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.)
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 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 peace of death is to come to a conclusion which is not only barren, a result which pleases Jeffers, but also false, and thus in the end without interest and without value. (p. 33)
[What] cannot be adequately defended are the consequences in the poetry itself, both in the lyrics where we are presumably to get a representation of emotions and in the narrative poems where we ought to be getting a representation of human action.
The narrative poems constitute the major part of Jeffers' work and it is upon them that the weight of untruth is most unfortunate. In The Tower Beyond Tragedy, for example, the alternatives presented to the hero are: either incest or a complete rupture with humanity. One needs no knowledge of the Agamemnon story to know that this is not a genuine tragic dilemma, either for Orestes or for any other human being…. [What happens] throughout the narrative writing is not only not true...
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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 backgrounds of the narratives as the secret, muted embodiment of a fate which, terrible as it is, may ultimately be the means of humbling the one hero (man) so as to bring him into unity with the other hero (Nature). (p. 18)
Because Californians contains stylistic and ideological particles from Flagons and Apples while suggesting the emphasis of the mature work, it has usually been thought a "transitional" book. (p. 21)
Considered as a whole, the early efforts are closer to the achievement of Californians than is Flagons and Apples. They are also cleaner and solider poems than the celebrations of "Helen." If they contain, as I believe they do, the kernel of Jeffers' mature work, and if Flagons and Apples (except very rarely) does not, then one must give up the idea that Californians is a "transitional" work and recognize instead that it continues the mood that Jeffers has courted with only one deviation since adolescence. That one deviation is Flagons and Apples. (pp. 21-2)
Jeffers has loved annihilation no more nor less than creation, death no more nor less than life. But loving both, he could reconcile them only in a mystical experience. If we read his poetry wisely, we gain insight into the severity, the humility, and discipline of a noble and great man's mystical solutions to problems which universally confront all men. (p. 26)
Yet Jeffers' mysticism, like all true mysticism, seeks to objectify as well as to discover the personality. His inner world is not the labyrinth of subjective emotions. It is rather the divine and terrible minotaur who waits in the final cavern of the labyrinth. The formative storm and stress in Jeffers' inner world between the years 1910 and 1918 is recorded in "The Truce and the Peace," and I judge that the important and catastrophic signification of his experience was the decision to destroy his own dandyism, the pastel romanticism of Flagons and Apples. (pp. 26-7)
The effect of Jeffers' reaction against dandyism appears in Californians, but it emerges full-fledged only in Tamar (1924) and Roan Stallion (1925). The change between these and Californians is far reaching. The regionalism has grown into an allegiance to place, but the Carmel coast of which he writes is a created world where the gothic splendors correspond less to any geography than to conditions of the imagination. The intricate verse forms have, except in a few poems which antedate Tamar, yielded to the long sweep of his verse paragraphs. (p. 29)
Taken together, Tamar and Roan Stallion reveal the double potential in Jeffers, the saga formula and the classical, the diffuse and the unified. All his later work is conceived in relationship to this artistic polarity. But he was never again to achieve the same kind of classical expression as in Roan Stallion. He was to write more simply than in Tamar, to be sure, but the crowded and episodic nature of Tamar is characteristic of even as remarkable a poem as Cawdor or as The Loving Shepherdess, Yet, if he could not wholeheartedly turn again to the classical control of Roan Stallion, he was able to hybridize his classical side with his undisciplined side in the narrative which achieves the greatest success, The Double Axe (1948). Part I of The Double Axe is as unified as Roan Stallion, whereas Part II is as diffuse and formless as Tamar or The Women at Point Sur. But Part II stands as a commentary on Part I and it takes the form of a strained, interior argument behind which the lurid lights of Tamar flash without dispersing the purity and intensity of the argument. Toward The Double Axe all of Jeffers' verse moved inexorably, and it is the result of his having been able, after years of dross, to hold the two poles of his artistic nature together. His dramas, it may be noted, display the same pattern. If one discounts his Medea, which is contained by the architecture of Euripides, one finds that The Tower Beyond Tragedy and At the Fall of an Age correspond in their unity to Roan Stallion, while Dear Judas and The Bowl of Blood correspond in their disunity to Tamar. Also, his best drama (as poetic drama) is At the Birth of an Age which, like The Double Axe, divides into two parts: the first, an orderly, lean set of actions; the second, a purposeful disunity spun out into the searching self-analysis of the hanged God. These hybrid creations, combining his two opposed powers, along with Roan Stallion and his recent supernatural allegory Hungerfield (1952), seem to me to be Jeffers' only long works that have a chance for permanency. (pp. 30-1)
The Women at Point Sur is even more tangled than Tamar,… [and] the lines of the action are twisted into an almost hopeless snarl. (p. 33)
Whatever rhetorical success the poem has, it fails to realize the manifold hopes that Jeffers entertained. Even as a study in abnormal psychology it is not successful, for the psychology with its excessive Freudian stratagems has merely the effect of mechanizing and defeating the characters. As for the poem's advocacy of "old-fashioned morality," it seems closer to what D. H. Lawrence would have called a "phallic" drama…. [An] orgasm of death is the final impression of the poem, and as such it seems more nearly a summons to a witches' sabbath than an invitation to morality. The primary trouble is, of course, as Jeffers admitted, the number of intentions. On the other hand it is these intentions which make The Women at Point Sur important to a study of Jeffers. It is the very matrix of his subsequent narratives. (pp. 34-5)
Jeffers has wanted the world to rehearse his own phases of maturation. His attack on man is a continuation of his attack on himself, for the faults he attacks in his heroes are fickleness, sexual athleticism, and jealousy, and these are more nearly the faults of the adolescent hero than of the mature hero…. Because one repudiates the passions, however, does not mean that one is not fascinated by them; it may mean quite the opposite. And this seems to be the constant and nourishing tension in Jeffers' verse. As a philosopher he negates what as a human being he cannot do without. (p. 40)
Jeffers attempts a grand, although awkward, synthesis of Idealism and pragmatism. The effort to compose these ideologies is documented in the poem "Love the Wild Swan."… Two quarreling conceptions direct the sonnet: the ordered program of Nature which relegates man to insignificance; and the subjective reality captured by the eye and the mind, which receive the impressions of order and beauty…. In part, of course, the mien of the experience is mystical, but the structure of the experience is founded on an idealistic metaphysics. This aspect of Jeffers' poetry has been strangely overlooked. I do not wish, however, to give the impression that criticism has ignored a German romanticism in Jeffers. The contrary is true. Yet the emphasis has centered in a Nietzschean influence, and that emphasis is not completely justified in a parallel reading of Jeffers and Nietzsche. (pp. 42-3)
Jeffers has made confessions of indebtedness to Nietzsche, and some critics have constructed unilateral hypotheses from his words…. My own reading leads me to minimize the Nietzschean elements although not to discount them, for in the broadest terms Jeffers' poetry mirrors the intellectual power and austerity which we may sympathetically attribute to Nietzsche. (pp. 43-4)
Although it is clear from the youthful poetry that [Flinders] Petrie and [Oswald] Spengler did not create Jeffers' endemic fatalism, I think it likely that they confirmed him in a set of dualisms intellectually related to that fatalism: a dualism between Nature and history, a dualism between Nature and man, a dualism between culture and civilization. (p. 57)
Jeffers' poetry has contemplated a society which he feels is about to enter its period of "finishedness." Like Spengler, he sees the present as the last evolution of the period of "Culture," the sunset glow of the final greatness of the age…. But the final collapse he tells us in "I Shall Laugh Purely" is centuries away…. Meanwhile he sees Western man in love with luxury and machines, inclining toward subjective passions—love, hate, jealousy—and dissipating his energies in minute, if painful, quarrels. The subjectivity mirrors the subjectivity of the declining civilization. (pp. 59-60)
The acceptance of a Spenglerian doom is obviously commensurate with the polarity of death and resurrection in the structure of Jeffers' temperament. But to this primum mobile we must add Jeffers' Schopenhauerian tendency to regard the species rather than the individual and to relate all human matters to a historical basis. To this tendency he has sacrificed certain elements of psychological realism in his narratives…. Jeffers is not claimed by the ordinary time-dimension of art. His narratives lean back upon the past and stretch forward into a future—a future complicated, neurotic. This intent explains what must otherwise seem a contradiction too absurd to merit serious investigation: the contradiction between "primitive" characters and their decadent behavior. To understand the characters at all, one must understand that they reflect past, present, and future historicity. They represent Western man in three aspects. One may logically observe, of course, that characters who belong to no absolute time cannot be "real." Often they are not. Sometimes they seem only Jeffers' phantoms created to save himself from the "wolves" of "pain and terror, the insanities of desire" over which he broods in "Apology for Bad Dreams."… (pp. 63, 65)
Like many of his contemporaries, Jeffers has used sexual symbolism too often, too bluntly, too easily, and there is no point in making a long list of the Freudian images. (p. 74)
The narratives after The Women at Point Sur [, however,] are less clinical, as may be observed in the treatment of lesbianism in Thurso's Landing…. Although male homosexuality is central to The Cretan Woman (1954), after Thurso's Landing (1932) Jeffers' interest is not detained by lesbianism. Incest as a symbol for "racial introversion," however, has endured. (p. 78)
The fascination with incest in "The Three Avilas" seems to me more distasteful than in Tamar for the reason that it is not turned to symbolical account. Even in Tamar the symbol is tentative, and it does not become formal until 1927 with the appearance of The Women at Point Sur, although The Tower Beyond Tragedy (1925) had moved in this direction. The theme does not appear again until Such Counsels You Gave to Me and The Double Axe. In these it is clear that the use is symbolical, but in each the motivation for incest is different…. In the contrast between Such Counsels You Gave to Me and The Double Axe lies one of the unnoticed growths in Jeffers' poetry. It is a growth away from Freud, away from the clinical and toward the mystical. (pp. 79-80)
Jeffers' narratives between Tamar (1924) and Mara (1941) are characterized by a Freudian scheme, with the result that the behavior of the characters is largely pseudo-naturalistic. They yearn toward incest; they revert to infantile dreams. This is not the case with Bruce Ferguson [in Mara]. His struggle is not with a hidden impurity entombed in childhood; he struggles with the projections of his own personality.
The volume Such Counsels You Gave to Me, which precedes Mara, may in this respect be considered a transitional work, illustrating Jeffers' movement toward a Jungian formulation. (pp. 84-5)
The observable trend in both Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Mara is toward the mystical rather than the naturalistic, toward the Oriental rather than the Western, toward an identification of man with cryptic, divine archetypes rather than disconsolate mechanisms. The momentum of this trend seems to have impelled Jeffers beyond both Freud and Jung in The Double Axe and Hungerfield (1952), for while neurosis and violence recur, they appear in a framework of supernatural allegory which no recognizable psychology, no behavioristic philosophy conditions. (p. 85)
The single most impressive characteristic of Jeffers' mature work is his preoccupation with all manner of violent...
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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....
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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...
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