2 more poems from the early 20th century

Here I note 2 more early-20th century poems that, as I explain below, concern the California condor.

In 1904, a young Robinson Jeffers published his single-stanza poem titled “The Condor”:

+++++My head is bald with cleaving heaven,
+++++And rough my feathers with the grip
+++++Of clashing winds and clouds wind-driven.
+++++But what of that? My wings can dare
+++++All loneliest hanging heights of air;
+++++Above the jagged mountain-lip
+++++Their solemn slant and downward dip
+++++Greet the red sun each morn and even.
+++++The storm knows well their broad expanse,
+++++For they can breast its pulsing power
+++++When even the steadfast planets dance
+++++Dizzily thro’ the riotous rack
+++++Of ruined, tattered clouds that scour
+++++O’er heaven. On the tempest’s back
+++++I clasp my wings, and like a horse
+++++I rein it, mastering its force.
+++++Then, tiring of the sport, I stretch
+++++Upward above its region, far
+++++As if I strove to climb and fetch
+++++The utmost little silver star.
+++++Then I lean low with a flat wing
+++++Upon the lucid air, and swing
+++++Amid the regions of pure peace.
+++++I reck not of the earth below,
+++++But swing, and soar, and never cease,
+++++In circles large and full and slow,
+++++With such a movement, such a grace
+++++That I forget my ugliness.

An indication of Jeffers’ prominence as a poet is that he was honored with a first-class postage stamp in 1973:
01 Jeffers - 1973 postage stamp

Jay G. Sigmund’s “The Cormorant” (1924) compares his subject to a condor:

+++++The bronze sheen of your quills
+++++The saffron of your orbs—
+++++Proclaim your kingly traits,
+++++Make plain your noble birth:
+++++The condor of the crags
+++++Has no more perfect poise
+++++And no more grace of wing,
+++++To circle far from earth.

+++++And, yet, no brotherhood
+++++You have with tern or gull—
+++++The pelican alone
+++++Can claim you for his kin:
+++++Your gluttony and sloth
+++++Have made of you a serf,
+++++Who dives for smelts to feed
+++++A yellow Mandarin!

Are these 2 poems about the California condor? At the time they were written, “condor” often referred to the Andean, not California condor. In fact, the image accompanying Jeffers’ poem is that of an Andean condor, distinguished by the caruncle on its head:
02 Title image for Jeffers The condor

When Jeffers’ poem was published he was a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles. California condors were still seen in the area, as indicated by newspaper reports. So it’s likely that Jeffers was thinking of the California condor.

What about Sigmund, a widely-published poet who spent most of his life in Iowa? He was a natural history enthusiast and so may have known of the California condor. But there’s another reason to believe that he was writing about the California condor: Sigmund corresponded with Robinson Jeffers in the years between the publication of their two condor poems. Perhaps Jeffers told Sigmund of the California condor.

Unlike the 2 poems considered in a previous post, Jeffers’ work makes no explicit reference to humans. This poem describes a powerful, graceful, and fearless bird that is a master of the sky. While the first two lines hint at a bird that is literally weathered, the last line comes as a shock. Did Jeffers’ really think of the condor as being ugly in its own eyes, as opposed to in the eyes of people?

Sigmund draws a comparison between the condor and the cormorant that finds the latter to be lacking. Both the condor and cormorant are poised and graceful. But the cormorant’s deficiency, in Sigmund’s mind, is its habits. I suspect, however, that many would consider the condor to be more gluttonous and slothful than a cormorant.

A shared and notable feature of these 2 poems is that they challenge readers to simultaneously hold strong positive and negative feelings about particular kinds of birds. Given the visceral revulsion people often experience when confronted with the dietary habits of the California condor, appreciating and valuing the condor requires a capacity to simultaneously embrace the positive and negative.

My previous post about California condor poetry is 2 poems from the early 20th century.

Sigmund, Jay G. The cormorant. Overland Monthly. January 1924.

Jeffers, Robinson. The condor. Youth’s Companion. 9 June 1904.

Giant bird shot at mouth of Brea Canyon. Los Angeles Times. 21 August 1904.

Manuscript register: papers of Jay Sigmund. University of Iowa Libraries. June 1999.