Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Late in his career, Jeffers suggested that many of his poems were expressions of a philosophical outlook that he provocatively called Inhumanism. Jeffers defined the basic tenets of this creed in various ways, but its essence is simple: Humankind has exaggerated its importance in the scale of natural creation and now invites disaster. Only if humankind recovers a sense of its insignificance in the face of transhuman nature can it regain balance and dignity. As it is, humankind is self-absorbed and self-obsessed, cutting itself off from the strength of natural order in favor of artificial powers derived from technology and bureaucratic organization. Jeffers owed something of his philosophical outlook to the pessimistic German philosopher Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), who argued that civilizations grow old and decadent as part of an inalterable historical process resembling the biological processes of birth, aging, and death. According to Spengler, symptoms of this coming social decay in Western civilization included the rise of metropolitan cities, mass production, and rampant population growth—all of which Jeffers notes and deplores in his poetry.

In the face of this coming collapse of civilization, Jeffers suggests that the best way to retain courage and integrity is to look away from humankind and toward nature. The speaker of “The Place for No Story” does exactly this; he gazes into the “self-watchful passion” of a landscape empty of human turbulence and strife. If it contains violence, it is only the great cyclical violence of crashing waves and the balancing “nobility” of isolation and endurance.

Jeffers is, as many of his critics recognize, a moralizing poet, a man with a message. Didactic poetry of the kind favored by Jeffers, which seeks to instruct or admonish its readers with forthright statement and a lofty, prophetic tone, lost favor among the ironical poets of the modern and postmodern era. Jeffers, once lionized, is now seldom read. For some readers, the poet’s verses are little more than misanthropic rant filled with irrational hatred of democracy and rational progress. For others, a fiercely loyal minority, the verses are prophetic visions of humankind’s current predicament, and Jeffers himself is a voice crying in the wilderness.