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On "Fantasy"

James Shebl

The poet would have the reader imagine a time when "bombers ... will drop wreaths of roses down," when "doves will nest in guns' throats." The joyous dance of peace and innocence has finally begun, "without hate, without fear." Even the potentially sobering act of meting out justice to war criminals is sublimated into the act of hanging them in effigy. All feelings and deeds of violence, it would seem, have disappeared; goodness and mercy appear to have inherited the earth.

The neat, crisp rhythm, the simple and perfect rhyme, the monosyllables, the easy syntax, and the plain and familiar images--all reinforce the sense of the honest, innocent, and youthful joy of this fantasy. And then, quite matter-of-factly, comes the jolt: "new men plot a new war." Unseen and unsuspected, men plan new conflicts all over again. This last line, ironically the final statement of the fantasy, destroys the superficial picture of peace and innocence drawn earlier. The emphatic suggestion is that the state of youth, like joy and innocence, is in fact a state of naiveté. By punctuating his poem with this final and unrhymed line, Jeffers points up the vulnerability of the "happy children" who rejoice complacently and unsuspectingly in the peace, and the brutality of those "new men" who "plot a new war."

The inhumanist positions himself as detached observer; he sides with neither the dancers nor the plotters. He can see both with equal clarity, and he makes it all appear somehow inevitable. In a sense, "Fantasy" is a poem more brutal for having seemed at first so pleasant. One might have anticipated this harsh view from Herman Melville or Emily Dickinson, whose antiromantic bitterness Jeffers shared. (Indeed, Jeffers forewarns the reader in "Miching Mallecho" that "the boys have memories"; that very likely they could be their fathers' sons, and move into war as did the "old gentlemen.")

That "Fantasy" is so typical of Jeffers' work in The Double Axe is perhaps all the more reason to question the judgment of Random House in asking Jeffers to delete this poem. The publisher's letters to the poet, presented in Chapter 3, may simply indicate disapproval of Jeffers' linking Roosevelt with Hitler and Guy Fawkes. If this is the case, an engaging and well-made poem, set in an American tradition of antiromanticism, has been sacrificed for partisan opinion. This poem, one of the best of those excised, is probably better--in terms of form and effect--than most of the poems left in The Double Axe.

from In This Wild Water: The Suppressed Poems of Robinson Jeffers. Copyright © 1976 by James Shebl.

Clint Stevens

Robinson Jeffers' "Fantasy" is a fine example of William Empson's seventh type of ambiguity, as explained in his classic Seven Types of Ambiguity. As he writes, this type of ambiguity "occurs when the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity, are the two opposite meanings defined by the context, so that the total effect is to show a
fundamental division in the writer's mind" (192). Of course, this definition provides merely the starting ground for understanding the way Jeffer's poem works. What the reader is left with in the end is a sense of the absurdity and futility not only of war but of its naïve counterpart, the hope suggested in the pastoral images of peace. The poem opens: "Finally in white innocence." "Innocence tagged with "white" indicates by its superfluity an implicit irony, recalling to the reader that what is being presented here is indeed nothing more than a fantasy. It is through this irony that the reader recognizes the ambiguity in the subsequent images. Each of the following images, through a visual pun, operates in two different registers at once: one, the suggestion of a return to paradise; the second, the absurdity of such a return due to the proximity of the war. The visual puns operate much like the chief image in Stevie Smith's "Not Waving But Drowning," in which the person drowning appears only to be waving. In both poems, the meaning is created at the crux of a misinterpretation of the scene. Thus, in "Fantasy" what appears to be the joyful dalliance of fighter planes could be, in reality, a dog-fight. Similarly, the rose-petal wreaths could be explosions, and the doves "in the guns' throats" could be bullets. This same ambiguity operates in the next lines in which the dance and the whistles and bells could potentially be not a celebration but the helter-skelter of a city under attack. Jeffers has deliberately chosen these images because of their ambiguity, and it is in the tension between these possible readings that creates the meaning of the poem. 

The recognition of this tension prepares the reader for the next part of the poem in which the two opposing sides of the war, epitomized by "Hitler and Roosevelt" are hung "in one tree,/ Painlessly, in effigy." In terms of a political reading, these lines represents Jeffers' belief that the United States should not have participated in World War II. In Jeffer's view,
Roosevelt is equally culpable for the horrors born of that war. Yet, in terms of the reading advanced here, these two figures further the concept of two opposing sides being suspended together; such that while overtly connoting antinomies, these lines imply at a deeper level an essential identity between them. Ultimately, any meaning we derive from the poem is not found in choosing one perspective over the other but in recognizing the essential delusiveness of both. The mind must revolt against the naiveté of the innocent perspective just as it rejects the experiential point of view. As Jeffers sees it, we betray ourselves in believing that one side of the war good and the other evil; both are, in the final reckoning, equally delusive and must be rejected.

To take their rank in history;
Roosevelt, Hitler and Guy Fawkes
Hanged above the garden walks

In the first line quoted above, we notice the obvious pun on "rank." Also, by introducing the figure of Guy Fawkes into the poem, Jeffers makes explicit the essential identity between Roosevelt and Hitler, who like Fawkes are portrayed as traitors to their country. In the context of the poem, the fact that Guy Fawkes Day is a slightly chilling celebration involving masked children asking for pennies that they might purchase fireworks (another significant visual pun), symbolically connected to the burning of Fawkes' effigy on that day complements nicely the array of visual puns mentioned above. 

In the final movement of the poem, the irony and the ambiguity become more difficult, as it is difficult to see how these "happy children" can "cheer,/ Without hate, without fear" in the presence of these men hanged in a tree. The primary purpose of this line is to again emphasize the central incongruity put forth in this poem. Yet this difficulty is in part passed over by Jeffers who moves us into the final line in which the antithetical perspectives of the poem are collapsed into a kind of inevitability: that even if a genuine peace could occur, its significance would be usurped by being identified with the time and place in which "new men plot a new war." The ending, like so many of Jeffers poems assumes a fatalistic perspective for humanity. As William Everson writes, Jeffers consumed by an intense consciousness of original sin, sees humans as "instinctually perverse." What began as a somewhat light irony and a slightly playful ambiguity ends in a synthesis in
which the fantasy has been modified into a nihilistic recognition of the fictions we construct to make sense of, or to ignore, the horrors of a world at war with itself. Hope collapses at its juncture with despair. The idea that there could be any such thing as a lasting or real peace when identified with the equally ignorant view that the war had any real meaning self-destructs. Both are hung by Jeffers in effigy and burned. 

Copyright © 2003 Clint Stevens

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