Robinson Jeffers 1887–1962
(Full name John Robinson Jeffers) American poet, playwright, and essayist.
Jeffers is a controversial figure in twentieth-century American poetry whose prophetic admonitions against modem civilization have attracted both critical censure and admiration. He is perhaps best known for long dramatic narrative poems in which he combined brutal imagery with a somber tone and dense syntax to explore unsettling topics. Guided by his philosophy of "inhumanism," which he defined as "a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence," Jeffers contrasted the strength and enduring beauty of nature with a tragic vision of human suffering and inconsequence. Incorporating structures and themes from Greek drama, the Bible, and Eastern mysticism, and influenced by such thinkers as Lucretius, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Jeffers drew upon science, history, nature, and contemporary events for subject material. Jeffers was also inspired by the landscape and legends of southern California's Monterey coast, where he lived throughout his adult life.
Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was tutored by his father, a Presbyterian preacher and theologian, in various languages, the classics, and the Bible before being sent to boarding schools in Switzerland and Germany. Following his graduation from Occidental College in 1905, Jeffers earned a master's degree in literature from the University of Southern California; he later spent several years studying medicine at USC and forestry at the University of Washington. A modest inheritance enabled Jeffers and his wife to settle on an isolated plot of coastal land in Carmel, California, where he built a stone house and tower overlooking the Pacific Ocean and devoted himself to his art. After suffering from numerous illnesses later in his life, Jeffers died in 1962.
Jeffers's first two books, Flagons and Apples (1912) and Californians (1916), are generally considered derivative and undistinguished. Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1925), which was originally published at Jeffers's own expense as Tamar and Other Poems (1924), exhibits a significant advance from his earlier work. Rejecting traditional modes, Jeffers utilizes simple, declarative, and often colloquial language as well as long narrative forms, while
exploring sexual themes that display the influence of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Havelock Ellis. "Tamar," for example, illustrates the folly of incest through a tragic tale of sexual passion between a sister and her brother. Based on a story from the second book of Samuel, "Tamar" combines California locales with biblical diction and themes. "Roan Stallion" centers on a woman whose abusive husband is killed by her horse when she flees to the animal for protection. After slaying the horse in retaliation for the death of her husband, the woman realizes that she has destroyed the embodiment of her freedom. Her subsequent anguish symbolizes the suffering that humanity inflicts upon itself when it squanders opportunities for change and improvement. "The Tower beyond Tragedy" is drawn from Aeschylus's Oresteia, in which Orestes kills his mother to avenge her murder of his father, Agamemnon. In his version, Jeffers focuses on the character of Cassandra whom Agamemnon obtains as spoil from his victory at Troy and who prophesies many of the grim events that follow. Jeffers's Cassandra foretells not only the fall of old empires, as in the Greek myth, but that of future civilizations. Some of the shorter lyrics in this collection describe southern California's terrain and display Jeffers's knowledge of biology, astronomy, and physics.
The Women at Point Sur (1927) is a complex dramatic narrative poem that is considered one of Jeffers's most controversial works. Described by Dwight McDonald as "a witches' dance of incest, suicide, madness, adultery and Lesbianism," this piece relates the story of Barclay, a Christian minister whose disillusionment with the war that claimed his only son turns him from theology. Abandoning his wife and church, Barclay withdraws to the Carmel coast, where he seeks to establish a new religion based on the external world. He is distracted from his intention, however, by overbearing narcissism and lust for his daughter. Barclay eventually goes insane, and following an orgy of destruction, he wanders off to die in the hills. Modern in its use of science for poetic material and its candid, realistic concern with sex, The Women at Point Sur satirizes human self-importance and explores harmful aspects of civilization.
Cawdor and Other Poems (1928) is regarded by some critics as Jeffers's finest single volume. The title poem of this collection is based on the plot of Euripides's Hippolytus, in which Hippolytus is cursed by Aphrodite with the physical love of Phaedra, his stepmother. When Phaedra hangs herself in grief over her stepson's resistance to her advances, Hippolytus is driven from Athens by his father, whose prayers are fulfilled when his son is dragged to death by his own horses. This book also contains several short verses in unrhymed forms that focus upon the benefits of death over life. The title piece of Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929) dramatizes the crucifixion of Jesus Christ by adapting elements of Japanese Noh theater. Narrated by the ghosts of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Judas, "Dear Judas" exhibits Jeffers's most sustained concern with human emotion. This volume also includes "The Loving Shepherdess," a dramatic narrative about a long-suffering young woman who roams the southern California coast. During her travels, she encounters a friendly vaquero to whom she relates the events which have led to her tragic predicament. Descent to the Dead: Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain (1931) contains sixteen short poems written in stately verse that feature local color and lore. In the title piece of Thurso's Landing and Other Poems (1932), Jeffers recounts the tale of an unhappily married couple whose passion is unable to save them from misery and confusion. Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems (1933) presents a psychological portrait of a strong-willed man who is driven insane by remorse for the murder of his brother. This volume also includes several short pieces that are predominantly concerned with themes of death and resurrection, poems from Descent to the Dead, and "At the Fall of an Age," which concerns the death of Helen on the island of Rhodes twenty years after the fall of Troy.
In Solstice and Other Poems (1935), Jeffers presents a modern version of the Greek legend of Medea based on an account by Euripides. This volume also contains the long narrative "At the Birth of an Age." Derived from the final sections of the Teutonic epic the Nibelungenlied, this poem portrays a petty argument between three sibling leaders of a small Germanic tribe and their sister. Jeffers overshadows the individual personalities of his characters by emphasizing the enormous consequences of their small-minded conduct. The title piece of Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems (1937) features a modern version of a traditional Scottish ballad in which the protagonist's medical acumen provides Jeffers with a vehicle for demonstrating his knowledge of science. Also included in this volume are short poems concerning Jeffers's refusal to align himself with any particular economic, social, or political movement, a position for which he was frequently criticized. Be Angry at the Sun (1941) contains several controversial portraits of Adolf Hitler, whom Jeffers considered historically necessary and simultaneously fascinating and disgusting. In The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948), Jeffers utilizes elements of Eastern ideology to convey the alienation and hatred experienced by many veterans of war. The title poem of this collection is a tale of a young soldier who returns from the dead to confront and kill his father, who had sent him into battle during World War II. This volume also features the philosophical poem "The Inhumanist," in which Jeffers expounds his fundamental convictions. In the final collection published during his lifetime, Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954), which was inspired by his wife's death in 1950, Jeffers portrays death as a welcome respite from life's distress.
Critical reaction to Jeffers's work has fluctuated greatly. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Jeffers was hailed as among the greatest living American writers; Time magazine, which is often considered a barometer of popular achievement, placed him on its cover in 1932. During the Depression and World War II, however, Jeffers suffered a reversal of literary reputation that critics variously attribute to his unpopular social and political views, the diminishing quality of his verse, and the rise of New Criticism. Since his death, Jeffers's work has undergone extensive reevaluation, and several of his shorter poems, including "Shine, Perishing Republic," "Boats in a Fog," and "To the Stone-Cutters," remain essential to anthologies of American verse. Mercedes Cunningham Monjian concluded in 1958: "Whatever the future holds for this poet, our own age is still awed by the magnificent talent and effort of a burdened mind struggling to free humanity from the shackles of an impoverished self-love, and the myths to which he believes it gave birth."
Flagons and Apples 1912
Tamar and Other Poems 1924
Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems 1925
The Women at Point Sur 1927
Cawdor and Other Poems 1928
Dear Judas and Other Poems 1929
Descent to the Dead: Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain 1931
Thurso's Landing and Other Poems 1932
Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems 1933
Solstice and Other Poems 1935
Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems 1937
The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers 1938
Be Angry at the Sun 1941
The Double Axe and Other Poems 1948
Hungerfield and Other Poems 1954
The Loving Shepherdess 1956
The Beginning and the End and Other Poems 1963
Selected Poems 1965
The Alpine Christ and Other Poems 1974
Brides of the South Wind: Poems 1917-1922 1974
What Odd Expedients and Other Poems 1981
Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers 1987
The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. 2 vols. 1988-1989
Other Major Works
Medea (drama) 1946
Poetry, Gongorism, and a Thousand Years (essay) 1949
The Tower beyond Tragedy (drama) 1950
The Cretan Women (drama) 1954
Themes in My Poems (essay) 1956
The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1897-1962 (letters) 1968
SOURCE: A review of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, in Poetry, Vol. 28, June, 1926, pp. 160-64.
[In the following review of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, Monroe disparages the long poems in the volume but praises such short poems as "Woodrow Wilson" and "Night."]
"Tamar" and all the final three-fifths of this book [Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems] were exhaustively reviewed by James Daly in Poetry [in August, 1925] so that the present writer need only record her hearty agreement with that review, her recognition of the "deep poetic compulsion" in Mr. Jeffers' usually distinguished art. All the more is it to be regretted...
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SOURCE: A review of Cawdor and Other Poems, in Poetry, Vol. 33, No. 6, 1929, pp. 336-40.
[In the mixed review of Cawdor and Other Poems below, Zabel praises Jeffers's technical skill as a poet but questions his detached treatment of such themes as fear and violence.]
The theme of Robinson Jeffers' new poem ["Cawdor"] is the tragedy of a woman who meets the passion and selfish pride of men on their own terms, but finds herself the victim of an unimagined lust whose end comes only with the hideous defeat of those who caused her own humiliation. Even this curt summary is sufficient to indicate that "Cawdor" shares with "Tamar," "Roan Stallion," and The...
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SOURCE: A review of Dear Judas, in Poetry, Vol. 35, No. V, February, 1930, pp. 279-86.
[Winters was a prominent American poet and critic who maintained that all good literature must serve a conscious moral purpose. In the negative review of Dear Judas below, he examines the themes and narrative structures in the volume, concluding that Jeffers's "aims are badly thoughtful and are essentially trivial."]
It is difficult to write of Mr. Jeffers' latest book [Dear Judas] without discussing his former volumes; after his first collection he deals chiefly with one theme in all of his poems; and all of his works illustrate a single problem, a spiritual...
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SOURCE: A review of Solstice and Other Poems, in Poetry, Vol. XLIX, No. V, February, 1937, pp. 279-82.
[In the following mixed review of Solstice and Other Poems, Warren states that "this collection brings nothing new."]
It is not probable that Solstice and Other Poems will do much to alter the reputation of Robinson Jeffers, for this collection brings nothing new. It is hard to say what kind of newness we expect when we pick up another volume by an established poet whose work we have read in the past. To expect something new need not brand one as light-minded and frivolous, even though the appetite for novelty, once out of hand and without center,...
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SOURCE: "The Enigma of Robinson Jeffers," in Poetry, Vol. 55, Part 1, October, 1939, pp. 30-8.
[In this excerpt from a review of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Schwartz discusses Jeffers's treatment of such themes as science, war, and nature.]
Although only half of his poetry is here [in The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers] and the important poem called The Women at Point Sur is omitted, evidently because "it is the least liked and the least understood" of his poems, nevertheless this selection presents a sufficient span of writing in its six hundred pages to give any reader a just conception of what Jeffers has done. Above all, this...
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SOURCE: A review of The Beginning and the End and Other Poems, in Chicago Tribune Magazine of Books, May 12, 1963, p. 3.
[In the review below, Spender extols the "ruggedness" and "grandeur" of Jeffers's poetry but disagrees with the poet's "abdication" of human consciousness.]
Robinson Jeffers lived in vast scenery opposite the vast Pacific on the coast of Monterey where he built with his own hands a tower in which he lived. His poetry is rugged as the hills of that landscape, with lines ragged as that ocean, and the spirit of the poet is most often likened in his poetry to a hawk. On the whole it provokes awe and enthusiasm, but it is not poetry to live with,...
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SOURCE: A review of The Beginning and the End and Other Poems, in Poetry, Vol. 103, No. 5, February, 1964, pp. 316-24.
[Dickey was an American poet and critic. In the excerpt below, he suggests that despite Jeffers's conspicuous flaws, he is a poet of greatness and power.]
Now that Robinson Jeffers is dead, his last poems have been issued, culled from hand-written manuscripts by his sons and his secretary, Though some of the pieces [in The Beginning and the End and Other Poems] were obviously left unfinished—there are several different ones which have the same passages in them—it is worth noting that they are actually no more or less "finished" than...
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SOURCE: "A Sovereign Voice: The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers," in Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 487-507.
[In the following essay, Boyers provides a reexamination of Jeffers's poetry, focusing in particular on "the ferocity of the critical reaction against Jeffers" since the late 1940s.]
A generation of critics and observers has agreed to bestow upon Robinson Jeffers the gravest sentence the critical imagination can conceive, the conclusion of ultimate irrelevance for both his life and his work. And though Jeffers, dead now since 1962, never gave a damn about either criticism or the critical imagination, nor for that matter about responses to his...
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SOURCE: "Robinson Jeffers Redivivus," in Georgia Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 429-34.
[In the essay below, Nolte surveys critical reception to Jeffers's work, concluding that after many years of suffering critical disdain, his reputation is once again on the rise.]
When Robinson Jeffers died in 1962 his reputation was probably at its lowest ebb in nearly forty years—since, to be precise, the publication (at his own expense) of Tamar and Other Poems (1924), a volume that at first seemed to have been stillborn. Through one of those happy accidents that now and again occur in the literary world the book was brought to the attention of various...
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SOURCE: "Robinson Jeffers and the Canon," in American Poetry, Vol. 5, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 4-16.
[In the following essay, Beers examines the negative reaction to Jeffers's poetry among the New Critics and suggests that feminist and deconstructionist critical approaches may be more receptive to his work.]
The poetry of Robinson Jeffers has drawn from critics some of the most vicious—and arguably some of the most entertaining—condemnations afforded to any modern body of literature. At midcentury, R. P. Blackmur attempted to anticipate future critics by predicting which poets of the twentieth century then known to him would enjoy lasting reputations. He finds fault...
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SOURCE: "Robinson Jeffers," in A Literary History of the American West, Texas Christian University Press, 1987, pp. 398-415.
[In the essay below, Brophy places Jeffers's work in the context of the American West, concluding "the westering experience was for [Jeffers] the exemplar of all journeys. Western motifs gave him vehicles for a larger philosophizing."]
Jeffers's themes are … consistent from the beginning of his mature period (Tamar, 1924) till the end of his life (The Beginning and the End, 1963). He was a pantheist who believed that God is the evolving universe, a self-torturing god who discovers himself in the violent change which is at the...
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SOURCE: An introduction, in The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Vol. 1, Stanford University Press, 1988, pp. xvii-xxviii.
[In the essay below, Hunt provides a biographical and critical overview of the Jeffers's life and work, focusing in particular on the poet's rejection of modernism.]
By 1914 modernism was already transforming American poetry. Ezra Pound and Imagism were unavoidable presences; [T. S. Eliot's] "Prufrock," as yet unpublished, was four years old; and Wallace Stevens was about to write "Peter Quince" and "Sunday Morning." In 1914, though, Robinson Jeffers was still poetically adrift. Two years younger than Pound, a year older than Eliot, he was...
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SOURCE: "Huge Pits of Darkness, High Peaks of Light," in New Yorker, Vol. LXIV, No. 45, December 26, 1988, pp. 91-5.
[In the following review of Rock and Hawk, Vendler provides an overview of Jeffers's career, concluding Jeffers "will remain a notable but minor poet. "]
The poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) is periodically resurrected. Stanford University Press is bringing out his complete poems in four sumptuous volumes; and from the ashes of The Selected Poetry (1938), compiled by Jeffers himself, and of a second selection, compiled in 1965 by anonymous editors at Random House, there now arises a third, Rock and Hawk (Random House), selected by...
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SOURCE: "Spheral Eternity: Time, Form, and Meaning in Robinson Jeffers," in Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers, G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, pp. 252-65.
[In the following essay, Zaller discusses Jeffers's narratives in the context of Aristotelian tragedy.]
Aristotle, that famous law-giver, laid it down that the action of a tragedy should occur within twenty-four hours. He was thus the first to inscribe an arrow in a circle—the accomplishment of a perfected sequence of events in the orbit of a day's passage. Robinson Jeffers has been faithful, in his fashion, to this dictum; and part of the fascination with ancient tragedy that appears both in his retelling of the...
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SOURCE: "The Inhumanist," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4782, November 25, 1994, pp. 10-11.
[In this review of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Everett finds Jeffers's doctrine of "inhumanism " incompatible with the demands of tragic narrative and suggests that the poet's lyric achievements will prove more enduring than his narratives.]
Despite their commitment to transcendence, religious writers usually want to persuade us not only that there is an persuade us not only that there is an accessible higher plane of existence but that our lives within society will be all the richer for our efforts to reach it. Robinson Jeffers's religious vision was by...
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