Apology for Bad Dreams (1926)

In spring 1926, Robinson Jeffers published Apology for Bad Dreams, an astonishing four-part poem about good, evil, beauty, and God. It was published in the first edition of the Marxist monthly, New Masses,[1] alongside the work of the three editors of Continent’s End (from the year before), as well as the work of others who had raved about Tamar. Jeffers seemed by this appearance to have found fame first among Marxists, though at the outset New Masses was not so much Marxist as it was leftist. Jeffers was no leftist. He did not advocate political and economic mechanisms for achieving or securing social equality. He had little faith in such en masse solutions. Still, the left seemed to love him:

 “I don’t share his philosophy. What of it? He writes with greater poetic intensity than any other living poet I have read.”

     — James Rorty [2]

We can imagine Jeffers looking out from his “standing boulders” across Carmel Bay, admiring the jagged, Oriental beauty of Point Lobos and contemplating the prevalence of suffering in the world. In the sea cliffs he sees the beauty of God, yet he knows that God is also the author of much misery. He quotes Isaiah: [3]

“I create good: and I create evil: I am the Lord.”

He reiterates thus in a late, untitled poem: [4]

… That is God’s will: to make great things and destroy them, and make great things

And destroy them again. With war and plague and horror, and the diseases of trees and the corruptions of stone

He destroys all that stands. But look how beautiful—

… His signature

Is the beauty of things.

In the cypresses, winds, and cliffs of Point Lobos, Jeffers sees a terrible beauty: [5]

… O torture of needled branches

Doubled and gnarled, never a moment of quiet, the northwind or the southwind or the northwest.

For up and down the coast they are tall and terrible horsemen on patrol, alternate giants

Guarding the granite and sand frontiers of the last ocean; but here at Lobos the winds are torturers, …

Jeffers makes a conceptual leap. He divines that it is the beauty of God in the world that drives men to tragedy. He sees the spark of the fire of human cruelty in the sublime beauty of the inhuman world. It is crucial to Jeffers’ worldview that Nature not be excused for the evils of men. Man is but a small part of nature to Jeffers, therefore man must not be given too much credit for evil.

Jeffers takes a hard look at the “ways of God,” but he cannot find any reason in it. He doesn’t even see any thought in it other than what goes on it the human brain-vault. He desperately seeks a way to satiate God’s appetite for suffering.

The desperate solution the poem provides is not practical, rational, or empirical; but it is utterly human. Jeffers resolves, like some primitive hunter-gatherer, to offer some gruesome sacrifice to mitigate God’s insatiable appetite for misery that will at least not involve physical pain for himself, his family, or some defenseless beast. The visceral image that this poem paints of a human response to suffering is compelling.

It is worth considering that the theme of human sacrifice is not an entirely non-Christian one, given that Christianity is generally regarded to be all about God offering up his only son as a sacrifice, as payment against human sin.

A case can be made that this poem contrives the imaginative act as a kind of burnt offering chiefly to set the stage for self-mockery. This mockery, an exalted mockery that in its turn sets the stage for a God—or a theology—that turns on itself, bruises itself, burns itself, and ultimately breaks itself in pieces. This can be seen as both a meditation on the necessarily masochistic character of a pantheistic God and an expression of the futility of theology in general. Once the smoke clears and the fragments settle, all that remains is a dizzy reverence for the magnificent beauty of the world.

Some writers have described Apology as a sort of personal ars poetica, that is, a poetic treatise on the art of poetry, but it seems to apply only to a handful of Jeffers’ narratives. One need look no further than more concise lyrics like Point Joe (1924) and The Beauty of Things (1951) for a clearer—albeit less artful—statement on what poetry properly consists of.

In a late poem[6], a much older Jeffers seems to say something along the lines of “maybe there was something to Apology after all.” He indicates that he ceased to write such “bad dreams” after 1931, and blames this cessation on the indolence of age. Why should being 44 years old limit one’s ability to compose violent poems? Obviously, age did not stop Jeffers from continuing to author horror narratives. More likely, the depression and tragedy that ailed him in the late 1930s stemmed from the distractions (and jealousies) of fame.

[1] New Masses, volume 1, no. 1, May 1926, page 10.

[2] Rolfe, Lionel. The Lost L.A. Years of Robinson Jeffers, Literary L.A. 2009

[3] SP 142 and Isaiah 45:7. This appears to be Jeffers’ own translation, with a peculiar use of colons.

[4] CP 3:455; also see Not Man Apart, pg. 68.

[5] Tamar IV, SP 36

[6] see the posthumously published poem, I have been warned

The text of this poem can be found online.

This poem is included in the following anthologies: