Jeffers, Robinson (Vol. 11)
Jeffers, Robinson 1887–1962
Jeffers was an American poet and playwright whose fatalistic philosophy extols the savage beauty of nature over the inadequacies of man. Drawing his themes from the Greek classics as well as from the philosophies of Nietzsche and Freud, he often set his poems against the backdrop of the California coast. His is a grim poetry of violence, incest, and revenge, placing value upon what Jeffers called "permanent things," and upon freedom. The early response to Jeffers's work was highly enthusiastic. Praise came from such critics as Babette Deutsch and Mark Van Doren, and something of a cult following developed. Since the mid-1930s, however, his work has come under critical attack, and his reputation has steadily deteriorated. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3.)
Mark Van Doren
The most rousing volume of verse I have seen in a long time [is Robinson Jeffers's "Tamar and Other Poems."]… Few recent volumes of any sort have struck me with such force as this one has; few are as rich with the beauty and strength which belong to genius alone….
[Two] long narrative pieces are its real contribution…. [The title-poem, "Tamar"], seems to me to point a new path for narrative verse in America. The rhythms, for one thing, are variable and free; now crabbed and nervous, now copious and sweeping, they get their story told as few are told—with style. And their story, though it is anything on earth but pleasant, was magnificently worth telling. Tamar, the heroine, begins by being like the Tamar who figures in the thirteenth chapter of II Samuel, but she develops in an ampler strain. It is obvious that Mr. Jeffers's inspiration has been Greek rather than Hebrew; the House of Cauldwell is the House of Atreus, and the deeds done there are such as have rarely been attempted in song since Aeschylus petrified an audience with his Clytemnestra and his Furies.
Mark Van Doren, "First Glance," in The Nation (copyright 1925 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 11, 1925, p. 268.
(The entire section is 205 words.)
[The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers] presents a sufficient span of writing … to give any reader a just conception of what Jeffers has done. Above all, this selection invites a brief consideration and judgment of Jeffers' work as a whole, especially with regard to its sources.
At least one source is the scientific picture of the universe which was popular and "advanced" thought until a few short years ago. (p. 30)
When Jeffers says in his foreword and in a number of his poems that he wishes to avoid lies, what he means by lies are all beliefs which would somehow deny or ameliorate this world-view. When he speaks repeatedly of stars, atoms, energy, rocks, science, and the power of Nature, it is the Nature of 19th-century science which he has in mind and which obsesses him…. [For Jeffers, Nature] has become merely a huge background which proffers only one delight, annihilation, and which makes human beings seem to him puny and disgusting beasts whose history is the tiniest cosmic incident. (p. 31)
The world-picture of 19th-century science, the World War and Jeffers' portion of the Pacific Coast are not, however, merely sources of his work, but actually, with little disguise, the substance of his poems. (p. 32)
Human beings are often brutal, Nature is sometimes violent, and life is indeed a mystery, but to respond as Jeffers does by rejecting humanity and saluting the...
(The entire section is 982 words.)
Jeffers' poetry presents some difficulties, but it is in the main poetry of direct statement. Yet even if Jeffers were serving up a pastiche of metaphysical conceits and French symbolism, it seems unlikely that the "esthetic" critics [who have objected to his style] would feel moved to enthusiasm for his sprawling, often careless narratives. The poems need critical re-examination, but the need centers in their philosophical texture, in the relationship of idea to idea rather than the relationship of word to word, nuance to nuance. (p. 8)
In retrospect Jeffers' present reputation is contained within the beautiful symmetry of a completed irony. The virtues which the earlier reception proclaimed were his sense of restrained tragedy, his form and metrical accomplishment. The faults which later criticism has found are those of hysteria, formlessness and dubious metrics. Still, most critics have permitted him to retain one virtue, that of "power." (pp. 9-10)
[Jeffers] came to write violent "stories" about two heroes: Nature as permanence opposed to man as the perverse, ephemeral consciousness. But Jeffers' violence is not so much nostalgia for Thermopylae as it is scorn of modern man's playing the old fool: modern man with his bloody and mysterious myths gone and with his theory of ethics firmly established, yet behaving like a barbarian—like the child, instead of the adult of the age. War appears again and again in the...
(The entire section is 5820 words.)
A contemporary of Stevens and Frost, Jeffers differs from them in his long free lines and his unrelieved solemnity. Though he turned to dialogue more often than they did, it was originally with no thought of theatrical performance. Only his Medea (1946) was specifically intended for the stage…. Besides Medea, Jeffers wrote five poems in dialogue form, all of them subsequently performed.
The Tower Beyond Tragedy is Jeffers' version of the Oresteia. Divided into three parts, the dramatic poem is faithful only to the surface events of Aeschylus. (p. 231)
In [his] conclusion, images are confusing, but Jeffers' approbation for Orestes is unmistakable. Jeffers himself explained his intention: "Orestes, in the poem, identifies himself with the whole divine nature of things; earth, man, and stars, the mountain forest and the running streams; they are all one existence, one organism. He perceives this, and that himself is included in it, identical with it. This perception is his tower beyond the reach of tragedy; because, whatever may happen, the great organism will remain forever immortal and immortally beautiful. Orestes has 'fallen in love outward,' not with a human creature, nor a limited cause, but with the universal God."
Though Jeffers was to write more speakable dialogue, he was not to modify the long, image-strewn lines, spoken by towering characters…. Cassandra's...
(The entire section is 779 words.)
Frederic I. Carpenter
On March 3, 1941, Robinson Jeffers read from his poetry to a large audience in Emerson Hall, Harvard University. The room seated four hundred, but many more crowded the halls outside. The next day I drove Jeffers to visit Emerson's Concord and Walden Pond, and in conversation inquired the title of his next book. "Beyond Good and Evil," he replied; and when I did not hear well, he added: "Nietzsche." Nine months later his new book bore the title, Be Angry at the Sun; and on December 7 Pearl Harbor exploded.
At that time the incident did not seem very important. The title poem of the new volume translated the Nietzschean idea into poetic language, while it recalled the German of Spengler (mentioned in another poem), whose Untergang des Abendlandes announced the setting sun of all Western civilization. But after Pearl Harbor the new volume seemed almost treasonous: one poem coupled Roosevelt with Hitler as equal instigators of the new world war…. (p. 86)
Now more than a generation later, 1941 looms as a watershed in American history. But it also marks a watershed in the history of Jeffers's reputation. In March, 1941, his popularity had reached its highest point (although some critics had been denouncing him since the publication of The Women at Point Sur in 1927). But after Pearl Harbor his attempts to argue that "The cause is far beyond good and evil,/Men fight and their cause is not the cause,"...
(The entire section is 1241 words.)