Boats in a Fog

Didactics are a core element of the verse of Robinson Jeffers. This was one poet who was not too timid to call a spade a spade, so to speak. For Jeffers, didactics did not necessarily violate the image; ideas and even grandiose assertions could contribute to the image.

But that is not to say that Jeffers could always be taken at his word, or at least taken literally. He was at times given to exaggeration, and even irony on occasion. Boats in a Fog (SP 105) is one case where Jeffers has a very serious, earnest message to convey, and he conveys it with intelligence, but should one take his message as the sober crafting of a philosopher, or as the passionate pen-strokes of a poet?

Boats in a Fog opens with a rather extreme proposition:

… the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers, / The exuberant voices of music, / Have charm for children but lack nobility; it is bitter earnestness / That makes beauty; …

There is a real sense in which we can believe that Jeffers is arguing that the human arts are merely charming playthings when compared with the beauty of living an earnest life on a razor’s edge between real dangers. In a later poem, Love the Wild Swan, Jeffers appears to complain that his art falls short of its object—the beauty of the world, and why not? His poetry is all about the beauty of the world. Jeffers’ poetry is not about its own beauty, or of the beauty of any human art. Jeffers does not postulate that the arts transcend nature; no, quite the contrary. One would think that according to Inhumanism, the arts would not compare well at all to the beauty of the world as it exists without artifice. They are more aberration than anything. Though there is artifice in the work of a fisherman, it is earnest and without pretense. In this regard, it exhibits the hard, serious beauty characterized by the greater, inhuman existence.

Still, Jeffers remains an artist—a poet. He persists in his folly without complaint, or at least not very much. Why doesn’t he take up sardine fishing? He has, at least, taken up stonemasonry. That, at last, may be his redemption. On the other hand, should the mere fact that art inevitably falls short of the beauty of its subject render it futile? It still has a role, though it may ever fall short. And yet it remains little more than a charming plaything. Or perhaps he is exaggerating?

Yes, he is exaggerating, otherwise he would have “put away childish things.” [1]

Jeffers proceeds to support his thesis with an observation—of humans: fishermen striving against and among the elements of nature. They strive in and out of a mystery, between fog and granite. Jeffers sees profound beauty in this human striving that is no less magnificent than any “natural,” that is inhuman, beauty. There is a deep beauty in earnest striving that he sees throughout nature, but part of the lesson here is that he also sees it in the daily strivings of earnest working men.

Boats in a Fog is a brilliant meditation on the multifariousness of beauty, a theme that would be revisited in Fire on the Hills, Distant Rainfall, and other poems.

Boats stands out among Jeffers’ works as passionately pro-human, and as such does not contradict a broader Inhumanism, evidence that Jeffers was no mere misanthropist. This is a poem that, for once, has Jeffers as a poet whose eye can see beauty in a truly universal sense; not just the dark and rugged beauty of a picturesque sea cliff, but the beauty of men following that cliff and the beauty of men striving against it. The poem illustrates this beautifully, and impassioned exaggeration is an indispensable element of the image.

[1] St. Paul, I Corinthians 13:11

The text of Boats in a Fog is available online.


Boats in a Fog has been included in the following anthologies:

  • The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th Edition, 2005; eds. Ferguson, Salter, & Stalworthy
  • Twentieth-Century American Poetry, 2003; eds. Gioia, Mason, & Schoerke
  • The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers, 2003; ed. Albert Gelpi
  • The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Stanford, 2001; ed. Tim Hunt
  • The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 4th Edition, 1996; eds. Ferguson, Salter, & Stalworthy
  • Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1965
  • The Pocket Book of Modern Verse, 11th Printing, 1963; ed. Oscar Williams.
  • The Oxford Book of American Verse, 1950; ed. F.O. Matthiessen