Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

Illustration of PDF document

Download Descent to the Dead Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 Grave”—and of religious ritual—“The Broadstone,” “The Giant’s Ring”— because these are what the days and works of the dead have come to. The contrast between lofty aspirations and the cold reality of those graves (literally memorials to nothing, for nothing is left in them) is telling. Jeffers sees the end of humanity in this, and he accepts it; it is enough, for there is a great beauty and fitness in these places.

The primitive character of the places reinforces the theme; it brings to mind the brutishness of the lives so crudely remembered. Shane O’Neill was a name of power four centuries ago, controlling life and death for many; now he has shrunk to an empty grave surmounted by senseless blocks, and he is considered a petty king of an insignificant and primitive people. Moreover, this condition afflicts even the truly notable: lip service is paid to Homer and William Shakespeare, but twenty-six hundred years after his death only a few can read what the former composed, and the same will become true of the latter.

Jeffers believed that only from such a perspective could one accurately assess the role of humankind. For although humans may be insignificant and their self-importance a bloated lie, seen against the background of cosmic immensity their few moments of insight and self-realization can also appear heartbreakingly beautiful.