The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

by Robinson Jeffers
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The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2067

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.

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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 poet. His earliest poetry, apprentice work planned for inclusion in volume four of the Stanford edition, showed how strongly he bad been influenced by the style and stance of the late nineteenth century aesthetes, and Jeffers himself claimed in a letter that “English poetry has more significance for me than American. That is, poetry of the past—certainly not of the present.” He disclaimed any strong influence from American writers, while acknowledging his admiration for Edgar Allan Poe and Ralph Waldo Emerson; he insisted that (as his wife put it) he “owes less to W. W. than to most other poets of his era and sees no reason to link W. W. and R. I” As William Everson, a sort of disciple of Jeffers, points out, Whitman’s free verse was “too transparently available” and Whitman too close a kindred prophet of physical instinct for Jeffers to accept their similarities. Jeffers preferred to think that his long, controlled, carefully modulated lines were drawn from the cadences of Old Testament verse and Anglo-Saxon and Germanic alliterative poetry. The line that Jeffers developed enabled him to build poems of great emotional power and gave his work its meditative quality. His technique of basing philosophical reflection on the implications of stunning visual insight is a modern version of one of the most ancient and enduring of poetic practices.

Although Jeffers declared himself an “Inhumanist” and was generally thought to regard nature as indifferent, there is an inspiring, life-enhancing quality in the natural world to which he instinctively responds. In “Red Mountain,” while he acknowledges that “Red mountain would not turn pale for our absence,” his paean to its blazing colors is radiant with delight:

Beyond the Sierras, and sagebrush Nevada ranges, and vastVulture-utopias of Utah desert,That mountain we admired last year on our summer journey, the sameRose-red pyramid glows over Silverton.Whoever takes the rock pass from Ouray sees foaming waterfallsAnd trees like green flames, like rocks flamingGreen; and above, up the wild gorge, up the wild sky,Incredibly blood-color around the snow-spotThe violent peak.

This is a celebration of the natural world portrayed in almost surrealist images, but it is also a celebration of the artist’s ability to see, to register and to place in language the energy and beauty of the rugged land. Then, his reflective reaction to the image, “We like dark skies and lead-color heights,! But the excellence of things is really unscrupulous, it will dare anything,” combines human awe and wonder with a universe that challenges the largest human capacity for vision. The transcendent powers contained within the natural world are available for the person whose senses have been properly developed. This is one of Jeffers’ guiding principles, and its expression is frequent, ranging from the almost haikulike brevity of

Among stones and quietnessThe mind dissolves without a sound,The flesh drops into the ground

in the final stanza of “The Low Sky” to the more typical concluding measures of “November Surf,” where Jeffers evokes the ethos of “some lucky day each November” when the “great waves” of “the bath of a storm” scour and restore the earth. He sees this event as a part of a cycle of renewal, returning the “rivers mouth to source pure” and giving “the two-footed! Mammal” the opportunity to regain “the dignity of room, the value of rareness.”

The very American concerns of space and singularity are emphasized, and two of Jeffers’ recurring poetic objects, the rocks of the mountains on the California coast and the hawks living in their highest reaches, are also part of his picture of an idealized American landscape. That landscape is rocklike in rugged grandeur; hawk-like in independent ferocity. Jeffers valued his existence as an independent individual and saw the strength of America in similarly self-reliant men and women struggling against the demands of the ego and the limits of conventional social expectations. In “Praise Life,” Jeffers states what is almost a basic credo: “This country least, but every inhabited country/Is clotted with human anguish.” The poem concludes with his injunction, “Praise life, it deserves praise, but the praise of life! That forgets the pain is a pebble! Rattled in a dry gourd.” While not adhering to any familiar form of religion, Jeffers (as Allen Williamson saw it) belonged to a poetic tradition that tried to invent a spirituality that could survive the death of Christianity. Jeffers’ contribution was a kind of pantheistic rapture that required him to show how his own existence was revitalized by a direct, visceral contact with the phenomena of wind and water and light moving in infinite variations over the land. “It is time for us to kiss the earth again,” he writes in “Return,” one of his most unabashed expressions of spiritual rejuvenation. “I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers! In the ocean wind over the river boulders.” His employment of a very personal voice in poems such as this one embarrassed the ironists of the academy, but obsession is often at the heart of the most profound imagination. In a fascinating paradox, the acceptance of personal response became a means of moving beyond the personal as Jeffers aligned his reactions to his meditations on what Haas calls “the permanence and superb indifference of nature.”

A minimalizing of humanity mingles with a distinctly human observation in “The Place for No Story”:

This place is the noblest thing I have ever seen. No imaginableHuman presence here could do anythingBut dilute the lonely self-watchful passion.

Is the passion a human one? A geographic one? A divine one? That is the paradox. Similarly, in “The Coast-Road,” the focus is on the land around Mirmas Canyon, and man’s path remains secondary:

    Beautiful beyond beliefThe heights glimmer in the sliding cloud, the great bronze gorge-cut sides  of the mountain tower up invincibly,Not the least hurt by this ribbon of road carved on their sea-foot.

The connections he makes between the Pacific landscape and his ecstatic responses to it are given a particularly clear expression in “October Week-End,” where he notes with pleasure,

All the magnificent wonders of midwinter midnight, blue dog- star,Orion, red Aldebaran, the ermine-fur Pleiades,Parading above the gable of the house. Their music is their shining.

He then contrasts his outward inclinations with a party that his sons are having at which “girls are their music.” He is, characteristically, an interested observer, but his last image is one of joining the earthbound to the eternal celestial, suggesting that the two forms of passion are somehow related: “I am warming my blood with starlight, not with girls’ eyes,! But really the night is quite mad with music.”

This volume also includes several of Jeffers’ most famous narratives, including Thursos’ Landing (1931), which Jeffers says was suggested “by the savage beauty of the canyon and sea-cliff that are its scene, and by the long-abandoned lime-works there,” and Give Your Heart To The Hawks (1933), which took its title from a phrase that “swam about in my mind for several years as a good title for a poem; then one day I noticed the scene and farmhouse that seemed to fit the title, in Sycamore Canyon, just south of Big Sur; and between the title and the scene the poem unrolled itself.” The narrative and lyric poems gathered here help to right the wreckage of the anthologies that cluster so many separate poems and poets that no voice emerges. As useful as anthologies may be as points of departure, only a volume such as this one can restore the poet to fullness and completion.

The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1821

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.” The floor’s turning, suggestive of grand natural cycles or perhaps the fiery wheel upon which the mythical Ixion is bound, is only one mythic allusion among many in this poem. Like many writers contemporary with him, Jeffers used mythic patterns to structure his artistic vision. What differentiates Jeffers from his contemporaries, however, is the directness with which he combines myth with realistic violence and sexual perversion.

“Tamar” is a shocking poem, full of outlaw passion and lurid details wrapped in a rhetoric of such gusto that the embers of forbidden passion and insanity are fanned into searing flame. The rank incest that is the focus of the poem and seems at first reading to be so outrageous to the average reader’s sensibility accomplishes three thematic objectives. First, incest locates the motivation of the characters in a matrix of fundamental psychological forces described by Freud as the Oedipus complex, a frequent substructure of literature from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Second, incest lends a mythopoetic depth to the narrative, since this forbidden act forms a central part of classical myth (the Titans, for example, spring from multiple incest) and classical drama (Oedipus Rex and Aeschylus’ Oresteia for example). Both of these thematic employments of incest establish the action of the poem among elemental passions perennial in art, myth, and religion, demonstrating “that life is always an old story, repeating itself always like the leaves of a tree.” The third function of incest is singularly related to Jeffers’ art. Jeffers celebrates amoral, or perhaps more accurately premoral, individuals who storm the wall of custom and through the breach reveal a reality undreamed of by human consciousness except in the outer reaches of nightmare. Uncovered by the violent rupture of society’s most powerful moral restraints, a reality becomes visible that cannot be tamed by the anthropomorphic tendency of human knowledge. This new reality, this Ur nature that defies conventional human understanding, exists outside human events and is therefore an inhuman nature.

“Roan Stallion,” more compact and less muddled than “Tamar,” defines the structure of the inhuman nature that informs humankind’s severely limited understanding. In this narrative poem, California, the wife of a dissolute rancher named Johnny, develops a sexual passion for a noble red stallion that Johnny has won at cards. After a hallucinatory sexual interlude with the stallion, she allows the stallion to trample Johnny, and she reluctantly kills the horse afterward. Jeffers, as narrator, announces, “Humanity is the mould to break away from, the crust to break through, the coal to break into fire” and opts for “tragedy that breaks man’s face and a white fire flies out of it; vision that fools him/ Out of his limits, desire that fools him out of his limits, unnatural crime, inhuman science,/ Slit eyes in the mask; wild loves that leap over the walls of nature.”

The above quotation reveals that Jeffers is not an unquestioning disciple of either Freud or Nietzsche but an explorer of new territory. Like Nietzsche, Jeffers desires a break from the inhibiting mold of conventional humanity and esteems the will to power, but the new result of that break will not be a superman, a transvaluation of what it means to be human, but nature created by a god “not in a man’s shape,” a transvaluation of the cosmos itself. In Jeffers’ aesthetic system, that which humanity considers unnatural leads to an apprehension of a deeper, truer nature that does not enter into the human domain until wild love or tragedy shatters the human-centered perspective of conventional culture. Rather than being a regression to an infantile libidinous state, Jeffers’ use of incest and zooerasty opens the doors of perception onto vistas of the underlying structure of phenomena, in a manner similar to Jung’s description of incest as a symbolic act that prefigures an aesthetic revision of the world.

The human tragedy that pervades Jeffers’ poetry results from the inability of many of his characters to deal objectively with the influx of energy from the inhuman universe. Most are like Tamar, who, feeling the upsurge of powerful passion from fundamental nature, egotistically assumes, “I am the fountain.” Yet human beings are not the source, the fountain, of the power that wells up from inhuman nature. Because they are women and therefore biologically participate in the fundamental generating force of nature, Tamar and other female characters in Jeffers’ narratives present natural conduits for elementary energy, but the profound source of this power, the original mother, is, as Jeffers states in “Continent’s End,” older than art, older than the primordial sea: “Mother, though my song’s measure is like your surf-beat’s ancient rhythm I never learned it of you. Before there was any water there were tides of fire, both our tones flow from the older fountain.”

Jeffers’ poetic journey to the mouth of this “older fountain” is further defined in “The Tower Beyond Tragedy,” a free adaptation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In his verse drama, Jeffers essentially retells the events of the Oresteia, but Jeffers’ drama ends with Orestes repudiating both his murder of Clytemnestra, a matricide presented with incestual overtones, and the sexual advances of his sister Electra, an incestuous act that would establish his political power in Mycenae. After committing matricide, Orestes flees to the forest, where he enters the “motionless and timeless centre” and “the pure flame and the white, fierier than any passion; no time but spheral eternity.” The pure source itself contains no human passion, though fierce emotions may present pale analogies to its “pure flame.” When human beings tap this source and misinterpret or misuse its power, then tragic events and excessive passion occur. As Orestes explains to Electra, “It is all turned inward, all your desires incestuous, the woman the serpent, the man the rose-red cavern.” Only when turned outward, freed from human love and ingrown sexuality, can the older fountain of nature spend its power without causing human tragedy. This radical detachment from human love and emotions Jeffers later called Inhumanism.

Jeffers wrote of the divine beauty of this world from a vantage point beyond human values and emotions. Rather than following the paths blazed by poets and novelists in the modernist tradition, he traveled an artistic path opened by the realists and naturalists that preceded him. Like Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and other naturalistic writers, Jeffers wove his themes out of a combination of pessimistic philosophy, the violation of taboos, the primacy of sexuality in human action, and the indifference of nature. He, however, took these themes to the limit, achieving a detachment far above human values from which to describe a nature created by an inhuman god. It is upon the success or failure of his stark vision in his long poetic fiction that Jeffers’ reputation rises or falls.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5

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

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