blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

William Everson on The Double Axe -- Background for "Fantasy"

William Everson
from the Foreword to The Double Axe

When Robinson Jeffers first broke upon the literary scene, humanist critics indicted his "amoral" philosophy. With the whole body of his work before us, however, it is apparent that on the contrary his moral stance was positively forbidding, gaining its power from an almost primordial sense of Original Sin. Denied by Darwin the theological sanction of his Calvinist forebears, he yet retained its thrust by positing an evolutionary aberration in the history of the species, a genetic flaw, a biological wrong turn taken. The breed has something botched about it, and whoever would follow its tendencies walks with devils. No other animal, he averred, is so instinctually perverse, so corrupted by self-love.

And like an intrepid desert prophet he set about the correction, writing poems which were massive acts of confrontation, exhortation, and persuasion. He confronted human pride with the facts of human abjectness, he exhorted human complacency with acts of religious arousal, and he persuaded of human folly by appeal to transhuman relevance. Thus he sought to wrench man's attention from his own self-deceptions, and fasten his soul upon the naked divinity manifest in the cosmos. This is a familiar enough religious tactic, but Jeffers' employment of it is extraordinary. Nineteenth-century science had presented Nietzsche with a universe in which there was no place left for God. Twentieth-century science presented Jeffers with a universe in which there is no place left for man.

For unquestionably it was science that provided him with the objectivity, and hence the authority, to effect the religious mission he claimed for his own-particularly the sciences of astronomy and physics. Between those two millstones, the galaxy and the molecule, he pulverized human complacency to reveal man's insignificance to man. Whereas religious humanists like T. S. Eliot resisted the tendency of science to displace humanity from the center of things, Jeffers welcomed it and, moreover, celebrated it. He turned the employ of science back from the proliferation of creature comforts to religious contemplation; and what it contemplated was virtually ungraspable, a vision "measureless to man."

The principal dispositive factor which Jeffers acquired from science was detachment, deepening to aloofness and, at times, remoteness. This made for a profound antipathy to tile affairs of man. From such disinvolvement only two areas emerge in which he succumbed to the participation he disdained: the Eros-Thanatos equation presented by fundamental biology. Because sex is personal and private, he was able to keep it in focus, though it constantly threatened to overwhelm his objectivity: in all his work it has a luridity and glare that emphasize its dangerous aspects. So too with death, personal death. Neither rejecting it philosophically nor seeking it through suicide, he kept it in stern focus. But collective death, vast impersonal death in the form of universal war—this was too much for him. The first and second world wars were the two crisis periods of his life, wherein he lost detachment and plunged into intense psychological involvement. In World War I his powers were not yet mature, and the record is unclear. But in World War II he stood upon the stage of contemporary literature and believed he had to speak out.

For in the throes of the latter he could not forget the treasons of the former. At high-level conferences like Teheran and Yalta he could not forget high-level betrayals like Versailles. Disdaining and disavowing politics, he yet became, confronted with these episodes, a political poet. This began as far back as the early thirties with the first signs of the drift toward war in Europe. In the poem "Rearmament," published in 1935 but written apparently in 1934 when Stalin announced Russian rearmament, he declared:

These grand and fatal movements toward death:
        the grandeur of the mass
Makes pity a fool, the tearing pity
For the atoms of the mass, the persons, the
        victims, make it seem monstrous
To admire the tragic beauty they build.

Here the stance is aloof but already the involvement is unmistakable. Thirteen years later, in the present book, The Double Axe, he would give us that involvement projected to its apotheosis, a paroxysm of anguished revulsion.

As a genre political poetry is both didactic and rhetorical. To be effective it must be intensely involved and ideologically committed, though such commitment must be moderated by intellectual discrimination, moral courage, and, sometimes, irony. Within these bounds it is best when it is extreme: intemperate, explosive, and scornful. Indeed, unless it invokes the leap for the jugular, we are not apt to pay much attention to it. Only when it shocks with relevance can it change the course of human inertia. Being poetry, it must be concentrated and blistering rather than rational and discursive, or we will cling to prose and remain in dispassionate analysis. As an axiom it can be said that the rougher political poetry is, the better we will like it, or, if it opposes our own predilections, the more deeply will we fear it. Political poetry speaks to the mind, certainly, but at best it speaks through the mind to the passions. In spite of ourselves, hearing it, we are moved.

In The Double Axe, Jeffers proves himself to be a political poet par excellence, an adept at the rougher aspects of political infighting. The howls of rage from his opponents testify to it. No other contemporary verse comes to mind that is quite so brusque, savage, and intransigent. What anti-war poetry of the sixties, for instance, equals "Eagle Valor, Chicken Mind" for incisiveness? The rhetorical skills he had developed denigrating the race were focused now on deploring the course of political issue, and if he could cow the species before the vision of God, he could certainly shatter the pretensions of crusading politicos before the awesome eventualities of their options. When he finished his book and signed his name to it, he put his signature on a death warrant.

But though history may yet vindicate him, in terms of his poetic career his descent into the political arena was an unmitigated disaster. For one thing, political poetry itself was then out of fashion. In the thirties the Depression had produced a bond between political radicals and creative writers founded, as in the sixties, upon an anti-war rhetoric. This was cynically fostered by the Communist party up through the Stalin-Hitler nonaggression pact of 1939. With the collapse of that detente in 1941, followed by Pearl Harbor, the demoralized Left was assimilated into the war effort, the Communists jubilant, the dissidents succumbing to the doctrinaire tactic of "boring from within," a formula successful enough when used by the Bolsheviks in the defeated czarist armies of World War I, but utterly ineffectual amongst the confident GIs of World War II. On the home front the unenlisted dissident literati were reduced to grinding out government propaganda or retiring into hermeticism and the cultivation of aesthetic form. By the battle of Midway, the turning point of the war, Literature and Revolution was out and Seven Types of Ambiguity was in.

Moreover, in 1948 the nation at large was enjoying an interval of rare self-esteem. Victory had proved American justice and she stood before the world as the savior of mankind. All the free nations looked to her for security and protection, and she felt worthy of it. She saw the ordeal of her triumph as heroic and self-sacrificial, and after very real privations she was enjoying the reward of an accelerating prosperity.

Into this bland, complacent atmosphere Jeffers' book dropped like a bomb (a stink bomb, many thought). Certainly the reaction was violent enough. How dare this intransigent curmudgeon vilify the great ordeal of victory by such discredited isolationist ranting? His own publisher held his nose and quarantined the book with a pious disclaimer. Hustled out of decent society with antiseptics and rubber gloves, The Double Axe was universally consigned to oblivion, effectively ending Jeffers' role as a creditable poetic voice during his lifetime.

. . . "A necrophilic nightmare!" cried Time magazine, and a host of compeers bayed in response. . . . The Milwaukee Journal said, "In this truculent book, Robinson Jeffers . . . makes it clear that he feels the human race should be abolished." . . . The Library Journal said "his violent, hateful book is a gospel of isolationism carried beyond geography, faith or hope."

Of the political content which produced this reaction little need be said. It pleads from the text, requiring no elucidation, only summarization. Jeffers believed American participation in World War II was a tragic mistake, wasting American lives and resources to fish in what he considered the witches' brew of Europe—a venerable American sentiment, to be sure, but expressed with such bluntness, and now timed so awkwardly, as to incense rather than convince. This was Jeffers' forte as a religious poet; it was his nemesis as a political one. Still, he made his points. The triumphant liberal slogans of those years he ruthlessly excoriated. All the presuppositions of post-war One World enthusiasm he punctured with powerful invective.

from The Double Axe and Other Poems, including Eleven Suppressed Poems, by Robinson Jeffers. With a Foreword by William Everson and an Afterword by Bill Hotchkiss. Liveright: New York, 1977.

Return to Robinson Jeffers