|Tor House and Hawk Tower|
Jeffers wrote in the morning in Hawk Tower, then worked on it and Tor House in the afternoon. Certainly a muscular poet.
Poets aren't supposed to be the kind of people who quarry boulders and build towers. They are expected to be impractical, overwrought, physically weak, effeminate, moody, mentally unbalanced and all the rest. Tell me it isn't true.
The Double Axe and Other Poems is the fourteenth book of verse by Robinson Jeffers published under the Random House imprint... In all fairness to that constantly interdependent relationship and in complete candor, Random House feels compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounce by the poet in this volume. Acutely aware of the writer's freedom to express his convictions boldly and forthrightly and of the publisher's function to obtain for him the widest possible hearing, whether there is agreement in principle and detail or not, it is of the utmost importance that difference of views should be wide open on both sides. Time alone is the court of last resort in the case of ideas on trial.
Slightly mealy-mouthed on the part of Random House, I still give them great credit for publishing this book. Published in 1948 shortly after WWII, it can't have been comfortable to put out a collection of poems that were critical of war specifically, but of international intervention of all kinds. By this time Jeffers was an isolationist. We don't much like isolationists these days. And his particular brand looks uncomfortably like Reaction as well. The notes in the dust jacket are telling, "Robinson Jeffers sees a world bent on self-destruction and takes a stand for complete political isolation." But the poetry is telling, too.
WE ARE THOSE PEOPLE
I have abhorred the wars and despised the liars,
laughed at the frightened
And forecast victory; never one moment's doubt.
But now not far, over the backs of some crawling years, the next
Great war's column of dust and fire writhes
Up the sides of the sky: it becomes clear that we too may suffer
What others have, the brutal horror of defeat -
Or if not in the next, then in the next - therefore watch Germany
And read the future. We wish, of course, that our women
Would die like biting rats in the cellars, our men like wolves on the mountain:
It will not be so. Our men will curse, cringe, obey;
Our women uncover themselves to the grinning victors for bits of
We still believe in the Chestertonian necessity of the war that was WWII, (we are less certain of WWI, because we are ignorant of what it was) to say otherwise today is heresy. Closer to the day, Jeffers saw it differently.
I like the title of this book of poetry, The Double Axe. Of course, it is an axe with two blades on each side of the ax-head, but we also see it as a reference to what we usually call a double-edged sword. The blade may cut an enemy, but be wary of the backswing. There is a sharp edge there as well. What else is it? Could it be two axes swinging at each other, without conscience, inanimate and without motivation except that of the ax men? And Jeffers won't let you forget that they are men. Are they executioners? Paid for a job they have no say in? Begging forgiveness before dropping the blade on the doomed neck? There is much here and it should be ambivalent. We are meant to be uneasy about the metaphor and what it means in a context of war.
"Winter and Summer," the old man says, "rain and drought;
Peace creeps out of war, war out of peace; the stars rise and they set;
the clouds go north
And again they go south. -- Why does God hunt in circles?
Has he lost something? Is it possible -- himself?
In the darkness between the stars did he lose himself and become
godless, and seeks -- himself?"
Now we are asking ourselves about the circularity of human history and intervention of God into it. And the old man's God is two-fold: both God and god. What does that mean? Maybe Jeffers' God/god is something other than the omniscient, omnipotent hero of Christianity. And, of course, then why didn't He/he intervene in the horrors of the death camps and gas chambers? The questions don't resolve well. If at all.
" ... It was a symbol of generation: the two lobes and the
stiff helve: so was the Cross before they christened it. But
this one can clip heads too. Grimly, grimly. A blade for
the flesh, a blade for the spirit: and truth from lies."
Jeffers' preface to The Double Axe perhaps asks more questions than it answers. (Note that the rejection of 'human solipsism' is of a piece with the previous book in the BPL, The Ecological Thought.) In other words, we may not be all there is, or even much of what there is.
I'm not the first to notice that Trump wields power like a three-year-old with his father's .357. It seems to go off and he has no idea why. Not that having any kind of coherent policy would help much. The damn thing is still going to kill people. And it may be us. He is pretty much indiscriminate in those he fires at. Unintended consequences? I don't think he cares much. Shoot first! Hell, shoot second, third and fourth - kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out.