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On "Shine, Perishing Republic"


Frederic I. Carpenter

Of course, Jeffers does not believe that modern man will achieve freedom: neither his own poetry nor any other writing will accomplish much. Pessimistically, he believes that our civilization is doomed to decay. The most famous and characteristic of his poems is, perhaps, "Shine, Perishing Republic." "America," he says, is "thickening to empire; and protest, like a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens." But the significant thing about this poem is that this ultimate "perishing" of the republic does not deny the sense of the social values--rather it emphasizes them. A "republic" is good; an "empire," bad. "Protest" is good; acquiescence, bad. His pessimism as to the future of these goods merely enhances the sense of their importance.

from "The Values of Robinson Jeffers" American Literature (1940).


Gilbert Allen

 Jeffers also tends to apostrophize his countrymen as they blunder toward a comfortable destruction. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, Jeffers insists in "Shine, Republic" that prosperity is the enemy of freedom. He begins by invoking the timeless qualities of tree, sky, water, and rock, which he associates with Western civilization's "love of freedom." Like Yeats's Romantic Ireland, Jeffers's ideal America needs marrow, not money: "Freedom is poor and laborious; that torch is not safe but hungry, and often requires blood for its fuel." Jeffers does not believe that America can supply such blood for the torch of freedom indefinitely. Wealth and power will corrupt America, as they have corrupted every other society, but at least we can "keep the tradition [and] conserve the forms" for a time. Always a master at providing cold comfort, Jeffers ends the poem by suggesting that our decline may provide a useful negative example for the future: "The states of the next age will no doubt remember you, and edge their love of freedom with contempt for luxury."

from "Jeffers and Yeats" in Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honor of William H. Nolte (Ed. William B. Thesing). Copyright 1995 by University of South Carolina.


Jessica Hueter

A Patriot's Lament

For Robinson Jeffers in 1925 America was dying, and civilization was hastening its death. Using life-cycle imagery and stressing the decaying phase of the cycle, the prophet foretells the end, courts indifference, and urges isolation to avoid corruption.

"This America" implies there have been and/or will be other Americas. Nothing is permanent. "Empire" evokes Alexander the Great, Rome, the British Empire -- all reduced to history lessons. "The mould of its vulgarity" suggests commonness, crudity, possibly obscenity as it nears its end.

"Mould" could be a form for shaping the "molten mass"; it also is the decay of organic matter. "The fruit rots to make earth./ Out of the mother; and through the spring exultance, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother." The civilization will turn to compost.

All life-cycles move to such a conclusion. "You making haste haste on decay" implies that those promoting civilization are shortening the natural life-span of America. Yet Jeffers does not condemn. "Life is good," regardless of length, and all life is significant: "Meteors are not needed less than mountains." One must dispose oneself; patriotism yields to reality; it is all unblameworthy.

However, despite acceptance of inevitable decay, he will not participate. The apocalyptic monster cannot be stopped; recalling the advice of Matthew 25, he chooses the mountains. A final warning to his children: beware entanglement with men. Love of less than God is incestuous. No saviors. You can only watch.

From Robinson Jeffers: Poetry and Response—A Centennial Tribute. Los Angeles: Occidental College, 1987. Copyright 1987 by Occidental College.


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