In 1939, on the eve of the start of World War II, the prevaling sentiment in America was against "foreign involvements". The handwriting was on the wall, Hitler's armies were poised to invade Poland, and few people who cared to regard the realpolitik in Europe could doubt that eventually our interests and those of our allies (Great Britain and France, etc.) would converge, drawing us into another global conflict.
But I didn't post this poem just to resuscitate Jeffers's reputation (or to praise this relatively minor poem), which I suspect will stand or fall despite whatever I may have to say about it. What interests me are the ambiguities in the poem, which may, on first or second reading, seem simple enough, but which, on further examination, reveal contradictions and subtleties which probably undermine the poem's commonly accepted meaning(s).
But it isn't America's energy, or optimism, or vanity, which Jeffers is damning; it's its "thickening," its "hardening," its rotting decadence, its corruption of feeling and principle. America was founded on dignified, worthy investments: In individual liberty, the common good, fairness before law. Jeffers offers his encouragement: "Life is good...a mortal splendor."
Yet the last stanza offers a new level of ambiguity. Jeffers shifts the terms of the argument from a dialectic between patriotic loyalty and optimistic endeavor, to the master/apprentice relationship. Whereas he had previously posited the family unit (a man and his sons) in opposition to the state, society and the inertia of progress, now the dilemma is between the obeisance of the slave (or progeny) to the Elder, or "Master."