Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Descent to the Dead, occasioned by a visit Jeffers and Una paid to Ireland, the land of their ancestors, and England in 1929, is the major sequence of short poems composed by the poet. Most of the works commemorate monuments of ancient cultures—cairns, cromlechs, graves, and standing stones—attempting to re-create the human consciousness that entered into their construction. Jeffers is most concerned with drawing connections between disparate moments of time, both to bridge the immense gulf between them and to mark humankind’s beautiful insignificance in the context of cosmic time. It is another means of disclosing Inhumanism.
Because Jeffers had chosen the Carmel coast—the final West—as his inevitable place and had accepted as his vocation the revelation of humanity’s triviality in that context, he had symbolically turned his back on the culture of his own country—thus his need to forge new poetic forms. By that same measure, he had rejected even more the culture of the Old World. This is the “dead” to which he descends, dead in two ways: It represents a rejected or transcended culture, and it is the culture of his ancestors, dead in a real sense. His object is both to reveal its irrelevance and to record its paradoxical beauty.
The poems focus on monuments of internment—“Shane O’Neill’s Cairn,” “Ossian’s Grave,” “In the Hill at Newgrange,” “Iona: The Graves of the Kings,” “Shakespeare’s...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
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