The Eye by Robinson Jeffers: Critical Appreciation

The poem The Eye is a satiric poem that satirizes the human craze and the history of war and destruction. The poem is a meditation on the Pacific Ocean, whose very name means "peaceful". If we look carefully for hints, we find that the situation of the speaker of the poem is that of being on the shore of the Pacific and looking west, thinking about the human predicament. He is looking at the Pacific and is reminded of the wars and violence in which human beings have been involved for thousands of years.

Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

Then after talking about the two Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, the speaker thinks of the Pacific Ocean which he thinks is a grand, eye which is so serious and peaceful that its seriousness mocks at the foolish wars and destructions of human being. The speaker is standing high up on a mountainous shore, looking out westwards (look west') across the immensity of the Pacific Ocean, and he is therefore somewhere in America. A further important element in the situation is the presence of the ships in the Pacific, and airplanes which signify war — though it seems that he does not see these immediately before him but he is merely thinking of their presence.

The poem's external situation does not develop since it is a typically meditative situation in which the poetic persona is pondering over abstract issues, though there are concrete things to provoke his thoughts and emotions. Our search for the intention of the poet may leave us for a moment, slightly confused, but as we consider the comparison, the conclusion and the praise of the Ocean of Peace (Pacific) quickly suggest that the poem is a satire of wars and violence. After some passing allusions to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the writer is inviting us to think with him 'about the Pacific Ocean, near which he is situated as he composes the poem. The key adverb of place 'here' appears again a little later: "Here from this mountain shore..." and this enables us to picture the poet's situation more precisely.

The poem begins with a critical statement that describes the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in pejorative terms. The speaker says that the Atlantic is simply a "stormy moat"; and he says that the Mediterranean Sea is a "pool in the old garden" which has "drunk sacrifice of ships and blood" for more than five thousand years. A disconcerting aspect of the opening lines is the grammatical relationship of 'Mediterranean' to the rest, but this uncertainty disappears as soon as we look carefully at the sentence structure and see that, following on the simple sentence: The Atlantic is a stormy moat, we have a considerably more complex one, built around the subject 'The Mediterranean' and its two predicates: has drunk sacrifice..., and shines in the sun. On a second reading we are able to tell that the Mediterranean is in the Middle East and therefore it has been the cause or witness of many, many terrible bloodshed among human beings. The Atlantic, we may think has done nothing of the sort, being between the Democratic America and the Glorious Britain. But the case is that the British, the Spaniards and many other greedy and blood-thirsty tribes have crossed the Atlantic and gone to America to kill thousands of the innocent native Red Indians, for establishing their model Democracy of the world! This is the satire that the poet has intended.

Now, we can begin to see the nature of the developing thought in the poem. Against the immensity of the Pacific Ocean (and we remember, ironically, that 'pacific' literally means 'peaceful'), the wars and the blood feuds which take place, whether in the present or the future, seem and will seem, quite trivial and 'irrelevant': though men think they have done something great and good when they fight a senseless war and kill a mind-breaking number of people, the Pacific, the eternal eye of the nature and may be of truth and peace regards that achievement of savage war-makers as "a mote of dust in the great scale-pan". Their wars are of very minor significance in the great weighing up of human affairs. 'The great scale-pan' a metaphor from weighing, trading and evaluating, is a direct reminder of the Last Judgment, the time when perhaps like Belshazzar in the Bible, we shall be 'weighed in the balances. The poet obviously thinks with some disdain, or contempt, of the human warfare which is taking place in the Pacific area, and so describes them as a dirty small object or "moat". He gives no indication of taking sides, or showing political partisanship, even though, as we know he is looking westwards and is presumably an American, or at least American-based. 'Dwarfs we suspect may refer in a slightly derogatory way to Japanese, or Asian soldiers, but at least they are credited with being 'brave', while the bloody migrations, greed of power, battle-falcons refer impartially to 'westering or eastering man'.

War certainly exists in the Pacific, and will probably continue to exist, but in the vision of this poet it is no more than a minor, irritating phenomenon, stupid and vicious in itself, but of only short-lived significance. As his imagination dwells upon the Pacific, it is not the wars which capture his interest, but the sheer immensity of the enormous expanses. We notice that he does not think of it as a vast flat area: his mind has been trained in Modern sciences and geography; he is aware that, to astronauts in space 'satellites', the curvature of the Earth's surface is very apparent. So, we are invited, in a series of metaphors to think of the Pacific as 'a hill of water', a 'dome', a 'half-globe', and by a final, more imaginative act of comparison, 'a bulging eyeball of water'. The comparison, if we think about it, is apt in several ways,' in shape, in the wateriness, in the division between the outward and the inward parts of the eye, comparable to the watery expanses of the Pacific Ocean contrasted to the landed half of the globe containing Asia and Europe. On the far side of the eyeball-like ocean are Asia, Australia and Antarctica which, according to his comparison, represent 'the eye-lids which never close' — because they are too far apart!

The poem does not close merely on this ingenious comparison. Having been given the- metaphor of the Pacific as the eye of the Earth, which watches other things than 'our wars', we find ourselves led on to speculate what this 'eye of the world' is watching; and this gives us an impression of the Earth as a sentient, intelligent, watchful being, looking out unblinkingly — into what? No definite answer is given to this question. Into the outer realms of Space, perhaps: into the mysteries and uncertainties of the future. In relation to such immensities, however, how utterly old-fashioned and 'irrelevant' are our quaint out-of-date human activities, such as War. Now that we have followed the development of the poem in broad outline, we can state its intention more exactly. It is a 'war poem', but its commentary on War is made not by the painting of heartrending pictures of suffering and death, destruction and agony; nor by extolling the human heroism, the technical skill, the miracles or organization involved.

The poem shows us the phenomena of human warfare against the background of the whole universe, so that we see that War does not belong to the eternal order of things: it is one of the quaintly foolish inventions of mankind, which we may hope they will soon become too mature to indulge in. If we look back through the poem to appreciate other interesting aspects of the writer's technique, we notice how the first four introductory lines of the poem give us quick passing details of the strife-filled history of the other oceans, and show something of the poet's skill in the choice of metaphor. The Atlantic is not only 'stormy', but long and clearly defined between parallel lines like a 'moat', the military defensive fortification, excavated as it were to protect America against the ravages, 'the greed of power', of Europe. The Mediterranean, though at first glance so beautiful, 'the blue pool in the old garden shining in the sun', has for five thousand years, stretching back to the very earliest history of modem man, been living, like a savage, inhuman God, on the sacrifices of ships, men, and 'blood'.

This is not a poem which depends obviously on 'pattern', either of rhyme or the more noticeable kind of rhythm. We do notice, however, that it has a rightness of construction which is based upon an easy, natural flow of normal speech, for instance, the ships, planes, wars are perfectly irrelevant look west at the hill of water which is combined with painstaking search for the appropriate word. We notice a careful balancing and continuity of phrasing: the Mediterranean had its sacrifices of 'blood': now, in the twentieth century, it is the Pacific which witnesses the 'blood-feuds'. Wars in the past were limited in scope: any which occur in the future are likely to be no less than 'world-quarrels'. The parties in conflict are not labelled in the usual conventional way as East and West, but `Eastering' and 'Westering' man: the participial form with its sense of continuous or 'progressive' activity, suggests the perpetually aggressive tendencies of the two rival power-blocks which are always, as it were, quietly on the move towards each other's territories. `Eastering' and 'Westering' are also recognizable as metaphors from navigation.

A further sudden but bold metaphor is given to us in 'battle-falcons', which are presumably the combat airplanes of the warring powers, circling round each other mutually seeking to deliver the death stroke; the particular effect of the metaphor is to distance the airplanes from the spectator: we are given no sensational details about the technical refinements of the aircrafts or of the skill and courage of the pilots; they are observed far away and high up, where it is impossible to distinguish friend from foe and where they seem to have the least possible relevance to life on Earth below. The language of the poem is sparse and economical, but we notice an interesting effect of rhythmic contrast which enters the poem on line 10 and 11. Our thoughts have just been brought back to the actual look-out situation of the poet, and now the words surge out powerfully in long phrases as he creates in our mind a word equivalent of the rhythmic, receding coastline: "Here from this mountain shore, headland beyond stormy/ headland plunging like dolphins through the grey sea- smoke/ Into the pale sea, look west at the hill of water."

The simile of the 'plunging dolphins' makes a useful contribution to the rhythmic sea-scape. Other neat touches of rhythmic effect occur with the phrase: this half-globe, this bulging Eyeball of water where the breaking of the line after 'bulging throws maximum attention on the very important metaphor 'Eyeball' at the beginning of the following line, and strengthens the power of this unexpected but acceptable conceit. The same effect is repeated two lines later, with the same success: this is the staring, unsleeping Eye of the earth We notice in closing the puzzling, cryptic effect of the final words, given some extra power by the alliterative 'w': and what it watches is not our wars. What is it watching if not our wars? we are almost compelled to echo back.

The final judgment on this poem will vary according to the experience of the student-critic. Some sophisticated and widely-read readers may find it to be a rather over-intellectual poem, pretentiously philosophical, and over-derivative from other well-known poems in the English language. On the other hand, it may be expected that, for most students using this book, the poem will stimulate a pleasing and thoughtful use of the intellect and imagination, and will cause them to think about certain problems more carefully than before. (Adapted from Moody's Appreciation)

Related Topics

Shine, Perishing Republic: Summary and Analysis

The Eye: Summary

The Eye: Literary Appreciation

Robinson Jeffers: Biography