The history of Robinson Jeffers’ reputation might be represented diagrammatically by the figure of a sharp, inverted V, the apex marked, perhaps, by the year 1933. In 1919, when Jeffers had already published two volumes, Louis Untermeyer did not consider him worthy of inclusion in his famous anthology of American poetry that mirrored the taste of the period as definitely as had Palgrave’s GOLDEN TREASURY in 1861. In 1933, William Rose Benet, in his anthology titled FIFTY POETS, spoke of Jeffers as “the Western Titan of our contemporary poetry” and quoted George Sterling’s statement that “Jeffers clasps hands with the Great Greeks across Time.”
In 1950, a critic considered THE DOUBLE AXE beneath critical notice. Today, Jeffers is neither well remembered nor widely read. Has poetry taken a different direction, or was there some flaw in Jeffers’ work, unnoticed thirty years ago, that has slowly caused the disintegration of a reputation once so massive?
Two facts of Jeffers’ biography seem important to his poetry: first, his study of medicine and, second, his long residence on the coast of California. The first of these gave him the “scientific” point of view, of which much has been made in discussions of the intellectual content of his poems. The second, his home on Carmel Bay, Tor House, which he built in 1914 and occupied until his death, gave him the geographical, the scenic background of so many of his poems, the rocky coast that “clasped hands,” to repeat Sterling’s phrase, with the stony landscape of ancient Greece and its citadels built from the primeval stone. It might almost be maintained that for Jeffers there existed only these two worlds, the coasts of Greece and of California.
After two false starts, Jeffers made his reputation with TAMAR AND OTHER POEMS, published in 1924, and then continued until 1954, ending with a total of fifteen volumes that spanned a period of forty-two years, surely an impressive achievement. It was, however, on the long narrative poems—long, that is, by modern standards—contained in these volumes that Jeffers’ reputation was based: “Tamar,” “Roan Stallion,” “The Loving Shepherdess,” “Give Your Heart to the Hawks,” “Hungerfield,” and others, at least one of them running to a hundred pages. These works were written in a period when it was said that a long poem was impossible. There is another group equally long: Jeffers’ rehandling of the Greek myths, although these myths also often stand in the background of his narratives with modern settings. In “The Tower Beyond Tragedy” he rewrote the Orestes legend; “At the Fall of an Age” is a short drama, the climax of which is the death of Helen; “The Cretan Woman” is based on the HIPPOLYTUS of Euripides.
A reading of these long narratives, with their setting on the coast of California, or these reworkings of the Greek legends will reveal easily enough the weakness of Jeffers as a poet. His fault was not his utter pessimism, not his utter contempt for humanity. Rather, it was his extremely narrow range, his constant repetition. In this respect, the only modern poet with whom he can be compared is A. E. Housman, who shared Jeffers’ tragic view of life, who repeated his theme of the transcience of youth and beauty, the peace that comes with death, throughout his two volumes. But Housman had the great virtue of compression; his poems were pared down to three or four quatrains, whereas Jeffers stretched out the agony for page after page. It can even be said that to read one of his narrative poems is to read them all; they are alike in their preoccupation with drunkenness, lust, incest, and murder. It is not the violence that offends, for violence has become a commonplace in modern literature; it is the sameness, for violence can quite easily become as monotonous as virtuous...
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