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On "Birds and Fishes"

Albert Gelpi

"Birds and Fishes," one of Jeffers' last poems, almost makes the mistake of attributing greed and malice to the feeding of seabirds on fishes but then recovers to find in the violence of the scene a manifestation of the "beauty of God":. . . .

For Jeffers, then, as for Emerson, original sin consisted in a fall into ego consciousness, which sets mind against nature and individuals against one another.

from A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910-1950. Copyright 1987 by Cambridge University Press.

Alan Brasher 

Jeffers's sense of natural beauty as independent of man dominates the account of pelicans feasting on fish who are drawn to the shore during mating season in "Birds and Fishes." Jeffers closes the poem by proclaiming "their quality ... the beauty of God," but not before asserting the lack of "mercy ... mind ... [and] goodness" in their actions. Though Jeffers sees God behind nature, he cannot imagine the existence of human virtues in their absolute states operating there:

                ... and which one in all this fury of wildfowl pities
        the fish?
No one certainly. Justice and mercy
Are human dreams, they do not concern the birds nor the fish
        nor eternal God.

It goes without saying that Emerson would not have been so naive as to look for pity in a pelican, but Jeffers's position that God also lacks any concern with virtues, such as justice and mercy, renders Emerson's search for universals within nature pointless. How can nature be a tool for man in his search for realization if those absolutes he seeks do not reside there?

from "Transcendental Echoes in Jeffers." In Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honor of William H. Nolte. Copyright 1995 by University of South Carolina.

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