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Robinson Jeffers on His Philosophy

Robinson Jeffers

The first part of The Double Axe was written during the war and finished a year before the war ended, and it bears the scars; but the poem is not primarily concerned with that grim folly. Its burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.

from the Preface to The Double Axe (1948)

Robinson Jeffers

Now, recognizing our present European-American civilization as an organism, which grows to maturity and declines to old age, as other civilizations have done before and will again, I asked myself: "What distinguished this culture-age from others? What is the source of its peculiar qualities?" There are many sources certainly; but one that specially impressed me and became a theme for my verses is the spiritual conflict that lies at the heart of our culture, and creates a strain there. The religions and ethics of other civilizations were more or less home-grown; they adapted themselves to the people, and the people to the religions; but Christianity is Oriental and Near-Eastern in origin, and was imposed on the western races rather recently, as history goes; and we have never got used to it. We still hold two sets of ethics, pagan and Christian, simultaneously. For instance, we say that we should love our enemies and not resist evil; yet at the same time we believe in justice, and that criminals ought to be punished, and that we should meet force with force, violence with violence. Or another instance: we believe in humility; but we also believe in masculine pride and self-assertion. I think that this spiritual conflict creates a strain in our psychology and in the heart of our culture, that has been extremely fruitful both of good and evil, of greatness and intensity, as well as of self-contradiction and hypocrisy and frustration. This theme of spiritual civil war appears often in my verses, especially in the long semi-dramatic poem called "At the Birth of an Age." It appears also in the verses of my betters. Have you thought how many of Shakespeare's heroes, from Hamlet down, are at war in themselves, in their own souls; whereas heroes of Greek tragedy struggle against fate or each other, but their souls remain simple and undivided?

I think this idea of tension, spiritual civil war at the heart of our civilization, is worth developing further; but for lack of time I must leave it now.

Another theme that has much engaged my verses is the expression of a religious feeling, that perhaps must be called pantheism, though I hate to type it with a name. It is the feeling . . . I will say the certitude . . . that the world, the universe, is one being, a single organism, one great life that includes all life and all things; and is so beautiful that it must be loved and reverenced; and in moments of mystical vision we identify ourselves with it. This is, in a way, the exact opposite of Oriental pantheism. The Hindu mystic finds God in his own soul, and all the outer world is illusion. To this other way of feeling, the outer world is real and divine; one’s own soul might be called an illusion, it is so slight and so transitory.

This is the experience that comes to my Orestes; at the end of a long semi-dramatic poem called "The Tower Beyond Tragedy." He is trying to tell his sister Electra what great vision and freedom he has found, on the far shore beyond duty-bound matricide and the ancestral madness. He says, I "have fallen in love outward. . . . "

from Themes in My Poems, by R. Jeffers. The Book Club of California, 1955.

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