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Shine, Perishing Republic

December 25, 2012

Poetry

Shine, Perishing Republic

“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,

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.

You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life
Is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than
Mountains: shine perishing republic

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance
From the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lies at the
Monster’s feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man.
A clever servant, insufferable master.
There is a trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught
they say ­ God, when he walked on Earth.”

Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

Trapped for a few days over Christmas in Yosemite, while a major snow storm downed trees and made travel hazardous, I found myself alone with some books by the poet Robinson Jeffers, lent to me by a friend. “Read this”, he had said, “You’ll enjoy Jeffers.” The augurs were good. Jeffers still commands a strong general readership and academia continues to ignore him (always a good sign), possibly because he wrote about big ideas on subjects of great importance that challenged academics not just in style but in substance.  In his time, isolationist and antiwar, he is best remembered today as the high priest of the environmentalist movement. Jeffers viewed humanity as being just one part of creation, and not necessarily the most important. While kindness and need were high priorities in our relationships with each other, Jeffers believed humanity’s ultimate allegiance was to the permanent things in life “the vast life and inexhaustible beauty beyond creation.” Pollution, violence and the destruction of species were all the result of man’s inability to limit his urge for self-importance.

Jeffers saw America’s intervention in World War I for what it was, a momentous decision that would seal the fate of the republic for centuries to come. War meant that America had finally turned its back on its Jeffersonian inheritance and thrown its weight behind the Hamiltonian centralists who saw in empire the ultimate justification for American exceptionalism. The fate of all republics was to become an empire, and all empires are born, flower and eventually decay, whether the process is fast or slow. Those hastening civilization are just hastening civilization’s final demise: “You making haste haste on decay.” Citizens are helpless to stop the process of empire building, and protest is ultimately ineffective: “protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out.”

But life can still be good, the empire can still shine while it is perishing. But perish it will because of the “vulgarity” and “corruption” eating away at its core. Jeffers warns his children to stay away from the corruption represented by cities, seeking refuge in the transcendence of the mountains: “when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.” They should also avoid the entanglements of men, neither having a following nor becoming a follower.

Jeffers’ prophecies have stood the test of time. ‘Shine, Perishing Republic’ was written in 1925 when American power and prosperity appeared to be at their zenith. Even then he divined the seeds of decay in the ripening fruit of the body politic. While he may not have approved of the comparison it is difficult not to see in Jeffers a modern day Isaiah, and as such he deserves our attention.

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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51 Comments on “Shine, Perishing Republic”

  1. Distance Landaverde Says:

    Thank you I enjoyed this very much.
    D.

    Reply

  2. newstart777 Says:

    thanks for adding the piece by Jeffers. At first glance, I perceived it was your own, but nonetheless, your appreciation is now that of others.I have a piece for you I will post this afternoon. I would like your opinion..

    Reply

  3. NicoLite Великий Says:

    your interpretation is intriguing, and the comparison with other empires that have decayed in their decadence comes to mind, especially the Roman Empire.

    I wrote this http://flusenkopp.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/in-a-thousand-years-your-blog-gets-dug-up-and-put-in-a-museum-what-does-the-general-description-on-its-shiny-brass-plaque-say-about-all-of-the-posts-within/ a few weeks ago. I think it fits Jeffers’ poem pretty well

    Reply

  4. sally1137 Says:

    Another good book to with which to hole up in a snowstorm: A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. He’s inspiring.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for the book recommendation. I’ve added it to my reading list although it looks like, because of the beautiful illustrations, I will miss too much if I read it on my Kindle reader. Thank goodness there are still reasons for buying books the old fashioned way!

      Reply

      • sally1137 Says:

        His Illustrations are not to be missed, that’s for sure, and I have written poems after reading some of his essays. The images are very striking. I dug out my copy today to re-read.

        Kindles are a great thing, especially if you’re stuck in a snowstorm. I especially like the free old books out of copyright…who knew the complete works of Poe would someday p**p out of the sky at my command? Or Crime and Punishment. Or, I must confess, 99 cent murder mysteries.

        Reply

  5. Tahira Says:

    Now that’s one way I certainly wouldn’t mind being trapped over Christmas – In Yosemite with books & poetry. My kind of paradise.

    Reply

  6. aurorawatcherak Says:

    I agree with Jeffers about World War 1, but I think the seeds of imperialism were sown much further back with Andrew Jackson and Manifest Destiny and for centricism with Lincoln with the Civil War. Coming out of that, the rest was just the logical conclusion of where we were already headed.

    I am not entirely convinced that remediation is not possible. Decay is not necessarily inevitable, although it does appear we lack the will to prevent it.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for this. I can see why you say that about the seeds of imperialism, but then I suppose you could also go as far back as the Puritans with John Winthrop’s ‘City Upon A Hill’ sermon in 1630, calling for a virtuous community to be a shining example to the Old World. I agree with you that decay is not inevitable but I do believe that patterns in history often repeat themselves and the rise and fall of civilizations is one of history’s most frequent patterns. Also, please see John Varaday’s comment on the post, particularly the Alfred McCoy article he refers to which has relevance to your comment.

      Reply

  7. John Varady Says:

    Nice piece, Malcolm, very well done. You’ve caught much of Jeffers’ essence. His political voice, which became increasingly strident as the world careened toward the most devastating war in human history, was but one aspect of his overarching fascination with cycle. Cycle manifested in everything from orbiting electrons to the expansion of an oscillating universe which the seer saw as but a single systole of his panentheistic god.

    As one of these, the idea of cultural cycles deeply appealed to him. Osward Spengler published Der Untergang des Abendlandes in 1918. In it he posited European-American civilization as one of eight major polities each with approximately a 1000 year life span. In this view our own started in about 1000CE, and is thus currently in its death throes. Like much cultivated European discourse at the time Jeffers became Spengler-saturated. In addition to political decline Jeffers also saw that Modernism in poetry and art, “root cut,” as he characterized it, was an incontestable sign of decadence.

    The socio-political ramifications of the era’s end were manifest everywhere. The Great War had been its suicidal stroke as the Peloponnesian War had been for ancient Greece. But even as Jeffers included America as an obvious and integral part of Spengler’s ‘Faustian’ culture, he privileged it as residing sufficiently outside its core to preside over its remains. Indeed, he saw us as a Byzantium tending the cultural embers a millennium after the fall of Rome.

    Empire was in his view to be our scourge and affliction. His view of American Jeffersonian democracy, whose particular characteristic was love of liberty epitomized as the yeoman farmer morphed into a solitary rancher roaming the Big Sur coast, could not possibly withstand the allure of empire. Soft colonials waiting to welcome some Sicilian tyrant as he put it. As early as “Shine, Perishing Republic,” (1925) he saw us, “thickening heavily to empire.” A short 15 years later he realized that, “we aim at world rule, like Assyria, Rome and Britain to inherit those hoards of guilt and doom….. Shine, empire.” Yet he viewed us as both unready and unequal to the task, not “natural bullies like the Romans and Britains.” Hence his virulent and often vituperous opposition to our participation in WW2, which he realized would thrust us inevitably into that role.

    History has been unkind to him personally even as it vindicated his vision. His polemics destroyed his public reputation as it caused his publisher to turn away in disgust. Two thirds of a century later we despair as we endeavor to cope with our, “scuttled futilities.” We shall soon see whether Alfred McCoy’s prognostications http://www.thenation.com/article/156851/decline-and-fall-american-empire are as prescient as were Jeffers’.

    Zoli

    Reply

  8. Phil Lev Says:

    Well said Malcolm.

    Phil

    Reply

  9. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Hi Malcom, it’s the idea that light bulb gets brighter before it dies.

    Mish

    Reply

  10. Jackson Williams Says:

    Reblogged this on Bored American Tribune. and commented:
    — J.W.

    Reply

  11. chr1 Says:

    Malcolm, thanks for sharing. I had to read Jeffers back in school, and there’s a kind of messianic mix of tragic poetry and transcendent nature that I was skeptical of, but I found him accomplished as a poet. The wilds of the West, and Northern California, demand grandeur.

    I was more moved by Emerson, and Thoreau, and Robert Frost, and New England occupied my mind as a kind of wildness that could be contained, because of its longer history, and deeper culture (witches and Puritans and Roger Williams and more established settlements, then colonies, then a nation). Though on second thought, Emerson still pushes each of us deeper to discover ourselves, and this new land, and each of us make what only we can make.

    It’s always worth thinking about corruption, power, the seemingly inexorable theme of decay in human affairs and civilization. It seems we shall find happiness in nature and never be happy with nature, its deep design, and the fear of no design at all.

    Great post.

    Reply

  12. eideard Says:

    Guess it was a good thing I rejected academia. BITD, Jeffers was important to study, see where we came from. Anyone who cares where we go – must revisit roots and be reminded.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I agree with you about the importance of revisiting roots but Jeffers also seems to have been no slouch as a prophet of what was to come. I like this quotation:

      “Jeffers was more than a great poet, he was a great prophet. Everything he wrote about the corruption of empire, the death of democracy, the destruction of our planet and the absurd self-centered vanity of the human animal has come true tenfold since his time.”

      Edward Abbey “The Thoreau of the West”

      Reply

  13. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    A writer and a poet trapped in Yosemite in a snow storm, a perfect match in my humble opinion!

    Pollution, violence and the destruction of species were all the result of man’s inability to limit his urge for self-importance. yes yes and yes, we can’t afford to take ourselves to seriously, when we do, it’s not a pretty sight, inwards as well as outwards.

    Particularly these lines below in Jeffers poem resonated with me, only not a sad smile but that of relief and tranquility in knowing that life knows its way of natural cycles, not to be straightened or rushed and if we can be still enough to listen, life comes to us in wondrous ways calling us awake to what is…
    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.

    I often wonder about this, when looking at the lives we are leading in the so-called ‘developed world’ What’s the rush? Where is it we think we need to get to? And now with climate change and so fort, we think we are looking at new ways, where basically we are relearning that which we once innately had an understanding of, our place in nature and natures place within us, no separation.
    You making haste, haste on decay: not blameworthy; life
    Is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
    A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than
    Mountains: shine perishing republic

    Reply

  14. cattalespress Says:

    Wow, Malcolm, you are always SO DEEP!

    Reply

  15. authorbengarrido Says:

    Interesting, is all his material poetry?

    Reply

  16. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    What a dramatic introduction to a wonderful poet, dramatic in his own right. I’m glad you lived to tell us about him. =) You mention Isaiah. I’m reminded of places in the Old Testament like the story of the Tower of Babel (the dispersion which certainly facilitated the proliferation of nations). Man in his hubris sought to reach the skies. They were laid low. As to Jeffers, I feel almost sheepish to be writing in the genre he commanded. This poem, for one, is so rich. I did read of the homes he’d built. Thank you for the recommendation. Will keep it in mind. =)

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I’m very happy that you got your first taste of his poetry here and that you liked it. Jeffers built Hawk Tower for his wife Una, who had seen such stone towers in Europe. He hired a stonemason but then signed on as his apprentice until his “fingers had the art to make stone love stone.” He then proceeded to build Hawk Tower virtually single handedly.

      Reply

  17. Harvey Wachtel Says:

    As a life-long New Yorker (City, that is, often prouder of that aspect of my demography than I am of my nationality), I must question your interpretation that “Jeffers warns his children to stay away from the corruption represented by cities”. If that’s what he intended, then his crystal ball was pretty cloudy: Throughout the world, from New York to Moscow to Kandahar, urban populations have been the least likely to be advocates of empire-building nationalism, the most likely to embrace cosmopolitan cooperation. I’ve read that even Hitler (at least when he first came to power) couldn’t win an election in Berlin — his base was in places like Bavaria.

    So much of this poem is metaphor that it’s hard not to read “the cities” as representing the temporary, cyclic social and political structures erected by so-called civilization and “the mountains” as representing the lasting edifices of nature, especially “the nature of things”.

    Reply

  18. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Chris, thanks for the trackback.

    Reply

  19. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Thanks for the linkbacks Chris.

    Reply

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