The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers Analysis

Robinson Jeffers

The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

ph_0111201230-Jeffers.jpg Robinson Jeffers Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Considering the high regard that Robinson Jeffers enjoyed during the 1920’s and 1930’s, following the publication of his first two books, Tamar (1924) and Roan Stallion (1925), an explosion of attention that included Jeffers’ picture appearing on the cover of Time magazine, it is startling to see how rapidly his reputation declined. By the middle of the century, he was nearly invisible, represented by one or two perfunctory selections in standard anthologies but reviled by the New Critics, ignored by proponents of modernism, and curiously overlooked even by advocates of alternative traditions that drew Louis Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, H. D., and George Oppen into the arena of serious critical scrutiny. As Kenneth Gibbs points out in an astute assessment of the first volume of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1988), Jeffers “has always been a poet difficult to fit into the literary conventions of the twentieth century, for he chose to follow a path eschewed by the modernist tradition.” The directness of statement, almost violently powerful language, intensity of emotion not concealed within ironic modes or ambiguous tropes, and the extended measures of his rhythmic structure were not features of Jeffers’ work that appealed to academic critics, while his uses of both realism and naturalism seemed like a retreat to the narrative modes of the previous century.

As is often the case with a genuinely original talent, however, the narrow concerns of a particular era have dwindled in importance, while the unique strengths of the artist have begun to emerge again. Jeffers’ concentration on the natural world, particularly the wild California coastal country near the Monterey Peninsula, can now be seen clearly as a crucial component of the tradition of American environmental writing, locating Jeffers with Henry David Thoreau, Edwin Muir, Gary Snyder, and Edward Abbey, among others. His poetic maps of the landscape and climate of the Big Sur region have established his authority there and placed that locale in American consciousness just as William Faulkner placed a county in Mississippi and Robert Frost placed the land and mountains of New England. In addition, the qualities of language that seemed to threaten critics and some readers in the 1930’s and 1940’s can now be appreciated for the manner with which they make Jeffers’ poetry vibrate with energy. His maverick politics, his deep psychological explorations of human emotions, and the commanding tone of his protophilosophical addresses to the universe that draw humankind into terrifying but exhilarating relationships with the cosmos are easier to accept now that the poetic field has been opened by various “madmen of language” and other unconventional artists.

The second volume in the set of Jeffers’ complete published and unpublished work in Stanford University Press’s “single, comprehensive, and textually authoritative edition” follows the format of the initial one. It has been compiled with similar care and taste by Tim Hunt, the director of the project, “meticulously researched and carefully edited, set in a handsome typeface with ample space given to the poems on the page,” as Gibbs said about the first volume, which covered Jeffers’ poems from 1920 to 1928. While the long narrative poems of these two volumes may represent Jeffers’ “unique contribution to twentieth century poetry,” as Gibbs maintains, they are not the only basis for arguing that Jeffers is a major American poet. The timeless debate concerning the relative merits of the lyric versus the epic poem will never be settled, but the poems in the second volume which conclude the two-decade outburst that produced fifteen narrative poems (ranging in length from ten to two hundred pages), four verse dramas, and almost two hundred lyric poems demonstrate that Jeffers’ shorter works constitute an equally powerful argument for poetic excellence.

Robinson and Una Jeffers, then his wife of a little more than a year, arrived at Carmel Bay in 1914 by stagecoach. The Santa Lucia and Big Sur mountains stretching to the horizon marked one of the last reaches of the American frontier. As Robert Haas observes in his excellent introductory essay to a centenary selection of Jeffers’ poems, “Everywhere in the work there is the sense of a man to whom the wholeness and beauty of the world, particularly the world as seen from a rocky bluff above Carmel Bay, and its reality, its actually being there outside his own circle of human need, is a stunning and sobering gift.” Jeffers spent the remainder of his life there, building a house of stone, rearing two sons, landscaping the plot with thousands of eucalyptus, pine, and cypress trees, and writing about the world from a perspective of relative isolation. He had been educated in private schools in the United States and abroad and had tried graduate studies in comparative literature and medicine before starting a course in forestry, searching for a vocation before be accepted the fact that he was a...

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The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: 1920-1928, edited with an introduction by Tim Hunt, is the first volume of a projected four-volume chronological edition of Jeffers’ work; it does not, however, present the poetry with strict chronology, for the apprentice works Flagons and Apples (1912) and Californians (1916) are reserved for volume 4. Meticulously researched and carefully edited, set in a handsome typeface with ample space given to the poems on the page, this volume contains the complete poems from those seminal publications between 1920 and 1928 that constitute the central pillars upon which Jeffers’ reputation rests: Tamar and Other Poems (1924), Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems (1925), The Women at Point Sur (1927), and Cawdor and Other Poems (1928).

A scholarly collection of Robinson Jeffers’ poetry was certainly timely fifty years after The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers was published in 1938. Sufficient time has elapsed for the wide swings in Jeffers’ reputation—from the effusive praise of the 1920’s and 1930’s to the abrupt dismissal of his work by the New Critics in the 1950’s—to have been damped sufficiently to permit a more balanced assessment of his poetry. Just previous to the publication of the volume under discussion, Robert Hass edited and introduced Rock and Hawk (1987), a collection of Jeffers’ short poems. By omitting the long narrative poems, however, Hass deflects attention from Jeffers’ unique contribution to twentieth century poetry. Although few critics have expressed unalloyed admiration for the long narrative poems, these poems contain the essence of Jeffers’ original poetic vision. No final assessment of his achievement can neglect the great verse narratives from the decade covered by the first volume of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: “Tamar,” “Roan Stallion,” “The Women at Point Sur,” “The Tower Beyond Tragedy,” and “Cawdor.”

Jeffers has always been a poet difficult to fit into the literary conventions of the twentieth century, for he chose to follow a path eschewed by the modernist tradition. In his foreword to The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, published at the height of his popularity, Jeffers stated that it had been his plan from 1920 on to write narrative poetry that would “present aspects of life that modern poetry had generally avoided.” Not only did Jeffers choose subject matter rejected by the poets of his generation, but he also developed an extremely long poetic line, reminiscent of that of Walt Whitman but rhythmically flatter, devoid of the techniques of irony, compression, and ambiguity so admired by both modernists and New Critics. His long verse fictions—set in the Monterey Peninsula area of California and inhabited by ordinary people motivated by unusually strong and perverse emotions—were written with a narrative and metaphorical directness more characteristic of the prose of the late nineteenth century American novel than of the imagistic condensation and conversational tone associated with, for example, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams, all publishing major works during the period covered by the volume under discussion.

The long narrative poem “Tamar” initiated Jeffers’ individualistic poetic plan. Covering seventy-three pages in The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, this poem announces the major themes found in Jeffers’ poetry: a preoccupation with sexual deviance prompted by personal obsessions as well as a wide reading in the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, a focus on ritual acts of violence influenced by the patterns of ancient myths and the classical dramas of ancient Greece, a fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power, and an aloof pessimism suggestive of Arthur Schopenhauer’s. To summarize “Tamar” briefly, Lee and Tamar Cauldwell, children of California rancher David Cauldwell, repeat the pattern of incest begun earlier by David and his sister Helen. In order to legitimize her pregnancy, Tamar seduces Will Andrews, son of a neighboring rancher. At the end, Tamar collects Will, David, and Lee—all three men under the control of her sexual power—into one room of the house. Set on fire by her half-witted Aunt Jenny, the burning house consumes all as the floor of the room “turned like a wheel.”...

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Library Journal. CXIV, August, 1989, p.137.

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