Robinson Jeffers

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 8,703 words

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About this Person
Born: January 10, 1887 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: January 20, 1962 in Carmel, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Jeffers, John Robinson



  • Flagons and Apples (Los Angeles: Grafton, 1912).
  • Californians (New York: Macmillan, 1916).
  • Tamar and Other Poems (New York: Peter Boyle, 1924); enlarged and revised as Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925).
  • The Women at Point Sur (New York: Liveright, 1927); enlarged as The Women at Point Sur and Other Poems, afterword by Tim Hunt (New York: Liveright, 1977).
  • An Artist (Dallas: Privately printed by John S. Mayfield, 1928).
  • Cawdor and Other Poems (New York: Liveright, 1928; London: Leonard & Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1929).
  • Poems (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1928).
  • Dear Judas and Other Poems (New York: Liveright, 1929; London: Hogarth Press, 1930).
  • Stars (Pasadena, Cal.: Flame, 1930).
  • Descent to the Dead, Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain (New York: Random House, 1931).
  • Thurso's Landing and Other Poems (New York: Liveright, 1932).
  • Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1933).
  • Solstice and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1935).
  • Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1937).
  • The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (New York: Random House, 1938).
  • Two Consolations (San Mateo, Cal.: Quercus, 1940).
  • Be Angry at the Sun (New York: Random House, 1941).
  • Medea, Freely Adapted from the Medea of Euripides (New York: Random House, 1946).
  • The Double Axe and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1948; enlarged edition, New York: Liveright, 1977).
  • Poetry, Gongorism, and a Thousand Years (Los Angeles: Ward Richie Press, 1949).
  • Hungerfield and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1954).
  • Themes in My Poems (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1956).
  • The Beginning and the End and Other Poems (New York: Random House, 1963).

Editions and Collections

  • Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems (New York: Vintage, 1965).
  • The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, 5 volumes, edited by Tim Hunt (Palo Alto, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1988-2001).


  • Medea, New York, National Theater, 20 October 1947.
  • The Tower Beyond Tragedy, New York, ANTA Playhouse, 26 November 1950.


  • Ann K. Ridgeway, ed., The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1897-1962 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968).
  • Where Shall I Take You To: The Love Letters of Una and Robinson Jeffers, edited by Robert Kafka, foreword by Garth Jeffers (Covelo, Cal.: Yolla Bolly Press, 1987).


On 4 April 1932 Robinson Jeffers appeared on the cover of Time magazine--a rare occurrence for a poet. Later that month he appeared with his sons on the cover of Vanity Fair. Poets are not commonly featured on the covers of mainstream magazines, but his appearance there attests to the remarkably widespread popularity he enjoyed at that time. These two celebratory moments proved, however, to be the zenith of his career. A few years after this national acclamation, Jeffers's popularity began to wane; indeed, few have so rapidly achieved such exalted status followed by such a precipitous fall through dislike, outright derision, and perhaps most damning of all (at least in the minds of critics), neglect. As a poet of place Jeffers is rivaled perhaps only by Robert Frost . He is a poet known primarily for his long, essentially linear narratives in an age of short, fragmented image poems, a standard of High Modernism. A derivative poet of only marginal promise until his thirties, Jeffers experienced around 1919 a profound transformation, from which he emerged a powerful and original poetic voice. He was also the most scientifically erudite poet of his generation--perhaps of any generation. In Jeffers's poetry a thorough familiarity with contemporary scientific knowledge, an ecologist's observations, and an extensive classical education are wedded to a brutal honesty and direct expression to achieve a startling and original vision of the world. This vision is anchored--spiritually, psychologically, and materially--on the Carmel/Big Sur area of the California coast.

Although his early years were marked by an almost chaotic series of moves, in 1914 Jeffers arrived with his new bride, Una, in Carmel, California--to what he called his "inevitable place"--and spent the next fifty-eight years there, taking only a handful of trips to Ireland, New Mexico, and the East. On the Carmel Peninsula, Jeffers built Tor House and tower, stone by stone. This work, completed over many years, gave Jeffers a profound appreciation of the durability of stone, of the earth, and of its permanence relative to humanity. As Jeffers surveyed his landscape, he felt himself at the end of the earth--the vast Pacific stretching away to the East, the whole of the Americas at his back. He established his poetry on this bedrock foundation, this "continent's end" as he called it.

Jeffers was born in Pennsylvania on 10 January 1887. Christened John Robinson, he was the son of Annie Tuttle and William Hamilton Jeffers. The senior Jeffers was a professor of Old Testament literature and exegesis at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, a suburb of Pittsburgh. He was a strict disciplinarian, an authoritarian, and a Spartan in temperament. The elder Jeffers held high expectations for his child. These expectations took the form of a challenging--some might say abusive--mental and physical training for the youth. The elder Jeffers used corporal punishment to motivate his son to study and forced him to run timed sprints for exercise. Beginning in his eleventh year, Jeffers was sent to a different European boarding school each year--in Vevey, Lausanne, Geneva, and Zurich.

Jeffers's eclectic education proved to be a great benefit to his poetry, which is concerned with fundamentals. His poetry draws heavily on classical Greek drama, the Bible, science--especially cosmology--medicine, and the wilderness of the Big Sur coast for its symbols, imagery, figures, cadences, and plots. Although to attribute psychological trauma to a relationship governed by such a father seems tempting, and although the young Jeffers in some measure rebelled against this program of scholarship, the elder Jeffers clearly considered it a gift, the only method available to him for expressing his love and care for his eldest son. Jeffers's father provided him with an expansive education in the classics, languages, and, particularly, science. The origin of species, descent of man, astronomy, geology, and anatomy were among the subjects explored; the result was that Jeffers was comfortable from a young age with leading scientific theories.

In 1902 Jeffers returned from his tour of European academies and matriculated at the University of Western Pennsylvania as a fifteen-year-old sophomore. He then transferred to Occidental College in Los Angeles when his family moved to Pasadena, California, in 1903. This move proved to be a watershed event in his life. Although he had never even visited California, Jeffers felt he was in a real sense coming home, for in California he planted his roots--social, spiritual, and physical--leaving the state only occasionally between that time and his death in January 1962. Having moved so many times, around Pittsburgh and around Europe, Jeffers was thrilled that his family was finally settling in one place.

But beyond merely providing Jeffers with geographic stability, this "coming home" to California stimulated Jeffers's imagination, created in him a profound sense of identification with place, and nourished his spiritual and physical needs. Pasadena sits in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, and Jeffers was an enthusiastic hiker and camper in the mountains around Los Angeles. Physically connecting to the landscape became a lifelong habit, and much of Jeffers's poetry is filled with close details of land, water, and sky that could arise only from a lifetime spent observing nature.

While at Occidental College, Jeffers contributed to and helped edit the college literary magazines, The Aurora and The Occidental. His poems are good by undergraduate standards, but they do not display any special promise. In 1912 a small legacy from a relative allowed him to publish at his own expense a small volume of his poetry, Flagons and Apples (1912).

The poems in this first volume are predominantly conventional; they are late-Victorian musings on love and nature patterned after poets such as A. C. Swinburne and John Keats . They are generally unimpressive, and Jeffers lost interest in the project as soon as it went to press. In his own account of the publication, Jeffers recalls, "Something was said at the printing-shop about sending out review copies; but my interest in the book was waning, the irrational need for publication seemed to be satisfied by the printing, and nothing further was done." The poetry of this volume is self-conscious and unbalanced, brittle in its adhesion to rote forms.

Jeffers graduated from Occidental College in 1905 and began taking graduate courses in German literature at the University of Southern California. In a course on Faust, he met his future wife, Una. Una Call Kuster was then married to Edward Kuster, a young attorney in Los Angeles. Una was two years older than Jeffers, but she admired his poetry, took an interest in him, and slowly a romance blossomed. Jeffers's relationship with Una turned out to be a crucial influence on his poetry. In the introduction to his Selected Poetry (1938), he writes that his nature was "cold and undiscriminating," but that Una "excited and focused it," and that, although she never saw any of his poems until they were finished, "by her presence and conversation she has co-authored every one of them."

Neither set of parents was pleased at this illicit affair and actively intervened to arrest it. Jeffers's father, as a Calvinist minister, was shocked at his son's behavior. Una was sent by her parents to relatives on the East Coast and later to Europe for a year in an attempt to cool the passions of the two lovers. This was a trying period for Jeffers; he was rebelling against parental authority, risking the condemnation of his community, and trying to establish a sense of home and permanence. Jeffers's experiences during this time of trial may partly explain his psychological transformation and emergence as an original poetic voice.

In April of the next year he matriculated at the University of Zurich, studying philosophy, literature, and Old English. In 1907 he left Zurich, moving back to Los Angeles to enroll in medical school at the University of Southern California (USC). The poet's autodidacticism was at work; he had no intention of becoming a physician but was intensely interested in physiology and anatomy. Jeffers was soon at the top of his class and became so accomplished a student of anatomy that he was asked to teach physiology at the USC Dental School. During this period he continued to see Una, and their relationship deepened.

In 1910 Jeffers and his family moved to Seattle so Jeffers could enroll in the forestry program at the University of Washington. Jeffers tired of this course of study, however, when he realized that the program had more to do with timber harvests than with an ecological study of forests. He left Seattle briefly but returned to finish his forestry studies in the spring of 1913. In August of that year, he married Una in Tacoma, Washington. The scandal was significant--it was featured on the front page of the Los Angeles Times--but it seemed to have little effect on Jeffers or Una. Their marriage provided them the opportunity to move to Carmel, rent a cottage, and for Jeffers to settle in for a winter of writing poetry.

In 1916 Jeffers sent a manuscript titled Californians to Macmillan publishing house in New York. The manuscript was accepted and published late that year. It was not extensively reviewed, although Oscar Firkins of The Nation compared Jeffers to Ralph Waldo Emerson , who was in fact a great influence on Jeffers. Californians is a transitional volume. It includes many odes and short lyrics, including some good ones--such as "Stephen Brown" and "The Three Avilas"--that reveal his budding idiom. These poems focus closely on landscape; indeed, what begins to emerge is the role landscape plays in driving the plots of poems, a role that became more pronounced in his mature narrative poems. "Ode on Human Destinies" reveals the beginnings of his emergent worldview: "Something endures; / the universal Power / Endures forever / . . . . We also have our dignity, being part / Of the immortal thing."

Several of Jeffers's future themes can be traced in this poem: the life force, which is divine, endures forever; humanity is but a flicker of life in the firestorm of creation; despite their many faults, humans are still part of the immortal universe and therefore redeemable; and the focus is outward, on the nonhuman. All of these themes emerged, much more richly and powerfully developed, in the later poetry. What is important about Californians is that Jeffers is moving away from his youthful doting on airy love, and he is immersing himself in the epic, fog-shrouded Monterey coast.

Looking back, Una Jeffers wrote of this period that her husband was torn by conflict about enlisting to fight in World War I or staying home with their new twin sons, Garth and Donnan. He also built Tor House, which spurred his awareness of strengths he had not realized he possessed and cemented his sense of stability in Carmel. Negotiating these psychological challenges produced at this time a focusing of his faculties on questions of mortality, morality, and human nature. Una wrote that "Thus at the age of thirty-one there came to him a kind of awakening such as adolescents and religious converts are said to experience." The result of this awakening was Tamar and Other Poems (1924).

Begun in 1922, Tamar and Other Poems was unlike anything Jeffers had produced before; in some ways, it was unlike anything anyone had produced since the days of Greek drama. The publishing history of this volume serves as a sort of index to Jeffers's critical reputation. Jeffers thought the volume might be controversial, and so he decided to bring it out privately instead of sending it to a publisher. He hired Peter Boyle in New York for the job, and because he admired the poems, Boyle took the liberty of sending out several review copies. These copies were largely ignored, and the remaindered volumes were returned to Jeffers. When contributing to another poetry anthology, Jeffers included for the editors copies of Tamar and Other Poems. In turn, the editors--George Sterling and James Rorty--sent copies to Babette Deutsch and Mark Van Doren , important poetry critics and editors at that time. Reviews in important outlets such as the New York Herald Tribune and The Nation followed. Jeffers had reached his full poetic voice, and the controversial expression of his vision excited in others visceral responses, both positive and negative.

Set on Point Lobos, the title poem is an apocalyptic vision with the Eve-like Tamar at its center. Daughter to the biblical King David, Tamar was raped by one brother and avenged by another; her story illustrates the dangers of civil war and the strife that accompanies it. To the Canaanites, Tamar is a fertility goddess and represents both the death inherent in winter and the rebirth of spring, the endless cycle. Jeffers utilizes the tremendous symbolic and mythic power of this tale to comment on civilization and express his ideology. Tamar endures a series of traumatic events, including the incestuous rape by her brother, her imagined rape by spirits on the beach, and the dissolution of her family. But she comes to a kind of peace with these travails through the cultivation of a detached perspective, as though she were viewing these events from a great distance. This poem is the first clear incidence of Jeffers's philosophy of "Inhumanism," a creed for living in which stoicism, Spartan detachment, and unmediated love and appreciation for the universal whole bring to one a dignity and integrity. He summarized this philosophy in a 1934 letter to Sister Mary James Power. In that letter, he articulated his belief that "the universe is one being . . . different expressions of the same energy . . . therefore parts of one organic whole." This organic whole is, in Jeffers's words, "so beautiful and is felt by me so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine." In this letter he describes most clearly the radically detached perspective of his philosophy. He believed that only this "organic whole," or God, was worthy of humans' love. Further, he asserted that "we are not important to him, but he to us," and that this belief was the basis for "turning one's affections outward toward this one God, rather than inward on one's self."

All of Jeffers's major themes are present in this passage: the notion of an organic universe, the interpenetration of science and spirituality, the extreme beauty--and redemptive potential--of the transhuman world, man's relationship to God, the definition of that God, the indifference of the universe to man, and the moral obligations of humanity. In the foreword to his Selected Poetry, Jeffers urged poets to write for an audience "two thousand years hence." Permanence, then, is a hallmark of the real. The relative impermanence of mankind is precisely why Jeffers sees humans' lives as less "real" than, for example, the existence of a granite boulder. But within human experience, the themes that concern Jeffers are the most permanent and therefore most psychologically real. Jeffers wished to reclaim this reality for poetry.

The form that this reality takes is insistently envisioned by the poet as a natural process in an interconnected whole. In his important early poem "Roan Stallion," the climactic actions of the central character, California, are explained as: "The atom bounds-breaking, / Nucleus to sun, electrons to planets. . . ." Jeffers in this poem is moving up and down a cosmic scale, displacing the anthropocentric view of life with one that places man along a materialistic continuum from the subatomic to the interstellar.

As a poet, Jeffers deliberately set out to write poetry that expressed the human condition in scientific terms. In the foreword to his Selected Poetry, he observed that "Long ago . . . it became evident to me that poetry--if it was to survive at all--must reclaim some of the power and reality it was so hastily surrendering to prose." Jeffers was critical of the tenor of High Modernism, calling it "slight and fantastic, abstract, unreal, eccentric." His disappointment in mainstream modernism led him to narrative forms in his poetry, to "present aspects of life that modern poetry has generally avoided, and to attempt the expression of philosophical and scientific ideas in verse."

Jeffers was interested in writing poems that express the beauty of the entire universe, which includes humanity. But his methodology was based on as much objectivity as he could achieve. In his mature period after 1924, Jeffers was certainly aware of Werner Karl Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, which linked observation with subjectivity, but Jeffers thought like a scientist as well as a poet, and he attempted to distance himself from a personal perspective. His attempt was based on escaping an anthropocentric viewpoint, or, put more precisely, on subsuming such a viewpoint to one that took as its starting point an organically whole universe in which man was one tiny component.

Jeffers's clarity of mind considered these fundamental questions--and his answers to them--as "simple." This honesty and directness is one of the great strengths of his art and is the basis for both his initial popularity and his subsequent neglect. The New Critics, who were committed to an aesthetic that valued a fragmented world described in terms of interior experience, made aggressive attacks upon his work. Against charges that he was antihuman, Jeffers asserts the value of personal responsibility and moral integrity. What he resists is the standard apportionment of that value; humanity does participate in the greater whole, but that whole is only minutely, if at all, affected by or concerned with the actions of humanity. But rather than encouraging moral licentiousness, this understanding allows humans to lead more balanced lives, more in touch with the universe around them, since they realize that they are only a minute part. "Tamar" tells the story of the dissolution and destruction of the Cauldwell clan, but the poem functions on symbolic levels as well. It foreshadows the destruction of Western civilization beneath the specter of World War I; and in its concern with cosmic scales of time, it foreshadows the ultimate destruction of the universe. These are themes to which Jeffers returned again and again.

Not all of the poems in Tamar and Other Poems excited such controversy. "Point Joe" and "Continent's End" are both beautiful lyrics that chart the poet's exploration of his place in the universe and his relationship to the solid continent beneath his feet. In larger terms, the volume is concerned with the great cycles of the universe and civilization, of the ways in which values are constructed and enforced in Western culture, and the apocalyptic vision of a world war.

In any case, this controversial volume of poems served to bring Jeffers almost instant fame, and his publishers were hungry for more of his poetry. Accordingly, he collected many poems written since Tamar and Other Poems, including "Roan Stallion," and published them with Boni and Liveright as Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems in 1925. This volume was a critical and popular success; it went through several editions as well as being translated and published in foreign languages. "Roan Stallion" follows the story of a young mixed-race woman named California as she negotiates several mystical and symbolic experiences. This poem shows Jeffers's concept of the "self-torturing" God that reveals itself through pain, destruction, and oblivion. The climax of the poem is California's baptism in the Carmel River during a storm, followed by her hilltop sexual union with the stallion in a celebration of divine beauty and power. Their union functions as a sacramental blessing of the landscape and a sacrifice offered to the wild God; the union is followed by the killing of both the stallion and California's drunken lover; thus, the destruction/rebirth cycle begins anew. Although Jeffers was operating on a mythic level, the graphic nature of the material was repellent to some; to others, it was an expansive vision that freed the mind from the bounds of traditional thought.

But aside from the controversy, in an important philosophical moment in "Roan Stallion," Jeffers interrupts the narrative to declare: "Humanity is / the start of the race; I say / Humanity is the mould to break away from. . . ." James Karman has interpreted this stanza as a renunciation of the entire humanist tradition of the post-Enlightenment West. The atomic metaphor points to a radical shift in orientation--as Jeffers explained it, "a shifting of emphasis from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence." This transhuman magnificence was symbolized in the union of California and the stallion and, if appreciated and revered, can bring peace and detachment, and thus connection to God.

Roan Stallion also includes some important lyrics, perhaps most notably "Apology for Bad Dreams." This poem is a set piece of a woman beating a horse among the gorgeous headlands of the Big Sur coast. As the poet observes this ritualistic torture, he speculates on the nature of evil and attempts to keep it in perspective, both literally and figuratively. The poet embraces the violence, realizing that it is part of the self-torturing God's continuous self-discovery. Violence, pain, and death ultimately affirm freedom and life, and are to be celebrated as part of the cycle. The ritualistic tone of the poem communicates the mythic dimension it explores. "Shine, Perishing Republic" is one of Jeffers's finest poems, since it examines the heavy process of a civilization "thickening to empire" from an objective, measured distance. The poem strikes a fine balance between the rejection of imperialism and the understanding that such decay and failure are part of the great culture cycles that mirror the natural cycles of death and rebirth. "The Tower Beyond Tragedy" is a skillful retelling of Aeschylus's Oresteia and reaffirms Jeffers's deep command of the classical Greek literature as well as his ability to write modern adaptations.

With the publication of Roan Stallion, Jeffers had in two years emerged from his status as a relatively unknown regional poet to a leading figure on the national and international poetry stage. From this international stage Jeffers launched his next volume of poetry, The Women at Point Sur (1927), a volume that tried the patience of critics. The title poem, described by Frederic I. Carpenter as "the most violent and unrelieved of all the long poems," concerns Barclay, a minister experiencing a crisis of belief following World War I. Concluding that Christianity is false, he leaves his congregation and wanders down the coast, where he settles in a farmhouse and envisions a new religion in which God is revealed through action. There is no right and wrong in Barclay's vision, just action and reaction. As he is spreading his gospel among the ranch hands and tenants, his daughter April arrives to take him home. Barclay rapes her, and April goes mad. Meanwhile, the owner of the ranch returns from the war, psychologically destroyed. The narrative degenerates into a miasma of infanticide, murder, suicide, and insanity.

The Women at Point Sur was too much even for some of Jeffers's staunchest supporters. Van Doren commented, "He seems to be knocking his head to pieces against the night." Others found merit in the Nietzschean concept of the transvaluation of values, which Jeffers had incorporated into the narrative logic. But this generosity was not widespread. Yvor Winters , in Poetry (February 1930), unleashed what Kenneth Rexroth in "In Defense of Jeffers" (from The Saturday Review [10 August 1957]) called "one of the most devastating attacks" in modern criticism, calling Jeffers's writing "pretentious trash" filled with "hysteria"; he also called it "loose, turgid, and careless." What some critics were overlooking was that Jeffers was using incest and murder not only as levers to intensify dramatic pitch, but also as motifs for the unhealthy attractions compelling humans to each other. Jeffers believed that since life had become so easy, much of the total human energy in the world was devoted to relationships. The result of this overemphasis was the pervasive manifestation of the desire to dominate, control, and destroy one another. Despite these sentiments, which could certainly be interpreted as misanthropic, Jeffers's reputation did not suffer; his poetry continued to be placed in anthologies and translated. Jeffers published Cawdor and Other Poems in 1928 and Dear Judas and Other Poems in 1929.

In Cawdor, Jeffers presents one of his most attractive and compelling heroes. Cawdor runs a ranch that appears outwardly as a sanctuary against the evils of the world but is in fact the stage for a bloody human drama. In this retelling of the Hippolytus/Phaedra story, Cawdor, entering retirement, marries a young woman who then falls in love with his son. Cawdor slays the son in a fit of jealousy, then repenting, confronts his sins and gouges out his eyes. Destruction and death reign where once there was safety and peace. Cawdor's self-mutilation is a symbolic cleansing of the pride that has blinded him, and through suffering and sacrifice he becomes spiritually whole again.

Dear Judas is an unorthodox retelling of the gospel. It is in the form of a Noh play and is paired thematically with "The Loving Shepherdess," an inversion of the Good Shepherd parable. Both Dear Judas and "The Loving Shepherdess" are about self-sacrifice, but in a typically Jeffersian reversal, the gesture is not redemptive but doomed to fail. Clare, the Christ-like shepherdess, wanders lost in the wilderness, searching for a place to shelter her flock. Instead of saving them, however, she leads them to grim deaths, one by one. She suffers immensely as she wanders, starving and delusional, without shelter across the countryside. She is accompanied on part of her journey by Onorio Vasquez, cowboy and mystic, who sees many visions but cannot interpret them. Through him, Jeffers expresses his belief that good and evil are balanced in the world, and Vasquez's visions of his Mayan and Aztec ancestors imagine the rugged Big Sur coast as the end of the world, the shore upon which all human migrations must end. Ultimately, Clare dies while giving birth in a ditch, and the redemptive cycle is consecrated through violence and pain.

Natural cycles--the tides, the return of seasons, the beating of the heart and breathing of the lungs--form the rhythm of Jeffers's poetry. This cyclical view of life removes the traps of determinism and positivism from Jeffers's poetry and informs a poetry based on universal flux. In a 1966 Cultural History Resource Press reprint of a 1933 Random House edition of Sidney Alberts's A Bibliography of the Works of Robinson Jeffers, Jeffers explained, "My feeling is for the number of beats to the line: there is a quantitative element too in which the unstressed syllables have part; the rhythm from many sources--physics--biology--the beat of blood, the tidal environments of life in which life is formed--also a desire for singing emphasis that prose does not have." At the level of rhythm and meter, then, Jeffers looks to his training in science and medicine to secure his practice. By emphasizing the element of recurrence, Jeffers removed the positivist tenet of a higher purpose and with it the major function of an anthropomorphic God--as well as moral absolutism--from his view of the world. However, he was a moral relativist only insofar as he rejected an absolutism that he felt was based on a Judeo-Christian tradition, which was in decline precisely because of its failure to recognize various forms of human knowledge, especially the scientific discoveries of the past two centuries. He still felt that human virtues were more valuable (and therefore worth poetic celebration) than human vice and weakness.

The emphasis Jeffers placed on the observation of nature seems to ally him with the strain of Romanticism that runs through Emerson and Walt Whitman . His focus on the individual, his apparent pantheism, and his organicism support such an assertion. But while he shares with those writers some commonalties, primarily as a descendant of Wordsworthian romanticism, the differences between them are, finally, so great as to be fundamental. Emerson asserted that "The earth and the heavenly bodies, physics and chemistry, we sensually treat, as if they were self-existent; but these are the retinue of that Being we have." What Emerson apparently objected to in modern science was its empiricism, which he thought drained nature of its transcendent power. The solution, for him, was to contextualize all empirical inquiry in terms of human history, making scientific knowledge symbolic: "The poet alone knows astronomy, chemistry, vegetation and animation, for he does not stop at these facts, but employs them as signs. . . . All the facts in natural history taken by themselves have no value, but are barren, like a single sex. . . . But marry it [natural history] to human history and it is full of life." Clearly, Jeffers disagreed with this view; for him, human history--everything to Emerson--was but a footnote to the infinitely larger and more important cyclical narrative of the history of the earth and cosmos.

Following the publication of Dear Judas, Jeffers took a break from writing and traveled to Europe, where he and Una rented a cottage in the Irish countryside, living there for almost a year. Because they had chosen an area in Ireland near Una's relatives, Jeffers began to imagine Ireland as his aboriginal home and looked back upon the West, his new home, with a critical and distant eye. The result of these reflections is a series of poems titled Descent to the Dead, Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain , published in 1931, followed quickly by Thurso's Landing and Other Poems, published in 1932. The poems in Descent to the Dead are celebrations of an ancient culture, a community secure in itself. Through these poems Jeffers explores the relationship between history and poetry, the recording of great deeds and actions that are memorialized in verse. Jeffers notes that these past deeds are all but forgotten, meaningless in the large span of history, but meaningful in that characters struggle against their failings and achieve some measure of dignity by the quality of their struggle. Some, like Thurso in his final humility and stoic embrace of death, are able to "shine / terribly against the dark magnificence of things." In Jeffers's world, this outcome is often the most for which one can hope; it is the whole that matters, the whole that is divine--the passing away of an individual is meaningless in the larger context. Ultimately, Descent to the Dead declares that Europe, while exciting in its history and traditions, does not evoke the power and splendor required for good poetry. For that, Jeffers must look far to the West, to the wild shores of his home, where the waves, rocks, storms, and ubiquitous circling hawks provide a bedrock of reality from which poetry springs. James Karman has noted that these volumes represent the midpoint of Jeffers's career; the poet is at once looking back deeply into his past, searching for enduring themes and motifs, and looking west into the future of humanity, to the end point of its migration. In this looking forward one sees the seeds of Jeffers's decline; he seems in this volume to begin losing his objective distance, veering away from the timeless themes and motifs of his earlier work toward a more specific contemporaneity, failing to heed his own admonition to maintain an appropriately distant perspective on his material.

The poems of Thurso's Landing continue Jeffers's repudiation of Western culture, with its endless consumption, its foolish pride, its "roadless forest full of cries / and ignorance." Reave Thurso, the protagonist of "Thurso's Landing," endures wracking pain while unable to arrest the dissolution of the family that he worked so hard to establish. He is relieved of his misery when his lover, Helen, stabs him on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, after which she poisons herself. In part, "Thurso's Landing" provides a model of how one should face death--with dignity, a fierce love of freedom, and without fear. Thurso's indifference at the end signifies his reconciliation with the great rhythmic cycle of death and rebirth of which he is an important part. Again, the influence of Greek tragedy on Jeffers's poetry is evident--a protagonist with a tragic flaw, a family torn by emotional and psychic strife--a cathartic resolution through death. The short lyrics of this volume extend Jeffers's celebration of the awe-inspiring beauty of the Carmel coast. In particular, "The Bed by the Window," which considers the Jeffers's guest bed that overlooks the ocean, reaffirms Jeffers's ability to write poems that balance the inevitability--the profound naturality--of death with a delight in the moment of living. The tonic against death is provided in part by Jeffers's evocation of the tranquillity he will feel looking out over the rough ocean as he passes from this world. The bed of the poem did indeed serve not only as Jeffers's deathbed but also as that of his wife, Una.

The poem "Margrave," a medium-length narrative that closes the volume, depicts the last hours of a medical student convicted of kidnapping and murder in order to pay for medical school. Instead of repenting, Margrave vacillates between hysterical fear of death and ranting about the loss to the race of his genius. This poem gives full scope to Jeffers's medical knowledge. Margrave's fear is partly based on his intimate understanding of the physical and chemical processes that will occur in his body as he is hanged. The poet describes in anatomical detail the moment of contraction and the subsequent processes as the conscious mind is suffocated, and this description serves a dual purpose: it demystifies the process of death itself, but it also links the release of life energy to the cycles of energy in the solar system, galaxy, and universe. Jeffers consistently animates the world around him, but in a nonanthropomorphic way; he uses his knowledge of the structure and flux of matter to give emotional content to the material world, and in so doing, he invests it with forms of meaning that supersede human consciousness. Human consciousness is a product of certain organizational patterns of matter, and just as matter is constantly in tension, so, too, is human consciousness. For Jeffers, this tension--between matter, between people, within the self--is a manifestation of God, and it forms the basis of Jeffers's version of pantheism, as well as dictating his moral code. In Themes in My Poems (1956), Jeffers describes a universe that is "full of violent strains and conflicts," noting that "pain is an essential part of life." Such tension produces a "tortured God" who becomes Jeffers's most fitting symbol of a poetry that tries to distill what "is most beautiful, and painful, and true."

This passage reveals several important beliefs; by characterizing the strain of the material world as a product of desire, Jeffers indicates that he is no determinist--free will plays a crucial role in his metaphysics. While he encourages humans to turn away from the self to nature, he implies that humanity does have a choice, even though universal flux is irresistible. He denies the Christian concept of evil by substituting for it positive values, such as beauty, which are guides to living, and which have permanence. Because desires are "irreconcilable," pain and loss always accompany the choices one makes. The best choices are those that avoid narcissism. In Jeffers's words, "The belief that traditional values are divinely ordained seems to me an illusion. But to prefer--for instance--courage to cowardice or mercy to cruelty cannot be called an illusion. Traditional values may be thought of as habits or conventions, some useful, others foolish, all subject to change; but not as illusions." Many readers have been offended by Jeffers's portrayal of violence and debauchery, but the context for all of this activity is the transience of humanity; put simply, in the larger frames of reference, life is so brief, and death (which Jeffers welcomes) comes so swiftly, that the passions and violence of humanity seem not to make much difference.

Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems was published in 1933 to generally good reviews, but soon after the publication Jeffers's reputation began to decline. Several factors have been cited by critics; one is he suffered some backlash for continuing to write virulent diatribes against his country, which, while acceptable and engaging in times of prosperity, appeared unseemly, insensitive even, during the Great Depression. Other critics have cited a readership that became increasingly intolerant of Jeffers's repetitive use of incest, murder, and rape as primary symbols in his poetry. Carpenter has suggested perhaps the most sensible reason: the quality of Jeffers's poetry began to decline during the period after 1935. Solstice and Other Poems appeared in 1935 and was roundly, if mildly, criticized. Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems followed in 1937, and Be Angry at the Sun appeared in 1941. In each of these volumes Jeffers's tone and substance were increasingly vitriolic, didactic, and shrill. As he contemplated the prospect of war, his ability to remain distant and objective was profoundly compromised, and he began to write distinctly topical poems, violating his own dictum to write poetry for a reader "two thousand years hence." This topicality robbed his poems of much of their mythic and symbolic power and led to a general diffusion of his poetic strength.

The momentum of his fame continued despite the increasing critical setbacks, however, and in 1938 Random House published The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers in a handsome edition. In 1941 the Jefferses traveled to the East Coast so Jeffers could give a series of readings. This reading tour was a success, as Jeffers read to packed auditoriums at universities across the region. During World War II, Jeffers continued to write overtly political poems, accusing the government of lying to its people and painting, among others, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler with the same brush. For obvious reasons, these poems were not published during the war but were collected and released in 1948 as The Double Axe and Other Poems. These poems are so radical, both in ideology and expression, that Random House felt compelled to publish a rare disclaimer with the volume, asserting that it disagreed with the political content. Jeffers's reputation had at this point probably reached its nadir.

Meanwhile, Jeffers had been asked by actress Judith Anderson to adapt Euripides' play Medea. With Anderson in the title role, Jeffers's adaptation opened on Broadway on 20 October 1947 to rave reviews. The play had a successful, full-season run on Broadway before opening the next season on the West Coast, with Anderson again in the title role. Other narratives by Jeffers--among them "Dear Judas" and "The Tower Beyond Tragedy"--were revised and produced for the stage. So, at the same time that Jeffers's poetic reputation was in decline, he was achieving success in adapting his works for the stage. Jeffers soon received a great blow, however. In 1948 he and Una had traveled to Europe together for the last time; they returned to Tor House, and there, in 1950, Una Jeffers died.

Hungerfield and Other Poems, published in 1954, was Jeffers's last volume of poetry. The title poem was dedicated to Una's memory and is a moving reflection on loss. Between 1954 and 1962 Jeffers lived quietly at Tor House, revising and editing poems despite his declining health and near blindness. On 20 January 1962, in the bed he had memorialized in "The Bed by the Window," Jeffers died, gazing out over the Pacific Ocean, which he revered deeply.

In 1963 Random House issued a posthumous collection of Robinson Jeffers's previously unpublished poems, The Beginning and the End. As one might expect, the poems are somewhat uneven, although the title poem is a contemplation of the beginning of the universe and the scope of evolution, ending with humanity. "The Great Explosion" is noteworthy because it includes one of Jeffers's key metaphors, "the eternal firewheel," also an appropriate paradigm for Jeffers's view of civilization. Jeffers believed firmly in the "culture-cycles" outlined by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West (1927, 1928). Spengler (himself a scientist) proposed an organic theory of cultures in which each would undergo the processes of birth, maturity, decline, and death. Jeffers and, as is obvious from the title of his book, Spengler felt that Western civilization was in decline. Expanding on the firewheel metaphor, Jeffers sees within this structure the insights of quantum theory, "life, arts, politics" functioning as waves, made familiar through the simile of the ocean and its tidal recurrence. The organization of matter dictates such fluctuations, and, despite critical sneers about Jeffers's pessimism, his belief was that following the decline of this civilization will come another cultural age that engenders the apparent equanimity (some might say indifference) with which he faces the passing of humans. This serenity is evident in "I Shall Laugh Purely," when Jeffers reassures his readers that "History passes like falling / Rocks in the dark, / And all will be worse confounded soon. // But this, I steadily assure you, is not the world's end, / . . . / It is not so late as you think: give nature / time." This attitude, more than any other factor--including the oft-cited themes of incest and homicide--was responsible for the decline in Jeffers's popularity. He refused to write poetry that supported jingoistic democracy, instead painting Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill as warmongers who sacrificed a generation of their countries' youth for ideologies he thought empty of value; "Keep clear of the dupes that talk democracy," he warns in "The Stars Go Over the Lonely Ocean": "And the dogs that talk revolution, / Drunk with talk, liars and believers. // Long live freedom and damn the ideologies." Jeffers was repulsed by American loss of life in two wars that were fought not to protect homes, but to support "ideologies." For Jeffers, Nature is God, and the task of the poet is to reveal and praise the beauty of God.

Living apart from nature, man is like a severed hand, useless and repellent. Jeffers insisted that man live within the world of phenomena, of rocks and hawks and sky--an existence that does not really require a higher consciousness. When humans begin to think, and by that Jeffers means abstractly, they will, like Margrave, suffer "pitiful confusions" and "drown in despair." The correction of this error is for humans to understand their relationship with the universe; if they do, they will be at once less inclined to inflict pain on others and to remain in the service of any ideology, and they will be more at peace with their fates. The ideal life for Jeffers is exemplified by the cattle rancher Tom Birnham, who was "Concerned with cattle, horses and hunting, no thought nor emotion that all / his ancestors since the ice-age / Could not have comprehended. I call that a good life; narrow, but vastly / better than most / Men's lives, and beyond comparison more beautiful. . . ." Birnham lives as a part of nature, not apart from it. Jeffers felt that the integration of human life into the rhythms of nature--the "turning outward" he urged--was the key to a balanced and meaningful life.

What, then, of Jeffers's reputation four decades after his death? Tim Hunt, the editor of Jeffers's complete works, has argued for calling Jeffers an "alternative" modern (not modernist) because he faced the same crises of belief as the High Modernists, crises that Joseph Wood Krutch explored in The Modern Temper (1929). In that work, Krutch argues that modern science had subverted traditional metaphysical systems of belief and value but left nothing but rationalism in their place. In Main Currents in American Thought (1987), Vernon L. Parrington worried that idealist notions of human progress and potential were gone, and "only science remains to take the place of the old romantic creed, and science with its psychology and physics is fast reducing man to a complex bundle of glands, at the mercy of the mechanistic universe." Krutch, in fact, came to much the same conclusion, as did Bertrand Russell . The central concern, in their minds, was that the power of science to explain the universe is undeniable, but the conclusions that science reaches deny the metaphysical relationships between man and nature that make life meaningful. This denial leads to a kind of disaffected despair, which is the modern temper. The implications of the modern temper for art are clear--since science has denied human value, meaningful art is impossible. This point seems to be what critics through the midcentury seized upon in attacking Jeffers.

But Jeffers argued that a great poet would "understand that Rimbaud was a young man of startling genius, but not to be imitated; and that 'The Waste Land,' though one of the finest poems of this [the twentieth] century and surely the most influential, marks the close of a literary dynasty, not the beginning." And later he concluded that a poet should "distrust the fashionable poetic dialect of his time; but the more so if it is studiously quaint and difficult; for if a poem has to be explained and diagrammed even for contemporary readers, what will the future make of it?" Clearly, Jeffers is explaining his rejection of modernism, and, as might be expected, a key to that rejection is the notion of permanence. Modernism, for him, had turned inward, where only personal truths could be found; he was interested in durable truths, and by metaphorically transforming the facts of science into specifically human terms, Jeffers sought to write poetry that would make sense to readers two thousand years hence. In two thousand years humanity may no longer feel that it is living in a wasteland, but it will still be an insignificant, transient form of life on a whirling speck of dust amid the stars. And of course, as a poet of nature, Jeffers focused intently on the Big Sur coast, which as a subject does not lend itself to the poetry of personal, interior truths.

Terry Beers has discussed Jeffers's relationship to the canon, and points, rightly, to the basis of New Critical antagonism toward Jeffers as a kind of dismay at the directness of the text, which seems to resist, in its clarity, the primary New Critical act of close reading. This idea is probably behind Hyatt Howe Waggoner's complaint that Jeffers does not present the reader with "symbolic immediacy" (see High Modernist literary references); if a poet speaks directly to his audience, and that audience fully comprehends what the poet is saying, the need for critical exegesis, the raison d'être of literary criticism, is significantly reduced, if not eliminated. But as Beers points out, Jeffers does offer opportunities for post-New Critical practices; there is a pervasive philosophical tension in Jeffers resulting from the epistemological paradox of celebrating the nonhuman transcendent universe from a perspective within human language systems, which poststructuralist criticism has shown are derived from human value systems and traditions.

Jeffers was well aware of such implications and insisted on the inadequacy of language for expressing the beauty of nature. Because he termed his philosophy inhumanism, Jeffers has often been conceived of as antihuman; but his persistence in trying to represent the natural world to his fellow humans, as a corrective for destructive (both for them and for nature) self-interest, not as a bludgeon to quash any vestiges of dignity or self-value, implies not a hatred of humanity but ultimately a compassion for it. The discoveries of science, as Krutch proposed, can possibly lead to cynicism and despair. But Jeffers's response to the world is deeply emotional. He suggests that humans achieve a "reasonable detachment" from their narcissistic tendencies, which lead inevitably to human misery. The way to do that, Jeffers felt, was to become familiar with the splendor of the cosmos; for him, science did not deny systems of faith and value but offered a corrective to humans' parochial vision of nature. Jeffers the poet embraced science as a means of transcending the Western spiritual and intellectual tradition, whose values he thought led only to human agony and despair. By making available through poetic representation the world of science, which teaches humans that they are made of the same material as stars, Jeffers sought to free humans from a defeated metaphysics and allow them to become aware of something much larger than themselves. And for Jeffers, that something, revealed in the vastness and precision of the universe, was God.

In 1988 the Stanford University Press published the first volume of a five-volume set of Jeffers's Complete Works to mark the centennial of his birth. This event alone is testament to Robinson Jeffers's enduring popularity. Since his death, Jeffers's stature as a poet has risen steadily, if slowly. He is now regularly included in anthologies and is often taught in university English courses. This critical renaissance has gained momentum in the last twenty years, in large measure because of Jeffers's perspectives on nature and the environment; in 1950 Jeffers's visions of environmental apocalypse may have seemed far-fetched. In 1990 they seemed perhaps less so. Indeed, Jeffers's emphasis on a nonanthropocentric viewpoint foreshadowed the deep ecology movement of the twenty-first century, and his poetry speaks to a generation of readers who have seen the kind of destruction humanity can cause.


Robinson Jeffers's major manuscripts are at the Beinecke Library of Yale University; at the Harry S. Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin; and at Occidental College, Los Angeles.




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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200013613