A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 23 January 2012

Stones In The Sky

I built her a tower when I was young — / Sometime she will die — / I built it with my hands, I hung / Stones in the sky. ROBINSON JEFFERS For Una

Hawk Tower, Carmel Point, California. Jeffers built this entirely by himself.

In 1914 the great American poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una visited the Carmel-Big Sur coast south of California's Monterey Peninsula and were overwhelmed by its wild and pristine beauty. They decided to build a house there — Tor House — on a craggy finger of land called Carmel Point. They used granite stones and rocks gathered locally from the shoreline of Carmel Bay. After the house was finished, Jeffers continued to build, constructing his rugged Hawk Tower: a poetic retreat which inevitably brings to mind other literary towers — the towers of Hölderlin, Rilke and Yeats, for instance.

It's evident that Jeffers was a practical man, and a scientific one too. He'd studied medicine and forestry and astronomy and evolutionary science. But he was also well-versed in literature, languages, religion and the Classics. Truly Renaissance in his education. Ah, where have those times gone?


Civilized, crying: how to be human again; this will tell you how.
Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity,
Let that doll lie. Consider if you like how the lilies grow,
Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity
Make your veins cold; look at the silent stars, let your eyes
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man.
Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes;
Things are the God; you will love God and not in vain,
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature. At length
You will look back along the star's rays and see that even
The poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.
Its qualities repair their mosaic around you, the chips of strength
And sickness; but now you are free, even to be human,
But born of the rock and the air, not of a woman.

As a poet, Jeffers evoked the divine in nature, and was one of our very first poet-ecologists. He realised that, if we pollute our environment, we pollute ourselves — our own minds and spirits. He denounced the arrogant, destructive tendency of human beings, and lamented the self-created split between mankind and the natural world.   

Natural Music

The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child's; or like some girl's breathing who dances alone
By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers.

Jeffers recognised the humbling truth that we are just part of the universe, not the centre of it; and that our high-minded ideas amount to very little in the face of raw nature and its extraordinary power and beauty. 

The Beauty of Things

To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things — earth, stone and water,
Beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars —
The blood-shot beauty of human nature, its thoughts, frenzies and passions,
And unhuman nature its towering reality —
For man’s half dream; man, you might say, is nature dreaming, but rock
And water and sky are constant — to feel
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest’s diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the intricate ideas,
The love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.

Robinson Jeffers

Thanks go to am for inspiring this post.

(All images from Wikimedia Commons)


George said...

This is a terrific post, Robert. It's been a while since I've read any Robinson Jeffers poems, but the ones you quote are wonderful. Oh how we need more poets, more ecologists, more poet-ecologists like Jeffers.

This poem also resonates with me on a personal level, because the name of my great-grandmother—who died before I was born, yet, strangely, has a kind of mystical presence in my life—was Una.

Friko said...

Would you believe it, I had never heard of Jeffers?
I find the pieces you have posted very powerful, but there is a line in the first poem I find hard to believe:

'Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity'

Taken at face value, out of context, it is decidedly misanthropic.

Was he a misanthrope? Or did he simply not see man as the pinnacle of creation?

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your comment, George.

Friko — I wouldn't call him a misanthrope, but he did not like our grasping, spiritually deprived human culture. He thought we must look beyond humanity in order to become truly human, reestablish our relationship with nature or suffer the consequences. Note that later on in the poem he says that '... even / The poor doll humanity has a place under heaven.' We can be human if we accept a more responsible, less arrogant, more integrated role in the universe, and just 'be' — like the rock, the air and the stars.

am said...

Thank you for this, Solitary Walker. From my memories of walking where Robinson Jeffers walked, I can still hear:

"The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers ..."

The image at the top of my blog was taken of the coast hills and sky south of Carmel, in Big Sur, from the 2-mile dirt road that leads to the New Camaldoli Hermitage. That was in October 2008, when I was on my way to visit Tor House and Hawk tower. Robinson Jeffers and the central and northern coast of California have been an inspiration since I was a young woman.

Nick said...

Have those times gone? If they have for sure they'll be back - and with them people like Jeffers

Ruth said...

I am quite drawn to the poets of the Pacific Northwest. These poems are wonderful in their irony. I don't know if you are familiar with William Everson (aka Brother Antoninus), but he followed Jeffers, after "Jeffers showed me God" in his words. "It was an intellectual awakening and a religious conversion in one." I think you would like Everson. If you don't remember my post on him a couple of winters ago, it's here (you liked what I shared about him at the time):


Caroline Gill said...

Are you aware of Peter Thabit Jones' new collection, 'Poems from a Cabin on Big Sur' about his time as a writer-in-residence in the cabin? Published by Cross-Cultural Communications, New York, in May 2011. The poems are accompanied by a selection of photos and an introduction by New York's Vince Clemente, a poet, critic, and Emeritus Professor of Poetry.We attended the launch in Swansea.

Herringbone said...

This one really interested me. Semi recent,America,California dreaming. Did a little research. Blew me away.I found a poem,Rock and Hawk and I thought of Merline..... "A falcon has perched...to hang in the future sky.. bright power,dark peace...Future consciousness.." Of course he had his Una....Thank you SW

Loren said...

Thanks for reminding me of the power of Jeffers since I haven't thought much about Jeffers since I re-read his complete poems in 2007.

Re-reading my entries reminded me of how ambivalent I am towards his poetry. Even some of my favorite poems bothered me because they reflected some of my own misanthropic views toward mankind.

Despite all my misgivings, he strikes me as one of the most powerful and memorable poets of the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

Erotic impulses

& some pissed off irony. ~Mary

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all your comments. I will chase up Everson, Ruth, and Peter Thabit Jones, Caroline. Thanks for these pointers.

Powerful, Loren, to be sure.

There's certainly irony there, FrankandMary, and a certain amount of pissed off-ness. But eroticism? Must take another look.