A Strange Parallel

A weirdly entertaining notion occurred to me recently — Robinson Jeffers and H.P. Lovecraft, two of my favourite authors, have something (else) in common. Surprising, because in most ways they are very different. They were contemporaries, however: Jeffers was born in 1887, Lovecraft in 1890.

Robinson Jeffers was a poet, educated in the classical tradition. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a writer of “pulp” fiction who did not graduate from high school. Until his reputation declined in the 1940s, Jeffers mixed with well-known literati and was one of the first poets to make the cover of Time Magazine; H.P.L. had a devoted circle of friends among aficionados of the weird, but was otherwise unknown until well after his death in 1937.

But did they share a philosophy?

“Inhumanism” is a term coined by Jeffers for his outlook on the relative unimportance of human beings compared to the natural world in which they are contained — the “divine beauty of things.” The characters of his long, novel-like poems play out their struggles against the magnificent background of the California coast. Jeffers contrasts the sordid or futile passions of his people with the serene indifference of their natural setting. These few lines from Cawdor, in which the life-force of an eagle rises from the place of its death to transcend space and time, show something of Jeffers’s attitude:

“It saw men learn to outfly the hawk’s brood and forget it again; it saw men cover the earth and again

Devour each other and hide in caverns, be scarce as wolves. It neither wondered nor cared, and it saw

Growth and decay alternate forever, and the tides returning.”

H. P. Lovecraft professed no religion and considered himself a scientifically-minded, rational materialist. In his fictional world, alien entities coexist with humanity in a state of perfect indifference. The city of R’lyeh rises from the deep ocean in response to cosmic forces to disclose the monstrous entity Cthulhu, who has lain “dead but dreaming,” for eons. The terror felt by human witnesses to this rising is incidental, a characteristic of being human, but of no significance whatsoever to the inhuman entity. In other stories, such as “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time,” Lovecraft posits million-year cycles of inhuman civilizations that preceded us and will follow us; in other words, human history and civilization are insignificant blips in the grand scheme of things.

The common theme, then, is one of puny human lives played out against the background of an indifferent cosmos. Both Jeffers and Lovecraft referred to astronomy in their works; indeed, Lovecraft as a boy was a keen amateur astronomer. Both were aware of scientific reasons for relegating humanity to a small, insignificant corner of a universe more mind-bogglingly vast than anyone had ever imagined. I have no doubt this formed the basis for their philosophies, but what is really interesting is the different ways these ideas manifested in the poems of Jeffers and the stories of H.P.L.

Contrast the lines from Jeffers I quoted above with the following from “The Call of Cthulhu,” probably the most representative of Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu mythos” stories: “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little, but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Jeffers, contemplating humanity’s insignificance in the cosmos, spins images that are often bleak but uplifting. Lovecraft, from the same starting point, creates visions of cosmic horror. Jeffers identifies with the greater world, viewing humanity from a distant perspective, while Lovecraft is on the ground, watching the monster loom over him even as he realizes this is the way things must be.

In any case, I have found both these authors eminently worth reading.