Shine, Perishing Republic
Shine, Perishing Republic
Shine, Perishing Republic
Robinson Jeffers 1925
“Shine, Perishing Republic,” published in 1925 in the collection Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, is one of Robinson Jeffers’s most anthologized pieces. This book’s publication marked the beginning of his fame as a poet and the start of a career that would garner as much acclaim as it would harsh criticism. Written in a prosperous American period typically remembered as the Roaring Twenties, “Shine, Perishing Republic” reveals an extreme distaste for the underlying national trend toward corruption and dictatorship. Using long lines and an anthem-like tone reminiscent of Walt Whitman, Jeffers uses the poem to express a philosophy he would continue to explore throughout his career: Inhumanism. Jeffers sees the core of America hardening into the “mould of its vulgarity,” corrupt and self-centered, man’s relationship with fellow man like that of “clever servant” and “insufferable master.”
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1887, Robinson Jeffers was the son of a professor of theology and, thus, no stranger to the academic world. He began tutorials at the age of three and a half with his parents, studying biblical history and Greek mythology. By the age of twelve young Jeffers was well read in French, German, Latin, Greek, and English. The University of Western Pennsylvania accepted him for admission when he was fifteen, but his father’s failing health prompted the family to move to California. He remained there for the majority of his life, where he came to be known as a “Californian landscape painter,” due to his abundance of vivid nature poems. At his new university, Occidental, Jeffers edited the school’s literary magazine while taking classes in astronomy, ethics, geology, history, economics, biblical literature, and rhetoric. While later pursuing a graduate degree in literature at the University of Southern California (USC), by then only eighteen years old, Jeffers fell in love with fellow student Una Call Kuster. At the time of their affair she was two years older and already married. Jeffers soon left the country to study philosophy in Switzerland, where he picked up what he would later term “inhumanism,” before returning to USC to study medicine for three years. Although he attempted to avoid Una and their affair by moving to Seattle, when he inherited almost $10,000 in 1912 and moved back to southern California, they were soon reunited.
After marrying Una in 1913, upon her divorce from her first husband, and tragically losing their baby daughter, Jeffers and his wife moved to Carmel, California, where he built by hand a granite house complete with stone tower. With a clear view of the ocean and the mountains, Jeffers rarely left his isolated fortress, writing more than nineteen volumes of poetry from within “Hawk Tower’s” stone walls. He used part of his inheritance to self publish his first volume, Flagons and Apples, that same year, which critics ignored; he later wished that he had instead destroyed the collection of “embarrassingly stilted love poems.” The southern California landscape, which he compared to the “magnificent unspoiled scenery” of Homer’s Ithaca, became his new passion and would dominate the majority of his work after 1914. Highly disturbed by two horrific world wars, Jeffers experienced what he later called “the accidental new birth” of his mind, which revealed to him the beginnings of his isolationist philosophy of “inhumanism.” His wife considered the act of building the stone tower the source of his new vision. “As he helped the masons shift and place the wind and water-worn granite,” she later noted, “I think he realized some kinship with it and became aware of strengths in himself unknown before.” Jeffers found a strange escape in stone imagery from the suffering in the world. He considered it inhuman but beautiful, permanent, and universal compared to our fleeting time in this world.
Jeffers and Una had twin sons while living in the stone house. Over the course of his career Jeffers drew the attention of many critics. Some rejected
his work outright as pseudo-prophetic and bloated, while others praised him as the most original of visionary poets of this century. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including Poetry magazine’s Levinson, Eunice Tiethens Memorial and Union League Civic and Arts Foundation Prizes, The Borestone Mountain Poetry Award, and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. A prolific poet and playwright, self-declared philosopher and prophet, Robinson Jeffers died in his sleep in 1962 after four years of quickly degenerating health.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Jeffers wastes no time in revealing the target of his anthem: the “perishing republic” from the title is America. While a republic is a nation that is supposed to be ruled equally by all of its people, Jeffers sees the United States instead settling “in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire.” In steel factories like those of his boyhood Pittsburgh, workers pour thick, glowing, molten ore into molds to be cast into parts for warships and automobiles. Jeffers uses this direct comparison, or metaphor, to hold the shape of his extreme distaste for America’s corruption. Unlike a republic of equal voters, an empire is ruled by a small group of powerful people determined to expand their national territory. Social “protest,” which is a republic’s most powerful tool, means little according to Jeffers, who sees it as “only a bubble in the molten mass [that] pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens.” Such a dire image sets the mood for the rest of the poem, which itself is a form of protest against this America “heavily thickening to empire.”
Early on it is important to note that although these two lines are broken by the editor into four in order to fit the page, Jeffers intends for the reader to read them as just two metrical line units. In cases where the poetic line unit cannot physically fit completely across the page, editors will break the line, but indent it to indicate it is a continuation rather than the start of a new poetic thought.
After lamenting the direction America seems to be heading, in these next lines the speaker tries to find some consolation. Typical of Jeffers, he looks to nature for perspective. There he “sadly smiling remembers” that perhaps in everything there is a cycle. Although America is settling into vulgarity and any protest to that fact “pops and sighs out,” he remembers that “the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.” Out of death comes life; from decay, fertilizer for new growth. Note in line 4 his use of the word “decadence,” which literally means a period of decay, but was also a popular phrase at the time for describing a sinful or corrupt lifestyle.
This is a fairly optimistic shift in tone from the first two lines. Perhaps in alluding to “mother earth,” Jeffers reiterates the idea of a cycle in line 3, in which “Out of the mother” comes a circle of spring flowers, ripened fruit and decay, then “home” again “to the mother.” By looking to nature to find the “larger scope of things,” the speaker is hoping that out of America’s “decadence,” will come an era of rebirth.
Here the speaker turns his voice from an introspective pose to direct address, telling the reader, “You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good.…” Again playing with the double meaning of “decadence” as introduced in the previous lines, Jeffers seems to say that no matter how fast we allow our own decay, it is not something he is going to blame us for. Diffusing his earlier harshness, here the poet shows he recognizes that “life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly / a mortal splendor.” No matter how wild and fast or stubbornly long our lives are, generally things are good. The phrase “suddenly / a mortal splendor” may foreshadow the ending of the poem, which alludes to a time when God took mortal form to walk the earth.
In line 6, Jeffers introduces two polar images: the bright splendor of a meteor streaking across the sky versus the immovable and stoic mountain below. This dual image is typical of Jeffers, who often placed dynamic or spiritual images next to those of permanence. The most famous of these image pairs are the Rock and the Hawk, which appear again and again in his work. In this poem, the meteor and the mountain are “needed” equally, like the two forces of yin and yang that work against each other in order to create the circle of life. Having reached this point in the poem, the speaker pauses to refrain, or repeat, the title “Shine, perishing republic.” After accompanying the speaker through a landscape of molten vulgarity, fruit ripening and decaying, and meteors streaking over mountains, the phrase holds a new meaning, a significance earned from the journey.
While he does not blame those of us who lead decadent lives, in these lines the speaker has a different attitude about how his children should live. Pivoting on the word “but,” Jeffers informs us, “But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center” (first introduced in lines 1 and 2). Like any protective parent, he does not want his children exposed to vulgarity and an empire of greed. “Corruption,” he continues, “Never has been compulsory,” or required. The “monster” in line 8 might be the same grotesque mass that began the poem. As the speaker predicted, the center of the monster has hardened, turning to mountains.
Note where Jeffers decided to break line 7, though a single sentence flows through both lines and into line 8. By breaking the line after the word “corruption,” Jeffers causes us to read the end of line 7 as “… the thickening center; corruption.” Although grammatically the word “corruption” is the beginning of a new thought (corruption / Never has been compulsory), for an instant the reader is reminded that corruption is also the center of the hardening mass from the first lines of the poem.
In this line Jeffers shifts his voice again, this time speaking directly to his young boys. He seems to advise them to be wary of becoming too attached to fellow man, or humankind. This is the basic tenant of his self-proclaimed philosophy of “Inhumanism,” which asserts that the root of most evil can be found in mankind’s relationship to itself; man is cruelest to fellow man. He continues his warning with an analogy, comparing this relationship to that of “clever servant” to “insufferable master,” where, like in an empire, there is a severe imbalance of power.
This final line widens the scope of the poem even further, targeting the very basis of Christianity. “There is the trap,” Jeffers concludes, “that catches the noblest spirits, that caught—they say—God, when he walked the earth.” Like the “mortal splendor” from line 6, many Christians believed that God took human form in the body of Christ to walk among men. According to the New Testament, (“they say”) God sent his son to spread the new gospel to a world that had become afflicted with corruption and vulgarity, just as Jeffers saw America in the 1920s. But Jesus walked the earth for only 33 years before his fellow man “trapped him” and sent him to his death on the cross. Ending the poem on such a dark note, Jeffers seems to point out that man’s cruelty to fellow man is “a trap” that does not discriminate what it captures, be it human, animal, or even the “noblest spirit” we worship.
Although the portrayal of America in “Shine, Perishing Republic” is not flattering, the poem is written from the point of view of a speaker who still feels patriotic enough to cry out against the forces of corruption and vulgarity that threaten his country. The poem is written in the same anthem-like tone and long lines as Whitman’s patriotic “O Captain, My Captain,” written upon the occasion of President Lincoln’s assassination. As harsh as the speaker’s views may be, describing America as a monster settling into “the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,” he does so with a sad nostalgia for the country he perceives as burning out like the last streak of a comet across the night sky. He realizes that even this type of protest is perhaps useless, “only a bubble in the molten mass [that] pops and sighs out.”
Many critics place Jeffers at the center of the long American tradition of individualist anarchism. He believed in the importance of individual freedom and an ideal government comprised of a loose confederation of small communities. Contrary to this, at the time of the poem’s publication in 1925, America was emerging from two decades as a rising world power and entering an era that would show sharp social and economic divide among its people. The prosperity of the twenties benefited a specific segment of society, but at the expense of a great mass of factory workers and common laborers who were underpaid and nonunionized. Rural areas of the country declined economically while the corporate business world grew in the heart of cities. These trends culminated in the late 1920s and the 1930s as the Great Depression, and against this inevitable calamity the speaker summons up perhaps a last ounce of patriotism to call out, “shine, perishing republic.”
Topics for Further Study
- Do you feel America today is better or worse than the nation Jeffers describes? Have we as a people settled into “a mould of vulgarity?” Use recent news items as examples to discuss your answers.
- For some, the thought of a poet living alone in a stone tower seems to perfectly fit the cliche of an artist as solitary figure. Do you believe artists—poets, painters, dancers, etc.—are more isolated from society than others? Give examples to explore and develop your viewpoint.
- Write a poem protesting a trend you see in terms of the environment, the military, economy, religious attitudes, etc. Use the first half of your poem to directly address those causing the problem. In the second half, shift your point of view and speak to your future children. Compare poems and discuss.
Cycle of Life
It is common for the poems of Robinson Jeffers to turn to nature when faced with the evils of man. In “Shine, Perishing Republic,” the speaker “sadly smiling” recalls the natural cycle of life and death to find comfort. After beginning the poem with images of death and decay, he reminds the reader and himself that “the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.” Playing with the word “decadence,” which was a popular way to describe the bohemian lifestyle, Jeffers hopes that, like in nature, every period of “decay” is followed by rebirth and “spring exultances.” Similarly, perhaps after America’s period of decay will come a better time, though this type of optimism in his poems is rare and often short-lived. Jeffers generally believed that man should reject all relationships with fellow man, choosing instead a deeper relationship with nature in order to understand the larger cycles of life and death, as “Out of the mother” we are born, live and die, returning again “home to the mother.”
God and Religion
The poem, which begins as a patriotic outcry and then turns to nature’s cycle of life for comfort, eventually concludes on a religious note. While carefully distancing himself (with the interjection “—they say—”) from the Christians he alludes to, Jeffers ends the poem with an example of what he considers man’s biggest “trap.” Reminiscent of his inhumanist philosophies that rejected organized religion and found man’s relationship to man the main source of corruption, Jeffers uses Christ’s crucifixion as the prime example of how cruel we can be to each other. Our cruelty is like a “trap” that can snare even the noblest spirits; man is so cruel to fellow man that even God, whom Christians believed walked the earth in the body of Jesus Christ, could not escape.
“Shine, Perishing Republic” is written in free verse, which means Jeffers did not use a set rhyme pattern or traditional form of line length to construct this poem. “Free” does not necessarily mean without form; rather, the poem’s shape grows organically from its content, similar to how a river carves its own banks. Jeffers believed poems should balance both “substance and sense, a physical and psychological reality.” Perhaps driven by this logical instinct, the poem is divided into unrhymed couplets, or two-line stanzas. “Stanza” literally means “room” in Italian, and in this poem Jeffers carefully organizes his shifts of voice and tone inside these five rooms.
Jeffers uses long, Whitman-like lines throughout the poem, some extending further than this book’s margins allow (such lines broken by the editor rather than the poet are continued as indented lines). These long lines seem to build a momentum of their own, the poet’s voice building force as it stretches out across the page. Jeffers uses these extended lines to perhaps mirror the speaker’s anger at witnessing America’s republic decline into a bubbling mass of vulgarity. The lines of the poem do not follow a set rhythmic pattern of accented stresses; as in the sonnet form, each line’s heavy beat matches the forceful and angered voice of a father worried about his children’s future, pounding like a fist:
“I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center, corruption.”
Compare & Contrast
- 1925: Transatlantic telephone service begins between London and New York, costing $25 per minute and restricted to 3 minutes total.
Today: The internet, or World Wide Web, provides nearly instant communication and distribution of information over an international network of telephone lines and satellites.
- 1925: Television gets its first demonstration in the auditorium of New York’s Bell Telephone Labs. Closer to the first video conference than television as we know it today, audience members watch Herbert Hoover address them from Washington, D.C., while listening to his voice over telephone wires.
Today: International businesses, universities, and classrooms widely use integrated video conferencing systems for Distance Learning, employee training, and political debates.
- 1925: Police arrest over 75,000 people for drinking alcohol, which is strictly prohibited. Some 1,565 Americans die from drinking bad homemade liquor, hundreds are blinded, and many are killed in bootlegger wars.
Today: Alcohol companies advertise widely on television and in the print media, convincing the nation any cause for celebration is “Miller Time.” Over 100,000 Americans die each year of alcohol poisoning alone; countless others are injured or killed in alcohol-related auto accidents and alcoholism-based domestic violence.
Jeffers uses similar tensions between content and form throughout the poem to give an otherwise “free verse” poem a solid and sustaining structure.
At the time of the poem’s publication in 1925, America was emerging from two decades as a rising world power and entering an era that would feature sharp social divide and poverty. The prosperity of the 1920s benefited a specific segment of society at the expense of a great mass of factory workers and common laborers who were underpaid and nonunionized. Rural areas of the country declined economically, while the corporate business world grew in power and wealth. A leisure class emerged in the suburbs as well as in the bohemian quarters of larger cities, and with it came a lack of morality and values that disturbed many. Among these angered outsiders was Jeffers, who some critics describe as an prophet scolding his tribe for their greed.
The 1920s were also a time of literary exploration and vision. Many noted “lost generation” writers like Hemingway traveled the world in search of purpose and inspiration. This was also the decade in which Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo, nonstop transatlantic flight, Albert Hegenberger made the first successful flight from San Francisco to Hawaii, and Amelia Earhart scouted her first transatlantic flight with two other pilots.
Contrary to this national fever for travel and exploration, Jeffers instead chose to move his family to southern California and build a granite house by hand complete with an observation tower (known as “Hawk Tower”). Virtually isolated in his stone house perched on a remote rocky shore, Jeffers spent the rest of his life composing books and philosophical essays.
It is difficult to find much specific criticism of “Shine, Perishing Republic” and Jeffers’s other early, shorter poems. But critical commentary discussing Jeffers as a philosophical poet and writer of long, narrative pieces is easier to find.
Many critics begin their discussion of his nature poetry with a synopsis of his fairly obscure personal philosophy. “Inhumanism,” as Jeffers called it, “is a shifting of emphasis from man to not man. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy.” This was a repugnant idea to many, including several critics who find contradictions in Jeffers’s work.
Some critics dismissed his body of work outright. Kenneth Rexroth, in his book Assays, commented, “[In Jeffers’s] philosophy I find a mass of high-flown statements indulged in for their melodrama alone, and often essentially meaningless.” Robert Boyers, writing for the Sewanee Review, similarly writes, “Structurally, [his poems] are sound enough, but the texture of these poems is swollen by effusions of philosophizing and by attempts to impose representative signification on characters and actions.”
Other critics view Jeffers and his “philosophic-dramatic” poetry as revolutionary and prophetic work worthy of high accolades. James Dickey praises Jeffers in Babel to Byzantium by observing that he “fills a position in this country that would simply have been an empty gap without him: that of the poet as prophet, as large-scale philosopher, as doctrine-giver.” Perhaps the greatest praise comes from Nobel-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as calling Jeffers “undoubtedly … one of the great poets of this century.”
Sean Robisch teaches composition and literature at Purdue University and holds a Ph.D. in American Literature. His fiction has appeared in Hopewell Review and Puerto del Sol. In the following essay, Robisch explains why Jeffers seems so critical of humanity and notes our personal responsibility as citizens of any “republic.”
We are taught to love our nation, just as, when he was a young poet, Robinson Jeffers was taught to love his nation. But for each of us, the dilemma always exists as to how we are to love an entity so difficult to define as a nation, which changes over time and is something both greater than and less than the geographical area inside its boundaries. Just because you draw a line on a map, have you made, for instance, a Republic? And how are we to know whether or not this territory will endure, as much as we champion its existence? In “Shine, Perishing Republic,” written in 1925, Jeffers addresses these questions.
I say “addresses,” and and not answers, because Jeffers was not prone to deliver easy, closed-ended conclusions (even in such poems as “The Answer”). Instead, his poems are filled with paradoxes, dilemmas, and uncomfortable situations. If the first time you read “Shine, Perishing Republic” you think of it as an unpatriotic poem, then the second time through, knowing what Jeffers was apt to do in his work, you might have a much different response. It is true that Jeffers is hard on nationhood; in fact, much of his work is critical of humanity in general. Humanity can be “slavish in the mass,” he writes, “but at stricken moments it can shine terribly against the dark magnificence of things.” In many of his poems, Jeffers expresses this position by pitting human indulgences against the purities of the natural world (which preceded humanity), and he often concludes that people fall short of an acceptable standard for behaving properly in their environment. Awareness of this underlying philosophy is necessary when considering Jeffers’s writing in general and “Shine, Perishing Republic” in particular.
In this poem, Jeffers employs the concept of nationhood to analyze the value of human endeavor in terms of the earth’s lifetime and its systems. When he writes that he is “sadly smiling,” the poet might be sarcastic, cynical, or even prophetic. Although the statement that the Republic is perishing may seem ominous and pessimistic, it is really a simple declaration of the predictable. If we judge this viewpoint as too harsh, however, it may just speak to our tendency of avoiding criticism while simultaneously seeking praise. It is important to be demanding of humans and the nations they form, Jeffers implies, because if we are too quick with our allegiances we may not ask the difficult questions necessary for improvement and future survival. Corruption, the poet tells us, is “never compulsory,” meaning that we have choices to do what is pure or vulgar. If we do not avoid corruption, we may march forward in blind loyalty until we finally commit the horrible act of sacrificing someone—even God. So while Jeffers explains that blame does us no good, he also, in the second-to-last line, warns “his boys” not to put so much faith and love in humanity that they absolve them of any wrongdoing. However, if we are all part of the Republic, and part of humanity, then we also must be part of what is poured into the “mould” and therefore be a little “vulgar” ourselves. How are we to handle this position? The poem’s last stanza tells us: we are to be wary, cautious, and to remember that the Republic itself, the hardening “mass” (he surely intends the pun) will meet its end, to begin something new.
Poets are experts at metaphor, and in this poem Jeffers demonstrates his ability to help us see what he means, since what he is trying to express is both paradoxical and complex. First, he gives us a familiar metaphor, the image of the mould. Because of its once-generous immigration policy that welcomed people from all nations, the United States has, for many years, been called a “melting pot,” in which races, genders, classes, and creeds all blend together into a kind of alloy. If this is so, then what shape does the molten material form when it cools and hardens? Jeffers decides here that the shape, the mould into which the liquid is poured, is “vulgarity.” He then extends this metaphor. What if someone decided to openly criticize the Republic? According to Jeffers, in America a protest is only a bubble in the mixture. He uses the phrase “sighs out” to imply the tiny puff of air when a bubble bursts, likening it to a small voice briefly noted that soon disappears. The mass takes its place and hardens over the vacated spot. This is a seemingly pessimistic way to talk about one’s own country, but Jeffers immediately follows that image of the hardening mass with organic images of rebirth in the next stanza. Now, the death of that bubble in the mix may take on some importance; it reminds us that out of mortality may come fertility.
This is also a crucial point in Jeffers’s work, as Robert Brophy has explained. Jeffers works with mythic-ritual cycles, which do not consider death an end, but as a marker for the next phase of the cycle. One of the images prominent in myths about the cycle of death and life is the blood sacrifice, in which a scapegoat would take on the sins of the community and be ritually killed, ushering in a new era or “season.” After insisting for two stanzas that the Republic will not outlast the mountains—that whether “stubbornly long or suddenly a mortal splendor,” all nations will inevitably end—Jeffers closes the poem by making reference to the crucifixion of Christ. In this way, Jeffers delivers a complex message about what benefits (freedom and loyalty) and what evils (entrapment and murder) might grow out of the same Republic.
What Do I Read Next?
- Many critics trace Jeffers’s theories of inhumanism back to his years of philosophical studies in Zurich. While at the university he read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, two philosophers whose works shed interesting light on his later poems.
- Robinson Jeffers’s complete body of poetry, titled The Collected Poems of Robinson Jeffers, is collected in two 300-page volumes, edited by Tim Hurt.
- David Brower recently re-released a book of poems and photographs originally published in 1965 by the Sierra Club. Not Man Apart: Photographs of the Big Sur Coast combines Jeffers’s poems with photos by several famous artists, including Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.
- You can read Jeffers’s censored poetry in the book In This Wild Water: The Suppressed Poems of Robinson Jeffers.
If we were to believe that death sends us to a better place, then wouldn’t it be a compliment to wish death on the Republic? We are tempted to say no, of course; wishing death on anyone, let alone an entire nation, is usually thought to be morally unacceptable. However, the nation, as all human-made things, will eventually end, so wishing its death and predicting its death may be easily confused, depending on the language used. Nations are finite, and according to the worldview we get in the poem, this is not bad, but merely inevitable. One image that has been used for many centuries to articulate this idea of death’s inevitability as a way of keeping nations humble is the image of the toppling ruin. In the United States it is sometimes demonstrated in the paintings of the Hudson River School, notably in Thomas Cole’s series The Course of Empire. The image of a building’s broken stone overgrown with foliage reminds us that even the greatest of human works is subject to the force of time. Therefore, the first two words in Jeffers’s title, “Shine, Perishing” both command the
“During times when many poets were testing the intellectual possibilities of poetry, Jeffers was testing how it might contribute to what he saw as the most fundamental force, that of a planet spinning in the cosmos.”
nation to be a good one and predict its imminent decline. When, in the middle of the poem, Jeffers writes that we make the process of decay speed up in our haste (he doubles the haste), he also tells us that blame has no place in the cycle. “Life is good,” he writes, but it will end. Therefore, we are called to look beyond our Republic and beyond blame for what is most valuable and necessary.
In his Shine, Perishing Republic: Robinson Jeffers and the Tragic Sense in Modern Poetry, Rudolph Gilbert points out that Jeffers “draws his meanings from age-old symbols, never from arguments.” This may one reason he earned such high praise at the beginning of his career and such criticism (even lessening attention from critics) toward its end. While “Shine, Perishing Republic” does not involve the intense experiments with language that “high modernists” such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and T. S. Eliot were trying during the 1920s, it does provide complex moral dilemmas about what we mean by the concepts of “civilization” and “progress.” This poem was not Jeffers’s only comment about such things: in 1935 he wrote “Shine, Republic,” a poem investigating how freedom might become itself a trap, and in 1944 he wrote “Shine, Empire.” In both of these works, Jeffers criticized the human obssession with freedom, which was to him both a great result of democracy and, in the larger sense, an illusion. In “Shine, Empire” he took an unpopular stance by criticizing the participation in war of both Axis and Allied forces. As he continued to address such issues, some critics accused his work of having lost its polish and having turned into a series of outbursts. Other commentators, including Brother Antoninus and Rudolphe Louis Megroz, defended him for both his vision and craft in responding to the conditions not only of his present, but of humanity’s possible future.
In “Shine, Perishing Republic” Jeffers’s use of the word “Republic” is an allusion to the Roman Empire, the great power of the ancient world that toppled. An indication of this allusion is in the Christian reference in the poem’s closing lines. As in his poem “Meditation on Saviors,” Jeffers frequently presents the reader with a struggle between the force of materialistic civilization and its constructs versus spirituality and the organic earth. The industrial and material is Caesar’s world, while the organic and spiritual is Christ’s—the same struggle Plato gives us in Phaedrus with the Temple of Reason. In this metaphor, Caesar becomes the savior of the Republic, and Christ the scapegoat who is sacrificed at the end of a season in the mythic cycle. This may be why the “mould” in the poem, that image of what is humanly made with machinery and liquid alloys, is called “vulgarity.” Jeffers invites us to become upset with a criticism of nationhood and civilization, because when we do so we might respond, line-by-line through the poem, with the same logic used both to forge empires and to sacrifice individuals.
Robinson Jeffers was regularly “ahead of his time.” In the 1960s, his reputation was revitalized by the various environmental movements that found him willing to take a hard look at what human beings were doing to the nonhuman. The work environmentalist thinkers often considered had been written before there was an “environmental movement” as such, and in between the most prolific periods of national policy-making about how the “Republic” would consider “the mother” (a popular metaphor for Earth, as in the Greek goddess Gaia). These periods were the 1850s-1860s and the 1960s-1970s. Jeffers’s most noteworthy poems were written during the business and mechanization booms of the 1920s-1940s. During times when many poets were testing the intellectual possibilities of poetry, Jeffers was testing how it might contribute to what he saw as the most fundamental force, that of a planet spinning in the cosmos. In this light, his views of nationhood as finite, of blame as useless, and of blind loyalty as destructive, are worth considering in order to make us better readers of poetry, which in turn might make us more responsible children of empires.
Source: Sean Robisch, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
David J. Rothman
David J. Rothman is the executive director of the Robinson Jeffers Association, the author of several books of poetry, and a contributor of articles, essays, and poetry to numerous journals and books. In the following essay, Rothman describes how Jeffers’s clear language and complex syntax enchance the poet’s commentary on the rise and decline of societies, and he also provides a sympathetic examination of Jeffers’s often-maligned philosophy of “Inhumanism.”
Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) was one of the most famous American poets of the twentieth century, and he led a career that ranks as one of the most fascinating, productive, and controversial of all American artists. In 1925, already in his late 30s, Jeffers was the author of two virtually unknown volumes of verse that were very different from his mature work. Then, with the publication of Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems in 1925, he rocketed to a fame shared by only a handful of contemporary writers. In the following twelve years, his output was tremendous: seven lengthy volumes of new poetry, each of which contained one or more long, tragic, narrative poems along with visionary lyrics about nature and the fate of civilization. Several of the books also included verse plays, often based on free adaptations of Greek tragedies. Many of these volumes were highly praised best-sellers, and some are still in print. In 1932, with the publication of Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems, his photograph, a portrait by Edward Weston, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The anonymous reviewer referred to Jeffers as a writer “whom a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U.S. has yet produced.”
After this high point, Jeffers’s star sank rapidly beginning in the mid-1930s. The causes included his continuing emphasis on what was viewed as social detachment, in a time when more and more writers were calling for politically engaged art; his occasionally bitter philosophy of “Inhumanism,” in which Jeffers argued that human beings should turn away from human problems to contemplate the more lasting beauty and significance of the inhuman, natural world; his advocacy of isolationism during World War II, including poems highly critical of both Hitler and the Allies; and the harsh judgment by many critics that his poems lacked erudition, complexity, and craft, and were hysterical, by which the critics meant excessively violent and shrill. Although Jeffers published more work of high quality, and his free adaptation of Euripides’s Medea enjoyed a highly successful run on Broadway in the late 1940s, by the time of his death in 1962 he had been all but forgotten by scholars and critics, although he has always retained a popular following, especially as a poet of the natural world.
Today Jeffers is primarily known through a few anthologized lyrics, including “Shine, Perishing Republic,” and some of the shorter narratives (such as “Roan Stallion”). This is unfortunate, because he wrote a tremendous body of work, much of it at the same level of intensity. Despite general critical indifference and lingering scholarly hostility, he has directly influenced not only poets such as William Everson (who credited his exposure to Jeffers’s work as one of the most important events of his life) and, more recently, Mark Jarman, but also figures as different as O’Neill and Faulkner, along with artists in other fields, such as photographers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. The list of recent and contemporary writers who claim to admire him includes Charles Bukowski, Robert Bly, Diane Wakoski, Edward Abbey, Dana Gioia, John Haines, Czeslaw Milosz, Gary Snyder, and many others. As Gioia has pointed out, Jeffers remains the greatest poet to date of the American West; one of the greatest American poets of the natural world, indeed one of the greatest visionary poets of the natural sublime ever to have written, and a crucial influence on the entire modern environmental movement; and one of the greatest narrative poets America has produced. I would add that he is one of the greatest verse dramatists this country has ever seen, perhaps surpassed only by T. S. Eliot. Most important, he conveys his vision of the poet’s place in the world so powerfully that even many who do not agree with him feel compelled to address his art and its claims.
“Shine, Perishing Republic” remains the most widely anthologized Jeffers poem. First published in Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems, the 1925 volume that made Jeffers’s reputation, the title may have the most lasting resonance of any phrase Jeffers ever coined. Among many others, Edward Abbey quotes it in Desert Solitaire, and Robert Frost uses it as the epigraph to his late poem “Our Doom to Bloom” (from In the Clearing, 1961). It is one of Jeffers’s earliest lyrics in his mature style, and it announces a resigned political pessimism that would characterize his political and social poetry for the following four decades. On the basis of this poem and others, Jeffers was often accused of being a misanthrope. While there is a good
“Looking out at a society that he considers corrupt, Jeffers does not choose to engage in protest, but rather to remember the cycle of nature in which even rotting fruit has a constructive role to play in the life of the world.…”
deal of skepticism in the poem about humanity’s ability to create a society worth joining, it is a serious mistake to treat this skepticism as the only tone in the poem, because that approach obscures Jeffers’s complex view of love.
The poem appears to begin with a metaphorical description of political decay that will lead to a call to action. In clear, forthright language radically at odds with the complexity and obscurity of many contemporary modernist lyrics (Eliot, Pound, Stevens, H.D. and others), Jeffers compares America to a tremendously hot, but slowly cooling and hardening, molten mass:
While this America settles in the mould of its
vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire,
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass,
pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens …
While the language is clear, the syntax is complex, containing no fewer than four dependent clauses all predicated on the initial word “While,” one of which contains a complex adverbial modifier (“And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out”). Also, while the imagery seems clear at first, Jeffers leaves things a bit vague. Is America being compared to a river of volcanic lava that has run its course and is now cooling? That would make some sense, as the country began in a fiery political revolution. But lava runs where it wishes, not settling “in a mould.” So is Jeffers comparing it to some artificially heated substance, perhaps metal, that is being forged?
Jeffers does not resolve the question, but it seems clear that he sees his country as having once been fiery and dynamic, whether through natural or artificial heat, but now as a cooling substance being cast into a “mould of vulgarity,” in which protest is merely an ineffectual bubble. The imagery of scorching heat and the mention of protest suggest that some kind of response is forthcoming. Jeffers holds us in suspense for quite some time, forcing us to wait through an entire stanza for the main clause of the sentence. Yet when this clause comes, at the beginning of the next stanza, it involves not action, but only wistful, personal observation and an instruction to himself to remember something:
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to
make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring
exultances, ripeness and decadence; and
home to the mother.
This second stanza is nothing less than a philosophical theory or myth of history as an organic cycle that Jeffers probably picked up from his readings in writers such as Vico and Spengler. Looking out at a society that he considers corrupt, Jeffers does not choose to engage in protest, but rather to remember the cycle of nature in which even rotting fruit has a constructive role to play in the life of the world; decay is as natural as growth. As many had done before him, Jeffers compares the rise and decline of civilizations to the natural life of plants. Whereas in the first stanza society was compared to something fiery where no life could possibly live, “the molten mass,” in the second stanza it is compared to “the mother,” the earth and all the life it creates, sustains, and gathers back into itself in death.
While Jeffers’s language seems simple, the richness of his intertwined metaphors is part of what makes the poem far more than a sermon about how societies rise and fall. Consider the simple phrase “spring exultances.” What are those? Are they the flowers of spring mentioned earlier in the same line? If so, in what sense are flowers “exultances?” To exult means to rejoice jubilantly, and derives from a Latin root that means roughly “to leap up.” The word, therefore, does make sense to connect the literal thing, the flower, with the quality of exultation in spring. It is through this careful and extremely clear joining of real things with seasons and metaphorical structures of history—both at the level of words and in the social myth Jeffers sketches—that the poem gains its force. Just as flowers have the quality of “spring exultances,” fruit gains the quality of “ripeness” and rotting gains the quality of “decadence,” all of which are also terms with moral and historical connotations.
Astonishingly, most critics have downplayed Jeffers’s interest in poetic language, as he did not dwell upon it in his writing about poetry and his meanings appear at first to be fairly straightforward. Yet, if read with care, “Shine, Perishing Republic” reveals a rich and deeply satisfying set of metaphorical associations that harken back at least as far as the prophetic language of the Old Testament. At the same time Jeffers’s poem is quite different from any simple fire-and-brimstone sermon about corruption, even though Jeffers obviously saw America as in decline, and in the poem warns his sons to keep their distance from it.
We can see more clearly what Jeffers is doing in this regard if we compare his descriptions of a corrupt America to a passage from Jeremiah, perhaps the fieriest book in the Old Testament. Jeremiah, like other books of the Hebrew bible, is even written in rhythms that Jeffers echoes in his poetry:
1.21 A voice was heard upon the high places, weeping and supplication of the children of Israel: for they have perverted their way, and they have forgotten the Lord their God.
1.22 Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto thee; for thou art the Lord our God.
1.23 Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains; truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel.
Jeffers was often called a prophet, and there is no doubt that his voice contains a prophetic tone. Yet instead of counseling others or himself to pursue protest, or even virtuous action, as Jeremiah does, Jeffers suggests that all one can do is recall and meditate on the cycles of history, which proceed as inevitably as the life of a pear.
At the same time, Jeffers also does not want to be misunderstood as attacking those who are “making haste,” whatever their project. As if anticipating a critical response to his self-imposed isolation, the poem’s third stanza turns directly to someone with whom Jeffers appears to be having a conversation or argument. The poem suddenly becomes suddenly more intimate as Jeffers addresses this hypothetical “You.”
You making hast haste on decay: not blameworthy;
life is good, be it stubbornly long or
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less
than mountains: shine, perishing republic.
The passage gives the sense that the poem began in response to something that someone else may have said about the need for action. Jeffers’s response is first that things are pretty much hopeless; second, that this is not really a problem, as all societies develop and decline in predictable ways that are similar to natural cycles; but third, that, despite such facts, action (by which he presumably means some kind of political or social activism) is “not blameworthy,” because it is all part of a larger, cosmic vitality that transcends mere human concerns.
At this point, we need to have a somewhat better sense of what Jeffers meant by “Inhumanism,” the name he later gave to what he called his “philosophical attitude.” Inhumanism undergirds all of Jeffers’s work, including his poems, with political and social themes. As Jeffers recognized, it is not a philosophy in the analytical sense, but rather a way of trying to relate to reality in a particular way and answer perennial questions. In a lyric from just a few years after “Shine, Perishing Republic,” called “Credo,” Jeffers wrote that “The beauty of things was born before the eyes and sufficient to itself; the heart-breaking beauty / Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.” In other words, as he repeated throughout his life, the beauty of nature, in ocean, rock, hawk, sky, and star, has absolutely no need of human beings. In one of his longer poems, the narrative poem “Roan Stallion,” he actually called humanity “the last, least taint of a trace in the dregs of the solution” of the universe.
In Jeffers’s view, many of civilization’s problems—that led during his lifetime to two devastating world wars—grew out of a childish insistence on still seeing ourselves as the center of the universe and always looking inward when we should be looking outward, away from human concerns and toward the wild beauty of all creation. So Jeffers defined Inhumanism as “a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.” Hostile critics often called this attitude hateful and misanthropic, when it is probably more appropriate to say that Jeffers felt we should not exaggerate our own importance in the cosmic scheme of things. In Jeffers’s view, as he wrote in a poem called “The Answer”:
… the greatest beauty is Organic wholeness, the
wholeness of life and things, the divine
beauty of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share
man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in
despair when his days darken.
This is the approach to life, deeply influenced by modern science as well as traditional Christianity, that has led many to see Jeffers as one of the spiritual founders of the modern environmental movement. The emphasis on loving the universe, not merely man apart from it, is Jeffers’s solution to the problem of how to confront the horrible truths of human history in many poems, including “Shine, Perishing Republic.” Jeffers’s response to the horrors of World War I and the developments that ultimately led to World War II is literally to try to put them in perspective by placing them in a much larger framework of contemplation—the realm of meteors and mountains. If we, like so many of Jeffers’s weaker critics, see only Jeffers’s denunciations of human behavior, we miss this crucial element in his poetry, which transforms it into something quite different.
At the same time as he denounces “America … thickening to empire,” Jeffers also makes it clear that the intimate circle of his own family is still very much at stake. His work is that of a poet’s and therefore intimately involved with people, not merely that of a philosopher contemplating ideas. In the poem’s final two stanzas, he first talks about how he would convey his ideas to his sons, and then shifts the address of the poem directly to them:
But for my children, I would have them keep their
distance from the thickening center;
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at
the monster’s feet there are left the
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of
man, a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that
caught—they—say God, when he walked on
Notice that where Jeremiah says “Truly in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains; truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel,” Jeffers seems almost to reverse this. If not salvation, then at least freedom from corruption will be found in the mountains, in the “inhuman” world.
Garth Jeffers, one of Jeffers’s two sons addressed in the poem (Jeffers and his wife Una had no daughters who lived past infancy), died in the spring of 1998. When Jeffers wrote this poem Garth and his brother Donnan were quite young—less than 10 years old—and certainly not mature enough to understand it. Despite Jeffers’s dim view of human beings’ ability to live together, and his acknowledgment of our fate and the fate of the societies in which we live, I have to think that “Shine, Perishing Republic” is a love poem to these boys, albeit one filled with sadness. Motivated by both both apprehension and joy, its ultimate counsel is to be “moderate … in love of man,” exactly because Jeffers knows the attraction of such love. After all, there is no need to counsel against immoderate love for man if it is not a temptation. And the reason it is a temptation is because love holds out the hope of improving the world, which Jeffers sees as illusory even though it appeals to “noblest spirits,” such as Jesus.
The most important thing to realize is that, despite Jeffers’s apparent conclusion on the matter, it is his very poem that keeps alive the conversation among the various positions Jeffers elaborates. How can we love each other in the face of social corruption? How can we do anything in society if all action only participates in the general decay? What is the significance of our relation to “the mountains” as opposed to our relation to “the cities?”
It is Jeffers himself who is torn by love for suffering humanity and a recognition of how little he can do about its fate. In the end, his Inhumanism and his critique of Christianity are only consolations for the agony of being a witness to history, a fate no thinking person can avoid in this century. It is himself Jeffers is warning, as much as his children.
The reason the poem has survived for 75 years and is likely to continue to do so is not because it offers some simple truth, though its attitudes are powerful. It is because Jeffers captures his own ambivalence of heart and mind in such a careful way that the poem itself becomes a manifestation of a deeply lived and contemplated vitality. On the one hand Jeffers knows that social life is deeply flawed, that republics become corrupt and crumble, because of the generally foolish behavior of human beings. Yet his poem is fired with love for his own sons, as emblems of a larger humanity for whom he wishes a good life, for “life is good.” Even the “perishing republic” is blessed as a natural phenomenon, like a “meteor” that should in fact shine forth even as it dies. These are not the words of a simple, uncomplicated misanthrope. In the end, it is Jeffers’s agonizing effort to find a way to live in the world that gives this poem, like much of his best work, its force. The poem’s power grows out of adoration for the world and the vitality of creation, mixed with anguish at its suffering, all dissolved into a philosophical attitude that emphasizes but never achieves detachment. The unnamed “they” in the last line, the “they” who suppposedly say that Jesus was caught in a trap of love, is purposefully unnamed, because it is Jeffers himself. The emotional and intellectual richness of Jeffers’s lyric focuses a complex moment of consciousness, relating family, society, history, nature, love, and death in a highly compressed and memorable way.
Source: David J. Rothman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, written in 1953, Highet discusses the themes of Jeffers’s poems and how they reflect Jeffers’s attitudes toward humanity and nature.
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“[Jeffers’s] poetry is not meant to be liked. It is meant, I think to do people good.”
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Source: Gilbert Highet, “An American Poet,” in Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers, edited by James Karman, G. K. Hall and Co., 1990, pp. 201–04
Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, New York: Simon and Schuster,  1990.
Antoninus, Brother, Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury, Oyez, 1968.
Beach, Joseph Warren, The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth Century English Poetry, The Macmillan Company, 1936.
Boyers, Robert, “A Sovereign Voice: The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer, 1969.
Brophy, Robert J., Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems, The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1973.
Brophy, Robert J., ed., The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter: A Jubilee Gathering 1962-1988, Occidental College, Los Angeles, 1988.
Dickey, James, Babel to Byzantium, Farrar, Straus, 1968.
Frost, Robert, The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
_______, Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury, Berkeley: Oyez Press, 1968.
Gilbert, Rudolph, Shine, Perishing Republic: Robinson Jeffers and the Tragic Sense in Modern Poetry, Boston: Bruce Humphries, Inc., 1936.
Gioia, Dana, “Strong Counsel” in Can Poetry Matter?, Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1992, pp. 47-60.
“Harrowed Marrow,” Time April 4, 1932, pp. 63-64.
Hass, Robert, introduction to Rock and Hawk: A Selection of the Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers, edited by Robert Hass, New York: Random House, 1987, pp. xv-xliii.
Hunt, Tim, ed., The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, three vols., Stanford University Press, 1988.
Jarman, Mark, Iris, Brownsville, OR: Storyline Press, 1992.
Rexroth, Kenneth, Assays, New Directions, 1961.
Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition, edited by Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley, New York: New York University Press, 1965.
Zaller, Robert, Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers, University of Delaware Press, 1991.
______, The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers, Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Brophy, Robert, Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems, Shoe String Press, 1976.
In this book of criticism, Brophy traces connections between Jeffers’s deep understanding of Greek and Christian mythology and the symbols which recur in his narrative poems.
Coffin, Arthur, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism, University of Wisconsin Press, 1971.
Coffin searches out examples from Jeffers’s large body of work to illustrate the role of “Inhumanism” in the poet’s life and writing.
Everson, William, Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure, Stanford University Press, 1988.
Provides a biographical and critical overview.
Zaller, Robert, The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers, Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Views Jeffers’s work through the lens of the poet’s solitary personal life on the coast of Big Sur.