The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648

“The Place for No Story” is a short free-verse lyric of twelve lines varying in length from ten to two words. Despite its brevity, the poem is one of Robinson Jeffers’s most important, expressing succinctly and in concentrated form a major theme of his poetry: the supremacy of unconscious nature over the human social worlds of culture and civilization. In this poem, Jeffers returns to the majestic coastal California landscape of his long narrative poems but without the tragic passions of their human characters. That is the significance of the poem’s title; in this lyric, the rocky California coast which provides setting for most of Jeffers’s narrative poems and for the actions of his human characters is now treated as a subject in its own right.

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In both Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems (1932) and The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1938), “The Place for No Story” immediately follows the long title narrative of Thurso’s Landing, an especially sanguine story of infidelity, insanity, and murder. This positioning suggests that “The Place for No Story” is to be understood as a kind of palinode, a poem of apology or recantation, offered by Jeffers as a partial corrective for the fury and violence of his narrative.

The poem begins, as many of Jeffers’s poems do, with the place name of a real site along the California coast—in this case, Sovranes Creek, south of Monterey. Jeffers believed that poetry should conform to physical realities, and he expressed a reverence for the spiritual significance of specific places that recalls in its intensity the pagan worship of local deities (genius loci) in sacred groves and streams. Jeffers intends his lyric to be the evocation of the spiritual significance of this specific place.

The poem’s speaker, whom it is reasonable to accept as the poet himself, immediately begins a description of the estuary landscape where Sovranes Creek meets the sea. The poet first describes the area’s treeless upland pastures with their thin covering of soil stretched above granite bedrock. The striations and contours of this underlying rock are likened to flame, a simile suggesting their volcanic and molten origin. From these upland pastures, the poet draws one’s attention westward to the scarp and the ocean below, where a plunging surf appears as a line of “long white violence” bordering an enormous gray expanse of open sea fading to the horizon. From there, one’s gaze is lifted upward to a dark mountain slope dotted near its summit with a distant herd of grazing cattle and, above all, the sky itself, overcast and “haunted with hawks.” The description of hawks as haunting the sky may suggest that in the heavy cloud cover they can be heard but not seen or that they are riding rising thermals of warm air in arcs so high as to be only dimly visible. This descriptive passage conveys a sense of tremendous distance and isolation.

At this point, the speaker of the poem declares simply that “This place is the noblest thing I have ever seen.” The poet’s curious ascription of a human quality, nobility, to an aggregate of inanimate and animal phenomena composing a landscape is immediately reinforced by the claim that any “human presence” in this wild scene would only detract from its nobility, its “lonely self-watchful passion.” The descriptive adjective “lonely” in this final line expresses a normal human response to a landscape of this kind. This response had been suspended in the descriptive passage opening the poem. Now that a subjective word is used, the reader is surprised to learn that “lonely” is meant as praise for the conditions making this landscape’s nobility possible: the absence of humans. The landscape’s loneliness, at first neutrally described by the poet, is now embraced and contrasted, implicitly and negatively, with the social world of humans and human-centered concerns.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

A distinguishing aspect of Jeffers’s poetic style is his extensive use of a form of personification called the “pathetic fallacy,” which is the ascription of human characteristics and emotions to material things such as trees, water, and rocks. This kind of personification, especially characteristic of Romantic poets, is evident in “The Place for No Story.” Jeffers describes the ocean surf as “violent” and credits the landscape with both “nobility” and a form of consciousness which makes possible its “self-watchful passion.”

For many poets, this form of personification is only a convention, a bit of poetic license not to be taken seriously. For Jeffers, however, and for his Romantic predecessors such as William Wordsworth, this use of the pathetic fallacy is seriously meant. Like the Romantics, Jeffers was something of a pantheist—one who believes that consciousness, even a divine consciousness, is distributed throughout the whole of nature. Jeffers describes the landscape of the Sovranes estuary as “noble” because for him it is, in a real sense, alive and aware. Jeffers bases this belief upon a combination of mysticism and science, arguing that since all things are composed of the same material (atomic) constituents, they must all share a fundamentally common nature. This aspect of Jeffers’s poetic vision, sometimes called panpsychism, is likely to seem most strange to a reader unfamiliar with the philosophical backgrounds of his work.

In addition to the use of personification, Jeffers incorporates two important symbols common to his poetry: the rock and the hawk. They represent the fierce integrity of nonhuman nature; both are embodiments of impassive and impersonal forces dividing between them the animate world of focused energy and the inanimate world of stolid calm. Elsewhere in his poetry, Jeffers frequently contrasts humankind, with its anxiety and doubt-ridden consciousness, unfavorably with the unitary strength and simplicity of the rock and hawk. The consciousness of nature, the pantheistic sentience of things, is symbolized for Jeffers in the bird and stone. Nature’s consciousness, which they share, is whole, while the human consciousness is divided. Rock and hawk in harmony with natural forces possess an organic completeness, a “nobility,” that humans lack. In “The Place for No Story,” humankind is only significant by its absence; neither the soaring hawk nor the ocean beaten stone need it; they are sufficient in themselves.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 128

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.

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