The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Robinson Jeffers’s poem “Pearl Harbor” expresses the poet’s perspective on America’s response to the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the U.S. fleet in Oahu, Hawaii. Jeffers begins the first of the two sections of twenty-four and twenty-six lines, respectively, that make up this poem by belittling the attack, calling it no more than “fireworks.”

The attack, which signaled the entrance of Japan on the side of Germany and Italy in World War II and the entrance of the United States on the side of the Allies, is for Jeffers the result of men who “conspired” to “embroil this republic in the wreck of Europe.” Jeffers feels that, in a sense, the Japanese attack is a fitting punishment for these men. Jeffers wonders what he can do as a response to the attack. He feels the only thing he can do is to fly the national flag from the top of the tower that is his home. Only the flag, as a symbol of the entire nation, can express America, for America does not have a single race or religion or language.

Jeffers’s attention then turns to his “little” tower, which stares “Confidently across the Pacific.” He built the tower at the end of World War I, “the other war’s end.” Calling the interwar period a “sick peace,” Jeffers suggests he built the tower to express his contempt for a sick “Civilization.” By contrast, the tower is built of living granite. Jeffers believes the gray stones, which are “quiet and drink...

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Pearl Harbor Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As a child, Jeffers read ancient Greek tragedy and biblical tales under the guidance of his father, a theologian and scholar. Many of his poems rework these sources. Jeffers’s stance as a poet is that of prophet, large-scale philosopher, doctrine-giver, and seer in the tradition of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Jeffers’s poetry, like biblical poetry, has no concept of rhyme. One senses that the language of “Pearl Harbor,” like Old Testament verse, is organized as verse, but it still seems to be missing something essential to verse, which is hard to define. Semantic parallelism is a prevalent feature of biblical verse and also of Jeffers’s poem.

As lines of biblical verse are composed of two or three “versets,” or members which parallel each other in meaning, so too, is the first section of Jeffers’s poem. The poet says “Here” in the first verset, “Stare” in the second verset, “Look” in the third verset, “Look, little tower” in the fourth verset, and “Look no farther ahead” at the close of the first section. This parallelism of meaning is joined with a balancing of numbers of rhythmic stresses between versets and sometimes by parallel syntactic patterns as well. Jeffers may follow this underlying formal model or he may modify it or abandon it altogether. In the second section of “Pearl Harbor,” he eventually returns to the pattern he established in the first section with the phrases “Make a great beauty,” “Watch the...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Pearl Harbor Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brophy, Robert J. Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976.

Brophy, Robert J., ed. The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter: A Jubilee Gathering, 1962-1988. Los Angeles: Occidental College, 1988.

Everson, William. The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. Brownsville, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1995.

Nolte, William H. Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Thesing, William B. Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Vardamis, Alex A. The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers: A Bibliographical Study. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1972.

Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.