For today’s poem, I shift back from my poet friends to the time period I’m reading in—I feel like this kind of pendulum will be good for me, as I grapple with fresh poems and wrestle also with work from the era I’m trying to understand. In 1932, an American poet named Robinson Jeffers published a work called Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems. I’ve never read Jeffers before, but this poem lets me know I need to track down some more of his work. This is “Fire on the Hills”:
The deer were bounding like blown leaves
Under the smoke in front of the roaring wave of the brushfire;
I thought of the smaller lives that were caught.
Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror
Of the deer was beautiful; and when I returned
Down the black slopes after the fire had gone by, an eagle
Was perched on the jag of a burnt pine,
Insolent and gorged, cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders.
He had come from far off for the good hunting
With fire for his beater to drive the game; the sky was merciless
Blue, and the hills merciless black,
The sombre-feathered great bird sleepily merciless between them.
I thought, painfully, but the whole mind,
The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.
I had been scrounging for a good poem from 1932, without much luck, when I stumbled into Jeffers, and picked this title out from a list of those published in the Thurso’s Landing anthology. The verse hit me pretty forcefully and totally unexpectedly, and I hope you can feel some of that strength and vitality in this too. So many images that are, as Jeffers suggests, beautiful without being lovely—the deer like leaves on a stiff breeze, the insolent eagle, “cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders”. That one image of the eagle grabs me by the throat. There is something elemental about him, something archetypal, like the shadows in Eliot’s “Hollow Men”.
And Jeffers knew he needed it—you have to get me in 14 lines (what, is this a sonnet? Sneaky, isn’t he?) from a standing start to accept that “the destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy”. And the poem gets me there despite myself: I couldn’t even tell you now if I think Jeffers is really right, or if I fully understand what he’s trying for. The sheer helpless sense of gratitude is imposed on me by the poem—a gratitude that there are beauties like this in the world, terrible ones, fat with slaughter. A reminder that beauty is not virtue, and is no less beautiful for it. Jeffers had that imposed on him too, not by a poem but by the fire: he makes no secret of his resistance. The thought comes to him painfully, but with his whole mind: there is no corner, no shadow, no refuge from his wonder at the eagle. He cannot put himself out of the thought’s reach only to emerge later when it is safe.
I could go on a lot, but I worry I’ll diminish the poem’s power by overexplaining how it works on me. It just does work, in part because of the beauty of the language—“with the fire for his beater to drive the game”, I mean, how can you not read that and wish for a moment you were Robinson Jeffers so you could sit back and bathe in your own splendor?—and in part because unlike many poems that pretend profundity, Jeffers really did see something in the wake of the fire that is True. We can wrangle over what that might be. But I hope in any case that you like the poem.