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In Part 1, the narrator is standing high on a ridge among redwoods, themselves huge enough to make a person consider his tiny part in the universe, and looks at the beauty around him. He can see far out into the Atlantic, and it looks like a giant stone reflecting brilliant light. He also sees a woman (and her son) torturing a horse. They are so small, they look like ants from where he stands and watches. He can see the horse's pain by its stance. This vista combined with the torment of a beast taking place below makes him wonder what it's like to be God. He ends this part with a quote from the bible: "I create good: and
I create evil: I am the Lord."
He's trying to understand what it's like to be God and why God allows such things to happen.
He notes that all beautiful places "cry out for tragedy." No beauty is exempt for horror, in his opinion. He muses that "the granite cliff / the gaunt cypresses crown / Demands what victim?" meaning that even the cliff he stands looking down waits for someone to fall or jump from it. "The hills like pointed flames / Beyond Soberanes, the terrible peaks of the bare hills under the / sun, what immolation?" means "What sacrifice is required for or by these peaks and hills?" Everything that is beautiful, he thinks, requires "Pain for its bread." He thinks that humans deserve to be the martyrs to beauty more than the innocent beasts. "It is not / good to forget over what gulfs the spirit / Of the beauty of humanity, the petal of a lost flower blown / seaward by the night-wind, floats to its quietness" means that we should remember that our lives are but yawning gulfs of misery over which occasionally, some beauty floats, and we should always remember that.
In the third part, he summons the memories of the Indians who inhabited the coast before the Spaniards then the Anglos came. The "dead people" are the Indians who lived there and considered the coast their home; even though the "Light has died out of their skies," they too have "paid something for / the future / Luck of the country." What have they paid? Pain for beauty and luck is the theme of this poem. It's a mythological belief as old as humanity. He adds that "to forget evils calls down / Sudden reminders from the cloud: / remembered deaths be our / redeemers," meaning that we should always remember the evils done and that we have done; instead of wiping away or ignoring what we did to the indigenous tribes (in this case) when we populated the Americas, we are asked to remember.
Then, "white as the half moon at midnight / Someone flamelike passed me, saying, 'I am Tamar Cauldwell, / I have my desire'" Tamar is an enigmatic figure in Jeffers's poetry. She was impregnated by the ghost of her brother, then raped by the ghosts of Indians past, which caused her miscarriage, freeing her from the corruption of her family. She now represents a woman without a country or nation or tribe; she is free.
Remember that Jeffers is imagining himself as a god, trying to understand the reasoning of the almighty. In Part 4, he opens with "He brays humanity in a mortar to bring the savor / From the bruised root: a man having bad dreams, who invents / victims, is only the ape of that God." To "bray" is to grind to dust. "He" is God, and the narrator is the man having the dream who invents victims; he is only following God's example. The "He" in this part always refers to God, who breaks and burns people to separate them from their spirits. He says:
'I have come home to
myself, behold me.
I bruised myself in the flint mortar and burnt me
In the red shell, I tortured myself, I flew forth,
Stood naked of myself and broke me in fragments,
And here am I moving the stars that are me.'
This is reminiscent of Christian belief, in which God the Father martyred himself (God the Son), yet they remain intact and powerful.
Jeffers admits then that he doesn't understand the ways of God. and adds, "I think they admit no reason"--they aren't something we can understand with reason--but to him, "they are the ways of my love." In other words, he accepts them as they are and has stopped trying to understand the ways of God. He has no understanding, and his thought "burns darkly / Smothered with its own smoke in the human brain-vault." Nonetheless, he accepts the beauty of nature. He always returns to the beauty of nature.
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