The Contagion of Consciousness:
Robinson Jeffers' Moral Universe

Robinson Jeffers, portrait by Carl Van Vechten

Today Robinson Jeffers is most read in his short verse. The longest piece in the slim Selected Poems currently in print is "Roan Stallion." His sustained narratives, ranging in length from the relatively short "Roan Stallion" to the novel-sized "The Women at Point Sur," and his full-length plays[1] present difficulties of interpretation because in addition to the authorial voice we must deal with human beings acting out the author's meaning. The most notable misunderstanding this situation creates is the seemingly willful critical reception accorded "The Women at Point Sur" with its mad protagonist, Arthur Barclay. Jeffers was mystified that readers took Barclay to be a speaker for the authorial point of view.[2]

In spite of Jeffers' affection for the metaphor of the character as puppet, his characters are seldom, if ever, speakers for his point of view. No matter how appealing we may –or may not –find the vitalism, integrity, and inhuman vision of Tamar Cauldwell, for example, Jeffers himself left an unambiguous judgment of her in his public statements about her story.[3] We may argue that the poet didn't know what he meant,[4] but we cannot argue with his claim that he wrote his longest poem, "The Women at Point Sur," in part to explain the meaning of "Tamar" and to disassociate his own philosophy from the main character's.[5] With rare exception, his characters are "cracked vessels" in a double sense –dangerously on the edge of madness, and flawed and imperfect containers for his meanings.

Dancing Badger

Author's Note Note

The best single source of information on Jeffers is the Jeffers Studies home page.

The volume Thurso's Landing and Other Poems dates from the critical zenith of Jeffers' career, before the "political incorrectness" of The Double Axe became the last straw for an intellectual community that had barely excused his failure to conform to modernist poetics. Like most of his books, the volume contains one long poem, "Thurso's Landing," followed by a selection of shorter works. One of the latter, a short narrative called "Margrave," discloses to careful examination his most difficult ethical speculations. The action of the poem involves a young graduate student who kidnaps and subsequently murders a child. His intention was to get funds to pay for his medical education. He is sentenced to hang; the poem concludes with his father interfering with salmon harvesters on the Carmel Beach, who are killing seals to increase their own catch. How, the old man asks, is what they are doing different from what his son did? It is the central question of the poem. We all, having read this poem, have our own answers to the question. The problem, if we choose to consider it, is inferring Jeffers' own answer and what we are to conclude from that answer.

An examination of the volume's longer poem can provide clues. In a number of ways, "Thurso's Landing" is one of Jeffers' best sustained narratives. The characterizations are less poetic than in other works, by which I mean that motivation and dialogue are not heightened but natural. Jeffers and his characters have always spoken a special dialect of English –a dialect elegant, precise, and thoroughly unnatural. And their motivations have often been either obscure or excessive.[6]

Thurso's Landing

None of the central characters of "Thurso's Landing" is a mystery of iniquity. There is the mother, whose husband committed suicide to conclude a life of financial failures. Reave Thurso, her eldest son, is the unimaginative and successful rancher who has brought the family back to financial stability, and his brother Mark is a visionary intellectual, physically crippled by a war wound, emotionally crippled by his heightened sensitivities, eventually to follow his father into suicide. Reave is married to Helen, a vital and intelligent woman who flirts with Mark's intellectualism and whose desertion of her husband sets the tragedy of the plot in motion.

Helen, stifled by Reave's lithic stolidity, runs away with a brainless blonde Adonis from a state road crew. Reave hunts them down, finds her, and brings her back. Frantic as a caged bird, Helen does everything she can to disrupt the domestic calm of the Thurso household and persuade Reave to cast her off. She even attempts to seduce Mark, not as an act of love but as an act of defiance. Reave is indifferent to her assaults; he keeps her, either because he loves her or because she is his, depending on which character's judgment is closer to the truth.

The last vestige of the father's failed business is a suspended cable for carrying lime from an abandoned mine to the seashore. Reave decides to cut the cable and remove it from the skyline. By accident, when the cable is cut it springs back and strikes Reave, breaking his back. Helen nurses him through his convalescence and offers to help him die if he wants that. He says he does not. She kills him anyway, and kills herself as well.

Throughout the narrative, the mother has a choral role. She surmises Helen's infidelity with the road crew worker moments after it occurs, from the guilt in Helen's face, and she urges Reave to get rid of her. She disapproves when he recovers his reluctant wife, and initially she believes that Helen's motivation for finally killing Reave is revenge. She sits with her daughter-in-law on the altar-like stone where Reave's body lies like a regal sacrifice while the younger woman dies. Helen's mother-in-law refuses to hasten her end but holds the younger woman's hand in a gesture of compassion, respect, and forgiveness.

We argue over the defining characteristics that make humankind a unique creation. One, surely, is our need to impose an ethical framework on observed behavior. Humans see magpies feasting on the saddle sores of a horse, and they judge the magpies cruel, the horse's owner neglectful. Similarly, we want to say this character, or that, represents Jeffers' point of view. Here, in fact, all four of the central figures in the tragedy partake of Jeffers' heroic type.

The visionary brother Mark understands, as Jeffers says elsewhere we should, that death is a solution to the pain of life, not merely its last cruelty. The visionless brother Reave, identified repeatedly with stones, agrees with Jeffers' often-stated view that we make meaning of our lives by enduring, by refusing to escape life, however awful it may become. Reave expresses this view in his contempt for the two suicides, his father and then his brother, and in his rejection of Helen's offered gift of death. The nameless mother, repeatedly described as hawklike, lives with a certainty and rapacious balance that Jeffers praises in animals. It is Helen, however, who grows and matures to tragic strength, beginning from superficial understanding of her need for freedom. Having acted upon a whim of self-interest when she ran away, she grows to understand that murder can be an act of charity, courage, and integrity.

We want to color life in primaries: either Mark is right, or Reave is right, or Helen is right. In Mark's view, life itself is a curse, not a blessing. He converses with the ghost of his father –a ghost Reave cannot see – and the old man tells him that death does not relieve us of desire or awareness, the post and crosspiece of his unhappiness. In a word, he expresses the despair that Jeffers' voice often adopts in the short works, the sense that death and eventual dissolution of sentience are the greatest gift life can offer. Reave, on the other hand, chooses to endure life even though he, a hunter, a horseman, a man of action, has been reduced to little more than a disembodied mind, and both Jeffers and Reave's mother honor his choice, leaving no doubt that he is ennobled by his stoic vitality. He demands the right to suffer, and therefore Helen's act is murder. Yet Jeffers does not allow this ethical reductionism.

Helen sees the nobility of Reave's desire, but she cuts his throat while kissing him, his body laid out like a dead king's on the great tabular landing on the cliffs. When she kills him, she has already poisoned herself with an overdose of birth-control pills. The order of the actions is part of the ethic that informs them. By irreversibly terminating her own life before the murder, she establishes without ambiguity that she is not motivated by self-interest. Faced with the body and the dying woman, Reave's mother insists that Helen killed Reave for revenge. In fact, Helen's suicide is an acknowledgment of the "penalties" Jeffers alluded to in one of his finest poems, "Hurt Hawks." "I'd sooner, except for the penalties, kill a man than a hawk," he wrote. Readers took him to mean that if it weren't for the statutes of criminal law, he would demonstrate his contempt for humankind with murder. He meant, of course, both that constraint and the less legalistic constraint of "obscure human loyalties."

One of the great tensions of Jeffers' work is the conflict of reason, which cannot but judge humankind harshly, and love, which cannot help but mitigate and forgive. Jeffers was charmed to learn late in his life that he was distantly related to Jonathan Edwards. Surely no one, with the possible exception of Ambrose Bierce, was a more worthy descendant of New England's Calvinist misanthrope. Weighed in the balance of objectivity, what works of humankind counter the ballast of devastation, warfare, greed, and self-aggrandizement that are the foundation and fundament of human history? Readers would have it that Jeffers' protestations of his human loyalty are no more than a rhetorical ploy, a momentary kindness setting us up for a new diatribe.

Jeffers' is adamantly unforgiving about the suicide throughout his work[7. He offers the paradox that to love death is wise, to choose death foolish. Mark's suicide is a flight from a life that, strangely enough, has done little to drive him away. He has been crippled in World War I; this injustice, as we might call it if we assumed that all actions are purposive, is a little one, a common accident of fate, an injustice many other men suffered and many survived, even thriving on the strength of the scar tissue. Mark's suicide is weaker even than his father's –an earlier act of abandonment that all four survivors condemn. His father, at least, was financially ruined and bankrupt of will. His suicide was merely the climax of life's failure. Mark's is an abdication of will, an action motivated by a refusal to act. His father ended life; Mark avoided it. Mark's mind poisoned him; his intellect paralyzed him in the face of a world one must act to belong in.

In a well-known element of the poem "Cawdor," we are faced with the dilemma of a caged raptor injured past mending; which is mercy: to kill it, or to feed it mice and gophers while it huddles like a captive warrior king in a makeshift cage? In "Hurt Hawks," Jeffers chooses to kill the crippled hawk.[8] Like Reave Thurso, the hawk is irreparably crippled and helpless to do anything but live off charity or face death; like the man, it chooses to try life even when life is utterly hopeless. It wanders the headland on foot and then returns for "the lead gift." And the gift is precious, as precious as Helen's to Reave. The hawk dies on the downslope of its life, but at a point it will never again rise above. It has done what becomes a hawk. Likewise Reave: in his refusal to collaborate in his own death he becomes worthy of the gift that Helen gives him, an end of suffering, a terminus to the downward cascade of his life from the moment the cable snapped him in two like a crushed lizard.

Helen's own suicide, it would seem, taints her heroism. But it is, unlike Mark's, a purposeful death, one that both validates the goodness of her criminal act and prevents the tainting of that act by future circumstance. It is an act not of despair and negation but of will and power. She chooses not only to act but to control the meaning of the act. By choosing to die, she acknowledges the propriety of the "penalties" but denies society the opportunity to exercise them. Alive, she would be subject to criminal law, where the circumstances of Reave's life and her crime would be reduced to dead principles. Alive, she would be morally ambiguous, as she had been in both our eyes and the passionately clear-headed mother's before the disclosure that she is dying.

In The Loyalties of Robinson Jeffers, Radcliffe Squires has synopsized the poem to support the view that "Jeffers' admiration clearly goes to Reave," leaving the impression that the mother "lets" Helen die as revenge for the death of her son. In fact, the most moving image of the story contradicts this interpretation. The old woman sits beside Helen and holds her hand while she dies, refusing her help but offering comfort. It is the ultimate validation of Helen's crime, this old woman's gift. Helen, like Reave, has chosen a way of pain, and the old woman refuses to trivialize the merit of Helen's suffering by terminating it. What is the difference between Helen helping Reave die and the old woman not helping Helen? A simple one: Helen really is dying, and her suffering is partial proof of the selflessness of her action. Were she given the gift of quick death, her protestation that she was demonstrating her willingness to pay for her crime would be tainted by the suspicion that she had harbored a secret belief that she would not be expected to.


Harold Bloom, in his The American Religion, argues that the religions of America share a common and unique trait; they all assume that the believer has a direct, unmediated relationship with God.[9] He also quotes a Gallup statistic to the effect that in 1989 only three per cent of Americans believed that they are not beloved of some deity. Little wonder that Jeffers has failed to grasp the American imagination. If there is one unambiguous message in Jeffers' work, it is that we are not beloved of any deity. Whether because we are unworthy or because there is no deity to consider us and our works: whatever the cause, the effect remains the stone bed of the edifice of Jeffers' work. Hated? No, we are not held by God over the pit like loathsome spiders. When the Godhead observes us, it is "inquisitively," dispassionately.[10] Not loved, not hated, not noticed. It defines the terrible.

The apparent ethical problem of "Margrave" is the culpability of the young kidnapper. Yet in the context of Jeffers' other work, it seems clear that the ethical force of the poem is elsewhere. Old Margrave argues that men who kill seals should be judged by the same law that condemns his son for killing a little girl. What appears to be his folly is mad wisdom. His son argues that society should weigh its own best interest, by which it is illogical to kill him for murdering the child. His death will not undo hers, and he can contribute to society more effectively alive than he can dead. What appears self-serving logic is simple truth. He argues that the child's death is insignificant in itself and that the anticipated end of his sociopathic means would have been a net benefit to children –a medical education and a life dedicated to healing. If his vision of the future is true, and nothing in the poem contradicts it, he is intellectually right, whatever the rectitude of his morals.

Then, given all this, should he go free? Jeffers' horrifying answer is, I think, that it doesn't matter. Why doesn't it? Because the cruel "Is" of things, irreconcilable with the "Should" of philosophy, cannot be undone. It is true, and no surprise to the well-educated young man, that the inescapable fate of the child murderer is death. By choosing to kidnap and kill a child, young Margrave has chosen to be executed if caught. The question of whether the execution is just, or logical, or even right is finally as irrelevant as questioning the justice, logic, or rightness of falling bridges or train wrecks.

By killing the child, young Margrave has closed the door on meaningful speculation about whether her life would have profited humanity more than his education. That door closed, he is right in arguing that society would be more likely to benefit from his life than from his death. But his argument is beside the point because society is not logical; it is, rather, legal and emotional. Legally, it executes rules; emotionally, it demands revenge rather than recompense[11] for an act we all look upon with horror and contempt. Margrave is demeaned by his inability to accept the consequences of his act. The ethic of the poem is a process that takes us back where we had been, but with a new vision.

The narrative is interrupted by authorial intrusions that William Nolte argues weaken the poem. Their function is, like the precise truths which Reave Thurso's mother articulates, choral. In each interruption, Jeffers brilliantly communicates the vast scale of the working universe, and in each he contemplates the idea that if the expansion of the universe is purposeful, its purpose is to flee the curse of consciousness. Not human selfishness or self-delusion, not the unjustness of a society that practices murder to punish murder nor the anthropocentrism of a species that cannot extend to the animals the right to life it claims for itself, not cruelty or viciousness, but the mere consciousness that reduces us to creatures who judge.

It is consciousness, the will to reason, which leads Margrave to kidnap the child and logic, the recognition that he is less likely to be caught if he kills her, which persuades him to, as he puts it, "pith her like a frog." It is hard-edged reason which argues that a child's life snuffed out purposefully can be quantified as a mass less significant than multiple lives saved by the hypothetical cures Margrave's medical education would effect. And it is reason that judges him. He is executed not by a passionate mob of outraged fellow humans, but by the inexorable, abstract, tedious processes of the law, crushed beneath the volumes of often unjust logic in which society has codified its reactive morality. It is flawed reason that chooses death for him rather than productive life in prison. And it is reason, likewise, that sets men with rifles on the Carmel shore, killing the seals that are attempting to share the steelhead harvest, killing them not because they threaten the harvest, but to increase the size of the harvest by some trivial increment.

The authorial voice of "Margrave," however, makes no judgments. It merely reports the troubling facts of a very real incident.[12] We can perhaps imagine a better world, one in which humankind functions like the brute beasts. Confronted with the body of Jeffers' ethical thought, we can see that compared to the perverse scientific reductionism of Margrave and the mechanistic stupidity of the legal tools to which we have abjured our moral responsibilities, both a young man who rapes a child in an outburst of passion and a mob that executes him on the spot are respectable moral creatures. Both are, as Jeffers would say, "cleaner" than either Margrave, the fish harvesters, or the court system. In such a brutish, inhuman universe, all the actions might be the same, but the implications all different. Young Margrave might have killed, and he might have paid for the murder, but at the hands of fellow creatures repulsed by his actions rather than through the mechanism of a legal system concerned with repudiating the ethics those actions appeared to represent. For Jeffers, the reduction of morals to conscious judgment rather than behavior is an effect of consciousness at its most diseased. A creature governed by reason is a creature of contaminated morals, a creature whose ethics are imposed rather than self-evolved. This is the contagion of consciousness that Jeffers, meditating on the story of the Margrave and the crippled seals, bids the stars flee..

—Mick McAllister


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