Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Jeffers was as much a philosopher as a poet, and no discussion of his work would be complete without mention of his philosophy of Inhumanism. This perhaps unfortunate term, coined by Jeffers himself, is often misunderstood. It has nothing to do with cruelty or meanness, though those human failings are common in his long narrative poems. Instead, it refers to a detachment that allows the poet to step outside the human condition for a more cosmic viewpoint. The poet’s way of dealing with the suffering and other negative aspects of humanity and modern civilization is to see them in the context of geological or cosmological time and space. From the perspective of billions of years and the infinite distances of the universe, humankind is really a brief and perhaps not very important phenomenon. This cosmic viewpoint is underscored by the images and metaphors used in the descriptive passages in the poem. The phosphorescent fish are described as rockets and comets, and the first scene ends with the walls of night and the stars, which places the small, confined world of the fish in the net in the context of the limitless expanses of space. The city, too, is described as confined and even claustrophobic, yet it is compared to the light not only of stars but also of galaxies.

Inhumanism is the key to another of Jeffers’s major themes: the beauty of the natural world. The poet is in awe of what he calls in the title of another poem “divinely superfluous...

(The entire section is 437 words.)