(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 entire section is 905 words.)