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On "Vulture"


Albert Gelpi

Una's death in 1950 diminished life and poetry, just as Jeffers foresaw it would, but the rapturous anticipation of unconsciousness in nature produced some powerful lyrics in his remaining years. "Vulture" is a final testament to pantheistic death and resurrection. . . .

The desultory pace of the opening description of the wheeling vulture quickens with "But how beautiful he looked," and the poet's sudden and horrifying desire to serve as carrion for the beautiful, powerful bird of prey reaches the limit of consciousness and articulation in his "enskyment" in the blood and sinew of the barbaric bird. Across the continent from Paumanok, Jeffers the Romantic Inhumanist found himself in a place much like that of Whitman the Romantic individualist at the end of "Song of Myself:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and
    my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

from A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910-1950. Copyright 1987 by Cambridge University Press.


Alan Brasher

The search for reintegration into the instinctual world of animals in "Vulture" completely subverts Emerson's intention to use nature as a means of spiritual transcendence--Emerson would rise above nature, while Jeffers wishes to be digested into it. "Vulture" opens with the speaker lying "death-still" on a hillside, watching a vulture make progressively lower circles, approaching him as a potential meal. As the vulture closes in, the man takes in the beauty of the bird and sincerely regrets having to pass up the opportunity to offer his body to the vulture:

                                        . . . But how beautiful
he'd looked, gliding down
On those great sails, how beautiful he looked, veering away in
    the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that
    beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.

Clearly, any sense of immortality, for Jeffers, derives from the participation of the human body in the natural order. As the birds in "Birds and Fishes" felt no remorse for their actions, Jeffers would not hesitate to play the role of the fish. Man's truest link with nature, then, is not his ability to decipher it intellectually but his ability to participate in it physically.

from "Transcendental Echoes in Jeffers" 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.


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