In ‘Hands,’ Robinson Jeffers describes the hands imprinted upon a cave in a narrow canyon at Tassajara, California, to signify the humanness of the people that are long gone. Their imprints exist to leave a part of them for future generations. This “sign-manual” painted on the wall signifies one day, every human will be supplanted. This cycle has been continuing from time immemorial. Besides, this poem also shows how to distance oneself from temporal emotions that hold them back to their clay. They have to understand the fact that every human action is transient.
In ‘Hands,’ Robinson Jeffers describes a cave that has a tapestry of hand imprints all over it.
The speaker describes the hand imprints of the people who lived near Tassajara a long time ago. They inhabited the place thinking as if nothing could replace them. To mark their existence, they painted the “vault of rock” with their hands. Since these people are dead, there is no way of knowing what these hands mean. There are no historical records to testify their intention – whether it was part of their religious practice or artwork. According to Jeffers, the past civilization asserted that they existed in this world through their hand imprints. In the end, the speaker reiterates the idea of memento mori – “remember that you have to die” – through the line, “And be supplanted; for you also are human.”
You can read the full poem here.
Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
In the first few lines of the poem, Jeffers describes a cave that has imprints of hands on it. He provides a precise location of the cave in the beginning. One can find the cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara, California. There is a “vault of rock” that contains hand imprints of the past inhabitants. They are one of the early inhabitants of the earth.
The speaker can visualize a “multitude of hands” in the twilight. This painting symbolizes the passage of time and human civilization. Furthermore, he refers to the imprints as “a cloud of men’s palms,” which proposes a vague idea of how people’s traces (acts) fade over time.
In the following lines, the poet describes how these people are long gone, and no other pictures of them exist. There is no historical record that can tell whether those imprints were part of their religious practice, some magical act, or art. According to the speaker, these carefully drawn “Signs-manual” act as a “sealed message” to the present generation. This message is conveyed in the next few lines of the poem.
Saying: ‘Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail
And be supplanted; for you also are human.’
In these lines, Jeffers uncovers the “sealed message” of the past civilization. The dead seem to be speaking through the painting. They are trying to say that they were once humans, in flesh and blood. They had hands, not paws like animals. Through this line, the poet projects their humanity.
Though modern civilizations are more intelligent, they are mortal as the ones whose handprints are painted on the cave wall. They were supplanted by their next generation. Likewise, we, the present inhabitants of the earth, will be supplanted by our future generation. In this way, Jeffers taps on the theme of memento mori or the inevitability of death and “inhumanism,” a philosophical idea developed by the poet himself.
This poem is written in free-verse. It means there is no particular rhyme scheme or meter in the text. It consists of a total of 12 lines without any stanza breaks. Jeffers wrote this piece employing the form of narrative poetry. Besides, it is written from the third-person point of view. The speaker of the poem describes the hand imprints on the cave wall near Tassajara and what these imprints signify. In the ninth line, the poet invests the cave painting with the idea of speaking directly to readers. Those who lived before actually delivered the message through the painting. The tone of the poem is objective and instructive.
The literary devices used in Jeffers’s ‘Hands’ are as follows:
- Consonance: The “l” sound is repeated in the line, “You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters.”
- Alliteration: There is a repetition of the “h” sound in closely placed words “had hands.”
- Apostrophe: The poet directly addresses readers or the present generation in the line: “You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters.”
- Imagery: The poet uses visual imagery in the line, “A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s palms.”
- Metaphor In the phrase, “a cloud of men’s palms,” the poet compares the old hand imprints on the cave wall to a cloud. This phrase conjures a vague image of the imprints.
- Simile: It occurs in the line, “Signs-manual are now like a sealed message.”
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem. For instance, the following lines are enjambed: “No other picture. There’s no one to say/ Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended/ Religion or magic, or made their tracings/ In the idleness of art.”
John Robbinson Jeffers was an American poet best known for his narrative and epic poetry. He is considered a prominent figure of the environmental movement. “Inhumanism,” a philosophical idea propounded by Jeffers, is a belief that people are too self-centered and indifferent to the “astonishing beauty of things.”
To understand transhuman magnificence, human beings need to distance themselves from emotions like love, hate, envy, etc. In this way, they can get greater objectivity in human affairs. It would also help in reducing global tensions. A glimpse of this concept can be found in his poem ‘Hands.’ Explore more Robinson Jeffers poems.
Robinson Jeffers’s poem ‘Hands’ is about the similarity between the people from the past and present civilizations. It depicts how people will always leave the earth for the next generation. Therefore, they should cherish each moment as long as they are alive.
Hands appeal to humane sensibility and express how people have certain similarities (such as the things they make, create, or paint with their hands) even though they are decades apart. In the end, the poet says that the people alive at the moment will someday meet the same fate, so they should enjoy their time on earth.
The tone of the poem is thoughtful, sincere, and ironic. It reflects the poet’s sense of objectivity while musing on the hand imprints on the cave wall.
This poem taps on a number of themes that include the inevitability of death, the futility of human actions, history, civilization, and humanity. The main idea of the poem revolves around a wall painting from the past featuring hand imprints of our early ancestors.
The following list contains a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Robinson Jeffers’s poem ‘Hands.’
- ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ by Thomas Gray — This poem brings out the ultimate truth about life and death in freely flowing lyrical lines.
- ‘Apparently with no surprise’ by Emily Dickinson — This poem explores the themes of life, death, time, and God.
- ‘To Time’ by Sylvia Plath — In this poem, Plath depicts time as a machine that moves through history, depleting it of all purpose.
- ‘Allegory of the Cave’ by Stephen Dunn — This poem is an allusion to Plato’s Cave, a philosophical story about changing perception in a hostile environment.
You can also explore these incredible poems about death.