• U.S.

Books: Homesick for Death

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THE BEGINNING AND THE END (74 pp.) —Robinson Jeffers—Random House ($3.95).

For 50 years, Robinson Jeffers lived in isolation on the coast of California, preferring the company of hawks and vultures to that of people. His poems are filled with a scorn of mankind and a love of nature—not just of its beauty but of its violence, its merciless indifference. Jeffers’ notion of Utopia was like no other: “The cities gone down, the people fewer and the hawks more numerous.”

When Jeffers died last year at 75, he was not much missed. For obvious reasons, this forbidding poet was never very popular and won few prizes. But at his misanthropic best, he was one of the greatest American poets, whose verse often has the fire of a wrathful God, as in

Eagle Valor, Chicken Mind, Jeffers’ bitter indictment of America at war:

. . . Unhappy, eagle wings and beak,

chicken brain.

Weep (it is frequent in human affairs), weep for the terrible magnificence of the means, The ridiculous incompetence of the

reasons, the bloody and shabby Pathos of the results.

It is clear from Jeffers’ posthumously published book of poems that he did not mellow with age. He is more than ever convinced of the imminent extermination of mankind:

. . . No wonder we are fascinated with


And our huge bombs: it is a kind of homesickness perhaps for the howling fire-blast that we were born from.

Jeffers welcomes his own death as eagerly as mankind’s. He dreams of being devoured by his beloved bird, the vulture:

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.

Jeffers’ last poems rank below his best. Stripped of the beauty of language, Jeffers’ sentiments seem merely sour, the eccentric crankiness of an old man who could never learn to live with other people. But there are occasional flashes of the old genius, when the cruel philosophy is so alluringly put, as in Birds and Fishes: The winds and the wild hungers, the waveworn skerries, the bright quick minnows

Living in terror to die in torment-Man’s fate and theirs—and the island rocks and immense ocean beyond, and Lobos Darkening above the bay: they are


That is their quality: not mercy, not mind, not goodness, but the beatify of God.

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