Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

A legacy from an uncle allowed Jeffers to move with his wife, Una, to Carmel, California, where he built for himself a granite house and an observation tower overlooking the ocean. This tower figures as a central image in his poem “Pearl Harbor.” Robinson and Una Jeffers’s own Irish ancestry, their interest (Una’s particularly) in Irish round towers, and their admiration for the Irish poet William Butler Yeats led them naturally to build Hawk Tower, which ultimately incorporated a stone from Yeats’s own tower at Thoor Ballylee. In Jeffers’s later poetry, Hawk Tower became a symbol of sanctuary in ways that related it toYeats as well as earlier Romantics, though Jeffers looked forward to the day it would be reabsorbed into the coastal shore from which it had been quarried.

“Pearl Harbor” expresses Jeffers philosophy of “pantheism” or “inhumanism,” which he characterized as a shift of emphasis from human to not human or the rejection of human-centered concerns in favor of transhuman magnificence. Like philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Jeffers held that a superior reality exists behind appearance, a reality that is hidden but still discoverable. Jeffers, like D. H. Lawrence, was elated by the new physics and theories of evolution on one hand and disgusted with historical humanity on the other—in particular, with Christian, self-important, warring humanity. This led both poets to a religion of the inhuman universe. Look without, look within, and people will find the one thing needful—an extra-human greatness of reality.

Jeffers and Lawrence went beyond their fellow modernists to transform the beautiful into something inhumanly sublime. For Jeffers, this sublime, superior reality can be summed up as “God.” Images of hawk and stone, representing fierce consciousness joined with final disinterestedness, were for Jeffers the ideal human perspective on existence. Jeffers’s pessimism was reinforced by his reading of Greek tragedy and the Hebrew Bible. He found violence intrinsic in human history and believed that this unpleasant truth must be faced rather than repressed.

Jeffers’s “inhumanist” philosophy characterizes the way he thinks about the American disaster at Pearl Harbor. From Jeffers’s perspective, Pearl Harbor is an unimportant event, something one would expect of violent human beings. As a patriot, Jeffers flies the American flag, but he counsels the stones of his tower to pay little attention to events in Britain, Europe, and Asia. World War II will end with an American victory because America is richer and stronger than its adversaries. That too is not important, however. What is important is that the blackout imposed on the California coast after the attack makes it possible to see what is really important: the shore at night, dark and silent as it was before humanity’s appearance obscured the sight of God.

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