The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers
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...
(The entire section is 2067 words.)