“Fire on the Hills” is a short description and meditation in a sonnetlike form—that is, it is in fourteen lines of free verse. It depicts a brushfire along the mountainous coast of the Monterey Peninsula, contemplates the animals caught up in it, and suggests the cosmic indifference of the context in which this takes place. Ultimately, Robinson Jeffers considers the intellectual attitude that humankind must cultivate to adapt to the universe.
The poem begins by establishing the scene of the brushfire, as observed by the speaker. Those animals that can escape range ahead of the raging blaze, which pursues them as if it were an incarnate being; yet it is all part of a mechanical process. The observer considers the myriad other animals and birds that could not escape.
The simple cinematic opening establishes the initial perspective, much like a wide panning shot at the beginning of a film. The reader is caught by the energy of the event, admiring the movement and the color—especially since the first note struck is of exhilaration at the escape of the deer fleeing the advancing flames. Then, however, the reflection that less fortunate animals are trapped brings the reader up short. In this way, Jeffers catches the readers in his ideological net, seducing them into perceiving beauty in an event of death and destruction.
Jeffers forces that recognition by injecting the reflective note that “beauty is not always lovely” into the poem. The scene is beautiful even in its terror and loss. He goes on to describe an eagle later drawn to the burned area by the prospect of carrion, implying that even this act participates in the beauty. The horror of the little deaths is rectified somehow in the splendor of the eagle. The eagle is magnificent, “cloaked in the folded storms of his shoulders,” despite gorging on offal.
Jeffers goes on to suggest that all of this is part of a coherent system: What is bad for the small game animals is good for the eagle. This natural cycle is objective, indifferent, and impartial—“merciless,” in Jeffers’s terminology. He is borrowing an idea and a phrase from the fourteenth century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who composed a poem entitled “Merciless Beauty.”
The final focus is not on this cosmic system itself but on man and his awareness and acceptance of it. Jeffers suggests that man needs to develop the tough-mindedness necessary to confront this reality, a reality that most would call hostile. This vision of the world has appeared in poetry beginning in the mid-nineteenth century; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, for example, described a “nature red in tooth and claw.” Jeffers’s sense of the antagonistic post-Darwinian universe was intensified by his extensive studies in biology and medicine. In so uncompromising a universe, man must develop an equivalent cold-bloodedness in order to survive, but Jeffers believed that this would not exclude beauty.
Jeffers became famous in the first half of the twentieth century for writing an unusually accessible poetry; he was one of the two best-selling poets of his time. One reason for this was that he was primarily a narrative poet, but another was the simplicity of his verse. Unlike most poets, Jeffers is not conspicuous for the elaboration of particular technical devices. His religious upbringing, however, had familiarized him with the rhythms and imagery of the King James Bible, and his education in the classics taught him the metrical patterns of the Romans and Greeks. He also learned from the free verse of Walt Whitman, the most innovative American poet of the nineteenth century, who developed the...
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long lines that Jeffers favored in his own poetry.
“Fire on the Hills” uses devices from those sources to support its theme. The rhythms that ripple beneath its lines are not the regular meter of conventional poetry but the driven pulse of organic forms, like those of waves breaking on a beach. They give the lines in this poem a distinctive animation, supplementing the imagery. The first line illustrates this: “The deer were bounding like blown leaves.” The underlying rhythms advance fitfully, reinforcing both the image of deer darting ahead of the flames and the doubling simile of leaves being driven fitfully by the wind. Similarly, the final line, “The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy,” is simultaneously biblical, classical, and Whitmanesque in its straightforward declamation and its sinewy rhythms.
In other respects, too, Jeffers uses simple means to force his readers to look at things they would customarily overlook. This appears most clearly in his presentation of the eagle. It is hard for most people to dissociate this animal from its conventional trappings; as the American national bird, it symbolizes aspiration, freedom, independence, and strength—a multitude of superlatives. Not so for Jeffers. The bird is “perched on the jag of a burnt pine,” the overlord of the wasteland, “insolent and gorged.” This bird is not a national pretense but a predator and master scavenger; it impresses only because it succeeds and dominates, “sleepily merciless” in its reduction of its domain. Yet to Jeffers, this is still an “eagle from heaven.” It is not necessarily good, and certainly not benevolent, but it is extraordinarily successful at what it does.
In one other respect Jeffers’s work developed from his readings. He tends to phrase his conclusions as paradoxes, thus paralleling both the Proverbs of the Old Testament and the oracles of classical literature. Two lines already cited show this: “Beauty is not always lovely,” and “The destruction that brings an eagle from heaven is better than mercy.”
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