LUMINOUS THINGS (NS) Robinson Jeffers “Evening Ebb”

EVENING EBB by Robinson Jeffers

The ocean has not been so quiet for a long while; five night herons
Fly shorelong voiceless in the hush of the air
Over the calm of an ebb that almost mirrors their wings.
The sun has gone down, and the water has gone down
From the weed-clad Rock, but the distant cloud-wall rises. The ebb whispers.
Great cloud-shadows float in the opal water.
Through rifts in the screen of the world pale gold gleams, and the evening
Star suddenly glides like a flying torch.
As if we had not been meant to see her; rehearsing behind
The screen of the world for another audience.

From “A Book of Luminous Things,” Ed. Milosz. P. 61

TEXT by DESMOND In truth the [allegorical] work … is an end in itself in one way, though not again as an entirely immanent self-circling whole. It incarnates a certain perfection in respect not of an indefiniteness overcome by a self-determination but as an overdeterminacy—-a superfluity, a too muchness, a fullness more than full, a pluperfection. It is a brimming happening that exceeds the brim. Beyond self-containment ending in itself, it is overfull as the brimming over of the boundary of itself. It is of the nature of agapeic fullness, of overfullness, rather than the self-containment of the pantheistic universal that pivots away from any reference beyond itself.
William Desmond “The Intimate Universal,” p. 86.

COMMENTARY Robinson Jeffers was one of the heros of my youth in the Bay Area of Northern California. He appealed to my emergent consciousness shaped by ecology, Yeatsian myth and rhetoric, and a certain suppressed apocalypticism, all themes still at work in my writing with more or less clarity. (Since Cartesian clarity was never a major issue, the themes remain part of a larger immanence.)

Milosz entertained a similar mix of interests and Jeffers was important to him. This small poem adds a dimension to the conversation: Jeffers was a prolific writer of visionary poems of varying formal appeal. Much of it did not and does not appeal to me, but sometimes the shorter ones do. “Evening Ebb” is one of four short poems selected by Milosz for “A Book of Luminous Things.” It fulfills the promise of the lyric narrative big time.

The initial situation could be a diary entry: a moment specified in time and space. The ocean quiet, five (count ‘em!) night herons fly silently (no croaking) over the calm of an ebb …the layering of images of quiet is thick and, well, momentous, a bit noirish perhaps. (Dashiel Hammett anyone?) The light dimension is specified negatively: ALMOST mirrors.

That acuity is followed by a brace of cosmic generals: sun and water, both have GONE DOWN. While the idiom “go down” is descriptive it has a resonance given the mood of the poem. We are entering Jeffers’s version of Desmond’s porosity.

Here the overfullness paradoxically characterized by “brimming” is also a descent. The lyric narrative is jelling now along mythic lines. The narrative makes Augustine’s double turn,from outer to inner/from lower to higher. Higher is lower. The complex turn is still communicated by realistic description. (That’s what appealed to Milosz: Jeffers helped him understand his new home in the Bay Area.) But realism gives way to … mythical pastiche?

What gives? The “as if” breaks away from the mode established by the hardworking verse. Simile and analogy interrupt description. To what does this language refer? The aesthetic happening is reconfigured in gnostic terms: “the screen of the world.” Illusion. The break is brutal. But necessary to the job at hand which is to BLOCK a hermeneutic that is quite appealing to poet and reader: pantheism. The luminosity of the happening can be accounted for by the Romantic move of the pantheistic whole. Jeffers blocks that interpretation by his reconfiguration of the myth in terms of the Impersonal. Jeffers’s outspoken misanthropy, evident throughout his life and work as a variant of a more widespread nihilism, is tossed off in the final lines as a morsel for his “audience,” which is perhaps the audience that is the original intended one in the grand scheme of things.

So what of Desmond’s agapeic model? I present that text as a critical move that compliments the close reading. It provides what I consider as the Other to Jeffers’s version of a generic nihilism, itself an other to the garden variety pantheism of Romanticism. It is one of the paths “going down” open to the lyric as it deals with the perplexities of the equivocity of the between. Staying alert in the porosity, the original between of mortals and immortals, is a test of art and character and only the agapeic imagination can do it justice.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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