Vulture, by Robinson Jeffers

In Igneous Range, the vulture is the firebird, a symbol of ancient Iran, and a symbol of transcendence.

To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes …

Published posthumously in 1963.
Jeffers Literary Properties
Stanford University Press
Reading © 2017 Kaweah

For more discussion on this and other Jeffers poems, see Robinson Jeffers: Fire from Stone.

Rites of Disposal

When I’m finally done, when all
my smoldering embers go cold, put me away.
Clean me up, straighten me out, and put me in my box.

Take it up to that green landfill
where they dump such things
and label them with cut stones.
Find me a plot, dig me a hole.
Sow me deep like a pumpkin seed
that you don’t want to grow.
Cover me there with earth by the yard,
and if you must speak, be brief.

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Original Sin

To the poet Robinson Jeffers, the eagle is a symbol of something like divine consciousness. Man, in contrast, is more like an inauspicious microbe. Man and eagle do have this in common: they both use fire. This is obvious in the case of man. For Jeffers, the eagle is an opportunist, seeking game and carrion in the wake of wildfires.

The key difference between eagle and man—according to Jeffers—can be seen in the poem Original Sin. [1] Man’s rise and fall are identified with one act: man’s harnessing of fire. One might make a case that the chief sin in the poem is man’s cruelty, and human cruelty is surely a sin that Jeffers decries, but there is also a side to Jeffers that laments the rise of civilization, and what better image is there for the rise of civilization than the taming of fire?

The old stories have it that when Zeus got word that Prometheus had given fire to man, Zeus had Prometheus tied down so that an eagle (or vulture) would eternally devour the rebellious Titan’s liver. This punishment might well have seemed justifiable to Jeffers. He did seem to think Prometheus a fool:

And this young man was not of the sad race of Prometheus, to waste himself in favor of the future.[2]

All this original sin is perfectly natural, of course, and we must accept it as such, terrible though it may be.

But we are what we are, and we might remember not to hate any person, for all are vicious;

Natural though it all may be, there is tragedy in the powerful knowledge and tools of man as well as in his cruelty. In Original Sin, fire is the symbol for all three.



[1] Published in the Double Axe and Other Poems, 1948.

[2] The Dead Men’s Child, published in Cawdor and Other Poems, 1928.