Margrave by Robinson Jeffers
On the small marble-paved platform
On the turret on the head of the tower,
Watching the night deepen.
I feel the rock-edge of the continent
Reel eastward with me below the broad stars.
I lean on the broad worn stones of the parapet top
And the stones and my hands that touch them reel eastward.
The inland mountains go down and new lights
Glow over the sinking east rim of the earth.
The dark ocean comes up,
And reddens the western stars with its fog-breath
And hides them with its mounded darkness.
The earth was the world and man was its measure, but our minds
Through the little mock-dome of heaven the telescope-slotted
observatory eyeball, there space and multitude came in
And the earth is a particle of dust by a sand-grain sun, lost in a
nameless cove of the shores of a continent.
Galaxy on galaxy, innumerable swirls of innumerable stars, endured
as it were forever and humanity
Came into being, its two or three million years are a moment, in
a moment it will certainly cease out from being
And galaxy on galaxy endure after that as it were forever . . .
But man is conscious,
He brings the world to focus in a feeling brain,
In a net of nerves catches the splendor of things,
Breaks the somnambulism of nature . . . His distinction perhaps,
Hardly his advantage. To slaver for contemptible pleasures
And scream with pain, are hardly an advantage.
Consciousness? The learned astronomer
Analyzing the light of most remote star-swirls
Has found them-or a trick of distance deludes his prism-
All at incredible speeds fleeing outward from ours.
I thought, no doubt they are fleeing the contagion
Of consciousness that infects this corner of space.
For often I have heard the hard rocks I handled
Groan, because lichen and time and water dissolve them,
And they have to travel down the strange falling scale
Of soil and plants and the flesh of beasts to become
The bodies of men, they murmur at their fate
In the hollows of windless nights, they’d rather be anything
Than human flesh played on by pain and joy,
They pray for annihilation sooner, but annihilation’s
Not in the book yet.
So, I thought, the rumor
Of human consciousness has gone abroad in the world,
The sane uninfected far-outer universes
Flee it in a panic of escape, as men flee the plague
Taking a city: for look at the fruits of consciousness:
As in young Walter Margrave when he’d been sentenced for
murder: he was thinking when they brought him back
To the cell in jail,
‘I’ve only a moment to arrange my thoughts,
I must think quickly, I must think clearly,
And settle the world in my mind before I kick off,’ but to feel
the curious eyes of his fellow-prisoners
And the wry-mouthed guard’s and so forth torment him through
the steel bars put his mind in a stupor, he could only
Sit frowning, ostentatiously unafraid. ‘But I can control my
mind, their eyes can’t touch my will.
One against all. What use is will at this end of everything? A
kind of nausea is the chief feeling . . .
In my stomach and throat . . . but in my head pride: I fought
a good fight and they can’t break me, alone, unbroken,
Against a hundred and twenty-three million people. They are
going to kill the best brain perhaps in the world,
That might have made such discoveries in science
As would set the world centuries ahead, for I had the mind and
the power. Boo, it’s their loss. Blind fools,
Killing their best.’ When his mind forgot the eyes it made rapid
capricious pictures instead of words,
But not of the medical school and the laboratories, its late intense
interest, not at all of his crime, glimpses
Of the coast-range at home, the V of a westward canyon with
Blue line of the ocean strung sharp across it, that domed hill up
the valley, two cows like specks on the summit
And a beautiful-colored jungle of poison-oak at the foot, his
sister half naked washing her hair,
‘My dirty sister,’ whose example and her lovers had kept him
chaste by revulsion, the reed-grown mouth of the river
And the sand-bar against the stinging splendor of the sea …
and anguish behind all the pictures
(He began to consider his own mind again) ‘like a wall they
hang on.’ Hang. The anguish came forward, an actual
Knife between two heartbeats, the organ stopped and then raced.
He experimented awhile with his heart,
Making in his mind a picture of a man hanged, pretending to
himself it was to happen next moment,
Trying to observe whether the beat suspended ‘suspended,’ he
thought in systole or in diastole.
The effect soon failed, the anguish remained. ‘Ah my slack
lawyer, damn him, let slip chance after chance.
Scared traitor.’ Then broken pictures of the scenes in court, the
jury, the judge, the idlers, and not one face
But bleak with hatred. ‘But I met their eyes, one against all.’
Suddenly his mind became incapable
Of making pictures or words, but still wildly active, striking in
all directions like a snake in a fire,
Finding nothing but the fiery element of its own anguish. He got
up and felt the guard’s eyes and sat down,
Turned side-face, resting his chin on his fist, frowning and
trembling. He saw clearly in his mind the little
Adrenal glands perched on the red-brown kidneys, as if all his
doomed tissues became transparent,
Pouring in these passions their violent secretion
Into his blood-stream, raising the tension unbearably. And the
thyroids, tension, tension. A long course of that
Should work grave changes. ‘If they tortured a man like a laboratory
dog for discovery: there’d be value gained: but by
Of law for vengeance, because his glands and his brain have
made him act in another than common manner:
You incredible breed of asses!’ He smiled self-consciously in
open scorn of the people, the guard at the door
To observe that smile ‘my God, do I care about the turnkey’s
opinion? ‘suddenly his mind again
Was lashing like a burnt snake. Then it was torpid for a while.
This continued for months.
His father had come to visit him, he saw the ruinous white-haired head
Through two steel wickets under the bluish electric light that
seemed to peel the skin from the face.
Walter said cheerfully too loudly, ‘Hullo. You look like a skull.’
The shaven sunk jaws in answer chewed
Inaudible words. Walter with an edge of pleasure thought ‘Once
he was stronger than I! I used to admire
This poor old man’s strength when I was a child,’ and said ‘Buck
up, old fellow, it will soon be over. Here’s nothing
To cry for. Do you think I’m afraid to die? It’s good people that
fear death, people with the soft streak
Of goodness in them fear death: but I, you know, am a monster,
don’t you read the papers? Caught at last:
I fought a hundred and twenty-three million people. How’s
Hazel? How’s the farm? I could get out of this scrape
By playing dementia, but I refuse to, there’s not an alienist living
Could catch me out. I’m the king of Spain dying for the world.
I’ve been persecuted since I was born
By a secret sect, they stuck pins into me
And fed me regular doses of poison for a certain reason. Why
do you pretend that you’re my father?
God is. … Believe me, I could get by with it.
But I refuse.’
Old Margrave looked timidly at the two guards
listening, and drew his brown tremulous hand
Across his eyes below the white hair. ‘I thought of going to try
to see the governor, Walter.’
‘That’s it!’ ‘Don’t hope for anything, Walter, they tell me that
there’s no hope. They say that I shan’t even
Be allowed to see him.’ ‘By God,’ the young man said trembling,
‘you can if you want to. Never believe that lawyer.
If I’d had Dorking: but you couldn’t afford him. Poor men have
no right to breed sons. I’d not be here
If you’d had money to put me through college. Tell the governor
I know he won’t pardon, but he can commute the sentence to
life imprisonment. Then I can read and study,
I can help the penitentiary doctor, I can do something to help
humanity. Tell him it’s madness
To throw such a brain as mine into the garbage. Don’t deny my
guilt but tell him my reasons.
I kidnapped the little girl to get money to finish my medical
education. What’s one child’s life
Against a career like mine that might have saved
Thousands of children? Say I’d isolated the organism of infantile
paralysis: I’d have done more:
But that alone would save thousands of children. I was merciful,
she died quietly, tell him that.
It was only pithing a little white frog.
Don’t you think you can make him understand? I’m not a criminal:
I judge differently from others. I wasn’t
Afraid to think for myself. All I did
Was for money for my education, to help humanity. And tell
him if I’ve done wrong what’s wrong? I’ve paid for it
With frightful suffering: the more developed the brain the greater
the agony. He won’t admit that. Oh God,
These brains the size of a pea! To be juried
And strangled by a hundred and twenty-three million peas. Go
down on your knees to him. You owe me that: you’d no right
To breed, you’re poor.
But you itched for a woman, you had to fetch me out of the
happy hill of not-being. Pfah, to hug a woman
And make this I. That’s the evil in the world, that letter. I-I-
Tell the governor
That I’m not afraid of dying, that I laugh at death. No, no, we’ll
laugh in private. Tell him I’m crazy.
I’ve come to that: after being the only sane mind among a hundred
and twenty-three million peas.
Anything, anything . . .’
He had let his nerves go wild on purpose,
to edge on the old man to action, now at last
Escaping utterly out of control they stumbled into a bog of thick
sobs. The guards pulled him up
And walked him away as if he were half insensible. He was not
insensible, but more acutely aware
Than ever in his life before of all that touched him, and of shame
You would be wise, you far stars,
To flee with the speed of light this infection.
For here the good sane invulnerable material
And nature of things more and more grows alive and cries.
The rock and water grow human, the bitter weed
Of consciousness catches the sun, it clings to the near stars,
Even the nearer portion of the universal God
Seems to become conscious, yearns and rejoices
And suffers: I believe this hurt will be healed
Some age of time after mankind has died,
Then the sun will say ‘What ailed me a moment?’ and resume
The old soulless triumph, and the iron and stone earth
With confident inorganic glory obliterate
Her ruins and fossils, like that incredible unfading red rose
Of desert in Arizona glowing life to scorn,
And grind the chalky emptied seed-shells of consciousness
The bare skulls of the dead to powder, after some million
Courses around the sun her sadness may pass:
But why should you worlds of the virgin distance
Endure to survive what it were better to escape?
I also am not innocent
Of contagion, but have spread my spirit on the deep world.
I have gotten sons and sent the fire wider.
I have planted trees, they also feel while they live.
I have humanized the ancient sea-sculptured cliff
And the ocean’s wreckage of rock
Into a house and a tower,
Hastening the sure decay of granite with my hammer,
Its hard dust will make soft flesh,
And have widened in my idleness
The disastrous personality of life with poems,
That are pleasant enough in the breeding but go bitterly at last
To envy oblivion and the early deaths of nobler
Verse, and much nobler flesh,
And I have projected my spirit
Behind the superb sufficient forehead of nature
To gift the inhuman God with this rankling consciousness.
But who is our judge? It is likely the enormous
Beauty of the world requires for completion our ghostly increment,
It has to dream, and dream badly, a moment of its night.
On the little stone-belted platform
On the turret on the head of the tower,
Between the stars and the earth,
And the ocean and the continent.
One ship’s light shines and eclipses
Very far out, behind the high waves on the hill of water.
In the east under the Hyades and rising Orion
Are many cities and multitudes of people,
But westward a long way they are few enough.
It is fortunate to look westward as to look upward.
In the south the dark river-mouth pool mirrors a star
That stands over Margrave’s farmhouse. The old man has lost it,
he isn’t there any more. He went down to the river-mouth
Last December, when recent rains had opened the stream and the
salmon were running. Fishermen very solemnly
Stood all along the low sand like herons, and sea-lions offshore
in the rolling waves with deep wet voices
Coughed at each other, the sea air is hoarse with their voices that
time of year. Margrave had rambled since noon
Among the little folds of the seaward field that he had forgotten
to plow and was trying to sell
Though he used to love it, but everything was lost now. He lay
awhile on his face in the rotting stubble and random
Unsown green blades, then he got up and drifted over the ridge
to the river-mouth sands, unaimed,
Pale and gap-eyed, as the day moon a clear morning, opposite the
sun. He noticed with surprise the many
Fishermen like herons in the shallows and along the sands, and
then that his girl Hazel was with him: who’d feared
What he might do to himself and had come to watch him when
he lay face down in the field. ‘I know what they’re doing,’
He said slyly, ‘Hazel, they’re fishing! I guess they don’t know,’
He whispered, ‘about our trouble. Oh no, don’t tell them.’ She
said, ‘Don’t go down, father, your face would tell them.
Sit here on the edge of grass, watch the brown river meet the
blue sea. Do look: that boy’s caught something.
How the line cuts the water and the small wheel sings.’ ‘If I’d
Old Margrave answered, ‘they’d have fixed the hook for . . .
Walter . . . with some other bait. It sticks in my mind that
. . . Walter
Blames me too much.’ ‘Look,’ Hazel said, ‘he’s landing it now.
Oh, it’s a big one.’ ‘I dreamed about fishing,
Some time ago,’ he answered, ‘but we were the fish. I saw the
people all running reaching for prizes
That dangled on long lines from the sky. A lovely girl or a sack
of money or a case of whiskey,
Or fake things like reputation, hackle-feathers and a hook. A man
would reach up and grab and the line
Jerked, then you knew by his face that the hook was in him,
wherever he went. Often they’re played for half
A lifetime before they’re landed: others, like . . . my son . . .
pulled up short. Oh, Oh,
It’s not a dream.’ He said gently, ‘He wanted money for his
education, but you poor girl
Wanted boy friends, now you’ve got a round belly. That’s the
hook. I wanted children and got
Walter and you. Hm? Hooked twice is too much. Let’s walk.’
‘Not that way: let’s go up home, daddy.
It makes you unhappy to see them fishing.’ ‘No,’ he answered,
‘nothing can. I have it in my pocket.’ She walked behind him,
Hiding herself, ashamed of her visible pregnancy and her brother’s
fate, but when the old man stumbled
And wavered on the slope she went beside him to support him,
her right hand under his elbow, and wreathed his body
With the other arm.
The clear brown river ran eagerly through
the sand-hill, undercutting its banks,
That slid in masses, tall waves walked very slowly up stream from
the sea, and stood
Stationary in the throat of the channel before they dissolved. The
rock the children call Red-cap stood
High and naked among the fishermen, the orange lichen on its
head. At the sea-end of the sand
Two boys and a man had rifles instead of rods, they meant to
punish the salmon-devouring sea-lions
Because the fish were fewer than last year, whenever a sleek
brown head with the big questioning eyes
Broke sea they fired. Margrave had heard the shots but taken no
notice, but when he walked by the stream
He saw a swimmer look up from the water and its round dark eye
Suddenly burst red blood before it went down. He cried out and
twisted himself from Hazel’s hand
And ran like a squirrel along the stream-bank. ‘I’ll not allow it!’
He snatched at a rifle. ‘Why should my lad
Be hanged for killing and all you others go free?’ He wrestled
feebly to gain the rifle, the sand-bank
Slid under his feet, he slipped and lay face down in the running
stream and was hauled astrand. Then Hazel
Came running heavily, and when he was able to walk she led him
away. The sea-beast, blinded but a painful
Vain gleam, starved long before it could die, old Margrave still
lives. Death’s like a little gay child that runs
The world around with the keys of salvation in his foolish fingers,
lends them at random where they’re not wanted,
But often withholds them where most required.
at this time
Had only four days to wait, but death now appeared so dreadful
to him that to speak of his thoughts and the abject
Horror, would be to insult humanity more than it deserves. At
last the jerked hemp snapped the neck sideways
And bruised the cable of nerves that threads the bone rings, the
intolerably strained consciousness in a moment changed.
It was strangely cut in two parts at the noose, the head’s
Consciousness from the body’s, both were set free and flamed,
the head’s with flashing paradisal light
Like the wild birth of a star, but crying in bewilderment and
suddenly extinguished, the body’s with a sharp emotion
Of satisfied love, a wave of hard warmth and joy, that ebbed cold
on darkness. After a time of darkness
The dreams that follow upon death came and subsided, like
Of the nerves unorganizing themselves, and some of the small
dreams were delightful and some, slight miseries,
But nothing intense, then consciousness wandered home from the
cell to the molecule, was utterly dissolved and changed,
Peace was the end of the play, so far as concerns humanity. Oh
beautiful capricious little savior,
Death, the gay child with the gipsy eyes, to avoid you for a time
I think is virtuous, to fear you is insane.
On the little stone-girdled platform
Over the earth and the ocean
I seem to have stood a long time and watched the stars pass.
They also shall perish I believe.
Here to-day, gone to-morrow, desperate wee galaxies
Scattering themselves and shining their substance away
Like a passionate thought. It is very well ordered.