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 burnt-over area. He implies that this, too, is beautiful; this scene recapitulates the first, catching the eye and the mind at once as that one did. As before, the reality underlying the surface seems to contradict it. The eagle may be striking, but it is glutting itself on carrion that has been laid waste by the cruelty of the fire. That is not something that one likes to recognize, let alone stare at. Cultivated human feelings do not permit it. Jeffers suggests that this is one of the lies of civilization.
He makes this suggestion by a progression in which he uses the term “merciless” three times, on each count changing the focus. First the sky is “merciless blue”—blue skies are attractive, hence beautiful; yet the blue is blank and indifferent. Then the hills are “merciless black”—attractive as a swatch of color against the sky, an “effective” composition, but the expanse attracts only so long as one does not look too closely. In the third repetition, the gorged eagle is merciless, beautiful like the other two scenes though battening on cruel death.
By confronting one with these situations and helping one to recognize the elements they have in common, Jeffers forces a redefinition of beauty. This redefinition divorces beauty from sentiment and sentimentality. If beauty animates these scenes, then beauty must be simply an exhilaration at recognizing the efficiency of the natural order in subordinating individual lives to the order of the total physical machine of the universe, however heartless it may be.