“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.