Poetry Review: “The Epic Stars” by Robinson Jeffers

jeffersstampRobinson Jeffers’ brother was a well-known astronomer, his father a well-respected biblical scholar of the Calvinistic tradition, and Robinson himself was a great student of the classics. While these facts are not necessary to know to be able to read and enjoy “The Epic Stars,” I mention them anyway because anyone who spends time with Jeffers will soon recognize these themes. But for that, the same themes are in the poetry of many 20th Century poets.

There is one school of poetic criticism that assumes that to really understand, and hence “enjoy,” a poem it is necessary to know every outside-thing you can possibly know about a poet, their times, and the various themes contained-within and referenced-to in the poem you are studying. Regular readers of MontanaWriter know that I do not ascribe to such a view of poetry.

Enjoyment of any art does not depend on how much we know… what we know simply deepens our appreciation. The problem with the way poetry has been taught for generations is that it concentrates on what we know more than on what we enjoy. In the end, poetry is about enjoyment. Even political poetry.

I have always enjoyed Jeffers… and this poem in particular. On a cool November day it seems like just the thing.


The Epic Stars
The heroic stars spending themselves,
Coining their very flesh into bullets for the lost battle,
They must burn out at length like used candles;
And Mother Night will weep in her triumph, taking home her heroes.
There is the stuff for an epic poem–
This magnificent raid at the heart of darkness, this lost battle–
We don’t know enough, we’ll never know.
Oh happy Homer, taking the stars and the Gods for granted.


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

We don’t know enough, we’ll never know.
Oh happy Homer, taking the stars and the Gods for granted.

I cannot read these lines from Jeffers without thinking of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us.” I wonder if proto-Homer also looked back in longing at some more innocent age.

Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
    ~ William Wordsworth


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