Reflection on Shine, Perishing Republic, a poem by Robinson Jeffers

Shine, Perishing Republic

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence;
and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly
long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught – they say –
God, when he walked on earth.

—Robinson Jeffers

Before readers dismiss this poem as misanthropic, I’d advise re-reading the poem. I do not hear a misanthropic voice; I hear a realistic one. This American republic, like all republics, will perish. The flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots / to make earth. The quicker the rise, the quicker the fall, and the sooner the earth returns to its natural state.

You making haste haste on decay. This is not a criticism or a judgment. Not blameworthy: no one deserves to be blamed for it; it is the way things are. They could be different, but Jeffers does not claim they should be different. He only says that there is another way: corruption / Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there / are left the mountains. There is a free way, which compels no one, a way as pure as the mountain air, but whichever way human beings choose to go, life is good.

These three words are now unfortunately a slogan for some company, and my initial reaction is to make a judgment of this fact, to call it unfortunate, in which labeling I engage in hypocrisy. I make an initial judgment by saying it’s not good to criticize or make judgments about what is bad and what is good, and then I judge and disparage the use of this phrase in this advertising campaign. Life may be good for the creators of the “Life is Good” T-Shirts, according to the corrupted values of a capitalistic society, but only at the expense of very many lives which, by the definition of the same corrupt society, are not good. Luckily only the definition of each person who lives his or her own life can be considered valid. I cannot define whether another’s life is good or bad. How much less can a society define whether the lives of its members are good or bad? I cannot even judge the goodness or badness of things that happen in my own life. It is necessary for me to be open to all events and not judge them from my own narrow and limited and conditioned perspectives. And in this necessity I fail, almost without fail.

But back to the question of haste, the desperate need to do things quickly, which I am actually experiencing right now, as I rush to write these words, wanting to move on to other creative endeavors. I am not fully present with this work, and by not being fully present I am choosing to act according to the dictates of the society I judged in the above paragraph, which urges everyone to be in a state of constant tension and impatience, doing everything at the greatest possible speed.

Nature, on the other hand, does not act with haste; with patience and without undue effort she is attuned to her own law. She cannot be other than she is; only man, that changeable beast that so often becomes what he is not, can alter her course. When an individual follows the law of his own true nature, he also does not act with haste. Why should he rush? Can getting that next degree save him from death? Can being praised for his work help him achieve immortality? When he rests in his true nature, he knows there is no need to pursue eternal life, as if it is something that can be caught and held onto. You cannot try to snag Life without hitting a continual snag, without being dragged over the rocks and thorns by your effort to reach what you cannot reach, holding on so tightly as you are to the frayed rope, which you imagine is attached and therefore connected to the unreachable object, Life itself; but in fact the rope is only attached to and held by your own hands, which are unwilling to let it go, and this holding on so tightly is the actual cause of your unreasonable and relentless pain. How can you do anything useful when your hands are glued to a useless rope?

The question of excessive haste echoes Thoreau: Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. These lines are music to my ears. When I dance, I do not move to the beat of some song that isn’t playing. I dance to the beat I hear; it is the rhythm itself that stirs me into movement. I do not try to move to the rhythm; the rhythm moves me. Because I have allowed myself to be possessed, I find that I’ve been set free. The music can enter me freely, through the opening the music itself has created. The sound passes through this gap, and an invisible cord connects the beat of the music to the beat of my heart. I dance from within the sound that has entered me; my heart beats in tune with what I hear, and my body moves at the same speed that my heart beats. My heart beats fast. Meteors are not needed less than mountains. The tune I hear is not measured or far away; it is an exhilarating tune: intense, closer than my own self, and wild. Oh, but how rarely this tune stirs my heart, and how deeply I yearn to hear it always!

When the song is over, the true dancer leaves quietly. He does not bow or allow for applause. All praise belongs to that from which the music came. Some would say the music came from the musicians; others would give credit to a different, less visible source. In any respect, the dancer slips away unnoticed. Perhaps he was dancing inside; he steps outside, nothing more and nothing less than a servant of the stillness of that particular night. The stillness he follows obediently leads him unmistakably to the center of the night’s music. It is in the stillness that the music is found; the man walks in its wake. How foolish this dancer would be to call himself a master of the art he so enjoys! He is no longer in love with himself; he knows well the torturous suffering of that incestuous affair. He loves himself now no more than is necessary, and so his love is free to expand out into the night, free to rise up into the air to kiss the gentle wind at his back, free to disappear into the moonlight on the building that might otherwise lack perceptible beauty, free to bring him down to the soft earth the soles of his feet touch lightly, making little sound. He follows Jeffers’ maxim: Be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, / insufferable master.

The poem ends: There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught – they say – / God, when he walked on earth. Looking at the text itself, the transition from one line to the next throws a little doubt into whether Jeffers himself believes this is the case. They say that God was caught in the trap of being immoderate in love of man; Jeffers declines to say whether he agrees. Does the phrase “they say” refer to the belief that Jesus is God, or to the question of whether Jesus fell into the trap, but assumes that Jesus was God, or could the doubt refer to both questions? I don’t know.

I would need to closely read the gospels in order to come to my own conclusion about whether Jesus did fall into the trap. Instead I decide to go with another tactic: I open up randomly to the King James Version of the Bible. I like this version despite or maybe because of its antiquated language. To me there is no sense that the language is somehow too old, not modern enough, to convey the truths in the words. On the contrary. And the passage I open to is from Matthew 10: Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues…And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake. (10:17-18; 22)

These words do not come from an immoderate love for men alone. Rather: Beware of men. And: In the midst of wolves. An immoderate love of men would be one that somehow is blind to the divisive elements, the treacherous divorce between beast and angel, in man’s heart. There is no such blindness evident in these words. Instead, they will scourge you. Jesus is aware of how unwilling most people are to confront the truth. Let’s look back at the Jeffers’ poem: But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening / center. Jeffers has a similarly realistic wariness when it comes to dealings with the corruptions of human beings, but a different approach to that corruption. The Bible verse begins with Jesus saying: I send you forth, that is, into the world, into the very center of the corruption. Jeffers prefers a more detached stance. He advises keeping one’s distance.

Let’s look at one more passage again from Matthew 10, a few more verses on: Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. (Mt 10: 34-39)

Again, it is certain that no immoderate love centered upon human beings is present here. This passage deserves much more time than I can give it, since my primary purpose here is to reflect on the Jeffers’ poem, and this passage, if I am diligent about trying to understand it, will perhaps take me far from that purpose. Still, what verses! Difficult to reconcile these lines with the conceptions most people have about Jesus coming to bring exactly the peace on earth that he expressly denies that he has come to bring. In fact, not only has he come not to bring peace on earth; he has come to bring a sword, a symbol of division and bloodshed and war. But before some bloodthirsty menace takes these verses as reason for declaring the next “just” war, let’s take a closer look.

I came not to send peace, but a sword. What can this mean? What kind of sword is meant here, and for what purpose? Is the sword referring to the fact that Jesus has come to set a man at variance with those of his own household? And why has Jesus come to do that? The last verse reads: He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. Life that is found and experienced inside the limiting embrace of one’s household is the life that must be lost. Freedom is not finally found there. If personal love for one’s family is greater than an impersonal and universal love for the Source from which one’s family came, this love is not altogether worthy. There is too much mixed up with it. It is not a pure love. Perhaps it is a love based on what you are given; or based on preference, preferring those of your family to those outside your family; or based on the comfort you feel with your family, a comfort you don’t feel outside your family. True love is not based on preference or comfort or selfishness. One wonders if Jesus would not have found truth in Jeffers’ statement: Be in nothing so moderate as in love of man.

Not to send peace, but a sword. A corrupt peace is no peace at all. A peace that ignores the wolf in oneself is death. Peace can be life given or death chosen. Many who claim to choose life have never received Life, though abundant Life was offered freely. Now, having already given themselves over to the death of immoderate hate, they mass together to protest for life and love, and do not see their contradictions.

If I do not see that I am divided, I will stay divided. I must use the sword to divide what in myself comes from myself, and what comes from God; what is corrupt and conditioned, and what is pure and unconditioned; what is true, and what is false. If I notice that I am being false, I may discover in that instant what is true.

Immoderate love is vain, and vanity is blindness. An immoderate lover of mankind might call any change in himself an affront on human nature. He is the way he is, he says proudly, and there’s nothing he can or wants to do about it. Settling smugly in the mould of his vulgarity he would call “being himself.” The immoderate lover does not want to change; he only wants other people to think he wants to change. He will make a god out of his yearning for God and then lie at the monster’s feet praying for forgiveness, not understanding that where he lies is a lie, and that in the very act of supposedly praying, he sins, for he thinks he prays to God, when in fact he prays and falls prey to the wolf in himself.

I pray today not to fall prey, to feed neither the beast of hate nor the beast of immoderate love, to keep my head up and my eyes wide open, as I slip away unnoticed and step outside to walk the road by moonlight, to listen for the bright music in the night’s stillness, to hear the door of my heart creak open slowly, and feel the steady beating of its life force in perfect tune with the perpetual crunch of my feet on gravel, and enjoy the artless rhythm, the effortless union of body and heart; of sheep and wolf; of living man, too soon to perish, and living earth, which he knows will shine on.

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