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Jeffers and Macleish

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

Thurso’s Landing. By Robinson Jeffers. New York: Horace Liveright. $2.50. Conquistador. By Archibald MacLeish. Boston,: Houghton Mifflin Company. $2.50.

Critics have formed the habit of speaking of Robinson Jeffers’ poetry as Greek, and the comparison is obviously helpful. They are thinking of his bitter tragedies of people gripped by the inescapable dark instincts of their humanity. They are thinking of the violent denouements, and of Jeffers’ devotion to tragedy in the true Greek sense in which man is overthrown by destiny rather than his own weakness: the deadly sins overtake him as inevitably as incest did the unaware (Edipus. The critics are bearing in mind a sculpturesque quality that makes Jeffers glory in descriptions of the human body, descriptions that do more than anything else to give reality to his characters. One of the most vivid passages in “Thurso’s Landing” describes Helen Thurso, with her strong white legs and dark head, standing naked at the edge of the Pacific, the cold water sluicing over her shoulders and breast. Jeffers’ work is sculpturesque in another, a psychological sense; he hacks away the trivialities that make up the surface of our lives, leaving the stark anatomy, malformed and fractured by harder externalities. Finally, the critics are thinking of the magnificent sweep of Jeffers’ poetry.

With all the genuine magnificence there is something unsatisfactory in the Greek manner. If one met a skeleton one would admit its bony reality and yet miss the wonted clothing and the skin-deep transparencies. The three chief characters in “Thurso’s Landing” are finely realized in all their complexity, yet their speech is uncolloquial, formulating mature thoughts that sit oddly in twenty-four year old heads, especially in the American scene, where people grow up slowly if ever. We hear nothing of the trifles that form some part of everybody’s existence, though it must be admitted that the dreadfulness of the Thursos’ lives would crowd out consciousness of lighter things. Says Helen:

. . . Tell me something, if you know, what’s all this troublesome

Affair of living, and people being troubled and the sun rising and setting: what’s it nil about, what’s it for?

. . . perhaps we live for no other reason than because our parents

Enjoyed their pleasure and we dread to die? I dread it.


. . . For now it seems to me that all the billion and a half of our lives on earth,

And the more that died long ago, and the things that happened and will happen again, and nil the beacons of time

Up to this time look very senseless, a roadless forest full of cries and ignorance.

Jeffers’ own pessimism matches this. Humanity is a plague and consciousness a pestilence. Speaking in the first person in another poem in the volume,—

So, I thought, the rumor Of human consciousness has gone abroad in the world, The sane uninfected far-outer universes Flee it in a panic of escape, as men flee the plague Taking a city.

The metrics of Jeffers are distinctive and consistently follow his own pattern. At times he makes beautiful poetry; at others, good prose, as when his characters are analysing, defining, explaining their motives. lie is marvel-ously apt at describing action, and the strongest part of his contexture is his use of imaginative verbs. They explode all through the poem and always effectively.

The lazy-minded will have to read up on Archibald Mac-Leish, now that he has published “Conquistador.” For some time past the knowing have been talking about him and his brilliant adaptation of the traditional, his characteristic use of assonance, his contrapuntal rhythms. There seemed a danger that he might remain a poet’s poet for good or ill, but the superb narrative of the Conquest of Mexico will swing through the minds of divers people as the lovely cadences will wind in their ears. And MacLeish’s poetry will whet them to it, not Bcrnal Diaz del Castillo’s account on which the poem is based, fascinating as that may be. It would be a sluggish imagination that would not be stirred by the feat of Cortes and his men, putting out from Santiago de Cuba for a hypothetical western empire, dragging their cannon and horses up the inhospitable Sierras to the high plateau of Mexico. MacLcish has caught the vigor, greed, and resource of the Spaniards in verse of great power, and the heavenly beauty of the now lost city and its Indian girls in liquid words. Again adapting a great traditional form, he has used the terza rima, or, since his version is something different, perhaps terzo suono would better describe the .scheme of interlocking assonance which he has substituted for rhyme. Poets will gnash their teeth because they didn’t think of this effective device;—what is worse, they knew well the elements of it, but none thought to combine thus what he held in his hands, and now it is effectually beyond reach, being stamped with one poet’s name.

It is an instructive study in rhythms to read this poem with the “Ode to the West Wind” in the back of one’s mind, and feel the difference between MacLeish’s heavy syllables and constantly shifting accent, and Shelley’s steady iambics.

Current criticism, calling for an ever greater sincerity, a closer approximation of truth, is inclined to demand immediate personal experiences of a writer. MacLcish has taken the harder method of giving immediacy to an experience widely removed from his own. With remarkable imaginative vigor he has participated in the sensations of the Conquerors, presenting them with the fullest objective detail.

Time done is dark as are sleep’s thickets: Dark is the past: none waking walk there: Neither may live men of those waters drink:

says Bernal Diaz, the narrator, and he launches out with great bitterness against the priest, Gomara, and his history of New Spain; that these priestly writings should be the only remaining symbol of his actual suffering, sticks in his gullet:

. . . the shine of the Sun in that time: the wind then: the step Of the moon over those leaf-fallen nights: the sleet in the Dry grass: the smell of the dust where we slept—

These things were real: these suns had heat in them: This was brine in the mouth: bitterest foam: Earth: water to drink: bread to be eaten—

Not the sound of a word like the writing of Gomara:

We saw that city on the inland sea:

Towers between: and the green-crowned Montezuma

Walking in gardens of shade: and the staggering bees:

And the girls bearing the woven baskets of bloom on their Black hair: their breasts alive: and the hunters Shouldering dangling herons with their ruffled plumes:

We were the lords of it all . . .

Now time has taught us: Death has mastered us most: sorrow and pain Sickness and evil days are our lives’ lot:

Now even the time of our youth has been taken: Now are our deeds words: our lives chronicles: Afterwards none will think of the night rain . . .

Well, a live man has drunk of those waters, and Diaz would have felt differently about MacLeish’s account. The end of it all was futility, however, so perhaps even this wouldn’t have consoled him. The old allure of gold caused the ravishment of the idyllic Aztec city, but the Conquerors profited nothing. Charles V proved an ungrateful beneficiary, even refusing, so rumor says, to recognize on the street the leader of the expedition that won him a new empery.

It would be interesting to know if the 16th century Cas-tilian of the original narrative provides those rock-ribbed words so effective for a fighter’s story. MacLeish has dug up from somewhere a great many Anglo-Saxon terms,— thills, reeved, glibbed, chocks, bunt, and so on. True, his use of them sometimes seems not to make sense by any discoverable dictionary meaning; no matter, — they give the lines a tough, webby texture that is incredibly satisfying and more convincing than any definition. The alliterative monosyllables dominating the verse often recall the short, blunt cadence of Beowulf.

Jeffers’ choice of the name, Reave Thurso—reave being the old Saxon verb, “to carry off by violence” — for his hirsute bull of a hero, is a triumph of nomenclature. The poetry of both these writers is definitely masculine,—outspoken and rigorous. It succeeds chiefly by a terrific objectivity, and proves once more the power of words that represent things—words which the English language draws largely from its Saxon roots, in contrast to the Latin-derived words with which abstractions are perforce clothed.


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