Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923
Suggested by a character found in the work of Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and transposed to the California coast, “The Loving Shepherdess” is the most straightforward and simplest in texture of Jeffers’s narrative poems. It lacks both the mythic overtones and the thematic commentary of the others. Structurally, it traces the course of Clare Walker’s last, doomed journey, during which she refuses to avert the suffering derived from her previous actions.
The poem opens with a ragged Clare leading her flock, reduced from fifty to ten, past a one-room schoolhouse at recess. The children jeer at her and threaten her, reminding her that she had killed her father and then been abandoned by her lover. One boy alone protects her, warning her to avoid the cattle ranches, where the dogs would be set on her sheep. Clare wanders on, obviously distressed in mind and body but devoted to her sheep. Near Fogler’s ranch the rancher’s dogs attack; he comes out to drive them off. Recognizing her, he wants to offer her shelter but knows that his wife would object. Hastily he packs some food, gathers a pair of old shoes, and kisses her, shame-faced, as she leaves.
Clare wanders northward. She has moments of pastoral bliss, but all pleasures are overshadowed. Near Point Sur, forgetting for the moment that she is in cattle country, she is warned off the pastures by a young cowboy, Will Brighton. He shows her an abandoned house, telling her that she can take shelter there. To thank him, she has sex with him. While their attention is diverted, two of the sheep fall into an old, half-collapsed well. They are able to save one, badly lamed, but the second dies.
The next day she climbs Sur Hill, then spends the night there; in the morning, she seeks help from a passing horseman. He is Onorio Vasquez, an itinerant visionary who figures in several of Jeffers’s poems. Clare tells him that her purpose in life is to care for her sheep until she dies, which will happen in five months. Thinking she is referring to something learned in a vision, he tries to reassure her, but she says that her trouble is physical. They are interrupted by a hawk attacking a heron. Clare’s sympathetic distress is physical, and Vasquez notes her love for animals. After they get the sheep to water, he points her toward a nearby cabin.
Finding no pasture there she presses on, reaching a farmhouse where an old farmhand offers them the use of the barn, mentioning that the owner is dying and will not notice. During the night he comes twice to visit, complaining that, though old, he is cursed with young feelings. She offers herself to him, explaining that since her trouble she finds herself filled with love for all, willing to please anyone in her short remaining time. She finds no food, though the sheep have hay.
Now in the rainy season, she continues north, hungry and deteriorating, as is her flock, two of which are suffering from bad feed. Onorio once again appears, bringing food and fire. Sheltering for the night under a bridge, Clare tells the story of her affair with Charlie Maurice, who had actually killed her father; she had lied to cover for him, because she was pregnant. At that time she contracted influenza and miscarried. The attending doctor told her that it was a blessing in disguise: A deformed pelvis would have caused the death of both baby and mother. Somehow, out of this suffering, she has learned that “all our pain comes from restraint of love.”
Later, a shipwreck occurred offshore near her farm. She did what she could to help the survivors, but in their hunger they began to slaughter her sheep, so she led the sheep away. She found no forage for them and no food for herself, however, and she was starving when rescued and nursed to health by a vagrant. Eventually he asked for sex. Despite the danger, she consented, out of gratitude and love. By midsummer she was pregnant again.
Onorio offers to procure an abortion, but Clare cannot bear to cause the death of anything. Moreover, she believes that the period of intrauterine development is the most serene, blessed time of life; how can she deprive her baby of that?
Onorio has a vision of cosmic order, in which the incidents of one individual life dwindle to the infinitesimal, yet the revealed order is compellingly beautiful. When Clare awakes, she says that she has seen the same vision in a dream. They are so caught up in the vision that they forget about the sheep, which drift off. Suddenly Clare realizes they are gone. When they find the animals, two have been attacked by a lion, and one is dead. Onorio offers to put her up at his father’s farm, but Clare has to follow her destiny. Onorio plans to stay with her, but a vision of Christ going up to Calvary deflects him.
Clare continues wandering, getting help periodically but becoming increasingly fearful and distraught. She watches a salmon struggling upstream to spawn and die, and she sees this course as parallel to her own. She becomes increasingly disordered as her flock dwindles away. She is last seen at a hobo camp. Finally her pains claim her; as she retreats, she calls the names of her now nonexistent sheep. Jeffers in this poem realized the objective incarnation of the idea of Inhumanism.