Tag Archives: Robinson Jeffers

The Dark Mountain

I first stumbled upon Robinson Jeffers in his own place, the precipitous headlands of the Sur coast, the tidelands of Point Lobos, and the long arc of sand at Carmel. He was already dead and I was at risk, an unwilling soldier training to fight an unwitting war.

It wasn’t a casual meeting or by chance. We were both drawn to the Sur coast by our individual trajectories like tides drawn by the moon. We were both compelled to stand on that shore and suffer the bone-deep grief for things already lost and things yet to lose. Jeffers understood the loss more than me. I was too young and self-absorbed to span the depth of it or carry its weight.

I would burn my hand in a slow fire
To change the future... I should do so foolishly. the beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.
Rearmament
Robinson Jeffers, 1940
Robinson Jeffers, 1940

He published the poem in 1934 but already felt the future’s foreshadow, endless wars, politicians retrenched behind walls of privilege, the forced migrations of the hungry and homeless, and border wars ignited like brush fires. He may not have anticipated the changing climate but he understood the mechanics of civilization and where it likely led.

“These grand and fatal movements toward death,” the opening line of Rearmament, is even more reflective of our times than his own. The grand movement we’ve begun is the Sixth Extinction where species are forced into the darkness like lemmings off a cliff.

I don’t know that we could have done otherwise. Humanity’s trajectory was set when we descended from the trees and survived by becoming the most vicious beast on the African savannah. We’ve changed the world too rapidly to accommodate ourselves.

We may survive the Sixth Extinction, diminished by violence, hunger, and disease, less arrogant, more cautious of our choices…or not. Why presume we’re immune? Life has always been a tentative balance between fitness and failure.

Jeffers was never a poet for determined optimists. His vision of humanity was dire and uncompromising and seems now likely, also true.

Men suffer want and become
Curiously ignoble; as prosperity
Made them curiously vile.
Life from the Lifeless

He is, however, a good companion for the descent down the dark mountain. I’ve carried The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers for years, my copy expropriated from the Marysville Public Library. The pages are yellowed and dogeared, the cover frayed, the verses underlined and highlighted. And when the grief for lost beauty threatens to overwhelm me, I find some comfort in The Answer.

...the greatest beauty is 
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man's pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.
The Answer

Growing old or aging?

I’m closer now to 70 than 60 and the end of my life is looming like a winter moon over an empty field. I’m not frightened of my death but thankful I still have some time to make sense of my life.

I’ve rushed headlong through my life, rarely taking time to look at the patterns that recur, again and again, like the turning of a screw or the ascent of a spiral. I suppose reflection is the purpose of old age, if there is a purpose, and there must be. Everything born will die. In Robinson Jeffers brutal phrase, “lopped at the ends by death and conception,” which makes death no less important than birth. They are events entangled like particles, defying the distance between.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates supposedly said. What then of the unexamined death?

Most people don’t grow into their old age, they fall into it while obstinately looking the other way. They live as if they’ll never die; death always takes them by surprise.

I think old age is a gift not given to everyone. For those of us fortunate to live long enough, it can be a quiet place before nightfall where we can look across the span of years at the pieces of our lives, turn them this way and that and puzzle out the patterns. It’s a time to remember what was forgotten in the rush to grow up, a time to reconcile the harm done to us and the harm we’ve done others. And somewhere find forgiveness.

The Japanese have an aesthetic, wabi-sabi, that values the beauty of imperfection, the old, broken, and worn down. It’s an aesthetic shadowed by a sense of melancholy for the flawed beauty of life. But melancholy isn’t pathological. It’s an appreciation of the beautiful transience of the wind through the pines. Old age can be wabi-sabi or it can be ignored, denied, resisted, and terrifying.

In Leonard Cohen’s lyric, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Death is the crack that allows the light into life.

Growing old requires paying attention. It requires acknowledging our mortality, our finiteness, our frailty. And it requires living with a pensive sadness for what is no longer, what never should have been, what never was. And in the lengthening shadows, to recognize there never was a need for forgiveness, only understanding.