Study Guide

Robinson Jeffers

Robinson Jeffers Essay - Critical Essays

Robinson Jeffers American Literature Analysis

Since first gaining public attention in 1925 with Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems, Robinson Jeffers has been remarkable primarily for his metrical innovations; for graphic, even sordid, plots set in scenes of spectacular beauty; and for themes that eventually resulted in the philosophical attitude he called “Inhumanism.” In all three respects Jeffers stands alone. However, as time passes, he appears increasingly to have anticipated later developments with uncanny foresight.

Metrical innovations—and the purposes to which he put them—are most immediately evident. Narrative poetry in the 1920’s held a larger share of popular culture than it would later; still taught as a literary staple in the schools, it appealed to a wide audience. In 1920, nineteenth century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was easily the most popular poet in the United States, as the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson had been twenty years before. Stephen Vincent Benét would have several best sellers in the two decades following. All of them wrote in traditional rhymed or unrhymed regular four-or five-stress patterns that had been familiar for centuries. Jeffers himself used these in his early narratives. For Tamar, however, an updated version of a myth variously recounted by the Greek poet Hesiod in Theogony (c. 800 b.c.e.) and by the authors of the biblical Book of Samuel, Jeffers believed that he needed English verses with the rhythmic suppleness of the Greek and Aramaic originals.

Few examples were immediately available in the English poetic repertory. True, there was the precedent of Old English verse, which Jeffers had studied and which Ezra Pound had raised to the status of cult object. Transcribed as nearly verbatim as possible into modern English, it produces a line with four or five stresses and a variable number of sequences of unstressed syllables. Literal translation of some Greek and Hebrew measures creates a similar effect. Measures such as those had been used in English poetry before, notably by Christopher Smart and William Blake, but without great success.

Jeffers had the genius to make his adaptation seem so natural that subsequent poets would routinely use the terms “four-and five-stress lines.” Basically, he doubled the five-stress line, thereby creating a ten-stress form unlike anything heard before; yet it sounded as inevitable as nature. It is more sinuous and patterned than the finest, most contoured prose, less precious and confined than any regular meter. It is relatively easy to read, yet it embeds itself effortlessly in the mind. It made Jeffers the most-read narrative poet of the twentieth century.

Jeffers’s second distinction is his choice of plots and settings. The building of Tor House caused him to feel that he had come to the “inevitable place” and that it was his vocation to capture its spirit. His scientific training in geology and biology had taught him that in the scales of cosmic time and space, humankind had hardly nudged the beam. The full course of human history cast a shadow as trivial as that of a single person on the face of Big Sur. Furthermore, he knew that as products of evolution, human beings were closer to the animals than to the angels. Their behavior was only fitfully rational; otherwise, primitive instincts dragged them, hopelessly trailing platitudes and rationalizations. His viewpoint was close to one expressed by Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, who in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) declared humankind “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

If Jeffers’s Calvinistic upbringing had indoctrinated him in the conviction of universal human depravity, his study of the writings of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud reinforced those views. Yet it gave him a different perspective. Humans were not responsible for their depravity: They were merely irredeemably animal. In fact, they made themselves worse by pretending to be more. Denying those impulses forced them to repress their animal instincts, which did confer a superficial propriety. Repression, however, far from eradicating instincts, merely held them at bay for a time. When they finally found an outlet, they exploded with accumulated pressure. Because these explosions of passion were unintentional, humans were not responsible for them and therefore could not be considered evil. They were, rather, as innocent as animals—which also meant they could not be considered good, either. Instead, they should be viewed indifferently, as part of the process of life.

These views gave Jeffers a predilection for plots of intense sensuality, irregular passion, and brutish violence, whether he was retelling ancient myths or creating more realistic, more contemporary narratives. This first appears in Tamar, which details multiple incidents of incest—brother-sister, father-daughter (implicit), second-generation brother-sister—as well as lesbianism, seduction, a séance of sorts, murder, arson, and self-immolation, all presented almost as everyday events. “Roan Stallion,” Jeffers’s most widely circulated work, includes a fantasized act of bestiality between stallion and woman, wife rape, and retaliation in which the woman uses the stallion to kill her husband before the eyes of their child.

The Tower Beyond Tragedy (1925) complicates Aeschylus’s Oresteia by making explicit the sexual relationship between Agamemnon and Cassandra, by suggesting that all the sexual relationships are mechanical when not forced, by emphasizing the callousness of the execution of Cassandra, and by expanding the multiple incestuous links among the characters. The Women at Point Sur (1927) includes father-daughter incest in a kaleidoscope of permissive sexual debauchery and violence that struck most readers as excessive, even by Jeffers’s standards.

This focus on the unrepressed savage or animalistic behavior of humankind is consistent throughout his life’s work. In “Dear Judas” and “The Loving Shepherdess” (1929), he does find something to admire in humanity. Yet even here, what he admired—zest for life and self-realization in the character of Jesus, and, in “The Loving Shepherdess,” Clare Walker’s clear-eyed acceptance of suffering and her determination to guarantee the best part of life for her doomed baby—did not strike everyone else as positive. His explicit repudiation of divinity, to say nothing of virtue, in Jesus appeared aggressively blasphemous. The term most often used by critics to describe Jeffers’s attitude is “tragic”; nearly as common is the adjective “unrelieved.”

Jeffers himself called his orientation “Inhumanism”; although he did not specifically define it until near the end of his career, it underlies all of his poetry. Inhumanism characterized the viewpoint that humans needed to acquire, in Jeffers’s view, in order to escape the limits and errors of human-centered thought and action. He considered all previous philosophies defective because they regularly assumed that existence pivoted on humans. The ancient Greek commonplace held that man was—or should be—the measure of all things. Moreover, that attitude underlies all systems of thought which use human reason as the means of analysis. Jeffers believed that this imparted a human bias to assessments of the universe and humanity’s role in it.

To correct this, Jeffers proposed a view which moved humankind from being the center to being part of the complex whole. This was not novel with him; it was consistent with contemporary perspectives of biology, geology, and cosmology, having been expressly formulated by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species (1859). Although some aspects of Darwinian thought had been accepted, his displacement of humans (and God) from central roles in the continuing evolution of the cosmos had not. That concept, however, allowed Jeffers a stark objectivity in his treatment of characters and plots.

Tamar

First published: 1924 (collected in Tamar, and Other Poems, 1924)

Type of work: Poem

At an isolated Carmel farm, a girl, Tamar, becomes involved with her brother, learns of her father’s incest, and commits suicide by conflagration.

In capsule, the action of Tamar seems so contrived and decadent as to defy plausibility. Actually, it is an expansion of a generation myth told briefly by Hesiod and retold in a paragraph at the end of Herman Melville’s Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852). Another version, with Tamar as the main character, appears in chapters 13 and 14 of the Second Book of Samuel. In contrast, Jeffers’s development of the material is leisurely and expansive. Furthermore, it is presented in such compelling rhythms, such detail, and such a matter-of-fact way that the question of plausibility hardly arises during reading. The poem is sixty-two or seventy-two pages long (varying with edition) so that the story’s development is ample.

The narrative begins with a prelude in which Lee Cauldwell, Tamar’s brother, falls with his horse from a cliff during a drunken dare. Near death, he is nursed back to health by Tamar. The two grow closer after this. The house in which he lies recovering broods forebodingly, however. A midnight storm stirs the uneasy souls of their father, David, and their aunts, Stella Moreland, a ghost-seer, and Jinny Cauldwell, who is mentally disabled. By the following spring, Lee has recovered, and he finds himself increasingly drawn to his sister—to the point that he drives off a suitor. He stops going to local parties, giving up his former carousing. His father warns him that he will not have time for socializing once he is drafted for the war.

That April, brother and sister stop one hot afternoon to bathe in a stream. Overcome with passions for which she cannot even find words, Tamar tries to drown herself. As her brother rescues her, they find themselves instinctively making love. Afterward he despairs, but she accepts responsibility and declares her love for him.

Shortly afterward, Tamar interviews her Aunt Stella when Stella is in a trance; she learns that her father had been incestuous with his sister Helen, now dead. Feeling that her own relationship with Lee is foredoomed, Tamar continues it in despair, until she discovers that she is pregnant. After a vision in which she surveys all the various peoples who have lived along the coast, she rides to the Andrews farm, where she seduces Will Andrews so that she will have someone whom she can...

(The entire section is 4380 words.)