Robinson Jeffers on Moral Beauty, the Interconnectedness of the Universe, and the Key to Peace of Mind
By Maria Popova
“Happy people die whole,” Robinson Jeffers (January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962) wrote in one of his poems. “Integrity is wholeness,” he wrote in another. For Jeffers, whose verses became revered hymns of the environmental movement as Rachel Carson was making ecology a household word, this meant wholeness not only within oneself but also wholeness with the rest of the natural world, with the integrity of the universe itself — an ethos consonant with his contemporary John Muir’s insistence that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Jeffers coined the term inhumanism to describe the perilous counterpoint to this awareness. Humanity, he worried, had become too solipsistic, too divorced from the rest of nature, too blind to the “astonishing beauty of things” — beauty the protection of and participation in which is both our natural inheritance and our civilizational responsibility.
Although Jeffers’s ideas moved and influenced generations of readers, writers, artists, activists, and even policymakers — from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston to Bill McKibben and Terry Tempest Williams — he never formally articulated his spiritual credo outside of verse. Never, except once.
In the autumn of 1934, Jeffers received a letter from Sister Mary James Power — a principal and teacher at a girls’ Catholic high school in Massachusetts. A lifelong lover of poetry, Power had endeavored to edit an anthology of prominent poets’ reflections on the spiritual dimensions of their art and their creative motive force. She invited Jeffers to contribute, asking about his “religious attitudes.” His response, originally published in Powers’s 1938 book Poets at Prayer and later included in The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers (public library), is one of the most beautiful and succinct articulations of a holistic, humanistic moral philosophy ever committed to words — some of the wisest words to live and think and feel by.
It is a sort of tradition in this country not to talk about religion for fear of offending — I am still a little subject to the tradition, and rather dislike stating my “attitudes” except in the course of a poem. However, they are simple. I believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, influencing each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.)
Writing in the same era in which Carson revolutionized our understanding of the natural world and our place in it with her lyrical writings about the sea, observing that “against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change,” Jeffers adds:
The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.
But this “salvation,” Jeffers observes in a sensitive caveat, is not something that happens to us, passively — it is something that happens in us, through our active participation in life, through the choices we make during the brief interlude of our existence as animate beings in an animate universe. Wholeness itself is a participatory act — both a faculty of being and a function of becoming, to be mastered and refined in the course of living. (I too have wondered how, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we attain completeness of being.) Jeffers writes:
I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful, so far as one’s power reaches. This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.
Complement this fragment of the wholly ravishing Wild God of the World with poet and philosopher Parker Palmer, a modern-day Jeffers of a kind, on the elusive art of inner wholeness, neurologist Oliver Sacks on beauty as a lens on the interconnectedness of the universe, evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis on the spirituality of science and the interconnectedness of life.
Published June 3, 2019