The idea of the poem ‘To The Stone-Cutters’ was first born in Jeffers’ mind while having a conversation with the stone-cutter Robert Maddock. In this poem, Jeffers highlights the fleeting nature of time. People across the world always look to leave a lasting mark for their future generations. Stone-cutters/sculptors, and poets achieve this through their art. In this poem, the poet immortalizes the legacy of poets and stone-cut sculptures that survive the ravages of time.
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In ‘To The Stone-Cutters,’ Robinson Jeffers talks about the timelessness of poetry and how it withstands the vagaries of time like stones.
In the beginning, the speaker describes how sculptors essentially fight with time to carve stone. Their work requires long hours of patience and perseverance. It shows the integrity of the stone-cutters, who seek to leave a mark on the world.
In the following lines, the speaker describes how poets and stone-cutters get “cynical earnings” – money that is purely made for the sake of living. The speaker is aware that those things do not leave a lasting mark in this world.
In the last few lines, he talks about how the poets build their monuments “mockingly like the sculptor.” This line hints at the fact that words and stone live past mortal human beings and survive till eternity. In the end, Jeffers realizes that the sun, the earth, and people all will eventually die, yet stone and words live for thousands of years.
You can read the full poem here.
Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you fore-defeated
Builds his monument mockingly:
The first three lines of ‘To The Stone-Cutters’ set apart stone-cutters from the rest of society. Jeffers refers to the stone-cutters as the “Challengers of oblivion.” It is because, through their stone works, they preserve their mark on earth. Those marks will not wear down even after their death. Jeffers uses figures of speech like metaphor and symbolism to elevate the artistic effect of these lines.
In the third line, the speaker describes how stone-cutters make a meager amount of money for their work. For them, money is like “rock splits” and “records” – both of which won’t last forever. However, their work will remain on earth for the time being.
In the fourth and fifth lines, Jeffers interestingly personifies letters inscribed on Roman architecture. He describes the letters to be “squared-limbed.” The proportions of these sculptures increase and decrease as the seasons change.
Likewise, poets build up a monument of their works that mock the transience of mortal beings. Here, the speaker refers to poetry as a rock-cut “monument.” This metaphor hints at the fact that words outlive human beings and remain revered for ages. In this way, the “stone-cutters” of society, poets live forever through their monumental works.
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth dies, the brave sun
The honey peace in old poems.
In the last four lines, the tone becomes more confident and visionary. The poet narrates what will happen once the present generation is replaced by a newer generation. According to him, human lives are “blotted out.” The “blithe earth” also dies along with the “brave sun.” In contrast, the carved stones will remain to tell their story. Poetry will be there to showcase the pained thoughts of the past poets. The future generation will find peace in those heartfelt words. In this way, Jeffers highlights the timelessness of art and, most importantly, of poetry.
‘To The Stone-Cutters’ is addressed to the sculptors who toil hard to leave a mark before their death. Specifically, this poem implicitly refers to the poets as stone-cutters. It is written in free-verse as it does not follow any traditional rules of poetry and has no set rhyme scheme or meter. It has 10 lines in total, alternating between longer and shorter lines, giving the poem an asymmetrical structure. Besides, this poem is written from the third-person point of view, and the tone is mocking, ironic, serious, and confident.
Jeffers uses several literary devices in ‘To The Stone-Cutters’ to convey his message. The poetic devices used in the poem are as follows:
- Personification: The poet uses personification in the lines, “The square-limbed Roman letters,” where he refers to the labels on the sculptures as having square limbs. In the lines, “the brave sun/ Die blind, his heart blackening,” he personifies the sun.
- Irony: The poet uses irony in the lines, “the brave sun/ Die blind, his heart blackening.” Though the sun is the brightest star, it is also going to blackout one day.
- Enjambment: It occurs across the text. For instance, the first two lines, “Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you fore-defeated/ Challengers of oblivion,” are enjambed.
- Consonance: It occurs in the lines, “For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth dies, the brave sun,/ Die blind, his heart blackening:”.
- Symbolism: Jeffers does not mention the word “sculptures” directly in the poem, even though it is what the poem is about. Sculptures symbolize the past and the fragments of society that passed the test of time. According to the speaker, poetry is like rock-cut sculptures that withstand the ravages of time.
- Metaphor: In the lines, “Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you fore-defeated/ Challengers of oblivion,” – the speaker refers to “Stone-cutters” as the “Challengers of oblivion” as they strive to carve stones that will not crumble down for thousands of years.
John Robbinson Jeffers was an American poet best known for his poems orbiting the central California coast. In Memories of Tor House, Garth Jeffers notes that the poem ‘To The Stone-Cutters’ was written in the poet’s mind during a conversation with Robert Maddock, who was hired to craft the gargoyles and keystone plates of Hawk Tower. Jeffers built the Hawk Tower, a four-story stone tower, on the site of the Tor House, which he built with his own hands. It was constructed in Carmel, California. Jeffers hired a local builder, Micheal Murphy, who taught him about stonemasonry. Many of Robinson Jeffers’s poems, including ‘To The Stone-Cutters’, reflect the influence of stone and building on his life.
Robinson Jeffers’ poem ‘To The Stone-Cutters’ is about the stone-cutters and poets since both have a legacy that they leave behind. The stone-cutters build lasting monuments that survive the ravages of time. Alongside that, poetic words leave a lasting mark on readers’ minds.
The poem’s inspiration stems from Robinson Jeffers’ long-standing interest in building and stonemasonry. He built his first home, the “Tor House” with his own hands with the help of a local builder, Micheal Murphy, in Carmel, California.
The poem is written in free-verse. It does not have a regular rhyme scheme and meter. There are a total of ten lines in the poem that are grouped into a single stanza. Besides, the poem is told from the perspective of a third-person speaker who is none other than the poet himself.
The tone of the poem is confident, serious, ironic, and cynical. It reflects a speaker’s confidence in the immortality of art and the timelessness of poetry.
The central theme of the poem centers around the timelessness of art. In this poem, the poet describes how sculptures and poetry withstand the withering of time and carry on the legacy of their creators.
The following list contains a number of poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Robinson Jeffers’s poem ‘To The Stone-Cutters.’
- ‘Landmark’ by Owen Sheers — This poem explores a couple’s sexual encounter and how their bodies leave a mark on the land.
- ‘American Poetry’ by Louis Simpson — This piece describes poetry as a gigantic creature that is able to devour a significant number of subjects.
- ‘Stone’ by Charles Simic — This poem is about one of the simplest things that nature has to offer—the stone.
- ‘How happy is the little Stone’ by Emily Dickinson — In this poem, Dickinson describes the rambling adventures of a stone, evoking joy and whimsy in readers.
You can also explore these incredible poems about time.