Of all the expressions of unconsolable loss I have read concerning the death of anyone greatly loved, the following lament by Henry James, the novelist, when his older brother, William James, the scientist and philosopher, died is the most heartfelt:
“I sit heavily stricken and in darkness – for from far aback in dimmest childhood
he had been my Elder Brother; and I still, through all the years, saw in him, even
as a small timorous boy yet, my protector, my backer, my authority and my
pride. His extinction changes the face of life for me – besides the mere missing
of his inexhaustible company and personality, originality, the whole unspeakably
vivid and beautiful presence of him.”
And there is one poem, hardly known at all I believe, which affects me greatly every time I read the lines. I know of no more desperate, despairing cry of love and loss in all the poetry I have read. It is a poem embedded in a longer poem. The long poem is called “Hungerfield”. It is by Robinson Jeffers and the lines within the long poem are about the death of his beloved wife which he can hardly bear.
The poetry of Robinson Jeffers is unknown today. He was born in Pittsburg more than one hundred years ago, son of a professor of classics and theologian. He was educated in Zurich (medicine) and Washington (forestry), travelled widely for a while, but finally settled for good with his wife in Carmel, California, where he built them a stone tower using rocks which he hauled from the beach with his own hands. There in absolute solitude he wrote his poems. Indeed, most of his poems are set in this lonely, rocky, seal-haunted North Californian coastal region with its towering redwoods and its mists. It is one of those places where the self-important bustle and busyness of men seem utterly out of place and time. There he wrote poetry which reacted violently against nearly all aspects of modern life. He loathed the shoddy, shallow consumerism which threatens to overrun the world. In his poems man in his present state is futile and depraved compared with the “intense and terrible beauty” of nature.
Here are the lines on the death of this poet’s wife whom he loved more indeed than his own life and on the agony of her dying which tortures him without relief:
“September again. The gray grass, the gray sea,
the ink-black trees with white-bellied night-herons in them,
Brawling on the boughs at dusk, barking like dogs –
And the awful loss. It is a year. She has died: and I
Have lived for a long year on soft rotten emotions,
Vain longing and drunken pity, grief and gray ashes –
Oh child of God!
It is not that I am lonely for you. I am lonely:
I am mutilated, for you were part of me:
But men endure that. I am growing old and my love is gone:
No doubt I can live without you, bitterly and well.
That’s not the cry. My torment is memory
My grief to have seen the banner and beauty of your brave life
Dragged in the dust down the dim road to death. To have seen
You who never despaired, passing through weakness
And pain –
to nothing. It is usual, I believe. I stood by; I believe
I never failed you. The contemptible thought –
Whether I failed or not! I am not the one.
I was not dying. Is death bitter, my dearest? It is nothing.
It is a silence. But dying can be bitter.
I have thought often of Hungerfield, the man at Horse Creek,
Who fought with Death – bodily, said the witnesses, throat for
Fury against fury in the dark –
And conquered him. If I had the courage and the hope –
Or the pure rage –
I should be now Death’s captive, no doubt, not conqueror.
I should be with my dearest, in the hollow darkness
Where nothing hurts.
I should not remember
Your silver-backed hand-mirror you asked me for,
And sat up in bed to gaze in it, to see your face
A little changed. You were still beautiful.
But not – as you’d been – a falcon. You said nothing, you sighed
and laid down the glass; and I
Made a dog smile over a tearing heart.
Saying that you looked well.
Robinson Jeffers published twenty books of poems but no one reads him any more. But every time I go up the Essequibo and spend a few days on the shore of that mighty, soul-uplifting river with the great forest at one’s back and the stars out in that eternal dark I sense the power and permanence of poetry like his and believe that it will have its time again. And every time I read the lines in “Hungerfield” on the death of his wife I cannot help remembering those I have loved very much and who are lost and the lines tear my heart.