Eiseley and Jeffers

The eclipse of this myth [of Progress] is the single most important fact of our epoch.  Henceforth we continue to advance, but without enthusiasm, automatically, in forced complicity with an idea that has become, by all evidence, an agent of destruction.
E.M. Cioran

Loren Eiseley and Robinson Jeffers are two of my literary heroes.  Their lives also speak to me in a personal way beyond just literature.

Both men would have recognized the truth of the Romanian philosopher’s statement about the myth of Progress.  Both men’s poetry explored their alienation from that myth in rather different ways.

eiseley.jpgOddly, despite his awards for his prose, it’s Loren Eiseley’s poetry that most affects me.  Although lauded by W.H. Auden, his poetry came to be seen by many critics as not worthy of notice.  He made his name, of course, with his books of poetic prose on the natural world like The Unexpected Universe, The Night Country and The Invisible Pyramid. He gained recognition first as a scientist and then as a man of letters. For years as a young man, he travelled the country as a hobo, escaping from a difficult family life, before deciding that he had to become educated and entered university.

I first encountered Eiseley through his essays.  When I first read “The Star Thrower” from The Unexpected Universe, I was deeply moved at this melancholic man finding how to once again connect to himself, life, and the world.

The account goes, while taking a walk, depressed, he met a young man on the beach gently throwing stranded starfish into the retreating surf so they wouldn’t die.  Still dejected and desolate, Eiseley went away but he was disturbed by this encounter, ridiculous though he found it. The beach was littered with starfish.  The young man could return so few.  In the small hours of the night, he wrestled with himself, why this event thrust him into so much turmoil.

The next day, he resolved to find the young man again. He did:

Silently I sought and picked up a still-living star, spinning it far out into the waves.  I spoke once briefly.  “I understand,” I said. “Call me another thrower.” …

I saw [the starfish] with unaccustomed clarity and cast far out.  With it, I flung myself as forfeit, for the first time, into some unknown dimension of existence.  From Darwin’s tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death, had arisen incomprehensibly, the thrower who loved not man, but life.

His books of poetry, like Notes of An Alchemist, are almost impossible to find now.  The rest of his writing and work, too, seem to have faded into obscurity.

From “The Cardinals”

Here on my window ledge
two cardinals,
male and female,

suddenly exchange seeds
in an ancient ritual
welcoming spring.
They are not too intimate,
the horn of the beak preventing.
They are very wild
but grave and dignified–
at this moment
so much so that if I could
with the proper manners
I should like to give
a seed to you.

His poetry is difficult to excerpt: it rambles and spirals back upon itself, finding its meaning often unexpectedly, but only after being allowed to build.

There often creeps in the sadness of his childhood, when he found in nature a measure of happiness: My childhood was preoccupied with dreams/of how to free all animals immured…

In 1977 Loren Eiseley  “stepped down to lace his bones with ancient dogs and prairie shadows” in the words of science fiction author Ray Bradbury, another admirer.

jeffers.jpgRobinson Jeffers benefitted from a very different childhood than Eiseley’s.  Born in 1877, the son of a Presbyterian reverend, as a youngster he travelled through Europe and went to school in Switzerland.  He was considered a child prodigy, studying the classics and Greek and Latin language and literature.  Eventually he went to the University of Southern California, and it was in California, on its wild coasts, that he was to become into his own as a poet.

Jeffers was an austere and difficult man who depended much upon his wife who protected him from the social life he shunned.

Well acquainted with the ferocity of nature, and the arrogance of man, Jeffers denied humanity’s predominant place in the universe.

From “November Surf”:

The cities gone down, the people fewer and the hawks more numerous,
The rivers mouth to source pure; when the two footed
Mammal, being someways one of the nobler animals, regains
The dignity of room, the value of rareness.

Here is something that reverberates now, from “Be Angry At the Sun”:

That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.

Jeffers and his wife built a stone house near Carmel, California when it was still unsettled, between 1920-25.  They called it Tor House, using an old Celtic word for the barren knob of rock on which it sat.  He later built a four-story stone tower there. Jeffers lived at Tor House until his death in 1962.  It still stands and I’d like to see it someday.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s Jeffers was considered America’s greatest poet.  He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1932.  But his opposition to the US entering WWII and criticism of his work by other well-known poets led to a decline from which his work never recovered.

Eiseley wrote of Jeffers: “Something utterly wild had crept into his mind.The seabeaten coast, the fierce freedom of its hunting hawks, possessed and spoke through him. It was one of the most uncanny and complete relationships between a man and his natural background that I know in literature.”

Despite the violence and brutality explored in some of his work, he converges with Eiseley in these lines:

…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…


Explore posts in the same categories: Heroes, Writing

7 Comments on “Eiseley and Jeffers”

  1. qazse Says:

    thank you for introducing me to two great thinkers and poets. I believe I heard of Jeffers but with llittle more than a referwence. The starfish storyn was especially touching and this last quote rings so true to me. as always, well done.

  2. fencer Says:

    Thanks, Herb…

    The two of them are in my personal pantheon along with Emerson, Thoreau, Wendell Berry and a few others.

    At times I find Jeffers offputting in his severity towards the human race, and I’m not that great a fan of his epic long poems, but still he speaks to me often in what he writes.

  3. bloglily Says:

    Be Angry at the Sun is one very fine poem. And this is an inspiring, thoughtful, essay. It’s good to be severe sometimes — I forget that in the rush to celebrate all that’s beautiful and pleasurable. Like Herb, I found that story about the starfish moving. It’s so good to click on your site and find yet another set of ideas to ponder. Thanks Mike. xxoo, BL

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Lily,

    Thanks! Hope you’re feeling better and on the mend.


  5. bloglily Says:

    I am! Thank you so much for asking. Now it’s time teo get some writing done (or to write some more about being lazy, I can’t decide which.) Best, Lily

  6. Mike Melendez Says:

    Why did you leave out the final stanza of “Angry at the Sun”.

    The final line

    “Theirs is not ours.”

    is illuminated by his stance against what was in 1941, the war in Europe.

  7. fencer Says:

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for stopping by… Sorry to make you grumpy about that poem. Although I did say “from”, it does seem implied that that is all of it.

    There are actually two missing stanzas:

    “You are not Catullus, you know,
    To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
    From Dante’s feet, but even farther from his dirty
    Political hatreds.

    “Let boys want pleasure, and men
    Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
    And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.
    Yours is not theirs.”

    Personally, I find that the truncated version above makes a better poem: sharper, more succinct. Heresy though that may be…


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