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...
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