Jeffers’ ‘Clouds at Evening’ includes many of the elements familiar to readers of his poetry. He sets the poem along the California coast and uses its twelve lines to speak about dreams, reality, and humanity’s connection to the natural world.
Explore Clouds at Evening
‘Clouds at Evening’ by Robinson Jeffers is a beautiful poem that speaks about dreams, desires, and how they contrast with reality.
The poet begins by describing a brewing storm near sunset along the California coast. He watches as the clouds gather before the sky sleeps. Using personification and an apostrophe, he addresses the earth, asking if it, too, like a poor girl longing for a taller lover and beautiful hair, is plagued by excessive desires. These are experienced by people, and perhaps the earth alike, during sleep. The poem ends with a Biblical allusion to the story of Jacob and the stone pillow.
You can read the full poem here.
Robinson Jeffers’ ‘Clouds at Evening’ suggests that reality, symbolized through a cold stone, is better than any “vision” (a Biblical allusion) that one might have when one sleeps. He spends the lines of the poem discussing how the earth, as clouds gather in the evening, appears to be as troubled by unfulfilled excessive desires just as human beings are at the same time of day. Perhaps the earth spends the night dreaming of bigger storms and larger mountains like a “poor girl” envisions a taller lover and more beautiful hair.
Structure and Form
‘Clouds at Evening’ by Robinson Jeffers is a twelve-line block form poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines vary in length and end sounds. For example, the first line is quite long, stretching to eleven words, while other lines are closer to six or seven words.
Readers are likely to note how Jeffers’ poetic lines stretch to the end of the page and are indented due to their length. Understanding this effect is important in order to accurately analyze the structure he chose to use.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Repetition: occurs when the poet repeats a specific element of the poem. This could be an image, word, phrase, technique, etc. In this case, the poet uses anaphora. It occurs when they repeat the same word at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “Dream” begins three lines of the thirteen-line poem.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines six and seven as well as lines eight and nine.
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Figures” and “fire” in line two, as well as “desires” and “dreams” in line seven.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, “Dreams gathering in the curded brain of the earth.”
Enormous cloud-mountains that form over Point Lobos and into the sunset,
In the first lines of ‘Clouds at Evening,’ the speaker begins by referencing a scene across “Point Lobos.” Here, Jeffers is alluding to a specific nature preserve in Monterey County, California. It is one of the most highly regarded parks in the state. This is not the first time that the poet reference the specific area of California within his verse. In another, long poem, titled ‘Point Pinos and Point Lobos,’ Jeffers writes:
A lighthouse and a graveyard and gaunt pines
Not old, no tree lives long here, where the northwind
Has forgot mercy. All night the light blinks north,
The Santa Cruz mountain redwoods hate its flashing,
A collection of Jeffers’ poems were also published in a volume titled Point Lobos: A Portfolio of Fifteen Poems by Robinson Jeffers & Fifteen Photographs by Wolf von dem Bussche in 1987. In yet another Jeffers poem, ‘Meditation on Savior,’ the author writes:
Point Lobos lies over the hollowed water like a humped whale
swimming to shoal; Point Lobos
Was wounded with that fire; the hills at Point Sur endured it;
the palace at Thebes; the hill Calvary.
From these two external references, it becomes clear quite quickly that the area was important in the poet’s understanding of the natural landscape around him. Jeffers is well known for his poems based on the natural imagery of the California coast, where he spent much of his life.
When the poem begins, Jeffers describes enormous clouds that form over the point at the end of the day. He describes him as “cloud-mountains” due to their immense size. They capture the light of the sun as it sets below the point and below the horizon line.
This light creates a “Figure of fire on the walls of to-night’s storm.” As with many other Robinson Jeffers poems, the poet chose to focus on an ocean storm. He describes how tonight’s storm is particularly special in the way that the sunlight is reflecting off the clouds. Uses personification to describe the shapes the clouds and sun form as “figures of fire.”
When looking out from his spot on the shore, Jeffers is overwhelmed in amazed by the incredible shapes and movement start the storm clouds create. They make him think of “the great file of warrior angels.” It feels as though he’s looking out at an otherworldly, perhaps heavenly, battle. This also connects to the Biblical allusion present in the last lines.
Dreams gathering in the curded brain of the earth,
By mordinate desires tortured make dreams?
It’s within the next three lines that Jeffers returns to a topic that is fairly common within his larger oeuvre. That is a discussion of consciousness and humanity’s connection to the world around them. He speaks of the sky as the “brain-vault, “a common phrase within his poetry to describe the human head, skull, and brain.
Here, the poet uses personification to compare the sky to a human being. As the sunsets and the storm clouds are forming, he describes the sky as “on the threshold of sleep.” The gathering storm clouds are like dreams, he says, that affect the “brain of the earth.”
Halfway through the first line of the poem, the poet uses an example of a caesura. This occurs when the writer inserts a pause, usually through an example of punctuation, that divides the line in half. After this pause, the poet uses another important literary device— an apostrophe. This occurs when a writer directs their words to something or someone that cannot hear and/or respond to them. In this case, the speaker is talking to the “poor earth.”
Examples of personification continue as the speaker compares the earth to its “children,” who are tortured by “desires” that manifest as “dreams” as they sleep. The speaker wonders if the earth, like a human being, it’s also plagued by these “mordinate desires.” Here, he uses an archaic word, “mordinate,” that would be better understood by contemporary readers as “inordinate.” The earth, he wonders, may be plagued by excessive desires like human beings are.
Storms more enormous, wars nobler, more toppling mountains, more jewelled waters, more free
Dreams are beautiful; the slaves of form are beautiful also; I have grown to believe
A stone is a better pillow than many visions.
In the eighth line, which is one of the longest lines of the poem, Jeffers imagines what dreams and desires the earth might be experiencing. He suggests the earth may long to create “more enormous” storms, more “toppling mountains,” and “more jeweled waters.”
He uses a simile to suggest that the earth, in its “mordinate desires,” is similar to a “poor girl” who is overcome by what she wants from a lover and for herself. She’s constantly looking for more, wishing her lover were “taller and more desirous” and herself with more beautiful, “gold” hair.
By using personification and figurative language in this way, Jeffers is painting an image of the earth that is highly relatable. He is bringing the earth’s natural, powerful state down to a level that readers can understand. He is wondering, through the specific speaker, if the earth experiences the same excessive need for more than human beings do.
Someone like the poor girl that the poet references in the ninth line spends their dreams imagining the “world right.” They envision a world that is, in their eyes, correct. The fire and warmth in the first lines are juxtaposed against the “cold bed” in these later lines. Here, Jeffers is intentionally contrasting dreams and reality. One allows for the greatest desires one can imagine to be made real, while the other, symbolized by the cold bed, is mundane and unchangeable.
The poet ends the piece with a reference to a stone as a pillow, likely an allusion to an Old Testament story of Jacob, from the Book of Genesis, who used a stone as a pillow (as was normal during his time), had a vision while he slept of God and angels walking up to and down from Heaven, and dedicated the stone to God when he woke up. There are versions of the story in Scottish folklore. When he woke from his sleep, Jacob said of his surroundings:
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”— Genesis 28:16–18
While Jeffers’ final lines are certainly up for interpretation by different readers, the poet was likely suggesting that the stone itself was more valuable as a pillow than for any religious meaning or power it might have. He suggests that the visions one might have in their sleep of a beautiful, perfect world (or as Jacob had, of a religious one in which God and angels came and went from earth regularly) are worth less than the cold, stone reality that one wakes up into.
The purpose is to analyze the earth, desires, and reality vs. dreams. The speaker asks the earth if it too is consumed by excessive desires at night as human beings are and then proceeds to include a Biblical allusion comparing reality to a vision.
Jeffers is known for his environmental and sometimes controversial writing. Throughout his career, he created literature inspired by his home along the Pacific Coast. Much of his writing was narrative or epic in nature.
The message is that cold, hard reality is more valuable than the inordinate desires one can indulge in their dreams. The poet uses personification, allusions, and figurative language throughout to speak about this fact of life.
‘Clouds of Evening’ is a free verse poem contained within twelve lines. Some of the lines are quite long, stretching past the end of the page others are far shorter, around six or seven words. The poem is also in block form, meaning no line breaks.
The speaker is likely Jeffers himself as he stands along the California coast, considering life, consciousness, dreams, and reality. This poem utilizes the same questioning and passionate tone found in much of his work.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Robinson Jeffers poems. For example:
- ‘To The Stone-Cutters’ – explores the similarities between rock-cut sculptures and poetry. This piece highlights the timelessness of poetry.
- ‘Hands’ – is about the distance between modern civilization and past civilizations.
- ‘Vulture’ – is a poem that describes the thoughts of a speaker caught up in the beauty of death, but not quite ready to enter it.