Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

Jeffers’s themes are overt, but this does not mean they are always easy to discern or assess. In part, the reason for this is that the poet’s philosophy—the so-called Inhumanism—is so stark, bleak, and uncompromising. It is not entirely novel; Shakespeare certainly anticipated some of his negativism in Hamlet (c. 1600-1601), and Jonathan Swift devastated the notion of the inherent goodness of humankind. Jeffers, however, exceeds both in refusing to find any independent redeeming value in the species. For him, humans are simply another part of an evolved complex. Far from inheriting a right to dominate, humans will be lucky to survive. They will only survive if they recover the vision of the complex itself, to consider with clear-eyed, personal indifference the health of the whole.

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This requires accepting the role of either hawk or rock without dissent. Undoubtedly this is difficult. Anyone would rather eat than be eaten. Jeffers feels that it is exactly this egocentric human-first attitude that must be overcome if the entire bio-mass is to survive. Left unchecked, humans will continually inflict damage on the system in order to pursue their private, limited objectives. Over the long term, these repeated injuries will unbalance the system to the point that everything, including humankind, is destroyed. This progressive deterioration is inevitable unless humans learn to change.

Jeffers accepted this theme as his personal poetic mission, developing aspects of it in a series of poems both short and long. Here he is most concerned with demonstrating the shortcomings of the tragic ideal, a prime motivator of human behavior in our civilization, with reference to the universal attitude he espouses. Thus, he begins by promising to reveal “a symbol in which/ Many high tragic thoughts/ Watch their own eyes.” Near the end of the poem, he describes “the falcon’s/ Realist eyes” as one pole of the new emblem with which humans should replace that of tragedy. Presumably, the contrast will reveal the shortcomings of the old human view.

The final lines of the poem suggest these deficiencies. The two poles, rock and hawk, will be immune to failure and success. Jeffers implies that the view which considers any human participant is ultimately destructive of the whole. Any art or literature that makes the hero of tragedy its ideal figure fosters this view. Aristotle suggests in his De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics) that the lesson of tragedy is double. The first point is that even though the hero fails, one learns from the hero’s mistakes. The second is that even the hero can be sacrificed for the good of society. As long as human society is viewed as in twofold competition, with other species and with other societies, such a lesson is probably useful.

Jeffers contends, however, that at this point in evolution, this lesson and view are not only wrong but are dangerously wrong. Take away the central assumption of tragedy, that humans are the central and moral determinant of the universe, and one sees that humans are only one more part. Final survival depends on this recognition.

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