At the equinox when the earth was veiled in a late rain, wreathed
with wet poppies, waiting spring,
The ocean swelled for a far storm and beat its boundary, the
ground-swell shook the beds of granite.
I gazing at the boundaries of granite and spray, the established
sea-marks, felt behind me
Mountain and plain, the immense breadth of the continent, before
me the mass and doubled stretch of water.
I said: You yoke the Aleutian seal-rocks with the lava and coral
sowings that flower the south,
Over your flood the life that sought the sunrise faces ours that has
followed the evening star.
The long migrations meet across you and it is nothing to you, you
have forgotten us, mother.
You were much younger when we crawled out of the womb and
lay in the sun’s eye on the tideline.
It was long and long ago; we have grown proud since then and
you have grown bitter; life retains
Your mobile soft unquiet strength; and envies hardness, the
insolent quietness of stone.
The tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars, life is your
child, but there is in me
Older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye that
watched before there was an ocean.
That watched you fill your beds out of the condensation of thin
vapor and watched you change them,
That saw you soft and violent wear your boundaries down, eat
rock, shift places with the continents.
Mother, though my song’s measure is like your surf-beat’s ancient
rhythm I never learned it of you.
Before there was any water there were tides of fire, both our
tones flow from the older fountain.
In the short poem Continent’s End, Jeffers begins with a celebration of the Pacific Ocean and the world-sea, identifying the Pacific as the womb of life, but then probes deep within himself to find something “harder than life and more impartial, the eye that watched before there was an ocean.” It is not that Jeffers claims—as a man—to have something too profound for the sea to possess (such as consciousness); rather, he closes, “both our tones flow from the older fountain.” Jeffers recognizes that we are in one sense children of the sea, yet he sees that we are also siblings of the sea.
The tone of this poem is rugged. It combines the power of the sea with the “insolent quietness of stone,” giving it a majestic quality that would characterize Jeffers’ poetry in the years to come. The regular flow of it contributes to a mood of cosmic flux. It flows, yet it stops at regular intervals. Perhaps this is intended to represent a surf pattern. Jeffers observes that his “song’s measure is like” the sea’s “ancient rhythm.” The line length is consistent. Every second line ends in a full stop, and there are no mid-line stops. This was the form of an even more well-received poem that Jeffers did not publish until later, Shine, Perishing Republic, and quite similar to the form of a contemporary surf-lyric, Point Joe. Though this form was for Jeffers a new development circa 1922, yet Jeffers would soon move on to a less regular “measure.” Jeffers’ pre-1923 poems did not exhibit the fluctuating rhythm that Tamar would introduce, yet the rhythm, language, and tone of Continent’s End renders it distinctly Jeffers.
The phrase “you have grown bitter” makes it seem as though the ocean is annoyed by human hubris. I think this makes man too central and too important. This is a flaw that I have a hard time overlooking, and a flaw that would revisit Jeffers’s work throughout his career.
Continent’s End has been posted online by the Robinson Jeffers Association.
Continent’s End is included in the following anthologies:
- California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, 2003; ed. Dana Gioia, Chryss Yost, and Jack Hicks
- 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
- Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems, Vintage Books, 1965