Shining Clarity: God and Man in the Works of Robinson Jeffers


Shining Clarity: God and Man in the Works of Robinson Jeffers, by Marian Beilke, Amador City, Calif.: Quintessence Publications, 1977, 294 pp., $20.

As a poet, Robinson Jeffers has been inaccessible to many readers. This is not due, as with many poets, to ambiguity or obscurity, for Jeffers is passionately clear. The barrier is his constant attention to harsh and painful realities; his poems have an unyielding surface that largely conceals their deeper themes. In Shining Clarity, Marian Beilke has given us a geological survey map to help us find the gold hidden in Jeffers's rocky landscapes.

There is particular interest for libertarians in this, since Jeffers's themes were largely libertarian. He held authority in fierce contempt. His vision of history was a tragic one, centered on the decay of America from freedom—through foreign war, mass democracy, and economic centralization—into empire. This cost him many readers, since literary critics have largely thought of this development as progress and have ignored Jeffers as ideologically offensive. Libertarian themes would not justify bad poetry, but poetry as good and unjustly ignored as Jeffers's commands interest both as a noble expression of such themes and as a wrong to be corrected.

Shining Clarity is an attempt to show the deep structure of Jeffers's themes. Beilke divides these into two subjects—God and man—and three periods—youth, maturity, and the testing of Jeffers's values by World War II and his wife's death. His method throughout is to read Jeffers's short lyrics (of which nearly 60 are printed in full, along with numerous excerpts) as straightforward statements of Jeffers's thought, accessible to reasoned understanding. Comparison among them reveals Jeffers's vision as coherently focused on recurringly stated themes.

The center of that vision was Jeffers's God: not a supernatural being, but the natural universe. This is akin to Hindu pantheism, but without its subjectivist tendencies; in "Credo" Jeffers writes: "I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only / The bone vault's ocean: Out there is the ocean's: / …the heart-breaking beauty / Will remain when there is no heart to break for it." Jeffers's God is existence itself, whose essence is objectivity and inhuman beauty; his poetry is his worship of it.

Such worship, Jeffers believed, has only one alternative: worship of a magnified image of human prejudices. The results of this are "cruelty and filth and superstition," the center of his tragic vision of the human species. Even the destruction of natural beauty and the loss of human independence are part of God, but they are the harshest of the realities that Jeffers struggled to see as beauty. Only the will to love even this truth, Jeffers thought, can purify human beings. His political themes fit into one corner of this image, showing tyranny and war as rooted in hatred of truth.

The great merit of Beilke's work is not primarily his comments, exegeses, and summaries. Rather, it is his providing Jeffers's lines with context, in a reordering through which they mutually illuminate one another. To gain such impressive results with such simple tools is a measure of Beilke's ability as a critic.

Beilke's text is surrounded by many other features. Some, such as the unpublished poem "The Last Conservative" and the many illustrations, enhance the text. The inclusion of five prefatory sections, by Beilke and four others, does not—despite some useful biography; reaching the fifth preface on page liv, one wonders if the book itself will ever start. Once it does, though, any explorer of Jeffers country will find it extremely useful.