Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Because Robinson Jeffers’s poetry is marked by unusual economy of phrasing, his themes are relatively easy to perceive. Still, his uncompromising positions and the starkness of his visions sometimes have made readers balk. He is never unwilling to look hard truths in the eye. He does that here; moreover, he forces the reader to do it.

His tactics are simple. He begins by presenting the scene on which he will comment. Once the reader is committed to the scene—by the basic process of projecting imaginatively into it—the reader finds it difficult to withdraw from the conclusion. The energy of the brush fire compels one to remain mesmerized by its power. The fleeing deer, fragile and vulnerable in the face of the inferno, attract the reader with the automatic sympathy offered to underdogs. All of this rivets one’s attention, as beauty always does; but then one is reminded that other animals are not as fortunate as the deer. Yet one still stares, entranced; the scene is still beautiful. Thus Jeffers slips in the theme: “Beauty is not always lovely.”

His larger theme is communicated as much by what he does not do as by what he does. He depends on the reader’s reaction to his announcement. If beauty is not lovely, the reader wonders, what is it? Another question follows immediately: If this is beautiful, what constitutes its beauty?

As if to provide the answer, Jeffers moves to the scene of the eagle perched brooding over...

(The entire section is 506 words.)