Memorial Day deserves a poem. Not the civil religious strains that once caught me at the altar rail at a small-town Episcopal church, receiving the sacrament to “America the Beautiful.” I almost chose Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloomed,” his elegy to the recently assassinated Lincoln. But nothing that august distinguishes our season. Let it be “Shine, Perishing Republic” by Robinson Jeffers then, a dirge from the 1920s, the frantic tawdry zoom time of the consumer society. Our consumption is less confident now, our spirit flattened by expensive forgotten wars, rotten bankers, frozen politics, and the pathetic strains of reality TV.
As it happens, Robinson Jeffers was born (in 1887) into Calvinism, son of a professor of Old Testament at the Presbyterian Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh. Papa had the boy reading Greek and Latin by age 5. He was less successful in keeping him in theism. Nonetheless, the son held on to stern judgments regarding human pretensions, and also could sound faint chords of the civic virtue which that other secularized Calvinist, James Madison, also remembered as being vital to a republic.
Shine, Perishing Republic, by Robinson Jeffers (1925)
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence;
and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it
stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the
thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught—they say—
God, when he walked on earth.
Robinson Jeffers, "Shine, Perishing Republic" from The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt. Copyright © 1938 by Robinson Jeffers, renewed 1966 and ©Jeffers Literary Properties. With the permission of Stanford University Press, www.sup.org.
Source: The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 2001)