The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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 entire section is 483 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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,...

(The entire section is 450 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Brophy, Robert J. Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976.

Brophy, Robert J., ed. The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter: A Jubilee Gathering, 1962-1988. Los Angeles: Occidental College, 1988.

Everson, William. The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. Brownsville, Oreg.: Story Line Press, 1995.

Nolte, William H. Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Thesing, William B. Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.

Vardamis, Alex A. The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers: A Bibliographical Study. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1972.

Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.