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Date of Award

1974

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Department

Graduate School

First Advisor

Arlen Hanson

First Committee Member

Louis Leiter

Second Committee Member

Charles Clerc

Third Committee Member

Diane M. Borden

Fourth Committee Member

James Riddles

Abstract

For Robinson Jeffers, poet-philosopher and naturalist of Carmel, California, the universe is one entity, a "being out of grasp of the mind enormous." Its parts are only differing manifestations of a single energy; all bear upon one another, influence one another. According to Jeffers we humans attain true freedom and peace by turning avmy from self, from mere humanity and human contrivances, imaginings, and dreams. This is Jeffers' Doctrine of Inhumanism: a dark philosophy which proved increasingly unpopular as Jeffers more and more adamantly insisted upon dramatizing mankind's smallness in the immense context of the universe.

The biography of The Double Axe and Other Poems, published by Random House in 1948, shows that ten poems were expunged from the originally submitted manuscript. Notes and letters from this period show Bennett Cerf and Jeffers' editor, Saxe Cummins, to be disconcerted by the fierce intensity and the dark political ramifications of Jeffers' doctrine. Consequently, The Double Axe was printed with a disclaimer regarding the "political views pronounced by the poet.” To the dismay of his publishers, Jeffers’ often uses political persons - Roosevelt, Hitler, Mussolini, Truman - to represent the ideas he works with aesthetically. But when he removes these topical references, his poetry sounds propagandistic. In using these particulars as metaphors, he makes contemporary issues and personalities point up his philosophy of Inhumanism. Because this is a particularly dark philosophy, these references to living persons have the effect of indicting them all equally, whether it is Hitler or Roosevelt singled out. Jeffers undertakes the task - which is especially unenviable in the milieu of World War II America - of showing that all leaders and all nations (both Nazi Germany and the United States) are equally culpable of distorting the importance and value of human endeavor.

Jeffers’ poetry addresses man’s “excessive energies.” These energies, which receive special attention in the excised poems, lead man to “superfluous activities” - activities which “are devoted to self-interference, self-frustration, self-incitement, and self-worship.” He writes so as to discover a way to minimize what he interprets to be man’s “racial disease.” Because of his motives, Jeffer’s art is especially dangerous; for he would direct it to influence as well as reflect the reader’s experience. He presents his reader with a difficult task: to relate his experience of the poem, an experience distinctive and irreductible, to the larger flow of human experience. Such a challenge requires that the reader be sensitive not only to Jeffer’s specific point in a particular poem, but also to the history of human development. And, beyond that, to the evolution of the natural universe.

Poetry for Jeffers is not merely mimetic or ontological, but polemical as well. Jeffers' later poems are not necessarily or always tracts, but the materials on which they are based and the criteria by which the poet organizes them are frequently the same as the material and arrangements found in philosophical or religious statements. In one sense, it might be argued that Jeffers elevated propaganda to art by making poetry out of the stuff of argument. But in another sense, Jeffers' best poems carry an autonomy and distinctiveness that makes them irreducible; they cannot be finally understood in a complete sense by deciphering the polemic that points back to external, contemporary reality. His poetry builds and inhabits a world of its own. Thus, the statements in a Jeffers poem may not be understood or judged as if they had been made in direct, argumentative speech, for his aesthetic - when it served him best - has its own complicating norms and dramatic justifications. So Jeffers' poetry has an artistic autonomy even though it refers specifically to a moment of history, a real person, or a particular place. But the particulars are intended to point up a ''permanent human faculty," and are thus both real and poetic. When he does not use topical particulars, however, he sacrifices not only the reality, but also the poetry.

Pages

84

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