‘Vulture’ by Robinson Jeffers is a short single stanza, free-verse poem made out of a number of statements of varying lengths. These sentence statements often cut off abruptly before the end and break at critical moments in the poem. This forces the reader to move from line to line quickly, just as the speaker jumps from thought to thought.
Summary of Vulture
Described within this piece are the thoughts of a speaker caught up in the beauty of death, but not quite ready to enter it. The speaker of this poem has spent a whole day wandering, “since dawn” and is now by the ocean. As he is in repose, a vulture begins to circle overhead, getting closer and closer. The creature is at first something to be feared, as a bearer of death, or a grim reaper but he speaks to it, explaining that his bones still work. He is not ready for death—yet.
The bird flies away and the man feel remorse at the bird’s disappointment in missing a meal, and in not getting to become part of such a beautiful animal. The speaker concludes the poem by daydreaming about what it would be like to see with a vulture’s eyes and fly with it’s wings. The bird becomes a representation of heaven, something not to be feared, but cherished. Death is no longer frightful, but promising, as the speaker wishes to transcend his own body and become more than he is. You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Vulture
‘Vulture’ begins with the first-person narrator describing his most recent actions.
I had walked since dawn…
It is clear, just from this first short statement, that the speaker has some sort of problem or trouble in his life that has cause him to have spent an entire day walking. This line evokes a sense of extended contemplation, perhaps even of brooding, as the speaker appears to have spent hours thinking about, or deciding what to do about some element in his life that is bothering him. While the exact reasoning behind this walk is not made clear, the speaker’s general state of mind and statements about life and death throughout the rest of the poem support the idea that he is troubled in some fundamental way.
In the second half of the first line and part of the second, place the speaker where he is going to be for the remainder of the piece,
…and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean.
It is likely that this spot by the ocean was not his destination, but a place of rest that would then spawn the entirety of this poem. The speaker is on his back with his eyes cast up toward the sky. He sees a vulture, “wheeling high up in heaven.” This sky above him is not described as simply, “sky,” or “space,” but as “heaven.” He is, whether through hope or belief, placing himself in a position where he is below heaven, and the vulture is “high up in” it.
The vulture is “wheeling” or circling the sky above the speaker and he is getting closer to the ground.
…presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit
The circles in which the bird is flying is taking it closer to the ground, it is coming out of heaven and down closer to earth where the speaker lives and rests on the hill by the ocean.
It is at this point in the poem the speaker’s thoughts and judgement of the bird’s intent elucidate his entire state of mind. He, “understands,” from this lowering of the bird to earth that he is, “under inspection.” The bird begins to take on two different personalities; that of an angel and that of some form of a grim reaper, or perhaps a combination of both. The speaker has become an object the vulture has come to investigate, the bird is circling hoping to discover that the man has passed on and is able to provide the vulture with its next meal.
It is not that simple for the narrator though, the bird is imbued with its own higher intent as the poem continues.
The speaker “lay[s] death-still” while under inspection by the bird and he can hear “the flight- / feathers / Whistle above [him].” He seems to be able to hear, although the bird is still a ways above him, the rustle of it’s feathers. The speaker, looking up at the bird, can see it’s,
…naked red head between the great wings
and he can tell that the bird only means to come closer. It is “bear[ing] downward staring.” It’s eyes are trained on the speaker as he lays on the beach—it seems to be coming for him. The speaker, for the first time in the poem, takes some control of the situation and speaks directly to the bird. He says,
…’My dear bird, we are wasting time
These old bones will still work;…
He is informing the vulture that he is not dead yet, it is not time for the grim reaper to ferry him into the afterlife. His bones are still working, they are not yet, “for you.” This does not, of course, mean that he will never be taken by the vulture, just not now.
After making this statement he appears to feel some remorse that his death has not actually happened He describes how beautiful the vulture looked as it “glid[ed} down” toward him, and “veer[ed] away in the / sea-light / over the precipice.” It is at this point in the poem that the vulture stops being a creature to fear, like the grim reaper, and takes on the attributes of an angelic figure.
The speaker is not only upset to see the bird go, but also unhappy that he disappointed it. He, in some part of his mind, would have been glad to be eaten by such a lovely creature. It is a death that he would not have shied away from. The speaker describes how “sublime” an end it would be to “become a part of him,” and to “share those wings and those eyes.”
Here, the speaker is dreaming of an afterlife in which he becomes more than he currently is. Whether this is to do with the problem that has sent him wandering all day, or just a general desire for more, the speaker wants to transcend his body. He finds great pleasure in the idea of “a life after death,” that is not a type of prison, but “an enskyment” in which he is to spend eternity as a vulture.
About Robinson Jeffers
Robinson Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1887 and grew up in a religious household. The Jeffers family traveled throughout Europe when Robinson was young and he attended boarding school in Germany and Switzerland. Eventually, he would enroll in the Western University of Pennsylvania and graduate from college at 18. In 1906 Jeffers met his future wife with whom he moved to the California Coast after her separation from her first husband. It was during this time that Jeffers turned his attention primarily to poetry.
Jeffers’ first book of poetry was published in 1912 and was called Flagons and Apples but it was his second which brought him greater acclaim, Tarmar and Other Poems. Nature would serve as his primary inspiration and his work is often compared to that of Walt Whitman due to its free-verse form and lyrical style. In 1932 Jeffers appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, a high point which would mark the peak of his career. It was after this that public opinion began to turn against him due to his nihilistic, and seemingly unpatriotic, world view. Robinson Jeffers died in 1962.