What is the major theme in “November Surf” by Robinson Jeffers?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Exploration of Jeffers' "inhumanism" is critical to understanding the poem's theme.  The poem stresses that there is a natural order to the world which is wider than human interests.  Jeffers' articulated that one of the basic tenets of his "inhumanist" philosophy was the excessive condition of being "self-centered and too indifferent to the astonishing beauty of things."  Jeffers believed that focusing on the constructs of human beings precludes an appreciation of the natural order and the piety associated with it.  

This idea illuminates the critical theme of the nature's reverence in "November Surf." The poem stresses a majestic, natural order to the world.  It is one in which the monumental realm of nature is meant to overwhelm the individual being: "...Like smoking mountains bright from the west/ And come and cover the cliff with white violent cleanness." The natural world that Jeffers depicts is a powerful one, encompassing all in its path.  The "prophetic sleep" of the Earth is one that knows more and possesses more intrinsic power than the human being.  Jeffers makes the case that the natural world's power is more totalizing than the transient condition of the individual:  "The cities gone down, the people fewer and the hawks/ more numerous."  The "more numerous" conditions of the hawks and the dwindling condition of people reveals how the natural world contains power with which the world of human beings cannot compete.  In these instances, the poem's theme of nature's power dwarves the perceived control of the individual. This helps to emphasize Jeffers's idea of "inhumanism."  The poem's conclusion is one where individuals recognize that they must acquiesce to the power of the natural world.  Competing against it and seeking to overcome it is futile.  Its "dignity" lies in the recognition of nature's power.  

For Jeffers, the power of nature is a critical theme in "November Surf."  It is consistent with a belief system that does not seek to place primacy on the individual.  Rather, it asserts that the individual functions within something much larger and more encompassing.  For Jeffers, Deemphasizing the perceived importance of the individual is where natural affection and understanding of the natural world lies.  "November Surf" speaks to this powerful condition of the natural world, and one in which its potency is in the "awake" of "great waves" and in "winter ecstasy."  Jeffers sees the power of the natural world as indicative of the beauty it displays, one that exists outside the control of human beings.

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