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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
In Robinson Jeffers we find a poet concerned … with the cosmos in which man is but a momentary flicker, [and] the magnificent strophes of this strangely obscure poet show a [rich] maturity. This reviewer, reading Jeffers, felt somewhat as Keats professed to feel, on looking into Chapman's Homer…. The opening poem, "Tamar," is a powerful dramatic narrative on the stern Greek model, given a native setting and written in a free verse that has in it the long roll and swing of the elder seas. Jeffers has his own style, which is worthy of his high moods and gnarled thinking. For there is thinking in these lyrics, which lifts them … on to the plane of great writing. It is possible not to share the Oriental philosophy expressed in certain of his poems, but it is impossible to have strong poetry without the force of some equal conviction beating like a heart in its body….
Permanent things—bound together in a cosmic pattern, as Jeffers binds them—permanent things, edged with the light of our new knowledge of the world—permanent things torn up from the sea-floor of emotion and giving off the aromatic odors of fossil resin in the fires of the poet's mind. That is what one is granted in such work as this—work that is hard and cool and precious as amber, and like amber, charged with electricity. (p. 23)
Babette Deutsch, "Brains and Lyrics," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1925 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 43, No. 547, May 27, 1925, pp. 23-4.∗
[Robinson Jeffers' poem] "Post Mortem" is a prophetic warning of the future dangers of over-population. As such it is more true, more relevant, more important now than when it was written…. The dangers of exploding population which Jeffers proclaimed in 1927 have become the crucial concern of our time. And I would suggest that the present renaissance of his poetic reputation is due, in part at least, to the accuracy and timeliness of his prophecy, and to the depth of his concern with "these evils," which he described so eloquently. Together with his deep love of the beauty of wild nature …, Jeffers' concern with the overpopulation of the earth speaks to the present more urgently even than it did to his own time.
But of course this poem would not affect us so powerfully as prophecy if it did not first succeed so brilliantly as poetry. It seems to me one of Jeffers' best—certainly it is one of his most "singular." Its point of view, its imagery, and its emotional impact are all typically "Jeffersian." And this very personal point of view, this violent imagery, and this powerful impact all make the poem not only poetically memorable, but critically important. I would direct your attention to one single line: "And dragged from between the thighs of what mothers will giggle at my ghost when it curses the axemen."
This single line is utterly imaginative: it imagines the poet to be clinically present at the birth of "how many remote generations." Its imagery is both violent and shocking: these future births will be both clinical and painful—the unborn generations will be "dragged" from the womb. And the emotion is in every sense, passional: Jeffers' preoccupation with sexual passion combines with his preoccupation with the passional suffering of pain to create an image of excruciating power. But finally this power becomes almost too intense to be endured, so that, paradoxically, it almost becomes excruciatingly funny. These unborn generations will "giggle at my ghost." And although this "giggle" is, as Everson...
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Even a casual reading leads one to conclude that much of Robinson Jeffers' poetry is profoundly apocalyptic. Fires, deluges, storms, and earthquakes menace the lives of his major characters, and serve as constant reminders of nature's catastrophic potential. There are forebodings of Armageddon and gloomy speculations about man's fate. A number of narratives result in the destruction of a small group of people in such a way as to suggest that they symbolize the human race itself. All of these facts recall strikingly the apocalyptic books and passages of the Bible. The Biblical writers, like Jeffers, thought of man as incapable of permanent self-improvement, and envisioned redemption as coming only after Armageddon and a series of natural catastrophes had destroyed mankind. Believing this, they fixed their gaze on the coming doom and on the glorious new heaven and earth that would succeed it. Calling for "the rejection of human solipsism and the recognition of the transhuman magnificence," Jeffers, too, looked beyond humanity to find redemptive splendor. He too sought not to reform but only to write down his gloomy visions. His outlook, for which he invented the word Inhumanism, lays the philosophical basis for the apocalyptic nature of his work: if one thought that man was merely a fly-speck in the universe, it was easy and even comforting to contemplate his end. But this stance does not explain the intensity of Jeffers' apocalyptic feeling. It does not explain the extraordinary frequency with which the characters in his narratives are menaced by the same agents of destruction found in Biblical apocalyptic: fire, earthquake, wind, rain. (pp. 111-12)
[The California coast, consistently the setting of Jeffers' poems,] was the epitome of the world itself and man's situation in it. Its remarkable beauty was only an intensification of the splendor of the entire non-human world: "It is only a little planet, but how beautiful it is." Not beautiful, however, were the humans who dwelt on the earth. In "Original Sin" and many other poems, he set forth his view of man as naturally vicious. The consequence of his nature would be the instability of all cultures and national groupings: all would in some way come up against a final ocean and fail. Further, he saw in the contrast between man-the-polluter and the beauty of his surroundings a symbol of man everywhere on the earth. The human race was an inglorious and insignificant stage in the evolution of the "one life" composed of the birth and death of many lives, from one-celled beings to mountain ranges, planets, galaxies, universes. (p. 113)
As Jeffers pointed out to inquirers, his narratives were usually based on a particular place in the landscape, often with a story attached to it; so too, did the fires, winds, earthquakes, and rainstorms of the area find their counterpart in his poems, and particularly in his narratives. (p. 114)
These natural agents of destruction are not mere backdrops of dramatic accents, but important symbolic forces in the narratives. Of the four agents, fire most often plays an important part, just as it does in the Biblical apocalypses. Sometimes it is merely a dramatic accent or a plot mechanism—to drive characters together or apart. Most often, however, it is the instrument that threatens to destroy the particular setting of the narrative, as in "Give Your Heart to the Hawks" and "Cawdor," or does destroy it, as in "Tamar," "Hungerfield," or Part I ("The Love and the Hate") of "The Double Axe." in all of these stories, the families live in self-contained worlds in more or less isolated parts of the coast. When the homesteads burn in the latter three poems, one gets the impression that a holocaust has occurred. The reader is seldom reminded that humanity exists anywhere else.
In "The Double Axe," the most obviously apocalyptic of these three latter poems, Jeffers leaves little doubt that the fire is of more than incidental...
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