"The lame feet of salvation": a reading of R. S. Thomas and Robinson Jeffers.
Even though Jeffers probably did not know Thomas's poetry, Thomas certainly knew Jeffers's and he explicitly stated his own indebtedness to Jeffers in an interview given late in his life. In response to a question as to why the "Almighty" made "such frequent appearances in his verse," Thomas, looking dumbfoundedly at his questioner, responded that he believed in God. When asked "what sort of God" he believed in, Thomas said, "He's a poet who sang creation ... and He's also an intellect with an ultra-mathematical mind, who formed the entire universe in it." When pressed further, "But did he also love God?," Thomas replied with what might be considered a most curious non sequitur. He said, "I've been much influenced by the American poet Robinson Jeffers, who says somewhere, 'the people who talk of God in human terms, think of that!'" And then Thomas added, "No, loving God is too much of a human construct. What there must be is awe" (Turner 1). (2) If Jeffers would not have agreed literally with Thomas's assertion in terms of the God Thomas professed belief in, he would certainly have acknowledged that the force beyond and behind all of life, the force of nature, was worthy of "religious" veneration and, conceived of as a "deity," might well be described as the "poet who sang creation." Surely, Jeffers would have agreed with Thomas that in the acknowledgement of such power "What there must be is awe."
In short, Thomas and Jeffers shared certain similar interests and beliefs and they both wrote powerful "God-tormented" (3) poems describing and defining those interests and beliefs. James Dickey, writing about Jeffers, applied the phrase "the indifference of greatness" to him. He then went on to describe Jeffers in terms of his poetry and his place in literary history by arguing that he filled "a position ... that would simply have been an empty gap without him." Dickey defined that position as "that of the poet as prophet, as large-scale philosopher, as doctrine-giver." He continued by noting that although Jeffers's "Truth" might be "hard to swallow ... one cannot shake off [his] vision" because it is "too deeply disturbing and too powerfully stated." Dickey concluded: "[flew visions have been more desperate than his, and few lives organized around such austere principles." Even so, he said, "we must honor these things" (Dickey 187-89). All of these remarks might be applied to Thomas.
What I want to do here then is to align these two distinctive and distinguished poets by putting them side by side in terms of several representative poems in an attempt to see how they were in many ways compatible in their lives and in their poetry and, by reading them side by side, discover how one might not only come to a sense of their compatibility but also to a sense of each poet's unique individuality within the context of their shared themes and interests. The themes or concerns that I will concentrate on are what can most conveniently be called their treatments of "pantheism" and what might be described as their "agnostic piety." (4)
Famously--infamously--Robinson Jeffers described the "burden" of his work as "a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanness." He defined his "Inhumanness"--a term that has occasioned a spate of commentary and considerable confusion--pantheistically as the "recognition of [a] transhuman magnificence" which "neutralizes fanaticism," provides for "the religious instinct," and "satisfies" the "need to ... rejoice in beauty" (Preface, The Double Axe xxi). In short, this "In-humanism," for Jeffers, the son of an Old Testament scholar and seminary professor, was a reaction to, or against, what he considered an unfounded, anthropocentric view of the universe and an anthropomorphic description of the divine and, especially, of a deity who had not only disappeared from (if he had ever been in) the world, but one who had rejected the world. As Jeffers said, "I think that it is our privilege ... to love God ... without claiming or expecting love from him" in return. And, he added, we also need to recognize that "[w]e are not important to him," even though "he [may be] to us" (Ridgeway, Selected Letters 221). (5)
Likewise, R. S. Thomas, who was an Anglican priest as well as a poet, might be regarded as "inhuman" for reasons similar to those that apply to Jeffers. Thomas was certainly unorthodox theologically. For Thomas, God was a deus absconditus, a God who had not only hidden himself from men, but a God who could only be known through the presence of His absence, His absent "presence"--an absence and, therefore, by default, a "presence" that, for Thomas, was as long-standing as the history of Christianity, an absent presence that was a constant theme throughout his poetry, as it no doubt was in his life. Thomas subscribed to much the same kind of agnostic "philosophical attitude" that Jeffers asserted but he stressed the theological basis of his position by arguing--in terms that Jeffers would no doubt have approved of and also subscribed to--that "[t]he world needs the unifying power of the imagination" and that "[t]he two things which give it best are poetry and religion" (Penguin Book of Religious Verse 9). (6)
As in Jeffers, there is a clear strain of pantheism in Thomas. (7) It can be found in his prose as well as in his poetry. In one of his autobiographical essays, for instance, Thomas refers to "the impersonal, pitiless beauty of nature," but he adds that "the countryside was indispensable to his faith" (Autobiographies 118, 84). (The terms "impersonal" and "pitiless" would fairly accurately describe Thomas's definition of the deity, but clearly God was "indispensable" to him.) Elsewhere, in his long poem "The Minister," Thomas has his narrator say, "God is in the throat of a bird ... / God is in the sound of the white water / Falling at Cynfal. God is in the flowers / Sprung at the feet of Olwen, and Melangell / Felt His heart beating in the wild hare" (CP 43). Or, again, speaking in his own voice as it were, Thomas writes in "Alive" (CP 296):
It is alive. It is you, God. Many creatures reflect you, the flowers your colour, the tides the precision of your calculations. ... nothing so small that your workmanship is not revealed. I listen and it is you speaking. The darkness is the deepening shadow of your presence....
But Thomas's pantheism is perhaps most clearly evident in "The Moor" (CP 166):
It was like a church to me. I entered it on soft foot, Breath held like a cap in the hand. It was quiet. What God was there made himself felt....
In the late companion poem "Moorland" (CP 513) Thomas revisits this rural Welsh countryside and finds at least the possibility of God's presence in it; but, interestingly enough, and especially so in terms of Jeffers's similar obsession with birds of prey, Thomas, in "expecting a [divine] presence" on the moors and the fells, discovers that that landscape, potentially so prescient with the possibility of God's presence, "the air rarefied / as the interior of a cathedral," is inhabited by a "harrier" who "materiali[zes] from nothing," seeking "with claws of fire" the prey "that escapes it," just as, even when he prays (the pun seems obvious), Thomas finds that his "belief in God" and his attempt to find Him seems always to escape him. Even so, the moor is like a church to Thomas and God is like a hawk "hovering over the incipient / scream." (8)
Thus, even though the distinctions between them need to be kept clearly in mind, it might be argued that the "Inhumanism" and pantheism, the humanistic pantheism--in both Thomas and Jeffers--suggests what Brophy (speaking of Jeffers) described as a "magnificence for the religious instinct" in the literal landscape, at the same time that it celebrates the kind of Old Testament God who, as Jeffers described him, is "inhuman, indifferent, unmerciful, and entirely to be praised" (Afterward, Dear Judas 151, 143).
In terms of their references to the biblical texts, both Thomas and Jeffers focused on the Old Testament and on God as a deus absconditus. Jeffers, in denying the Incarnation, of course, fully excluded Christ, whereas Thomas, no matter the mystery surrounding God's presence, typically included Him, as, for instance, in "The Coming," where he described "the God" (as Thomas frequently referred to the deity) showing "the son" the "small globe" of the earth and its apocalyptically "scorched land." In this devastated landscape "On a bare / Hill a bare tree saddened / The sky." The surviving remnant of the people hold out their "thin arms" to this barren solitary tree "as though waiting," in hope and expectation, "For a vanished April / To return." The son, watching these people and their plight on their small, inconspicuous planet, says to the God, "Let me go there" (CP 234). (9)
In short, Thomas and Jeffers can be aligned by utilizing Jeffers's definition of "Inhumanness," the "recognition of ... transhuman magnificence," and by accepting his provision for a "religious instinct." Such an alignment is pertinent in terms of both poets' interest in, and descriptions of nature, and in terms of their depictions of the relationships between man and nature, and especially between men and birds of prey.
Thomas and Jeffers both lived close to coasts. Jeffers lived in Tor House and at Hawk Tower, which he built with his own hands on the spectacularly beautiful coast of California in the Carmel Bay area. Thomas, during much of the last third of his life, lived on the National Trust estate at Plas-yn-Rhiw in a four-hundred-year-old cottage on the bay of Porth Neigwl (the Mouth of Hell) near Aberdaron in north Wales. Tor House and Hawk Tower look out over the Pacific ocean and the nearby cliffs are home to hawks and other birds of prey that cruise the landscape and ride the thermals above the rocky beaches. Aberdaron, perched at the very tip of the rugged and beautiful Llyn peninsula (which Thomas described as "a peninsula where I can be inward with all the tension of our age," Autobiographies 151), is hugged by the waters of the Irish sea and is on the main route for many migrating birds. The waters off the coast of Aberdaron are famous for their treacherous tides and for the forbidding crossings to Bardsey Island, two miles off shore. Bardsey, a National Nature Reserve, is home to a well-known bird sanctuary which Thomas frequently visited.
Jeffers described, and thus defined, his pantheism on many occasions and in numerous ways. In his prose, he described it as "the expression of a religious feeling ... the certitude ... [Jeffers's ellipsis] that the world, the universe, is one being, a single organism, one great life that includes all life and all things." It is something that "in moments of mystical vision we identify ourselves with," something that is "so beautiful that it must be loved and reverenced" (Themes 23-24). In his poetry, Jeffers defined his pantheism as "[t]he immense beauty of the world," the "beauty of things," "the human mind's translation of the transhuman / Intrinsic glory" (SP 679), and, perhaps most memorably, as "The wild God of the world" (SP 165). (10)
For Thomas, too, nature shows forth the ever-present reality of the divine presence but, for Thomas, nature, rather than being an end in itself, as it was for Jeffers, has a God behind or beyond it. As Thomas described it in one of his autobiographical writings, the "problem" he had "always had" had to do with the "difficulty [of] coming to terms with ... the majesty and mystery of the universe and the natural world as a kind of symbol of God ..." (qtd. in Davis, Miraculous Simplicity 19). Thomas described his own "pantheistic" position as "nature-mysticism" (Autobiographies 122). In short, Thomas's "nature-mysticism" and Jeffers's pantheism were, in large part, similar sentiments--not the landscape of "the visible world as such but man's transcendent revisualization of it," something that exists "beyond the merely visible" and is realized as "divine immanence" (Zaller 80). (11)
Given these bases and basics, I now want to attempt to describe how Thomas and Jeffers created their poetic worlds in terms of their quintessential conceptions of landscape and, in particular, with respect to the predatory birds that inhabited those landscapes, and in terms of their similar obsessions with their own theological themes and theses--always treated in their own uniquely non-traditional ways--themes and theses which were "at once epic and tragic, prophetic and sublime, intimate and apocalyptic" (Gelpi ix).
In "Rock and Hawk" (SP 502), one of Jeffers's signature poems, his themes conspicuously emerge, and merge. "Rock and Hawk" is a poem whose generic title identifies the forces of strength and endurance that Jeffers so often celebrated: the rapt and rapid energy that can flash forth in the hawk and the solid and permanent strength of the rock.
The poem begins with a somewhat enigmatic tercet:
Here is a symbol in which Many high tragic thoughts Watch their own eyes.
The suggestion seems to be that this "symbol," which in the second periodic sentence will come to be identified as a falcon perched on a peak of crag, is watching itself watch thought. (Or at least this is what the poet-speaker seems to think.) Then, in the central stanzas of the poem, this "symbol," through thought--or thought through--is, or becomes, we are told, "your emblem" "To hang in the future." And then this falcon (since the symbolic emblem has now been so identified) fused to his high perch, "Married to the massive / Mysticism of stone," is further defined by what he is and by what he represents--as well as by what he is not. He is "Not the cross" and "not the hive"--that is, not a symbol or an emblem of religion and not a place swarming with frenetic activity, but rather:
... this; bright power, dark peace; Fierce consciousness joined with final Disinterestedness....
The "bright power" and "dark peace" embodied and emblematized by the falcon symbolizes "Life with calm death ... / Which failure cannot cast down / Nor success make proud." In short, this power and peace is in its own fight and for itself alone. It cannot be delimited by the kinds of failures and successes accorded to less "fierce" kinds of "consciousnesses" or by "interests" that are particularly or specifically biased or partial.
And, indeed, this is the very kind of prescience and power that Thomas also singled out and celebrated. It was what he called in "The Untamed" (in a phrase reminiscent of Jeffers's "the wild God of the world") "the wild hawk of the mind" (CP 140). Such a metaphysical perspective is typical of Thomas, but it is also typical of him that he hopes beyond hope for the possibility of some sense of revelation beyond the physical, no matter how vague or inconclusive it might be. In "Emerging" (CP 355), for instance, he argues that it is "better to wait / for him on some peninsula / of the spirit." And even though the heart hopes for some sort of appearance or presence, the mind, "skeptical as always" of any "anthropomorphisms / of the fancy," knows that even God "must be put together / like a poem or a composition / in music, that what he conforms to / is art." Indeed, and in spite of this, Thomas knows that:
A promontory is a bare place; no God leans down out of the air to take the hand extended to him.
Therefore, he concedes and concludes that if "matter is the scaffolding / of spirit," "so in everyday life / it is the plain facts and natural happenings / that conceal God and reveal him." In short, for Thomas, God is there, somewhere, and not just in nature, but, as it were, in the air we breathe and in the thoughts we think.
But there is more to Jeffers's "Rock and Hawk," and more to the comparison between it and Thomas. The falcon, which Jeffers has made our emblem and hung in our future, has alighted on a tall "gray rock" of a barren headland, "where the sea-wind / Lets no tree grow." It is a place "signatured / By ages of storms" and "Earthquake-proved." Such a place is similar to the landscape of Jeffers's California coast and similar to the landscape near Aberdaron, where the pre-Cambrian cliffs of the Llyn peninsula jut out into the Irish sea at Braich y Pwll. While "the age of the area," for the local inhabitants, "was to be seen in its religious connection with the Celtic period," Thomas, "gazing on the pre-Cambrian rocks" came to realize that "he was in contact with something that had been there for a thousand million years." Such a "timescale" "raised all kinds of questions and potential problems." And Thomas, "seeing his shadow fall on such ancient rocks ... had to question himself in a different context and ask the ... old question ... 'Who am I?'" And the answer that "came more emphatically than ever before" was "'No-one'" (Autobiographies 78).
Staring at these same ancient rocks in his poem "Pre-Cambrian" (CP 339), Thomas wonders, "After Christ, what?" He knows that "[t]he molecules / are without redemption" and that his shadow, "sunning itself on this stone / remembers the lava." He thinks of human history and myth in terms of these ageless rocks, realizing that Zeus and the architecture of the ancient temples was "less permanent" than the waves breaking on this craggy coast and cliff, and that Plato and Aristotle and "all those who furrowed the calmness / of their foreheads are responsible / for the bomb," and for our present plight. Seeing, realizing such things, Thomas finds himself as "charmed" by the "serenity" of his reflections as he is charmed by a similar "serenity of the reflections / in the sea's mirror" which, he knows, "is a window / as well"--a window to his understanding. "What I need / now," he says,
... is a faith to enable me to out-stare the grinning faces of the inmates of its asylum, the failed experiments God put away.
Thomas's call for such a faith is the expression of a hope beyond hope--if it is hope. Jeffers would not, under similar circumstances and in a similar setting, have had hope, or even have had the hope to have had it.
And then finally, and for Jeffers most importantly, "Rock and Hawk" describes the hawk's, the falcon's "Fierce consciousness joined with final / Disinterestedness." This depiction of the hawk is a literal description of the majestic bird in its power and innocence, the innocence, majesty and power of nature itself, the force that underpins Jeffers's pantheism and that supports his "theism." It is a power and a force that exceeds or surpasses the limits of human perspectives and of parameters like success and failure and pride and ignominy and that sets the falcon off as a "symbol"--indeed, as "your emblem"--of something that ought to be noticed, noted, and emulated by men, with an equal and final disinterestedness.
Likewise, Thomas often describes and celebrates birds in general and birds of prey in particular. Thomas said, "[w]e are guilty of not looking up often enough," and he reminds us that a "bird-watcher's vision ... is skyward" (Autobiographies 140, 159). Thomas was an avid bird-watcher and he often described his bird-watching activities both in his poetry and in his prose. In a number of the instances in which he described himself as waiting and watching for a bird Thomas compared the waiting and the watching for the bird to his watching and "waiting for a vision of God" (Autobiographies 144).
Two of Thomas's poems in particular stand out in terms of his dual obsessions with bird-watching and in terms of his waiting and watching for God, as well as with his attempts to communicate with God through prayer. These poems are "Sea-watching" (CP 306) and "Raptor" (CLP 256). In one of his autobiographical essays Thomas described how, in "spending an hour or two looking over the sea hoping to see a migratory bird, he came to see the similarity between this [activity] and praying." He noted how he "had to watch patiently for a long time for fear of losing the rare bird, because he did not know when it would come by?' And then he asserted that this kind of activity "is exactly the same [as] the relationship between man and God that is known as prayer." In both instances, "[g]reat patience is called for, because no-one knows when God will choose to reveal Himself" (Autobiographies 100). In "Sea-watching" (which might be the companion poem to this prose passage) Thomas asserts that "a rare bird is / rare. It is when one is not looking, / at times one is not there / that it comes." "Sea-watching"--if we allow for Thomas's typical theological overlay--concludes with lines that Jeffers might well have appreciated and would no doubt have admired:
I became the hermit of the rocks, habited with the wind and the mist. There were days so beautiful the emptiness it might have filled its absence was as its presence; not to be told any more, so single my mind after its long fast, my watching from praying.
In another of his autobiographies, while contemplating the "impersonal, pitiless beauty of nature," Thomas turns to "[c]onsider the beauty of the birds of prey" (Autobiographies 118). This is one of many instances in Thomas's work where he focuses on or contemplates birds of prey. Of these references to predatory birds, his late poem, "Raptor," the title of which is both generic and specific, is obvious and important, and relevant in terms of Jeffers's frequent descriptions of birds of prey and, in specific, with respect to the hawk in "Rock and Hawk. (12)
In "Raptor" Thomas takes up a theme that had been important to him throughout his career, namely the relationship between religion and science and technology. (13) Thomas begins his poem by referring to the fact that men "have made God small" by "setting him astride / a pipette or a retort" and "studying the bubbles, absorbed in an experiment / that will come to nothing." He, on the other hand, says, "I think of him rather / as an enormous owl," thus embodying the divine as an element of the natural world which is beyond scientific analysis. This owl in "Raptor' is reminiscent of the night owl (Athene noctua) of companion poems in Thomas's powerful book, The Echoes Return Slow. In the prose poem, "Minerva's bird, Athene noctua," the owl may be "too small for wisdom" but, in the companion poem in lines, "There are nights that are so still" to those who lie awake at night listening, it evokes a recognition--"the thought ... of that other being who is awake too, / letting our prayers break on him / not ... for a few hours, / but for days, years, for eternity" (CLP 51). Similarly, the owl in "Raptor" is so close ("brushing me sometimes / with his wing"), so omnipresent, but also so evanescent, that he makes "the blood / in my veins freeze." Thomas describes how he has heard him "abroad in the shadows// ... crooning / to himself."
But then Thomas turns his metaphor again:
... I have heard him scream, too, fastening his talons in his great adversary, or in some lesser denizen, maybe, like you or me.
Here the owl-like God, apparently cruising the dark and searching for prey, screams in delight when he finds and fastens his talons either in "his great / adversary" or in "some lesser / denizen ... like you or me." While we might imagine that God could, with impunity, and even perhaps gleefully, kill any thing or anyone, can we equally accept the fact that God might likewise deign to so arbitrarily destroy us? Were He to do so, would He simply be acting out, unjudgmentally and as naturally as an owl seeks and kills its prey, His very nature? And even though logic would argue against it, should we take this as a sign or warning and, therefore, see it perhaps as prelude to the need for repentance and thus salvation? Thomas doesn't say. It is an enigma worthy of many of his best poems.
Elsewhere, in "The Indians and the Elephant" (CLP 252), a poem based on the story of the blind men who attempt to define an elephant by touch, Thomas describes his own attempt to "feel" his way toward an understanding of God. He finds that "Sometimes he is / a wind, carrying me off; / sometimes a fire devouring / me." At other times "he is the scent / at the heart of a great flower / I lean over and fall / into." The poem concludes with a trinity of images, ending with another image of a raptor:
But always he surrounds me, mostly as a cloud lowering, but one through which suddenly light will strike, burnishing the cross waiting on me with spread wings like the fiercest of raptors.
The sudden light strikes and burnishes the cross "waiting on me" and waiting for Him, making it shine along its "spread wings" like "the fiercest of raptors" caught in its glide by the "strike" of the shining sun. There are puns everywhere here, but the basic thrust of the metaphor seems to be clear. In conflating Christ's dying on the cross with a raptor gliding on spread wings, Thomas identifies and fuses the kind of majesty and power that he wishes to be enraptured by. One could almost say that he prays to be, or to become, such prey. (14)
As mentioned above, Thomas included Jeffers's poem "Hooded Night" in his edition of The Penguin Book of Religious Verse. "Hooded Night" (SP 297) begins in a twilit time, "At night, toward dawn," when the shore lights have been shut off. All that there is in this barren landscape of ocean and land is "a wind" moving in and through the dark, and itself moving the "sleeping power" of the sea. This wind is a force, and a force unto itself, "Not to be compared; itself and itself." This wind and the other elements are personified: the "stars / Dance"; no light "glances" from any imaginary off-shore ships; the wind's "breath" is "blown shoreward" and "huddles the world with a fog," drawing all the world there is together under the cover of an obscuring, hazy, cloud-like covering. In such an atmosphere perhaps even the man seeing and experiencing it is likewise lulled into a sympathetic fog-like reverie. And thus this first half of the poem sets the scene.
Then, in the middle of the poem, a specific speaker is introduced. Jeffers says of himself as this speaker, "I see." And what he sees are "the heavy granite bodies of the rocks of the headland." And they do indeed send him off into a kind of reverie. These rocks "were ancient here before Egypt." These ancient rocks, like those Thomas saw at Braich y Pwll on the Llyn peninsula and which took him back in memory to a sense of his own insignificance, take Jeffers less further back in time (to the "jets of young trees / I planted the year of the Versailles peace"), but to a more significant conclusion, the "final unridiculous peace" that ended the first World War. But then, after this brief personal interlude, Jeffers returns to the long view, realizing and remembering that "Before the first man / Here" (or "Before the first man[,] / Here were the stones ..."--the word "here" serving as a fulcrum for both lines and readings) there were "the stones, the ocean, the cypresses" and, over it all, then and now, the "stone-rough dome of fog" enshrouding everything. And then again, in a three-word sentence surrounded by the long wave-like lines and undulating rhythms of the other sentences in the poem, Jeffers tells us, "Here is reality." The Here here is the fourth repetition of the word in the second half of the poem. Clearly, Jeffers wants us to "hear" it, and him. Indeed, this sequence of heres acts as a little litany, pointing a specific direction, punctuated for emphasis, and made increasingly emphatic as the poem rolls over, in and on itself, like the fog enveloping the landscape where the speaker stands, sees and listens--both to the elements around him and to his own inner musings. "Here," he emphasizes, "is reality." Where, we might ask? Where is here? And what is it that "reality" really is? Immediately, Jeffers tells us that it is not the "other ... spectral episode." What, we wonder, is that? Is it the environmental "reality" around him made "spectral," haunted, haunting and ghostlike by the presence of the fog enveloping it, or is it the haunting and disturbing realization that the "peace" passed to end the war is not, finally, final, and perhaps may be, may have been, "ridiculous" as well? Or are such queries and questions only the musings of an "inquisitive" animal, metaphysical "amusements"? In the last phrase of the poem, a phrase set off by a colon to make it more emphatic, Jeffers asserts that the "reality" that is "here" is "the dark glory." And what is that? Is it the physical "glory" of the sun which will shine once the hood of night is removed, (15) or the "dark magnificence of things" evoked at the end of "Thurso's Landing" (Thurso's Landing 123), or the shadowy metaphysical recognition of man's place in the landscape of a pantheistic universe? Jeffers doesn't say or explain. It is not surprising, however, to see why Thomas was drawn to Jeffers and to this poem, and why he chose to include this particular poem in his anthology.
What then, finally, can be said about these two poets seemingly so temperamentally and, at least in part, so thematically attuned? Let me go back to my title and to another Jeffers poem, "Hurt Hawks" (SP 165-66), to attempt to answer this question. In order to do this, I think it is necessary to read "Hurt Hawks" in two ways, one for each of these two poets. For Jeffers, the description in the poem is largely literal. It is the account of an injured red tail hawk, cared for but dying and seeking death ("[t]he lame feet of salvation") as a "redeemer," as a kind of deliverance from the life he has known, and knows he can no longer live, the life of freedom, the soaring through the air and the "fierce rush" that exhilarated him and "cried fear" in his prey. All that this wounded hawk has left is his "unable[d] misery." What a marvelous word choice this is to describe the helplessness of the hawk. He is "unabled" of life and seeks only the inevitable death. And so, having fed him for "six weeks" and finally given him his freedom, Jeffers finds that, after he had "wandered over the foreland hill," he "returned in the evening, asking for death" with his "still eyed" "[i]mplacable arrogance" still intact. And so he is killed.
For Thomas (and I'm assuming that Thomas knew this poem) it would no doubt have been quite a different poem, beyond the obvious reading I have given above, since Thomas would not have distorted it. But, if I can speculate beyond that literal reading, I can imagine that Thomas--given his equal interest in birds and in birds of prey--might well have put his own stencil over the poem as well, and have read it, beyond the literal, in terms of his typical and more insistent theistic concerns. For him, then, the poem might well be one in which "the lame feat of salvation" (a "feat" made "lame" because it requires little effort, since it is a gift) might be being dealt with and in which the impending death meted out by "death the redeemer" might imply the possibility of redemption in a Christian context. And the "fierce rush" at the end of the poem might be the "soaring" which, in this Christian context, occurs when the soul is "unsheathed from reality" through death.
Whatever else is the case, I think that Thomas and Jeffers would both agree that the birds of prey and the men who are dying will always remember the "wild God of the world," and remember too that he/He is "merciful to those / That ask mercy."
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Rogers, Byron. "The Enigma of Aberdaron." Sunday Telegraph Magazine. Nov. 1975: 25-29.
Thomas, R. S. Autobiographies. Trans. Jason Walford Davies. London: J. M. Dent, 1997.
--. Collected Poems 1945-1990. London: J. M. Dent, 1993.
--. No Truce with the Furies. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1995.
--. The Echoes Return Slow. London: Macmillan, 1988.
--. Interview with Graham Turner. The Daily Telegraph. 4 Dec. 1999. 1+.
--, ed. The Penguin Book of Religious Verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963.
Wilder, Amos N. "The Cross: Social Trauma or Redemption." Symbolism in Religion and Literature. Ed. Rollo May. New York: George Braziller, 1960. 99-117.
Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.
(1) Jeffers used this phrase to describe a character in his long poem Cawdor (see The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers 205). Hereafter, all references to Jeffers's Selected Poetry will be included in the text, cited as SP.
(2) Thomas was adamant in his disapproval of inquiries about "influences" on his work. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that he confessed to having been "much influenced" by Jeffers.
(3) Everson, in his introduction to Cawdor and Medea (vii), applies this phrase to Jeffers. It could clearly be applied to Thomas as well.
(4) I borrow the term "agnostic piety" from Alvarez (20). For more on Thomas's "agnostic faith" see my "Evidence of Things Not Seen."
(5) In his poem "The Inhumanist" Jeffers writes: "You have perhaps heard some false reports / On the subject of God. He is not dead, and he is not a fable. He is not mocked nor forgotten--/ Successfully. God is a lion that comes in the night. God is a hawk gliding among the stars--/ If all the stars and the earth, and the living flesh of the night that flows in between them, and whatever is beyond them, / Were that one bird. He has a bloody beak and harsh talons, he pounces and tears--..." (The Double Axe and Other Poems 93). As James Karman says, "According to Jeffers, the God who created the universe is the universe" (88).
(6) In terms of these kinds of statements it is important to remember Thomas's assertion that "poetry is religion, religion is poetry," that "Christ was a poet," and that "when I preach poetry I am preaching Christianity" (Ormond 52-3). Thomas also said: "wherever and whenever man broods upon himself and his destiny, he does it as a spiritual and self-conscious being" (Penguin Book of Religious Verse 10).
(7) I am thinking of pantheism, with respect to both Thomas and Jeffers, in terms of both of its basic definitions--as the notion that identifies the Deity with the natural universe and its manifestations, and also as the belief in and the worship of all gods. As Basil Bunting, another poet contemporary with Thomas and Jeffers who was interested in many of these same issues, wrote, "I have no use for religion conceived [of] as church forms or as believing as historical fact what are ancient parables, but I do believe that there is a possibility of a kind of reverence for the whole creation which I feel we ought to have in our bones if we don't, a kind of pantheism I suppose" (Montemora interview, quoted in Terrell 271).
(8) Thomas, when asked if any "tension" had ever arisen between his two professions of poet and as priest, said, "Sometimes." He added, "If you see a bird of prey, its great beauty and speed, how much more beautiful it is than the prey. How do you equate this with the God of Love? You become very conscious of this out here [on the Llyn peninsula in north Wales]. You see the savagery of a winter gale, or on a calm day under the placid surface of the sea you imagine the killers there like sharks, and then you go round bleating of brotherly love ... [Thomas's ellipsis] (see Rogers, "The Enigma of Aberdaron" 27).
(9) Gelpi, in addressing Jeffers's treatment of the deus absconditus, argues that the "prophetic intent of Jeffers's poetry [is] fired by a fierce Protestant piety and an imagination unerringly Calvinist in its sense of the Godhead as dells absconditus" (Wild God 4). He adds, "If the essential Calvinist situation is the confrontation between the individual and God, Jeffers the Calvinist pantheist elides that crux into the confrontation between consciousness and sublime nature, divinely inhuman, inhumanly divine" (Wild God 14).
(10) In "The Tower Beyond Tragedy" there is a famous description of Jeffers's pantheism. He has Orestes, who describes himself as "like stone walking," say, "I was the stream / Draining the mountain wood; and I the stag drinking; and I was the stars/ ... and I was the darkness / Outside the stars, I included them, they were a part of me. I was mankind also ... (SP 113-14). Jeffers said, "These verses express a mystical experience; they also express a protest against human narcissism." He added, "[t]his is far from humanism; but it is, in fact, the Christian attitude: ... [sic] to love God with all one's heart and soul, and one's neighbor as one's self--as much as that, but as little as that" (Themes 28). Thinking along these same lines, William Everson, a poet (and for a time a Dominican monk, known as Brother Antoninus) who was deeply indebted to Jeffers, asserts that Jeffers, as prophet, is a "pure example of poems religiosus" (Excesses of God 168). Everson adds that what Jeffers "lacks in devotional decorum he makes up for in the astonishing intensity of [his] primitivistic force, his grasp of the power, the wonder, the awe of a God palpably immediate yet unalterably beyond science's continuing probe of the cosmos." Then, after associating Jeffers with The Penguin Book of Religious Verse, which Thomas edited, and in which he included Jeffers's "Hooded Night," Everson--in the only instance, to my knowledge, of any association ever having been made between these two poets--concludes: "It is in the celebration of the divine excess that Jeffers tacitly acknowledges the limitation of his avowed pantheism and places himself among the vast company of mystics and prophets and poets of all ages and all faiths--those who have seen to the plenitude beyond the registration of power, the vast and abstract reality that lies beyond nature, to the verifiable face of HIM WHO IS" (Excesses of God 168-69).
Similarly, Brophy describes the "pantheistic universe" of Jeffers's work as his "only whole subject" and argues that Jeffers's poems "celebrate not man but the cycle of being which is in its totality God's life." He concludes that "Jeffers's whole poetic aim is to gain for himself and his reader a wisdom that comes from the perspective in which one sees from God's point of view and rejects all else as self-delusion.... His piety is solidly founded on that overwhelming divine 'Otherness' which he encounters in landscape and stars, and which teaches him his role in the continuity of things.... Jeffers, therefore, delivers what he calls his 'birth-dues' by telling men what they do not wish to hear but what, if pursued, would be their salvation" (Myth, Ritual 299, 301).
(11) Wilder calls Jeffers's pantheism "a kind of cosmic mysticism" and sees his "often perplexing narratives" as "hymns of salvation" (103-04).
(12) In particular, Thomas was obsessed with the red kite (Milvus milvus), the magnificent but very rare predator unique to Wales which, during Thomas's lifetime, almost became extinct. Thomas was a member of the "Committee for the Protection of the Kite." In one of his autobiographical essays he detailed his special interest in the red kite, a bird that, at that time, didn't nest "anywhere in Britain outside Wales." Thomas relates how protecting kites in Wales "had had an interesting history." Quite common in England during the Middle Ages, the kite "had retreated to the remote hills of Wales" and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, "its numbers had fallen to three or four pairs (Autobiographies 66). Thanks to the work of the protection programs that Thomas helped to organize, the red kite has recently been successfully reintroduced to England and Scotland, in addition to being firmly established in Wales.
(13) In his wide-ranging essay, "Unity" (Anstey, Selected Prose 143-58), Thomas deals with the relationship between science and religion as "part of man's eternal search to find unity of being." He cites Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics as an example of a book that "is full of hope of regaining the old faith of the West in unity of being through the most recent discoveries of physics," and argues that "[c]ontemporary physics' vision of the nature of being is ... similar to that of a poet or a saint." Perhaps the most definitive expression of the science-religion dichotomy in Thomas's poetry occurs in the poem "First Person" (CLP 142): "The scientist / brings his lenses to bear and unity / is fragmented.// ... leaving it / to the poet, playing upon his timeless / instrument, to call all things back / into irradiated orbit about the one word." "Irradiated," as so often is the case with Thomas, is a packed word. Surely Thomas intends to include all of its meanings in his reference: "to treat with radiation" as well as "to shed light on" or to illuminate, and "to manifest" or "radiate," "to become radiant" (The American Heritage College Dictionary).
(14) Cf. Jeffers's "The Vulture" (SP 697), in which he describes the possibility of being devoured by a vulture:
... To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes-- What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.
Jeffers reports that he was "sorry to have disappointed him."
(15) In terms of this poem, it is I think important to remember that a bird of prey is kept "hooded" until he is ready to be sent forth to hunt or to kill.
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|Author:||Davis, William V.|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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