Robinson Jeffers and the Bird of Prey
Voices of the Headland: Robinson Jeffers and the Bird of Prey explores the image of the raptor in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Emanating from the continent’s end of the American West, Jeffers’ poetic eagles, hawks, falcons, vultures, and other birds of prey symbolize the compelling presence and voice of nature, a pantheistic universe of beauty and splendor, death and destruction. It is the perilous bird of prey which calls forth the very essence and life-force of Jeffers himself, winging its way through his expansive body of narrative and lyrical verse, a poetry fundamentally anti-social in its vision and primitive in its basic, instinctual surge. Voices of the Headland examines this distinctive imagery from many critical viewpoints.
Chapter 9. Merciless Cries
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Although Jeffers rejected “most of the beliefs of conventional religion, his own philosophy has never been godless, but religious in the deepest sense.”1 A philosophical poet anchored in a self-ordained belief system, Jeffers perceived many “divine qualities” in nature’s birds of prey; they became “symbols in his religion,” replacing traditional representations of a metaphysical God which had removed us from terra firma and the cyclical processes of nature.2 The detestable, gory, and odd-looking vulture, for example, represents a Jeffersian God of beauty, peace, and tranquility. Not only does Jeffers’ rendition of this bird defy our modern conceptions of death as foul and disturbing, but it promises rebirth by recycling our bodies back into the atom flow.
In “Vulture,” the speaker rests on “a bare hillside.” Watching “through half-shut eyelids,” he soon realizes that he is “under inspection” (CP 3: 462). He is regretful, however, that he is not yet fit to be consumed by this dignified bird “wheeling high up / in heaven”; that he cannot yet live forever in unity with “the transhuman magnificence of the beauty of things”3— ← 123 | 124 →
I tell you solemnly That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes— What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life after death. (CP 3: 462)
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