Elijah’s Burnt Offerings

When our son Michael was ten years old, he’d been given a school assignment to find two poems. When I saw what Michael had selected, I was a little surprised. Soon after that, his teacher reported to us that Michael’s choices weren’t appropriate for 5th grade. They were both Jeffers poems. If memory serves, one of them was Shine, Perishing Republic—let’s just say not exactly the Pledge of Allegiance. The other involved a woman torturing a horse. Admittedly, I was amused that our son had got into a bit of trouble because I’d left Robinson Jeffers lying around the house. Not Hustler magazine—Robinson Jeffers: environmental visionary, nature mystic, prophet, poet of California.

The poem with the woman torturing the horse, titled Apology for Bad Dreams, is reportedly based upon actual events, but that’s really beside the point. People are sometimes cruel. We know that. Why, then, is Jeffers so tenacious about telling these stories about sin and mayhem? Is it just that sensationalism sells? Sex and violence, after all, had been good to Jeffers. This is the critique of his work that this dark poem seems to answer.

It is important to keep in mind that much of what Jeffers wrote was written in the aftermath of the Great War, now known as World War I. The Great War was perhaps the watershed event of the 20th Century. It changed everything, including Robinson Jeffers. It transformed Jeffers into a radical anti-war poet, and it seems to me it brought out his demons.

There was some lag-time involved. So far removed in idyllic Carmel, war reports must have lacked immediacy. During the actual event, Jeffers appeared to have been something of a war enthusiast at times, having more than once expressed a desire to enlist. But the grim dawn of the modern age did finally arrive over Bohemia-by-the-Sea, and in the blood-red light of the new era, Carmel ceased to be a pretty place, and Jeffers stopped writing pretty rhymes.

Apology for Bad Dreams is a poem in four parts (I–IV). It can be summed up thus: beautiful places, like capricious gods, call out for tragedy; they must be appeased with cruel sacrifices, real or imagined. The voice of the poem is of a man who lives in the cultural wasteland left by the Great War, looking out across a beautiful landscape, thinking about God.

Part I. Beauty has turned dark, evil. In all its power and profundity, it wishes us ill. You don’t feel it? Remember the War. Think about the trenches full of corpses. Remember the poison gas, the deformed faces and bodies. Let your eyes pile up the dead, brother by brother, until you have piled millions upon millions. Now, look at the beautiful landscape, in the purple light, heavy with redwood. Look—the beautiful Pacific: it resembles a stone knife-blade. See? And look: a farm, there—so minuscule against the mountainside, so insignificant, there: a woman is punishing a horse

… The ocean Darkens, the high clouds brighten, the hills darken together. Unbridled and unbelievable beauty … … What said the prophet? “I create good: and I create evil: I am the Lord.” (CP 1:208–9)

Part II. So there you have it: all this is the Lord’s doing: the beautiful, the grotesque. He is omnipotent after all. The beauty comes up from the core, as does the evil. Thus the beauty must now become grotesque:

… The dykes of red lava and black [demand] what Titan? The hills like pointed flames Beyond Soberanes, the terrible peaks of the bare hills under the sun, what immolation? … (CP 1:209)

The poet sees the evil in the world; ancient, primordial evil—Biblical evil. He sees it in himself, his humanity. He sees it in God. He cannot defeat it; he must appease it. No, this is not a rational response to evil. There’s nothing objective or rational about the world that the poet sees. Reason is no comfort, no help, no use. All we know is that the God of the land craves cruelty. This deep, divine cruelty calls for a primitive response: sacrifice, burnt offerings.

Part III. The former people of this land, all killed off, were a sacrifice. They remain a sacrifice so long as they are remembered. Once forgotten, the sacrifice expires. So long as that memory survives it protects us, reminds us of the cruelty of God, and satiates His appetite for misery. Part

IV. But surely with Jeffers’s pantheistic God all action is ultimately self-inflicted. The God that deforms humanity only deforms himself. Making man self-loathing, he casts self-hate upon himself. Why? There is no making sense of it. There is no reason; only cruelty, power, and passion.

So we see Robinson Jeffers setting upon himself the task of burning sacrifices so as to spare himself and his family from the horrors of God (SP 142):

And I said, / Burn sacrifices once a year to magic / Horror away from the house, …

Did Jeffers really believe that he could “magic horror away from the house” by creating imaginary victims—and what’s more, burning it all? He may have believed it a little, but there is a more important question: can the art itself stand as a sacrifice offered up against evil? Surely there is some reality to fictional suffering, so long as it can be felt in the heart of the reader. Its advantage over traditional sacrifice is that it calls for suffering only in the heart of the practitioner. It does not call for the suffering of others.

The reader may object: all this talk of sacrifices is silly; human sacrifice is an outmoded practice that only a few tribesman (and millions of Christians) still believe in. But the question of literal instrumentality is not the only consideration. We need also consider the effectiveness of the sacrifice as a human gesture presented to God. It may be a desperate gesture or a defiant gesture, yet it remains an offering—on a great stage before humanity.

From 1924 to 1928, Jeffers produced fire narratives on an almost annual basis, just as the poem says, “burn sacrifices once a year.” No fire narrative was published in 1926, the year of Apology for Bad Dreams, but that was offset by the mass and ambition of what arrived in 1927.

Using fire over and over again might begin to seem repetitive (whereas mere horror makes more of a general literary category), and after Cawdor the burning of narratives ceased for 13 years. Fire continued to appear to a lower burn in Jeffers’ narratives, and also in his shorter poems.

After publishing the Loving Shepherdess in 1929, Jeffers took a three-year hiatus from his long narratives, and then published Thurso’s Landing (1932). Thurso does not make significant use of fire. 1933’s Give Your Heart to the Hawks seems to mock the dramatic role of fire in staging a controlled burn wherein nothing happens (no, not even any sex).

After Give Your Heart to the Hawks, Jeffers’ production of narratives slowed to a trickle. He completed two shorter narratives throughout the remainder of the 1930s.

Curiously, after Una made an earnest attempt at suicide in mid-1938, Jeffers returned to burnt offerings with Mara, written in 1940 and published in 1941. This did not fend off the horrors, however, as Una would soon play host to cancer. Still, fire imagery returns at a couple places in Jeffers’ adaptation of Medea (1946), but the arc of Medea had been laid out by Euripides, and it didn’t involve fire. Other of Jeffers plays, namely the Tower Beyond Tragedy and the Cretan Woman also involved fire symbolism but stopped short of burning the stage down.

In 1948, Jeffers published his fiery horror of horrors, the Love and the Hate, and straightaway the demons closed in. Jeffers fell ill in Ireland and nearly died there. Cancer then returned to Una soon after that, and took her life in 1950. So much for appeasement.[1] The strategy seemed to fail, but that failure is of little consequence to the value of poetry to the unbeliever.

Thirty years after Apology, in the poem “I have been warned …”, Jeffers claimed that he had written certain long poems from Tamar to Thurso’s Landing for sacrificial purposes (CP 3:447):

So I listened / To my Demon warning me that evil would come / If my work ceased, if I did not make sacrifice / Of storied and imagined lives, Tamar and Cawdor / And Thurso’s wife …

These lines make no mention of any narrative after Thurso. Furthermore, they make no mention of fire; nay, more: the poem appears to make a conscious effort to avoid mentioning fire. Where Apology had stated as a second ritual, “Burn sacrifices,” the later poem reads, “Make sacrifices.” That edit may be telling. Would confessing to making such repeated use of fire imagery have been too much of a confession? Would it have made his work seem less creative—more repetitive?

The poem claims that Jeffers ceased to “make sacrifices” after 1931, purportedly because he grew “old and indolent,” but of course Jeffers was far from old and indolent in 1932, and it was six years before tragedy struck his life; two decades before Jeffers ceased to write violent narratives.

There is a belief among some Jeffers scholars that this poem is a key to Jeffers’s motivation and philosophy as a poet. Even further, it has been suggested more than once that this is his ars poetica, his treatise on poetry itself. The poem does indeed reference his own work and it does strive to justify one of his major themes, but I for one don’t think it definitively addresses Jeffers’ views of his poetry or of poetry in general. There is just too much that this poem leaves out.

Refreshingly, Apology does not preach about poetry as some of Jeffers’ other poems do. Alas, I prefer it to anything that might represent an ars poetica. More to the point, I do believe that Jeffers often had the kind of tortured thoughts that this poem seems to reveal, and I find its revelations profound, intimate, and beautiful.

[1] Poorly veiled reference to Munich, 1938

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