The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

Robinson Jeffers’s poem “Pearl Harbor” expresses the poet’s perspective on America’s response to the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the U.S. fleet in Oahu, Hawaii. Jeffers begins the first of the two sections of twenty-four and twenty-six lines, respectively, that make up this poem by belittling the attack, calling it no more than “fireworks.”

The attack, which signaled the entrance of Japan on the side of Germany and Italy in World War II and the entrance of the United States on the side of the Allies, is for Jeffers the result of men who “conspired” to “embroil this republic in the wreck of Europe.” Jeffers feels that, in a sense, the Japanese attack is a fitting punishment for these men. Jeffers wonders what he can do as a response to the attack. He feels the only thing he can do is to fly the national flag from the top of the tower that is his home. Only the flag, as a symbol of the entire nation, can express America, for America does not have a single race or religion or language.

Jeffers’s attention then turns to his “little” tower, which stares “Confidently across the Pacific.” He built the tower at the end of World War I, “the other war’s end.” Calling the interwar period a “sick peace,” Jeffers suggests he built the tower to express his contempt for a sick “Civilization.” By contrast, the tower is built of living granite. Jeffers believes the gray stones, which are “quiet and drink the sea-wind,” will “survive/ Civilization.”

Unlike the granite of the tower, however, Jeffers himself is old and must be more modest. His tower is a “little tower” after all. Yet, World War II is also a little thing, only “dust” of the passage of the British Empire, “torn leaves” of Europe, wind of propellers, and smoke of Tokyo. Jeffers sums up these wars in the image of a nameless “child” with a “butchered throat.” He tells the tower to “look no farther ahead,” as if the human race has no future other than world war.

Jeffers begins the second section of “Pearl Harbor” by pointing out that since America had provoked war “carefully” for years, it is ironic it should have been surprised when its fleet and planes were destroyed. He views the public panic on both coasts and its leaders’ orations with contempt. He finds the American plan to impose peace on the entire planet similarly overblown. At the same time, he bets America will win this war of its own making just as Jonathan Swift’s enormous Gulliver could overcome his adversaries as long as he had his big “horse-pistols.”

Looking out at an ocean authorities have cleared of ships and planes following the raid on Pearl Harbor, Jeffers finds it empty of humanity and hence a “great beauty.” Machines are gone save for one plane flying high above on patrol at dawn and at dusk. Walking at night, Jeffers notices that a blackout ordered by authorities has doused all lights along the shore. He celebrates the return of “the prehuman dignity of night” which “was before and will be again.” In the beauty of darkness and silence, humanity fades away, and it becomes possible for Earth to see God and even God’s great staring eyes.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

As a child, Jeffers read ancient Greek tragedy and biblical tales under the guidance of his father, a theologian and scholar. Many of his poems rework these sources. Jeffers’s stance as a poet is that of prophet, large-scale philosopher, doctrine-giver, and seer in the tradition of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Jeffers’s poetry, like biblical poetry, has no concept of rhyme. One senses that the language of “Pearl Harbor,” like Old Testament verse, is organized as verse, but it still seems to be missing something essential to verse, which is hard to define. Semantic parallelism is a prevalent feature of biblical verse and also of Jeffers’s poem.

As lines of biblical verse are composed of two or three “versets,” or members which parallel each other in meaning, so too, is the first section of Jeffers’s poem. The poet says “Here” in the first verset, “Stare” in the second verset, “Look” in the third verset, “Look, little tower” in the fourth verset, and “Look no farther ahead” at the close of the first section. This parallelism of meaning is joined with a balancing of numbers of rhythmic stresses between versets and sometimes by parallel syntactic patterns as well. Jeffers may follow this underlying formal model or he may modify it or abandon it altogether. In the second section of “Pearl Harbor,” he eventually returns to the pattern he established in the first section with the phrases “Make a great beauty,” “Watch the wide sea,” “Watch the wide sky,” “High on patrol,” “Walk at night,” and “Stands, as it was before.”

The structure that predominates in all genres of biblical poetry is a kind of semantic pressure that builds from verset to verset and line to line, intensifying and finally reaching a climax or a climax and reversal. The two sections of Jeffers’s poem “Pearl Harbor” are built this way, the first beginning with “fireworks” and ending with “the child with the butchered throat,” the second, beginning with ships like “sitting ducks” and “planes like nest-birds” and ending with the “great staring eyes” of God.

Hyperbole or deliberate exaggeration for effect and irony are also common in biblical writing. Jeffers’s poem, while employing irony in that America, by trying to enter the war in Europe has found itself at war in the Pacific, belittles rather than exaggerates the war, particularly in the shocking contrast between the title of the poem, “Pearl Harbor,” and its first line, “Here are the fireworks.” Jeffers was not noted for technical ingenuity in his poetry, but he did develop a style drawn from Greek and biblical models that meshed with his philosophy, and “Pearl Harbor” is a good example of this practice.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128

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