Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964
Robinson Jeffers, poet of the beautiful and often wild and harsh California coast, believed that the Big Sur, California, landscape in which he lived revealed the truth about both people and the rest of nature. That truth is that all existence is in a constant process of flux, driven by, in the case of inorganic nature, great physical and chemical forces, and, in the case of living beings, the desire to survive and to seek pleasure.
Sexuality is a source of pleasure for people. This pleasure is also the way in which nature survives and continues in the form of new life. People respond to some sexual acts with punishment because people are dependent on one another and on the survival of the social order. People must define some sexual activity as wrong and not only condemn it but also punish it.
Jeffers examines such sexual aberrations as incest in Tamar (1924) and loveless coupling in The Roan Stallion (1925). An obvious question is, can pain and misery be avoided by avoiding wrongful sex? In Cawdor, which Jeffers regarded as part of a trilogy that includes Tamar and The Women at Point Sur (1927), he investigates the same questions, and he concludes that sexuality is a trap from which there is no escape; even abstinence leads only to trouble and suffering.
Jeffers was well educated in the classics, and the Greek tragedies were his favorite form of literature. His model for the story of the house of Cawdor is Euripides’ Hippolytos (428 b.c.e.). In that dramatic account of a myth, Theseus’s son, Hippolytus, rejects the sexual advances of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, because he prefers, instead, Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. This relationship is doomed, however, because Artemis cherishes her virginity. Although Artemis’s views would seem to be enough to punish Hippolytus, vengeful Aphrodite also clouds the mind of his stepmother, Phaedra, and causes her to fall in love with him. When Hippolytus rejects her, too, Phaedra sets Theseus against his son. Theseus has Poseidon send a sea monster to frighten Hippolytus’s horses as the boy rides by the shore. He is thrown from his chariot and dragged to his death.
Jeffers was drawn to this story not only by the themes of sexuality and incest but also by the characters who are manipulated by forces they cannot control. The Greeks personified these forces as gods and goddesses; in the twentieth century, where Jeffers sets his story, people are not certain what to call these forces, but people are, nevertheless, at the mercy of them. The Greek myth is a good reference point.
In Cawdor, Fera Martial (whose name means “wild beast,” a connection that is reinforced when she puts on the skin of the mountain lion that Hood gives her) plays the part of Phaedra, Cawdor plays the part of Theseus, and Hood plays the part of Hippolytus. Fera feels that her sexuality is wasted in the service of, on one hand, her much older husband and, on the other hand, her injured, disabled father. She reaches out to Hood, who stabs himself in the thigh as a gesture of self-condemnation for even considering betraying his father in a liaison with a woman who replaced his mother. He does not tell his father, however, what this woman did. Hood is trapped by his own sense of honor. He can neither yield to temptation nor inform his father of Fera’s advances, lest he break the old man’s heart. Like Othello, another possible model, Cawdor chooses to believe Fera’s false reports. He attacks Hood, causing him to fall to his death. When Cawdor learns that he attacked and killed his son because of Fera’s lies, he blinds himself in imitation of Oedipus; in this case, however, the sin is of father against son rather than son against father. Hood accidentally shoots Fera, mistaking her for a mountain lion while she wears the lion skin. All the major characters die or are wounded as a result of passion, whether the passion is acted upon or whether it is avoided.
Jeffers’s description of Hood’s self-mutilation, which he calls an “Attis-gesture,” is an indication of another level of meaning. Cawdor is based not only on the Greek tragedies but also on the myths behind those tragedies. Attis destroys himself, but he merges into a larger reality by doing so, and he is reborn in a different form when spring returns. The idea that death is neither an end nor a gateway to immortality but, instead, is part of an ongoing cycle of reformation and synthesis appears in three passages: when old Martial dies, when Hood dies, and when George shoots the caged, broken-winged eagle that Michal keeps as a pet. In each section, Jeffers describes the dissolution of consciousness after death, as if death itself is not a final event but a process that continues after the one who dies is lost to the living. Critics consider the passage about the eagle’s death one of Jeffers’s best. Like many other artists, Jeffers uses the dream as a means of connection between the ordinary waking world and the larger process of which people are all a part; each of the “death dreams” grows more intense until the caged eagle’s consciousness soars above the coast where its body has died. Cawdor blinding himself is only a small part of a great spectacle. The agony of the Cawdor family, which the rest of this long poem describes, becomes only a minor incident in the great evolving, revolving, and returning cycle of things, and then the eagle can “see” no more, as its consciousness merges into another type of life that no one—not the eagle, not Jeffers—can describe.