Within this poem, readers will encounter a perception of nature heavily influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson. But, Jeffers draws a clear distinction between Emerson’s understanding of nature (and humanity’s unity with it) as unreal except in “how we make it” and Jeffers’ own opinion of nature as separate from humanity (seen through the continuation of nature’s heartbreaking beauty after the mind that perceives it has disappeared).
Robinson Jeffers was an American poet who is perhaps best-known for his works written about the California coast and, specifically, his long poem, ‘The Woman at Point Sur.’ This work, and the poet himself, were subjected to some amount of criticism after its publication due to its sexual and violent themes. He passed away on January 20th, 1962, at the age of seventy-five.
‘Credo’ by Robinson Jeffers is a powerful poem that asserts the poet’s beliefs about humanity’s connection to the natural world.
In the first lines of this poem, the poet begins by creating an allusion to the beliefs of Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson in his depiction of his friend from Asia. This unnamed man understands the beauty of nature as something existing only within humanity’s perception of it.
Jeffers immediately creates a contrast with this specific understanding of the natural world. His speaker, who is commonly considered to be the poet himself, describes nature as existing outside of humanity’s perception. When the mind passes, the heartbreaking beauty that is perceived within the natural world is going to exist without any hearts to break, he concludes.
You can read the full poem here.
My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
In the first lines of this poem, Jeffers opens the poem by describing a “friend from Asia.” This person goes unnamed. But, throughout, the speaker draws a direct contrast between this person’s beliefs and his own. He knows that his friend has “powers and magic.” This is seen through his ability to pick a leaf from the “young / blue-gum,” (a common name for a subspecies of eucalyptus). When the man picks the leaf, he can gaze at it, “gathering and quieting / the God in his mind” and create an “ocean more real than the ocean.” He can imagine a world greater than that which he’s living in. One in which the “ocean” is “more real than the ocean.”
Here, the speaker, commonly considered to be Jeffers himself, draws his distinction. He knows as the next lines point out, that nature and all the beautiful sights that humankind can feel transcended by, are only temporarily existing in his mind. His mind will, one day, be lost, and the world will continue on without him.
The Asian, on the other hand, feels the presence of nature inside his mind and, in the vein of Ralph Waldo Emerson, believes that beauty in nature does not exist without a human mind to describe it as “beautiful.” He believed that the individual developed a personal relationship with nature, as the Asian does in this poem. In his “Prospects,” Emerson wrote the following:
Know then, that the world exists for you. For you is the phenomenon perfect.
All people, he believed, could achieve spiritual understanding. Everything that philosophers of the past believed and experienced can be translated into new experiences today. In his journal, Emerson added to this idea, writing:
In the instant you leave far behind all human relations, wife, mother and child, and live only with the savages—water, air, light, carbon, lime, and granite. Nature grows over me. Frogs pipe; waters far off tinkle; dry leaves hiss; grass bends and rustles, and I have died out of the human world and come to feel a strange, cold, aqueous, terraqueous, aerial, ethereal sympathy and existence. I sow the sun and moon for seeds.
Emerson believed that nature was an expression of humanity’s spirit, far more unified with humankind than Jeffers depicts it within ‘Credo.’ In the following lines, he expands on his understanding of the separation of nature from humanity.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found in
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
In the seventh line of his poem, Jeffers makes a clear statement regarding what his Asian friend believes. He knows that this person believes that “nothing is real except as we make it.” This reflects Emerson’s belief that nature’s beauty is real due to humanity’s perception of it.
Jeffers’ speaker notes that “harder mysticism” is within his blood. A mysticism that was bred “west of Caucasus,” or a region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea (this phrase contains a deeper allusion to Eastern philosophy). He does not find the peace in transcendence in the same way that Emerson does. While Emerson writes about the unity of all natural elements and humanity, including the spirit/soul, Jeffers sees that “out there is the ocean’s.” Nature belongs to nature, he states.
He experiences the “multitude” of the world in his mind, utilizing an example of personification that furthers his depiction of nature as separate from humanities perception of it, but, he adds, he thinks that the “ocean in the bone vault is only / the bone vault’s ocean.”
Here, Jeffers describes the brain as a “bone vault” and that one’s perception of the ocean, within their mind, is separate from the ocean itself. When he looks out at the ocean from his well-known home along the Pacific coast, he sees it as its own entity. “Out there is the ocean’s” it is not dependent on humanity’s perception of it.
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.
The last few lines of this poem are far clearer and easier to understand than the initial sections. Jeffers uses examples of repetition in the structure of the next line. He notes that “water is the water” and the “cliff is the rock.” Here, just as he previously noted about the ocean, he states that the water belongs to the water and the rock to the rock. Again, the natural beauty of the world and nature itself exists outside humanity’s perception. It exists for a time within one’s mind, but the mind passes, and the eyes close. The spirit is but a “passage,” not an element unified with nature that exists forever within it.
The poem concludes with three commonly quoted lines that summarize, in fairly simple language, Robinson Jeffers’ understanding of the natural world. He notes that the “beauty of things was born before eyes,” or that the beauty of the natural world existed before humanity’s perception of it as beautiful. And it is “sufficient to itself.” Again, he notes that nature does not need a human being to experience a transcendent moment within it for it to be transcendent.
Finally, he concludes, the “heartbreaking beauty” of the world will exist when there is “no heart to break for it.” This line echoes the previous sentiments he shared about his belief that nature’s beauty is sufficient to itself and independent from humanity.
Throughout ‘Credo,’ Jeffers focuses on the theme of nature and humanity’s connection to it. Robinson Jeffers is well known for his environmental poems and sometimes controversial topics. But, within this piece, he focuses on how his beliefs about the natural world contrast with the well-known Transcendentalist perspective of nature. He defines nature as sufficient to itself. It does not need a human being to describe it as beautiful to exist in that form. When the mind passes, the ocean will still be the ocean and exist just as powerfully.
Structure and Form
‘Credo’ by Robinson Jeffers is a seventeen-line poem contained within a single stanza of verse. The lines are written in free verse. This means that Jeffers did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are also quite different in their lengths. For example, the first line is sixteen words long, and the second is only one. Jeffers does make use of numerous literary devices, such as repetition, that help to provide this piece with a feeling of rhyme and rhythm. These are described in more detail below.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Repetition: the use of the same image, word, phrase, structure, or another poetic element within a poem. In this case, Jeffers creates phrases that utilize the same words multiple times and structures a few lines in parallel forms. For example: “The water is the water, the cliff is the rock.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “gazing” and “gathering” in line three.
- Imagery: is seen in the poet’s use of particularly interesting and effective descriptions. They should trigger readers’ senses and help them imagine scenes and clear detail. For example, “the ocean in the bone vault is only / The bone vault’s ocean.”
- Allusion: seen through the poet’s reference to something outside the direct scope of the poem. In this case, the poet alludes to the beliefs of Transcendentalist writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and his depiction of his “friend from Asia.”
In writing this poem, Robinson Jeffers aims to relay his beliefs about nature and its existence outside humanity’s perception. He also alludes to the work of Transcendentalist authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Generally, the speaker of this poem is described as Robinson Jeffers himself. The speaker expresses the same beliefs about the natural world that Robinson often included in his literary works. Additionally, it’s a well-known fact that Jeffers was highly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist writings. They were clear allusions to Emerson’s contrasting beliefs about nature and humanity’s connection to it within this poem.
The message is that nature exists beyond humanity’s perception of it, in contrast to Transcendentalist writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jeffers believed that when the mind passes, nature’s beauty remains. The ocean belongs to itself and is not dependent on humanity’s understanding.
The word “credo,” which appears as the title of Robinson Jeffers’ poem, describes a statement of beliefs that aims to guide someone else or change their opinion. It is related to the word “creed,” more commonly used in everyday conversations.
Jeffers is known for his environmental and sometimes controversial writing. He created literature inspired by his home along the Pacific Coast throughout his career. Much of his writing was narrative or epic.
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’ – a poem that describes the thoughts of a speaker caught up in the beauty of death, but not quite ready to enter it.