor House[2] (“the stone belts of my own house”), celebrating it as a refuge: the windows of the house orient the speaker’s gaze “west over salt water,” and the “granite ecstasy” of both the headland site and the walls of the house enable (enforce?) a redemptive “narrowness” that recalls Wordsworth’s sonnet, “Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room,” which concludes,

                                    and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

The mention of Tor House seems to place “The Hills Beyond the River” after the completion of the house in August 1919, while its manner seems to place it prior to poems like “Salmon Fishing,” probably written December 1920 or shortly after.  But the story of the poem—as opposed to the story the finished poem presents to us—shows it had to have been assembled no earlier than spring 1920 when Jeffers wrote “The Beginning of Decadence,” from which he took the final four lines added to “Metempsychosis” to create the expanded “The Hills Beyond the River.” The second of many extant tables of contents for Brides of South Wind indicates that Jeffers probably converted “Metempsychosis” into “The Hills Beyond the River” sometime in the first three or four months of 1921—after, that is, “Natural Music,” “Salmon Fishing,” “Divinely Superfluous Beauty,” and other Tamar lyrics that more fully exemplify his mature style.

This raises an obvious question: why would Jeffers, having written such poems as “Salmon Fishing,” and “Natural Music” rework a transitional poem from 1919 by borrowing lines from another transitional poem from 1920?[3]  He may, simply, have wanted to salvage the lines from “The Beginning of Decadence” that invoke Tor House and hit upon adding them to “Metempsychosis” as a way to do so.  But the four lines invoking Tor House have a different resonance in “The Beginning of Decadence” than they do in “The Hills Beyond the River.”  “The Beginning of Decadence” ends:

We were chosen the world’s lamp and set on the world’s hill for a sign.
Now the morning hope is hushed and the early miracle in decline.

Now we shall grow wealthier, now we shall grow mightier, now freedom is gone.
Better if the army had broken, and safer if the ships had gone down.

For myself I have the hills and the stone belts of my own house,
Casements opening west over salt water and south to the coast-range brows.

Walls on a rock above the sea and granite ecstasy kept clean
From the breath of multitude, the bondage of submitting men.

But I shall not look at flowers now, summer may kill the fragrant copse,
Sun-glare eat the fritillaries, poppy and lupine pass from the slopes. (CP 4: 367)

“The Beginning of Decadence” reflects Jeffers’ sense, in the spring of 1920, that the terms of the Versailles Treaty meant European civilization was entering a period of “decline” and that the United States was becoming inextricably entangled in this decline because of its participation in the war and its failure to promote a more equitable and progressive peace.  For America, Jeffers suggests, it would have been better to have lost the war than suffer the decadence to come, and Tor House figures as a literal and figurative refuge from politics and history where he can declare a kind of separate peace from the emerging post-Versailles world order, even as he laments that the decadence of this new order is extinguishing the light of the “world’s lamp,” i.e., American “freedom.”[4]

In “The Hills Beyond the River,” the focus is, instead, on the human condition and our relationship to nature rather than the West’s descent into decadence, and Tor House becomes a sanctuary where one turns away from social distraction and human solipsism in order to worship nature’s redemptive beauty.  In recycling these lines, Jeffers altered the psychological and symbolic nature of Tor House: shifting it from a refuge from politics and history into a privileged vantage point transcending them from which to regard nature’s beauty and permanence—a “granite ecstasy” where one is redeemed from human “troubles.”

Recognizing that Jeffers adapted the concluding lines of “The Hills Beyond the River” from a different poem helps us understand this as a stage in the process by which he—having participated in the building of Tor House and having lived in it for some months—converts his impulse to turn away from the collapse of his political hopes into a determination to embrace nature rather than society or history as the context for human being and meaning—a turn more fully realized in “Salmon Fishing” and the lyrics that followed.  But this raises the question of why Jeffers didn’t include “The Hills Beyond the River” in Tamar and Other Poems.  And that takes us back to the beginning of the story, the spring of 1919 before Tor House was built and the headland was still a treeless vacant lot some distance from Carmel.

*

In various prose pieces Jeffers wrote after he was famous, he suggests his move to Carmel was the discovery of his “inevitable place” and that this discovery catalyzed his transformation from the conventional, apprentice poet of Flagons and Apples (1912) into the assured and distinctive poet of Tamar.[5]  Whatever this scenario’s symbolic truth as a tale of origin, it obscures aspects of his poetic development.  It conflates the village of Carmel, already a lively artists’ colony, with the Big Sur coast, a stretch of stunning coastal scenery and sparsely populated ranch country.  It skips over the prolonged search for an artistic vision and the technique to manifest it.  And it obscures how much of what Jeffers wrote in the years before the winter of 1920-1921 has nothing directly to do with either his “inevitable place” or the perspective that evolved into what he would later term Inhumanism.

With the recovery in 1987 of the majority of poems Jeffers wrote between Californians in 1916 and Tamar, we can better assess how his work developed in these years.[6]  For one thing, we now know that he included various poems from 1918 and even earlier in Tamar but largely omitted the poems written in 1919, even though the 1919 poetry features prominently in the various tables of contents for the collections he assembled and discarded prior to settling on the contents for Tamar and paying to have it printed.  As a result, “Fauna,” “Mal Paso Bridge,” and “The Truce and the Peace” appear in Tamar but not the narratives “Peacock Ranch” and “Sea Passions” nor such poems as “The Beginning of Decadence” or “Confession on Caucasus.”  Nor does Tamar include “The Hills Beyond the River.”  Why Jeffers discarded this poem, and with it, the four lines celebrating the “stone belts” of the house he had salvaged from “The Beginning of Decadence” isn’t clear.  He might have seen some of the more recent work he was including as stronger.  This would explain setting aside “The Hills Beyond the River” to make space, say, for “Salmon Fishing,” but not to make space for the 1918 work he actually kept and used.  More plausibly he set it aside for thematic reasons.  And to consider this we need to focus on the first ten lines of “The Hills Beyond the River”—the ten lines drafted in the spring of 1919 as “Metempsychosis.”

A number of the poems Jeffers wrote in the first half of 1920, “The Beginning of Decadence” among them, record his political dismay.  The poems he was writing in the spring of 1919 reflect something deeper than dismay at the collapse of his political hopes.[7]  They point to a period of depression verging on a psychological crisis.  The two narratives written in these months, “Peacock Ranch” and “Sea-Passions,” anticipate “Tamar’s” norm-breaking violence but lack its final move to a broadened, transcendent perspective containing, but transforming, the literal and figurative conflagration.  This sense of depression verging on despair is also evident in such shorter poems as “The Pit in the Pinewood” and the original form of “Suicide’s Stone” (see below).  It is worth noting that these spring 1919 poems do not directly focus on world affairs as many of the 1918 poems and some of the 1920 poems do.  And while personal matters were likely a factor in their mood, there’s another important factor to consider: Jeffers’ uncertainty about his creative direction as a poet.

At the very least, the 1919 poems listed in the Brides of the South Wind tables of contents but omitted from Tamar suggest that Jeffers had not yet committed to his “inevitable” place as his primary material and that he was still searching for a way beyond 19th century verse modes that could stand as a viable alternative to modernist experimentation.  In the Introduction to the 1935 Modern Library edition of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, Jeffers reports that in 1914, soon after moving to Carmel, he was still “imitating dead men” (he specifies Milton and Shelley, though the manuscript shows he originally specified, then cancelled Wordsworth) while his “more advanced contemporaries” (i.e. Pound and Eliot) were revolutionizing poetry in ways he saw as a counterproductive narrowing of what poetry should be if it was to remain significant (CP 5: 384-386).  Five years later in 1919 he was still, largely, imitating dead men.  Once he’d achieved his distinctive voice and a measure of success with Tamar, Jeffers claimed he had no use for fame and reputation,[8] but in the spring of 1919 this was not the case and was plausibly a factor in the depression evident in the poems of this period.

Following the construction of Tor House and moving into it, Jeffers spent at least some of fall 1919 or early winter assembling a collection that he submitted to Macmillan, publisher of his first commercial volume, Californians (1916).  The Macmillan editor’s rejection letter shows that it included much of the 1919 work later omitted from Tamar (CP 5: 47-48).  By the end of 1919 or early 1920 Jeffers had begun work on “The Coast-Range Christ,” and by the end of 1920 he was writing lyrics such as “Salmon Fishing” and soon after that working on “Tamar” (CP: 5: 50-62).  This chronology suggests that Jeffers, having settled into Tor House, first assessed and consolidated what he had been writing, and then turned to produce the first poems that we see as distinctively and fully Jeffersian.  Before Tor House, we see a poet casting about for what he would later term his “originality.”  Soon after Tor House, we see a poet having achieved his originality and rapidly composing the poems that made his reputation and remain central to his achievement.  It is tempting, then, to see Tor House (the physical labor of building it? the commitment to family and connection to place it might have symbolized?) as the impetus for Jeffers’ recovery from his period of depression and his decisive aesthetic advance.

“Metempsychosis,” however, complicates this scenario, especially when considered in conjunction with “Two Garden-Marbles,” a pair of sonnets also written spring 1919.  These two poems—written most probably after the purchase of the Tor House site but before its construction—are included in the various Brides of the South Wind tables of contents that Jeffers compiled, reworked, and then recompiled from late summer or early fall 1920 through late spring 1921.  In the intermediate recasting from early 1921 they are paired as the concluding poems in a section (then replaced by other poems).  In the last (extant) of these tables of contents, “Metempsychosis” (now recast as “The Hills Beyond the River”) and “Two Garden-Marbles” are included in a section titled “Sonnets and Stones” (CP 5: 1055-1059).

The formal, stylistic, and thematic differences between “Metempsychosis” and “Two Garden-Marbles” are readily apparent.  “Metempsychosis” emphasizes the materiality and process of nature as a more fundamental reality than human awareness and action, and its longish lines (ranging from 14 to 17 syllables) are cadenced as a kind of intensified speech, which might be mistaken for free verse were it not for the recurring pattern of six beats per line and the unobtrusive full and slant rhymes.  In its subject, its perspective, and its manner (if one excludes the rhyme), “Metempsychosis” anticipates the breakthrough lyrics Jeffers would begin writing in December of 1920 such as “Salmon Fishing” and continue writing across the winter and spring of 1921, including “Natural Music” and “Divinely Superfluous Beauty.” Conversely, the sonnets paired as “Two Garden-Marbles” seem a retreat to the mode of the 1918 work in their formal diction, handling of lineation and meter, and (most obviously) in their use of classical material (the one reflecting on Alcibiades, the other on Alexander the Great).  Even so, the draft tables of contents and other internal evidence indicate that both were written in the spring of 1919, along with “Suicide’s Stone” and “Pit in the Pinewood.”[9]  And considering “Metempsychosis” and “Two Garden-Marbles” in relationship to each other, in spite of these differences, helps clarify Jeffers’ shifting sense of his work at this pivotal moment in his transformation from ambitious apprentice trying on the various approaches evident in what would have been God’s Peace in November and Brides of the South Wind to the assured poet of Tamar who was neither “imitating dead men” nor threatened by the modernist experimentation of his “more advanced contemporaries.”

“Two Garden-Marbles” develops a series of contrasts which, taken as a whole, function ironically.  The opening lines of the first sonnet declare that “marble Athens” in the classical era was “the perfect flower of the world,” even though its “new temples were not stripped of scaffolding yet.”  The rest of the opening quatrain introduces Alcibiades as not only “the flower of Athens” but more broadly “of Hellas.”  Alcibiades is “youth and beauty / Incarnate” and simultaneously “the sweet corruption sister of ripeness.”  In both, Alcibiades compares unfavorably with the greater permanence of the unfinished temple.  A durable monument (its ruins survive into the present), the temple contrasts to the ephemeral (and ultimately destructive, corrupt, and corrupting) career of Alcibiades.  The contrast between the temple and Alcibiades is not only a matter of scale but a difference in what is celebrated: a communally validated vision of recurring divinity as opposed to human fame (which, in the case of Alcibiades, is such a tangled web of self-indulgence and corrupt action that his fame is perhaps better understood as infamy).  In the poem, the imagined garden-marble in the imagined garden memorializes Alcibiades, even as it reveals his triviality against the vision of the temple’s relative permanence and the flower’s lush but soon decayed beauty.

Monuments, it seems, sustain their material being, yet their symbolic power to project the fame that occasioned them diminishes over time.  Jeffers was (as noted) a close reader of Shelley and would certainly have known “Ozymandias,” and the similarities and differences between his sonnet and Jeffers’ are instructive.  In Shelley’s, the surviving fragments of the ruler’s statue underscore the ancient Pharaoh’s failure to project his grandeur and authority across time (however successfully he might have projected it across his dominion while living).  The inscription on the pedestal, the Pharaoh’s declaration of his power (“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”) survives among the statue’s fragments, but even the inscription contributes to our awareness of the statue’s failure to project the Pharaoh’s authority across time.  With the disappearance of a community of subjects, much less believers, to register the statue’s symbolic power and acknowledge the inscription’s authority, both become merely ironic when viewed against the greater duration and power of the sands:

Nothing beside [the inscription] remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And the surviving wreckage mocks both the political and historical force of the Pharaoh’s claim and its existential significance.  And yet the poem itself is, in effect, an alternative inscription (or re-inscription) of the “colossal wreck,” enacting an alternative declaration of power—the poet’s power to confront the terms of existence yet assert the imagination’s power to recast this “bare” reality into a visionary apprehension that not only “stretch[es] far away” into the past but into the future when the poet’s monument, too, will have become a relic to be recovered and reimagined.  “Ozymandias” overwrites both historical and merely personal time with visionary time, which is to say timelessness—a monument to the imagination’s power to comprehend and transcend “bare” existence.

Jeffers’ “Two Garden-Marbles,” like “Ozymandias,” explores the power of time to erase and the power of poetry to resist time’s erasure, but in spite of Shelley’s influence on Jeffers’ transitional work, “Two Garden-Marbles” develops a different, even antithetical, response to time’s power.  In “Ozymandias” Shelley evokes the conflict between human power (operating within historical and social time) and nature’s power (operating within nature’s much vaster temporality) and develops from this conflict an affirmation of the imagination’s power (in spite of the self’s time-bound mortality) to project (and thereby affirm the self’s participation in) visionary time (a timelessness beyond the time-bound self).  In Shelley’s sonnet, power and being are dissolved and reimagined in the context of time and consciousness.  In “Two Garden-Marbles,” Jeffers engages a similar, but decisively different dichotomy.  Instead of power and being, Jeffers’ pair of sonnets engage power and identity, and this shift brings into play, as well, the matter of fame.

If Shelley’s sonnet can be seen as an attempt to confront the loss the past enforces in order to project the possibility of a visionary awareness beyond the past and loss, Jeffers’ pair of sonnets can be seen as an attempt  to revitalize the past through the poem’s power to evoke what has been lost—a move akin to reimagining the statue of Ozymandias as if it were not a ruin and still had the power to enforce awe and obedience among the Pharaoh’s subjects.  In “Two Garden-Marbles,” Jeffers evokes the classical era as if still present, and this casts those who engage the poem as a renewed and alternative community of remembrance.  But this move is self-cancelling, since it is the poem itself and not the historical figures of Alcibiades and Alexander (or their achievements, or in the case of Alcibiades, their crimes and failings) that creates this seeming recuperation.  The poem aestheticizes the past more than it recovers or revitalizes it (which suggests how easily Jeffers, at this crucial moment in his development, might have become a poet of tradition and culture, i.e. a modernist—albeit one aligned more with Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” than Pound’s agenda—rather than a poet who put nature at the center of his work).  Alcibiades, whatever his skill in having “Mastered the sensual atom-streams of the agora” and however much the “Spartan women loved his sword” while “his enemies trembled / From the Eros handling thunder that was carved on his shield,” is a figure whose power died with him.  His career is memorialized not by a public monument but an imagined garden-marble in the corner of an imagined garden.  And as such the poem testifies to the failure of temporal power and fame to provide significance after death.  And even Alexander’s greater power and greater fame in the second of the sonnets ends with a carving of Alexander, “Drunken with Persian wine and empire,” knowing he will die young.  Ironically, the poem memorializes what does not suffice.  Death empties fame of its significance, and neither fame nor power solve the dilemma of identity.  The imagined garden-marbles are gravestones marking fame’s failure to provide more than an illusion of symbolic life after death.

The centrality of fame and identity in “Two Garden-Marbles,” and the failure of fame to resolve mortality as a dilemma of identity, is evident when compared with “Metempsychosis”:

Coast-range creeks, veins of the body of mine that will not die
When this spirit is nothing and this flesh new dirt and the eager eye
Sucked its last and is drunk with darkness—I am content I think to cease,
I rejoice no death will drag you peaks and slopes down to that peace.
Neither failure of the blood will make you faint nor its fevers choke,
Canyon creeks that are my arteries, hair of forest and body of rock.
If long hence and after a thousand long millenniums you go down
I will go, the last of me then, and the endless dance of suns go on.
Therefore I turned from the high lamps and limited to low hills my love.
Sweet you are immortality enough, identity enough. (CP 5: 299-300)

The opening lines imagine subsuming one’s body into nature’s more comprehensive and enduring body (“Canyon creeks that are my arteries, hair of forest and body of rock”).  And through this metempsychosis, this “ceas[ing]” of the separate microcosm of self, one becomes part of the continuing and continual life of the macrocosm’s body.

In “Metempsychosis,” the turn away from society and culture as the frame of being in order to turn to nature as the frame of being is clearly evident, and the concluding two lines signal that this turn to nature is also a turn away from (and rejection of) fame and psychological identity within either a social structure or cultural framework.  In these lines the speaker claims that he has “turned from the high lamps” (implicitly fame through public achievement) and has instead “limited” his “love” to the world of the “low hills” (implicitly nature) which, he asserts “are immortality enough, identity enough.”  If “Two Garden-Marbles” considers fame as a basis for identity, “Metempsychosis” rejects the fleeting, illusory light of the “high lamps” in order to imagine embracing instead what amounts to an erasure of “identity” and “long milleniums” of “darkness.”  The ten lines of “Metempsychosis” enact what might be termed an en-naturement that prefigures the redemptive “enskyement” Jeffers envisioned near the end of his career in “Vulture.”  And the poem, in this its initially completed state, not only pivots from the “high lamps” portrayed in “Two Garden-Marbles” and rejects them but imagines in their place the seed of what he later terms Inhumanism.

For both Alcibiades and Alexander, fame stems from public actions and their identity (at least as we can understand it historically) is as public figures.  For Jeffers, fame, which is to say literary reputation, is necessarily of a different sort and is staged in a different arena.  In the Introduction to the 1935 Modern Library edition of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, Jeffers offers a glimpse of the anxiety he felt as a young writer because of his lack of “originality” compared to “more advanced contemporaries” such as Pound who he explicitly cites were pushing “farther and farther along the way that perhaps Mallarmé’s aging dream had shown them.”  For Jeffers, their commitment to achieving a “pure poetry” was a matter of “divorcing poetry from reason and ideas,” and this amounted to an “originality by amputation that was too painful to bear.”  In a brief parenthetical, Jeffers adds that “since turning thirty” he had “not considered ‘trends'” nor “been competitive either” (CP 4: 385-386).  In the Roan Stallion Introduction, written as he neared fifty and when his own “originality” and reputation seemed securely established, Jeffers is able to confess his youthful concern with literary reputation as a momentary anxiety, a weakness, that he soon outgrew, so that he was able to dismiss competitiveness (a striving for reputation) and even reject a concern for “originality” as secondary to the writing of genuine poetry.  Real poets don’t think about such things.  But lurking behind the “high lamps” of fame (Alcibiades and Alexander) in “Two Garden-Marbles” and the rejection of the “high lamps” in order to accept, and be accepted by, the all-encompassing reality of the “low hills” of nature is the question of the proper role of the poet and what would constitute achievement—and from achievement recognition.  In the Roan Stallion Introduction, Jeffers misleadingly claims (or mistakenly remembers) that he had put all this behind him by 1917, but his seeming depression in the spring of 1919 and the poems “Two Garden-Marbles” and “Metempsychosis” suggest he was still working to resolve his desire for “originality” and recognition several years afterward.

In the Roan Stallion Introduction, Jeffers confesses what he would have us ignore—his creative anxiety as a young poet as he tracked the seemingly assured but (as he saw it misguided) projects of Pound and his modernist colleagues.  Rhetorically, the confession attempts to trivialize his youthful weakness and thereby both acknowledge and erase it from his creative life.  Conceptually, the confession serves a slightly different role: it provides a justification for explicitly rejecting Pound’s approach and implicitly rejecting Eliot’s.  The latter is invoked when Jeffers offers that “A more promising kind of amputation” would be to “eliminate one’s 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,” and that this could lead to the writing of “one or two noble things.”  While Jeffers suggests this is something that could be tried, he seems to be acknowledging something that has already been accomplished: The Waste Land.  And if this is so, then Jeffers is both praising Eliot’s monument of modernism as a “noble” achievement and declaring that it, too, is a model to be rejected.  But whether or not Jeffers is alluding to Eliot in these comments, the Introduction proposes that it is Jeffers’ commitment to a poetry that engages reality directly and deals with ideas that drives his “final decision not to become a ‘modern,'” since becoming a “modern” would be to reject “reason and ideas” and to become “slight and fantastic, abstract and unintelligible.”

The Roan Stallion Introduction suggests how Jeffers had come to view his split from Pound and Eliot following the development of his mature approach to poetry and the success of Tamar and the volumes that followed.  But “The Palace,” another unpublished poem written in 1914, suggests that this Introduction may not accurately represent how Jeffers viewed his relationship to modernist experimentation in the years before he developed the approach that characterizes Tamar.  The occasion for “The Palace” seems, at least in part, to have been the death of the Jeffers’ newborn daughter a few days before he wrote the poem.  In “The Palace” the speaker (implicitly Jeffers) dedicates himself to rebuilding the palace of poetic tradition that his contemporaries (implicitly the Imagists) have chosen to ignore.  That the poem, a rejection of Imagism and ver libres, is metered and rhymed is no surprise.[10]  In critiquing and dismissing the Imagists, Jeffers underscores his opposition by utilizing the aesthetic tools he saw them as discarding.  “The Palace,” then, shows Jeffers in 1914 (a few months before the move from the Los Angeles area to Carmel) not only proposing that verse should continue to utilize formal conventions (rather than being either free or experimental) but also proposing that a commitment to the tradition was necessary for a poet’s work to matter, and thus as well, for the writing individual to matter as a poet.  The 1935 Introduction shows Jeffers proposing that he had been (in 1914) worrying that he was “still imitating dead men.”  “The Palace” suggests that he was, at that time, actually insisting that emulating the work of “dead men” was the game genuine poets had to be play and that this game had a double goal: to do one’s duty as a poet by laboring to maintain the “palace” of poetic tradition and to earn recognition (fame) from, and within, the “palace” by doing so.  “The Palace” as a document from 1914 and the 1935 Roan Stallion Introduction structure the dichotomy between Jeffers and those he termed his “more advanced contemporaries” in quite different ways.  For the apprentice Jeffers anxious about originality, the tradition was the field within which to renew and revitalize the permanent.  For the modernists, the tradition was a field within which to enact the new and thereby alter the tradition.  For both the apprentice Jeffers and his modernist contemporaries, originality was related to tradition but differently so and with a different view of what the tradition might be as archive and organism.

If “The Palace” proposes the historical, cultural and aesthetic arena of tradition as the poet’s locus of being, achievement, and recognition, then “Two Garden-Marbles” reveals the insufficiency of the tradition, even as it deploys classical material and uses traditionally formal means to enact the poem within the tradition.  The sonnets, and the figurative garden-marbles they commemorate, are decorative emblems that draw from history as an atemporal archive rather than history as force, process, change.  And this, in turn, casts the garden as an imitation of nature—composed from natural elements but abstracted from nature for the aesthetic pleasure or comfort this move offers.  The presentation of “nature” within the garden, like the presentation of history within the poem, is a tableau that obscures our being within nature by obscuring what Jeffers terms, in “Metempsychosis,” “the endless dance of suns,” which is to say the macrocosm’s ceaseless flux. And it further obscures our being within nature by obscuring our fundamental reality as materiality (“this flesh new dirt”) subject to flux, which is the inevitability of the microcosm’s death.

“Metempsychosis,” then, whether read as a response or reaction to “Two Garden-Marbles,” marks a decisive turn in Jeffers’ development: a turn away from society, culture, and history as the ground of being in order to turn, instead, to nature as the ground of being (even at the risk of destroying identity in the usual sense).  And aesthetically, this turn replaces tradition (either as Jeffers had imagined it in “The Palace” or as the modernists variously theorized it) with nature as the genuine arena for poetry.  In rejecting fame’s “high lamps” in order to “love” the anonymity of the “low hills,” and thereby assume nature instead of society or culture as one’s being, Jeffers was, this suggests, freeing himself not only from the need to resist (reject) Pound’s call to “make it new” through formal experimentation but also from a view of poetic ambition that was inherently an allegiance to the tradition—an obligation to “make it old” (or more precisely to re-make the old).  And by grounding his poetic project in nature (its materiality, processes, and beauty) rather than grounding it in culture and its archive (“tradition” as Eliot staged it in The Waste Land and analyzed it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), Jeffers  shifted how nature functioned in his poetry, so that it was no longer (as in Californians) a kind of scene or character or symbolic mediator (as in Wordsworth) but instead an all-comprehending reality—indeed the being of being.

*

In retrospect, the turn “Metempyschosis” marks in Jeffers’ work seems clear, which raises, again, the question of why he omitted it from Tamar, even after recasting it as “The Hills Beyond the River” sometime in 1921 in the midst of writing “Salmon Fishing,” “Natural Music,” and other prototypical Tamar lyrics.  This takes us into the supposedly forbidden territory of intentionality, but the texts themselves open up important issues that plausibly factored into the decision, and are in any case, relevant to understanding Jeffers’ aesthetic project.

In the spring of 1919 when Jeffers wrote “Metempsychosis,” the construction of Tor House was still to come.  To the extent that Tor House figures in these ten lines, it isn’t yet the house as refuge or as sacral space that’s in play; it’s the move—symbolic and actual—from Carmel, from Carmel as an artist colony, from Carmel as a community of collaborations and competitions where artistic reputation is in play and at stake.  Stripped of the four lines adapted from “The Beginning of Decadence” that spliced in the “stone belts” of the house, the poem as originally drafted proposes something more radical than retiring from the distractions of society and culture in order to contemplate nature.  “Metempsychosis” proposes identifying not simply with nature but as nature, thereby acknowledging that one is an element of its materiality and its processes, and thereby becoming nature.  Not only does this proposed en-naturement, erase the need for society or culture or the poetic tradition as a context for being, action, or meaning, it also erases the need for contemplation.  To be nature precludes contemplating nature.  And not only does this move erase the significance of fame, of poetic reputation, it also erases the need for expression, which is to say it erases the rationale for poetry and the need for it.  At the aesthetic level, this is the equivalent to Orestes turning away from Electra at the end of “The Tower Beyond Tragedy”:

                                                                  Orestes walked in the clear dawn; men say that a serpent
Killed him in high Arcadia. But young or old, few years or many, signified less than nothing
To him who had climbed the tower beyond time, consciously, and cast humanity, entered the earlier fountain. (CP 1: 178)

Having “cast humanity” (both in the sense of his ties to others and having cast his own humanity by “consciously” moving “beyond time,” both as consciousness of time and consciousness of one’s self in time) Orestes enters the “earlier fountain” of being in nature’s ceaseless becoming, a reality more fundamental and more comprehensive than one’s mortality.  To enter nature in the sense Jeffers imagines here and in “Metempsychosis” is to enter a realm where consciousness (as awareness of self and otherness) is superseded by one’s unconscious or preconscious or a-conscious participation in the ground of being.  It is to extinguish the self, which is to say that it is to become silent.  The glory of the full perceptual being in the fullness of creation is attained by erasing not simply the alienated self but the alienating self as well.

The desire for becoming one with the body of the “low hills” in “Metempsychosis” can be seen as a kind of sublimated suicide or perhaps an alternative to suicide—a kind of half step where one cancels one’s own “identity” (self) in order to become an element in the “identity” of the low hills (which is actually a state of no identity).  Put another way, what is left once one sees through the illusion of the “high lamps,” sees them as illuminating a nothingness rather than glory?  To erase identity by identifying with nature is one option; to erase one’s self through death is another.  “Suicide’s Stone,” written in close proximity to “Two Garden-Marbles” and “Metempsychosis” shows that Jeffers was both aware of this more total and final option and perhaps tempted to it.

As published in Tamar and Other Poems, “To the Stone-Cutters” (another poem behind which Shelley’s “Ozymandias” may be lurking?) immediately precedes “Suicide’s Stone,” and “Wise Men in Their Bad Hours” immediately follows it.  “To the Stone-Cutters” acknowledges that death will ultimately destroy not only those who are “Challengers of oblivion” but whatever “monuments” they might construct.  Even so, the poem ends on a positive, if tempered note: “Yet stones have stood for a thousand years and pained thoughts found / The honey peace in old poems.”  The ending of “Wise Men in Their Bad Hours” is similarly stoic:

                                                Ah grasshoppers,
Death’s a fierce meadowlark: but to die having made
Something more equal to the centuries
Than muscle and bone, is mostly to shed weakness.
The mountains are dead stone, the people
Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,
The mountains are not softened nor troubled
And a few dead men’s thoughts have the same temper. (CP 1: 10)

If one’s “thoughts,” the poem suggests, have taken on the “stature” and “quietness” of stone (a matter of accepting one’s human being within nature rather than understanding one’s human being within the “Foolishly reduplicating / Folly” of human psychology and human society), then one’s “thoughts” (and poems as the product of those “thoughts”) can “have the same temper” as stone.  In Tamar, that is, the poems that frame “Suicide’s Stone” assert nature’s transcendent reality, subordinate the human sphere to it, and reveal the inadequacy of the human (in and of itself as either psychological or social action) as a basis for identity and meaning in order to propose, instead, an awareness of the self within nature.  In both “To the Stone-Cutters” and “Wise Men” such awareness of one’s mortality within nature and one’s immortality as nature requires both a kind of courage and a commitment to endurance.

As revised for Tamar and positioned between “To the Stone-Cutters” and “Wise Men,” “Suicide’s Stone” seems hewn from the same block of granite.  The poem offers death as an end to the rigors of life and consciousness, a welcome enfolding into nature’s permanence, but the poem’s speaker, a suicide, declares from the grave “you [the living] shall not reach a finger / To pluck it [death] unripe.”  Living is “the covenant of courage.”  And this covenant is with God, which is to say nature’s body and nature’s being.  A sin against nature, suicide disrupts the order of things (an aspect of nature) and thereby alienates one from nature’s being rather than merging one into it.  But “Suicide’s Stone,” as composed in spring 1919 as part of the same phase of work as “Two Garden-Marbles” and “Metempsychosis,” is a rather different poem, even though the initially completed 1919 text and the published, 1924 text differ in only a few words.  In the 1919 version, the speaker is not a suicide speaking from death to the living but is instead one of the living, and this living speaker is “hungering pitiably” for death, yet rejecting suicide in spite of the “whipstocks” of “life”

               one shall not reach a finger
To pluck it unripe and mongrel-proved
Creep to cover; it needs more whipstocks
Than life has wasted on us yet
To make us denounce the covenant of courage. (CP 5: 292)

As reworked for publication in Tamar, “Suicide’s Stone” is a dramatic poem, the speaker a character speaking from death to the living.  But as first composed, it reads more as a confessional poem, and its compositional proximity to “Two Garden-Marbles” and “Metempsychosis” suggests that the desire for dying into nature’s life expressed in “Metempsychosis” is not simply a desire to turn away from fame but also (and more urgently?) a matter of seeking an alternative to suicide.  If so, “Metempsychosis” proposes setting aside consciousness (the locus of despair?) in order to transfer one’s being, one’s soul into another living body (nature), and the conceptual and experiential innovation of the poem—what makes it fundamental to the work that would follow—is that this other living body, this alternative being, is nature imagined and experienced as the living body that comprehends all (more temporarily) living bodies within it.

But if “Metempsychosis” is fundamental to the work that follows and if it marks a shift in how Jeffers was coming to view consciousness and being in nature and being as nature, this again raises the question of why he recast the poem as “The Hills Beyond the River” and why he then discarded that further iteration or evolution of the poem.  The biographical and imaginative importance of Tor House in his work offers a possible answer to the first question: he wanted to preserve the lines evoking the “stone belts” of Tor House when he decided to discard “The Beginning of Decadence,” and converting “Metempsychosis” into “The Hills Beyond the River” was a way to accomplish this.  But why, then, discard the result?  Perhaps Jeffers, as he worked Tamar into final shape, realized combining these two blocks of work (the lines that were “Metempsychosis” and the lines adapted from “The Beginning of Decadence” failed to cohere thematically.  Both units celebrate nature’s centrality, its primacy, but to subsume one’s self into nature (“Metempsychosis”) and to contemplate nature from the privileged vantage of Tor House are different things.  Projecting one’s being into the veins of the “creeks” is not the same thing as imaging the “stone belts” of the house.  The former can be read as a kind of metaphorical equivalence but is actually offered as an identity that transcends and erases metaphor.  The latter is a kind of simile that treats the house as a second body (or perhaps the actual body’s clothing).  Jeffers may have seen no clear way to resolve the disjuncture marked by the extended ellipsis where the four later lines are grafted to the ten earlier lines.

It’s also possible that a rather different logic drove the recasting of “Metempsychosis” into “The Hills Beyond the River.”  And that is the possibility that Jeffers adapted and added the lines alluding to Tor House in order to salvage “Metempsychosis,” not the reverse.  To enter nature as Jeffers evokes it in “Metempsychosis” is not just to move beyond personal identity in order to identify outward with nature, it is also to erase the need for consciousness.  Through consciousness one apprehends the possibility of metempsychosis whereby one’s soul enters nature’s being, but in metempsychosis consciousness disappears, and with that disappears not only contemplation of nature but celebration of nature.  There is no vantage point.  There is no role for poetry or basis for writing it.  “Metempsychosis” (especially if read as a turn away from the “high lamps” of fame in “Two Garden-Marbles” and as an alternative to nihilistic despair as considered in the original iteration of “Suicide’s Stone”) expresses the possibility of imagining the self within nature rather than within society and culture (which, as a corollary does not eliminate society and culture or history or individual psychology but instead grounds them in, and contextualizes them within, nature).  What “Metempyschosis” does not do is address the problem of consciousness with its doubled capacity to alienate the self from nature and its capacity to become consciousness of nature’s beauty, its being, its divinity.

What’s missing is a way to conceptualize poetry within the context of nature as opposed to culture, which is to say, a way to understand a role for poetry within nature, even though nature, the more comprehensive ground of being, has no need for, or use for, either poetic vision or poetic expression.  Poems may emulate stone (as in “To the Stone-Cutters”), but invoking the being of stone is not the same thing as possessing or being possessed by the being of stone.  There is, of course, a way beyond this dichotomy.  We can imagine this aesthetic regarding of nature’s beauty from the “Window” as what one achieves by withdrawing from the social and political while one lives, with one’s veins to become the veins of nature in one’s death.  But even so, the added lines obscure and undercut the more radical (and confessional?) apprehension of being within nature found in the original ten-line poem and fail to address the fundamental visionary, conceptual, and (yes) aesthetic problem it raises.

At the least, if we overlook the more radical apprehension in “Metempsychosis,” the original form of the poem, we miss something of the radical nature of his visionary commitment to nature as the ground of being as a basis for his mature aesthetic and his mature vision.  And we miss, as well, the way poems like “Salmon Fishing,” “Continent’s End,” and the other later lyrics gathered in Tamar (and indeed much of Jeffers’ subsequent work) variously construct and probe the dichotomy of subsuming being into nature (a transcendence or erasure of awareness of self and individual consciousness) and of attaining a heightened consciousness of nature, in which one is reflexively aware of standing apart from nature’s totality and yet absorbed into nature’s all-comprehending being as a part of nature’s totality.  And if we overlook the more radical apprehension in “Metempsychosis,” we are also apt to misconstrue or fail to notice the central aesthetic problem for Jeffers, as illustrated by the ending of “The Tower Beyond Tragedy.”  When Orestes enters nature’s being, he moves beyond history, beyond society and culture, beyond self in a transcendent transfiguration.  He ceases to be Orestes; he enters silence.  Poems are not silence, neither for the person writing nor the person reading.  The poet as witness to nature stands, at least momentarily, outside of nature’s being.  The self-absorbed into nature’s being is silent.  In Jeffers, the poem becomes a liminal space where the dichotomy of witness and participant can be engaged and can momentarily (within the being and action of the poem) become a dialectic, a process of participatory witness, in which being and consciousness of being may temporarily fuse.

Works Cited

Hunt, Tim.  “A Poetics of Witness: Jeffers’ ‘Salmon Fishing’ and the Apology in ‘Apology for Bad Dreams.”  Jeffers Studies, 10.2, 11.1, & 11.2 (2006 & 2007): 1-17.

—.  “Jeffers and ‘The Palace’ of Tradition.”  Jeffers Studies 7.2 (2003): 15-23.

Jeffers, Robinson.  The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt, 5 Vols., Stanford University Press, (1988-2001).

 

Notes

[1] See CP 5: 56 for evidence relating to the dating of “Salmon Fishing” and CP 5: 317-322 for details of its revisions, which may bear on Jeffers’ recasting of “Metempsychosis” as “The Hills Beyond the River” and the subsequent decision to not publish the poem in Tamar and Other Poems.  For a discussion of these revisions, see “A Poetics of Witness: Jeffers’ ‘Salmon Fishing’ and the Apology in ‘Apology for Bad Dreams.'” Jeffers Studies 10.2, 11.1; & 11.2 (2006 & 2007): 1-17.

[2] When Tor House was built summer 1919, Jeffers apprenticed himself to the stone mason, learning the craft and contributing to the labor.  The Jeffers family took up residence in August.  The importance of Tor House, both as an actual and figurative location is apparent in a number of the poems.

[3] See CP5: 35-39 for an illustration of how Jeffers’ approach to meter and rhyme can inform dating and identify instances where later work is interpolated into an earlier poem.

[4] “The Beginning of Decadence” can be seen as precursor to “Shine, Perishing Republic,” which Jeffers also omitted from Tamar before adding it back in when he expanded the collection into Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems.

[5] This refers to the lyrics from late 1920 forward along with the title narrative, not to the poems from 1917 and 1918 brought forward from God’s Peace in November or Brides of the South Wind.

[6] Prior to 1987 there was reason to believe Jeffers had discarded most of the work variously grouped as God’s Peace in November and Brides of the South Wind.  Manuscripts for nearly all the presumably lost poems were donated to Occidental College by Melba Berry Bennett, who had stipulated that the packet of material not be opened until 1987, the centenary of Jeffers’ birth.

[7] “The Daughter of God in Russia,” written spring 1918 (CP 4: 464-481), illustrates these “political hopes.”

[8] In both the 1920s when his fame was at its height and in the 1950s when it had ebbed, Jeffers wrote various poems (unpublished and most of them sketches more than completed works) commenting on fame and proclaiming he had no use for it.  These pieces reflect, I’d suggest, his conviction that reputation was unimportant, yet their existence and their tone suggest as well that he wasn’t completely immune to the allure of reputation.

[9] The documentary evidence does not establish a clear basis for dating either “Two Garden-Marbles” or “Metempsychosis.”  In the discussion of chronology in Volume 5 of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, I proposed that the two were probably written about the same time and suggested fall 1919.  In developing the reading of these two poems for this essay, I’ve come to think that the two were more likely written spring 1919 before construction began on Tor House.  That the two poems were composed in 1919 is highly likely.  Whether they were composed spring or summer or fall of that year is necessarily, given the state of the evidence, speculative.  While this discussion is not explicitly an argument about the dating of these poems, it is implicitly so, and as such it is a reconsideration of the discussion of the dating of these two poems in Collected Poetry (CP 5: 51-52).

[10] For a discussion of this poem, see “Jeffers and ‘The Palace’ of Tradition.”  Jeffers Studies 7.2 (2003): 15-23.