Robinson Jeffers came of age at the end of a century that had wrestled with the question of divinity as few others before it in the Western world. Christianity had twice divided, in the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, and weathered many crises of faith, conscience, doctrine, and obedience. Not until the eighteenth century, however, had religious skepticism as such become widespread in elite circles. The passing of the Enlightenment—or, rather, its absorption into the cultural bloodstream of the West—had brought with it the sober problem of coping with a world potentially without God, or at the very least reassessing divinity in the context of one now defined by science as the product of impersonal forces. If a Voltaire could regard atheism as a form of liberation or a Laplace dismiss the concept of divinity as an outmoded hypothesis, the preeminent figure of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin, would famously reproach himself as the murderer of God, and the discomfort he brought was one he seems to have shared himself. For the major philosophers of the time—Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche—the problem of cosmological meaning and the human situation in it was the pressing task of systematic thought, and in no case was their presupposition a directly Christian one. For Nietzsche, the reigning presence in Jeffers’ formative years, the conclusion was not only the abandonment of deity but of system itself. He propounded this, in the mode of Enlightenment philosophes, as liberating in itself. But Matthew Arnold caught the despairing tenor of the times more accurately in his Dover Beach, as Arthur Rimbaud in his A Season in Hell.
For those who still adhered to a personal divinity, the ancient paradox of theodicy remained in all the more concentrated form: the problem of evil in the world, whether the result of a malevolent deity, an insufficiently powerful one, or a world defective in its essence. René Descartes had revived the old Gnostic question of whether a demon or demiurge was responsible for the world’s error, without specifically affirming such an entity. Goethe in the eighteenth century and Schopenhauer in the nineteenth would challenge the idea of a benevolent deity. This raised the issue of whether the world was to be despised, and God rejected. Thomas de Quincey revived the old Aeschylean coinage of misotheism (God-hatred) in 1846, and the term first appeared in a dictionary in 1907, although the term’s modern popularizer, Bernard Schweizer, appears to have been unaware of this lineage.1 By a circuitous but undeviating route, Robinson Jeffers would be brought to engage the questions such a response posed, not in the medium of theology or philosophy but by means of verse, as rigorously as any modern figure. His own rejection of misotheism would be firm, but not before a profound engagement that shaped his understanding of divinity as such and the world he construed it as having both shaped and constituted.
The son of a prominent cleric, Jeffers was born into the late nineteenth century’s climate of crisis and doubt, and he would come of age in the event that reshaped the modern world, the Great War. Jeffers might have engaged that world from any number of intellectual perspectives, and one of his most important critics would come to see his career as above all that of a religious figure. But the mode of expression he chose, itself in crisis, was the one that would give him the greatest latitude: poetry.
After absorbing the classics and passing through Romantic influences from Shelley and Wordsworth to Swinburne, Jeffers discovered in the emerging poetry of his own time a fatal defect: not the engagement with the natural and human world that he felt to be its essential function but a retreat from it into sterile self-absorption and wordplay. This might produce its interesting literary puzzles and even its masterpieces—Jeffers seems to have regarded The Waste Land as one such—but it could do no more, in the end, than to reflect a retreat from external reality.
The Waste Land is a poem about modern city life, and by some instinct, perhaps whetted by his youthful experience of the Swiss Alps, Jeffers was led away from urbanism to find in an isolated pocket of central California a personal retreat amid a landscape of surpassing beauty. Wordsworth had made natural splendor a defining element of his verse, and Jeffers responded readily to that of Big Sur, but without as yet the tools to overcome what had now become the clichés of a Romantic perception of nature. His early California narratives were suffused with an awkwardly pastoral religiosity whose protagonists achieve no dramatic elevation. Jeffers had the formula of his mature work, but not the art.
At the same time, Jeffers was at work on a poem of vast ambition on the dual subject that most deeply engaged him: his own conflicted relationship with his father, and the unfolding crisis of Western culture in the Great War. The poem this was to have produced, the three-part Witnesses, was never achieved, and although Jeffers left no notes for its overall plan that appear to have survived he did compose at least most of what was to have stood as its first part, “The Alpine Christ.” He suppressed this torso during his lifetime, although fragments of it attracted the interest of collectors.
“The Alpine Christ,” the bulk of which was at last discovered by William Everson, must even in its truncated form be set against the narratives Jeffers was simultaneously at work on. As a verse drama, it became the template for a series of mature works, which, alternating with his narratives, were characterized by a principal interest in the rise and decline of culture ages. Here as well, it introduced a theme that, largely undeveloped in Jeffers’ poetry for more than a decade, would provide the matrix for much of it thereafter: namely, the nature of divinity.
The ‘God’ who appears in “The Alpine Christ” is not a posited ontological reality but a Biblically-based construct, who employs Satan—still his servant—to try a sinful humanity in the crucible of war to see whether virtue might reemerge through sacrifice and suffering. Satan readily takes up the challenge (AC 47). God thereupon ordains the Great War, he instructing the angel Michael to ignite it with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and leaving the remainder to Satan to be spurred on. This division of labor, as it were, acquits God of cruelty, for what he inflicts he will also sympathetically endure: “We are sufferers, you wretched tribes of men,” he declares, “you and I. I shall prevail. The endurance is not vain” (47; emphasis added). The efficient act is God’s; the resulting havoc will be Satan’s.
Nonetheless, a retort remains. Warriors may choose death; the innocent do not, and their outcry must be heard:
The crying of little children is mightier of wing;
If the other sorrows had never sufficed
To flutter beyond the throne of God, and cling
To the knees of Christ. (55)
This is the first mention of Christ in the poem, who finally appears when even Satan, weary of his work, has succumbed to pity (69-70). His succession to the Father is immediately suggested (“my time is come”), and in the same moment he defies him on behalf of a suffering humanity: “I adjure you now / . . . / That you have mercy on all this broken clay” (78). What the Son objects to is the carnage of a war that negates all valor; however, before his appearance, an unnamed angel offers a more radical complaint against the existence of death itself:
It strikes cold
In my immortal breast: O terrible
To perish and be nothing, while vast life
Flames in the ranging stars, and in the earth
Moves, and in God and all the spiritual world
Mindless of that annihilated speck
Eternally goes on. O it is terrible. (77)
This short speech is significant in Jeffers. It is an early affirmation of his vitalism, the notion that the universe as such is alive (“vast life / Flames in the ranging stars”), and it suggests at the same time the particular distinction of human life on earth, which ‘moves,’ i.e., is not merely a byproduct of natural process but the expression of choice and will. It foreshadows as well the other major plot element of the poem, the quest of an otherwise-undesignated Young Man who searches for his deceased father in quest of a union in or beyond death with him, a theme that will be repeated in one of the last poems of Jeffers’ apprenticeship, “The Coast-Range Christ” (CP 4: 340-64).
The rebel angel is immediately rebuked by his fellows for questioning the mysteries of heaven. But Christ’s arrival is announced upon this, not only to “adjure” and “bind” God himself by invoking the supreme grace of mercy, but to declare his intention to revisit earth as its minister. This is rebellion indeed from a Christian perspective, for it strikes at the presumptive unity of essence and will in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.
The Son repents his transgression, only to usurp the divine prerogative of justice in declaring his abuse of it: “I was unjust / Taxing you with injustice” (AC 79). God the Father acquiesces both in this and in the Son’s declared reincarnation, thus anticipating his own supersession.
“The Alpine Christ” proceeds from this on its double track of Christ’s mission and the Young Man’s quest. The Young Man is delivered from his mortal embodiment to seek his father as a spirit, while the Son, garbed in flesh, pursues his earthly errand. But the latter’s capacity depends upon the Father’s, and it is Satan who divines a yet greater potency abroad in the world which he identifies as Fate, the power that, without seeming to possess will, ultimately determines all.
Jeffers does not return to this concept in the surviving portions of the poem until, much further on, we come upon a now-moribund God facing his own demise. To the shock of his angels, he announces that “We are about to die, . . . / . . . / There is one stronger. / We are all bound on the iron wheel” (174). This is the only rhetorical depiction of Fate in the poem, which, like the medieval instrument of torture it evokes, simultaneously turns and breaks—a grim image indeed of the cosmic cycle.
Christ, or as he is called in his earthly incarnation Manuel, is apprised of the Father’s death as, busy below, he spreads the now ungrounded gospel of divine salvation. Most of the poem’s final pages describe Manuel’s effort—like the Young Man’s own—to accept the Father’s death. Unlike the latter, however, he cannot seek a hypostatized union beyond the grave, but must redirect his mission from the heavenly Father to a generalized love implicit in the cosmos that presents itself as “the need that beggars Fate, and crowns / With glory and deathless calling the weak hearts / And mortal, of mankind.” The world of mortal change, of creation and extinction, of God’s existence itself, may belong to Fate, but it is love alone that is its animating principle, without which Fate itself is but a “corpse” (187-88). This is announced as the true gospel, but preaching it, and even receiving devotion from the faithful in his own person, leaves Christ-Manuel himself solitary, and the poem’s final word binds him to his own wheel: “importunate / And awful human needs so rule my fate” (188).
William Everson’s summary comment on “The Alpine Christ” pinpoints its structural defect: “In the disappearance of God, Christ as Manuel is left alone, the Promethean figure remaining to assert Christian ethic as a kind of residual substantive value despite the disappearance of the Being from whom it derived” (AC, xvi). The “love” Jeffers asserts at the poem’s end is abstract, an effusion that, lacking source or specific object, is merely a rhetorical gesture. God is dead. No lesser entity will suffice, and Christ-Manuel himself, the apostle of love, is no substitute. It is not surprising that Jeffers wished to suppress the poem, dismissing it as “useless and absurd” (ibid, xvi; CL 1: 659). Indeed, the poem he was about to publish at that moment, “The Women at Point Sur,” with its cautionary tale of a false prophet, may be regarded as the definitive repudiation of “The Alpine Christ.”
Heaven, hell, and its troupe of angels and devils disappear with the death of God in “The Alpine Christ,” leaving Manuel to wander a deontologized world. It was scarce wonder that, but for the awkward reappearance of a paternal deity at the end of “The Coast-Range Christ,” the notion of a divine personality all but vanished in Jeffers’ verse for the better part of the ensuing decade. However, while wrestling with the conception of Fate set out in “The Alpine Christ” in a poem contemporary with it, “Storm as Deliverer,” (CP 3: 257-77, originally published by William Everson as “A Woman Down the Coast,” AC 20-38), Jeffers extended his notion of it as a primary process that, in an uncreated cosmos, is itself the unconditioned God. As such, he describes it as a “living flame” that is “neither kind nor cruel,”
Nor just nor unjust. He is the infinite God.
He feeds with his own flesh, for all things are
In him, this flame, this beauty. Every clod
Glows with it as it gleams from every star.
In meanest lives it keeps a pure abode.
In filth of peace and brutish fury of war
Lives beauty which you fail to recognize
Because you are foolish people and have sick eyes. (277)
What Jeffers offers here, under the aspect of “Fate,” is the personification of process that Jeffers would ultimately construe in terms of a panentheistic deity who is the material projection of divine Being. The cosmos, properly conceived, would thus appear as that Being‘s unity in the willed act of self-differentiation, whose signature was beauty and whose experience was pain.
The essence of Jeffers’ construction of divinity is in these lines, although it would not be more fully adumbrated until the composition of “At the Birth of an Age” some twenty years later. Because the world is God, it is value as such, manifest to human consciousness as beauty; but because as process it is differentiation and flux, its elements are fluid in whatever momentary form they may appear. What is whole and perfect in God is experienced as unstable and transient within creation, or, as we might say, as the dynamic manifestation of value. Although even in the meanest of lives it “keeps a pure abode,” these conditions express contradiction: thus, while war exhibits valor and self-sacrifice, it also brings “brutish fury,” and while peace permits growth and association, it is tainted by stagnation and decay. Mere stasis, the persistence in any given condition, is death, and it is also futility, for, as Jeffers will make clear in “At the Birth of an Age,” God wills the world as experiment and change, with all the travail this entails.
Jeffers was unable to progress beyond this point for the next several years, and it may well be argued that “The Alpine Christ,” with its hypostatized notion of love, represented a regression from the vision glimpsed in “Storm as Deliverer” of the God who feeds the world his flesh while perpetually renewing it. To proceed further would take, for Jeffers, the construction of a sense of divine personality, at least in terms of an approach to a fundamentally unknowable entity—a personality sufficiently conceived to compel adoration, but likewise to imply judgment, particularly in relation to humanity, its most problematic element.
To prepare such an approach required a radical revision of perspective. “The Alpine Christ” had posited a God immediately present, his heaven and hell furnished with its auxiliaries, and the Satanic adversary in whom a misotheistic element was already established. It is Jeffers’ Satan who intuits the fall of the Father in his drama, although he himself, with the rest of the Christian panoply, will perish with it. For Jeffers himself this move, reversing the scheme of the Miltonic epic, cleared away its debris, a project awkwardly balanced in the poem’s subplot by the guilty quest of the Young Man who seeks annihilative reunion with his earthly father. The surviving Son of the poem, Christ-Manuel, is left with the ungrounded virtue of “love” to oppose the depersonalized force of Fate which, representing the impermanence of value and indeed of all attribute, appears as the negation of personality as such. That Jeffers had begun the process of recasting this force as a vision of divinity itself appeared in “Storm as Deliverer,” but he could follow such an approach only so far, and what succeeded it in the postwar poems in which his mature voice emerged was the grounding of a religious vision in a valorization of the natural world, “The old voice of the ocean, [and] the bird-chatter of little rivers” in a country “where the light beat up from earth-ward, and was golden” (“Natural Music,” CP 1: 6; “Point Joe,” 1: 90-91). The sublime appears now in the immediate, recovered in the overtly given, and the ‘God’ who appears occasionally in these poems is firmly tied to it as in “Not Our Good Luck,” where the “God who walks lightning-naked on the Pacific has never been hidden from any / Puddle or hillock of the earth behind us” (1: 12-13). Such a connection, of divine presence in the humblest elements of creation, embodies what Jeffers would characterize as “the beauty of things,” the appearance of divinity as material being.2
Jeffers pursued this instatement of the sublime in such longer poems as “The Tower Beyond Tragedy” and “Roan Stallion,” whose climactic scenes offer views of an implicitly divinized cosmos, although still absent divine personality. The former poem’s protagonist, Orestes, envisions himself as participant in the manifold cycles of creation; in the latter, divine authority is concretized for its heroine, California, in a single image of power and fecundity. For both, however, the world must resume its limitary shape, and humanity its bounds. In the other lengthy works of this period, however, Jeffers’ protagonists go further in seeking not merely to participate in or unite with divinity, but to usurp it. While Orestes searches for the divine in an identity with and adoration of process, and California in sexual congress, the eponymous heroine of “Tamar” attempts to annul time and substitute herself as the source of being, and the Reverend Barclay of “The Women at Point Sur” to incorporate divinity literally in himself. The pendant to this series, the verse drama “Dear Judas,” deconstructs these quest figures in their chief Western symbol, the person of Jesus. In each case, madness is simultaneously the spur, the condition, and the price of the quest. Tamar achieves the power to destroy but not to create; Orestes finds mystic rapture at the cost of will; California kills the stallion in whom she has perceived divinity; Barclay and Jesus proclaim immortality as they die. Each figure reveals and imaginatively embodies an aspect of divinity; each pays the debt of tragedy.
Misotheism does not directly enter the depiction of these protagonists, except in the case of Barclay. “The Women at Point Sur” begins as he angrily spurns his congregation; as the narrative unfolds, he molds a cult following over which he will exercise unquestioned authority. The force of his will leads him through successive visions of the divine to a final act of cooptation in which he sees, at the ultimate border of all possible universes, a face of God that is also his own. Like Tamar, but on a far wider canvas, Barclay cannot bear an existence of which he is not the author, not merely as the source of his own person but of the cosmos as a whole.
This, as Jeffers states both in the poem itself and his commentary on it,3 is madness; but it is a madness that signifies the aspiration toward divinity that defines the ultimate goal of human consciousness, and thus of the consciousness that in Jeffers’ view pervades the cosmos as such. One must love such a God (if one construes divinity in terms of personhood) as the source of being and value; one cannot but question it too for the apparent indifference it displays, if not to human cognizance then to human interest. Jeffers’ God includes compassion as it does all aspects of being; but, as the one virtue that would inhibit the flow of creation, it is one that must be forborne except sparingly in service to the rest.
These various attempts to ground and depict divinity are brought to focus in the concluding scene of “At the Birth of an Age,” in which the Christ figure called the Young Man beholds the epiphanic vision of a self-hanged God, the Promethean image that haunts Western mythology and reaches its apogee in the delusion (as the Young Man now understands it) of Golgotha: