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....
(The entire section is 923 words.)