My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found in my
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality. The
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.
In Credo, Robinson Jeffers, who is best remembered today as the high priest of the environmentalist movement, defends the western view of an independent reality against the eastern view, that the only true reality is the one resident in our mind: “the ocean in the bone vault [brain] is only the bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s”. But not only is Jeffers claiming that reality has an existence independent of our ability to comprehend it, but also that the beauty of nature exists independent of our perception of it: “The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking beauty will remain when there is no heart to break for it.”
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
The jar is a cultural artifact but it is placed on top of a hill suggesting its relative importance when compared to nature. The jar immediately imposes a form of order on the disordered (“slovenly”) wilderness: “The wilderness rose up to it, and sprawled around, no longer wild.” Even a simple, bare, grey jar, because it’s created by the human mind (“It did not give of bird or bush”) has the ability to dominate and transform nature (“It took dominion everywhere.”). Stevens believed that human artifacts alone produced meaning and that without our perception and concepts nature would remain a wild and chaotic place.
For Jeffers the purpose of art is to present reality not to transform it. He would have thought it the height of presumption for humans to believe that the reality and beauty of the world was dependent on our ability to see and transform it.