The Greatest American Poet You’ve Never Heard Of

On the first day of one of the poetry classes I took in college, the professor asked the class (seemingly rhetorically, but actually not, though in moderate jest) “Who is the greatest poet to ever live?” The names that came after I cannot remember exactly, but I’m sure they were along the lines of: Whitman? (nope), Pound? (nope), Eliot? (nope), Dickinson? (nope), Stevens? (nope), Plath? (nope), Williams? (nope), etc. etc. etc.robinson_jeffers

All of these names have earned their spots and are perennial fixtures on the syllabi of “Intro to Poetry” or “Modern American Poetry” courses. In all the poetry classes I took, these names were uttered definitely more than once per class discussion and turned up just as often in assigned readings. But the poet I walked away from my college years appreciating the most, my favorite poet, was not on this list. His name is Robinson Jeffers.

Robinson Jeffers’ poetry is known for its deep connection to and appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. Images of the California coast, soaring hawks, and scavenging vultures fill the pages of his works, and through these wild images, Jeffers is able to reflect on what it means to be a human being—civilized and intelligent, trying to orient himself in the universe.

In my favorite Jeffers poem, “Wise Men in their Bad Hours,” Jeffers reflects on a choice of human awareness. Should we think only within the context of our life spans and  live with nothing but the immediate, tangible future in mind? Or should we live with knowledge of our place in nature and strive to embrace our lasting legacy as a component of the natural world.

Jeffers begins his poem by establishing the rift between so called “wise men,” and the “grasshoppers” of the world, the average human beings who do not concern themselves with the larger metaphysical issues that haunt “wise men.”

The comparison of these people to grasshoppers is effective, as grasshoppers do not lead contemplative lives. They simply hop from one thing to the next, meeting temporary needs and nothing more. These “grasshoppers” lead “merry” lives, as Jeffers writes that they’re “hardly thinking/Backward but never forward, and if they somehow/take hold upon the future they do it/Half asleep, with the tools of generation/Foolishly reduplicating/Folly in thirty year periods.” They never look past what they’re doing or reflect upon what they’ve done. There is a simple felicity in this thoughtless lifestyle, but it does not allow them to gain any wisdom from their experiences. They are essentially going through the motions of existence.

Unlike the wise men, grasshoppers are unconcerned with their distant futures, exclaiming: “‘What does the future/Matter, we shall be dead?’” Instead, they cloud their lives with manmade stressors and live egocentrically. While the poem is a criticism of this shortsightedness, Jeffers does (briefly) reveal some underlying jealousy towards the simplicity of the grasshoppers. He writes that wise men, in their “bad hours,” have entertained the thought that being unconcerned with the larger truths of the universe could be enviable, but he then dismisses this as a “[moment] of mockery.” While the short-term worries of common men may be easier to deal with and more trivial, truly wise men know that there is no reason to worry about the troubles that face us in this mortal life, as we will become part of a greater whole once we die—we will return to the collective body of the earth and the universe.

Jeffers then goes on to describe death as a “fierce meadowlark,” which is a key metaphor in the poem due to the fact that meadowlarks are insectivores. They feed on grasshoppers. This suggests that, in a figurative sense,  wise men are impervious to death. A meadowlark cannot feed on a wise man. This conquering of death stems from the wise men’s willingness to appreciate nature and orient themselves within it. They are aware of what comes beyond the end of human lives: immortality within the natural world. In effect, in sacrificing the simple banality of a grasshopper life in lieu of a heightened understanding of the order of things, they have no reason to fear death.

“Wise Men in their Bad Hours” illustrates Jeffers’ philosophy of “Inhumanism,” the idea that most humans are unable to conceive of a universe where they are not the center, but if we are able to look outside of ourselves and our emotions, we will be able to bask in the glorious beauty of earth and its landscapes. This is what the grasshoppers are unable to do,  and it is the means through which the wise men conquer death.

While grasshoppers are swallowed up by the meadowlark, leaving nothing but temporary monuments to their existence, wise men die “having made/Something more equal to the centuries/Than muscle and bone,” and this is how they “shed [the] weakness” that runs rampant in the grasshoppers. The wise men recognize that they are part of nature, and when they die they will return to it. Through this knowledge, they are able to realize what they become after death.

Jeffers chooses the mountains as an example of one facet of the natural world that people reintegrate into when they cease to live as human beings. He writes: “The mountains are dead stone, the people/Admire or hate their stature, their insolent quietness,/The mountains are not softened nor troubled/And a few dead men’s thoughts have the same temper,” which illustrates the diversity of viewpoints between wise men and grasshoppers. Grasshoppers hate the stature of the mountains, it is intimidating, and not useful to them in their immediate futures; on the other hand, wise men admire the stature of the mountains, knowing that one day they will join the “dead stone,” and be neither “softened” nor “troubled.” In turn, they adopt a quiet peacefulness in life, not worrying about the bustle and complications that humans create for themselves, but rather just focusing on the majesty of the natural world.

In a sense, wise men adopt the tranquility of mountains, the tranquility of death, before they actually cease living. They recognize themselves as a fraction of the larger whole, rather than as a magnificent individual entity around which they center their lives. Before they die and join into the dead matter of the natural world—rocks, hills, mountains—they’re already aware that is to be their fate, and through nature they will leave a legacy greater than anything man can create. This is a reflection of Jeffers’ personal pantheistic beliefs, that the natural world is divine, and it encompasses all things. We are part of it and always will be, even as non-living entities. Through our connection to nature, we will find peace in life and perpetuation within nature after death.

This poem is a call to re-establish a connection with the natural world, a plea for people to abandon urbanization, the industrial revolution, and the temporary goals that come with it in order to decenter ourselves and find a greater appreciation for our somewhat insignificant place as human beings within the divine world. The poem reflects two of the spectrums that are often seen in modern poetry: the spectrum of rural vs. urban, and the spectrum of science vs. religion. It is very clear that “Wise Men in their Bad Hours” falls at the most rural edge of the spectrum, as Jeffers is explaining the importance of a human connection to the nature, and warning the reader against being a “grasshopper;” however, when one tries to place Jeffers on the religion vs. science spectrum there is a bit of a dilemma.

Jeffers is advocating for a pantheistic view of humanity, the earth, and the cosmos, but is this a scientific view, or a religious view? The only solution is to place him in the middle, as almost scientifically religious. The world is magnificent, and should be admired in its natural state, an ideology that seems religious in an unconventional way, but the idea that we die and later make up mountains and streams contains scientific undertones regarding matter and its permanence in the universe. Through Jeffers’ beliefs, one can realize that rather than focusing on creating one’s own legacy, it is more conducive to peace and happiness to focus on how we as humans feed into the pantheistic whole that is our world, and embrace the legacy that we will have once we die; whether it be as a rock on a cliff in Carmel, a plume in the feather of a hawk, or as a mountain, “not softened nor troubled.”

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