Poetry: Robinson Jeffers

The Bloody Sire
It is not bad.  Let them play.
Let the guns bark and the bombing-plane
Speak his prodigious blasphemies.
It is not bad, it is high time,
Stark violence is still the sire of all the world’s values.
What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds, and hunger
Jewelled with such eyes the great goshawk’s head?
Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values.
Who would remember Helen’s face
Lacking the terrible halo of spears?
Who formed Christ but Herod and Caesar,
The cruel and bloody victories of Caesar?
Violence, the bloody sire of all the world’s values.
Never weep, let them play,
Old violence is not too old to beget new values.
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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

13 Responses

  1. theAlabamian says:

    Interesting post, first I have heard of this poet. Reading this I think what I hear in the poem is that the dawning of new values, or what is considered significant in society is only summoned when first there is violence, war, or great suffering. So that there is nothing better or of any value established without its cause of want or violence established?

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    I haven’t read much of his poetry but have always considered him a thoughtful man in the midst of modernity. This theme that “history was created by its outlaws “ is one a reader might see in James Joyce but I suspect this poet was not convinced.
    One of the distinctions I have learned to make over the years, thanks to writers like Clyde Wilson and yourself , is the differences between change, development and evolution.
    My contemporaries tend to use these different words to mean one thing —- almost always a good thing —-but I doubt this poet would agree.

  3. theAlabamian says:

    Dr. Fleming, I was thinking this is in the realm of what you were telling me in another post “so much the worse, so much the better”, I suppose you were in a sense telling me “let them play” just as this poem states?

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Jeffers was among the best American poets of the last century and perhaps the best who wrote frequently on political themes–though he wrote perhaps as often about landscape and hawks. He hated war and even more hated the consolidation of power that Americans learned to accept in the first decades of the 20th century. One of his most famous poems begins:

    That public men publish falsehoods
    Is nothing new. That America must accept
    Like the historical republics corruption and empire
    Has been known for years.

    Be angry at the sun for setting
    If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
    They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors,
    This republic, Europe, Asia.

    Poets are not philosophers and even less are they academic scholars, measuring, trimming, cutting back their opinion. They are producing works of art and craft that are what they are and can only be harmed–or rather readers can only harm themselves–by reducing them to summaries. They give us glimpses into truths and beauties we might be too dull to grasp by observing the world around us, but they are never whole truths or perfect beauties. Jeffers’ rage against war and empire can inspire some readers to a higher appreciation of human life. The Blood Sire was written, I believe, fairly late, before entered into WW II. After the War, he was almost mad in his rage against bloodthirsty dictators like Hitler and FDR and forfeited a great deal of his popularity. Even in this poem, he was almost overcome with his bitterness. I do not say that he was entirely right, but his intense devotion to liberty and peace should strike a note with people today, I mean, with the sane remnant.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    For some readers who might enjoy more about Jeffers, there is at Robinsonjeffersassociation.org an extensive list of primary source material, photographs and published letters of the poet, pictures of his unique home along the big sur country as well as some of his own reflections on poetry

  6. theAlabamian says:

    Dr. Fleming,
    Thank you for the information on Jeffers, and also the guidance on how I approach a poem.

  7. Christopher Check says:

    In 1973 Jack Reilly managed the Beach Boys. Some consider him a con-artist, others credit him for getting the Beach Boys to produce their most creative work since “Pet Sounds.” His triumph is “Holland,” a financial and critical disaster that with time has earned effusive accolades from Tom Petty, who wrote the liner notes to the 2000 reissue, and Elvis Costello. Though there are some misses on the record, it showcases Carl Wilson’s extraordinary vocal instrument, one of the finest in pop music. (Why is Warren Zevon’s, “Desperados Under the Eaves” so haunting? Carl Wilson provides the backing vocals.) Petty is especially enthusiastic about Carl’s voice in the first song on Side 2, “The Trader.” It’s an anti-imperialist work that hits the same not-to-carefully-scrutinized platitudes of Kirk Sale’s book on Columbus, but it is a beautiful song, probably my favorite by the Beach Boys. The final song on side one is a trilogy called California Saga. The middle selection is called “The Beaks of Eagles.” Mike Love reads this Robinson Jeffers poem. The first time I heard it, (maybe I was 10?) and I thought it was weird and pretentious, but I have grown to like it a great deal now. The trilogy is evocative of California. Crazy as this state is, it has an extraordinary history and a staggering natural beauty, and Jeffers captures the latter especially. I recommend the poem. I have also taken to reading Dana Gioia’s poems since moving here. Jerry Brown, I believe, named him poet laureate of California. Well deserved, as he has captured the state as well in verse.

  8. Roger McGrath says:

    My older brother, Dave, spent a day with Robinson Jeffers at home (Tor House) in Carmel. While a senior in high school, Dave sent Jeffers some of his (Dave’s) poetry and Jeffers actually replied. Jeffers also invited Dave to stop in if he was in the area, probably thinking this kid would never make the drive from Pacific Palisades to Carmel. Dave immediately filled his car with gas and up the Coast Highway he went. Although Jeffers had a reputation of being a loner, my brother said he was cordial and spent several hours talking poetry and literature.

  9. Robert Reavis says:

    “Crazy as this state is, it has an extraordinary history and a staggering natural beauty, and Jeffers captures the latter especially. ”

    Chris, Thank you for posting this. Good poets find good subjects. I once read a poet who said he found it surprising that some writers have discovered ( or rediscovered) the Waste Land so late in time and are obsessed with describing it, as if that is all there is. The better poets notice it and then move on to other realms.
    From perusing some of his poems I think Jeffers was a real poet in that he was interested in all of it— the craziness, the cruelty and ugliness as well as the transcending beauty and goodness, or what he referred to as the permanent things.
    Like most of us probably, he might be at his best when he is praising figures that stand out against the background of the waste land but he is not naive and is accurate in describing all of it. Your post about California craziness and beauty reminded me of other contrasts like Wichita, Kansas and the grazing lands of the Flint Hills, or rural towns of Georgia with Atlanta, or the rolling hills, brutally cold winters and sturdy families of Wisconsin with the street urchins of Milwaukee. But even in Wichita, Atlanta and Milwaukee a real poet like Jeffers would find something to admire if for no there reason he had the eyes to see.

    PS. Professor McGrath thank you for the true story about both your brother who was the type who would drop everything and drive hours for a good conversation as well as the loner who said,” come on.”

  10. Dominick D says:

    Very timely. I had just discovered that my son put off a poetry assignment until the last minute when I saw this, printed it off, and said, “Here is your poem.” Nice to spend part of the evening talking this over with a young man as he committed it to memory. It seems a rather hopeful piece to me, but perhaps I am too optimistic or too unfamiliar with Robinson Jeffers. In any case, thank you!

  11. Vince Cornell says:

    @Dominick D – I also thought it sounded hopeful at first glance, but after re-reading it and subsequent comments here, I’ve changed my mind. Violence is a complicated thing, though, and there are times when it can be a vehicle for hope. Flannery O’Connor’s stories come to mind, as well as the Old Testament upon which much of her writing was spiritually based.

  12. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The best poets–and this includes more Greeks than all other nations put together–are victims of neither delusions. Jeffers grappled with the world he had experienced. This little passage comes from the very bitter long poem “The Love and Hate” in which a dead WW II soldier comes back to life and gets revenge on his war-loving famil. He asks his superpatriot father for one good reason he should have died:

    God damn you, haven’t you
    One single reason? And I died for that? Nor don’t say freedom:
    War’s freedom’s killer. Don’t say freedom for foreigners,
    Unless you intend to kill Russia on top of Germany and Britain on Japan, and churn
    the whole world
    Into one bloody bubble-bath; don’t say democracy;
    Don’t talk that mush. And don’t pretend that the world
    Will be improved, or good will earned, or peace
    Made perfect, by blasting cities and nations into bloody choppets; if you believe that
    You’ll believe anything.

  13. Robert Reavis says:

    And this right as the war mongers begin to gather for another war in the Middle East this time with Iran to “make the world safe for …..” just fill in the blank with your favorite god of the current altars but don’t use nuclear physicists