Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692
“Roan Stallion” is the best known and most often reprinted of Jeffers’s narrative poems; it is also the most compact and most concentrated. Unlike the majority of the others, it is simple in plot construction, makes little use of the abnormal, and is concrete in detail. It consists of three episodes, each connected directly to the one following.
The first introduces California, a twenty-one-year-old quarter-Indian, quarter-Spaniard, half-Scot woman, whose husband, Johnny, has just won a prize stallion by gambling. Preoccupied by the game and his habitual drinking, he has neglected to get anything for their daughter, Christine, for Christmas. To make up for it, California will have to go to Monterey on Christmas Eve. She tries to leave early, but he demands that she have sex with him before leaving. His insistence and lack of compassion make her late. As a result, she cannot return before nightfall, and she must ford a rain-swollen river. Twice the mare balks, the second time nearly overturning the wagon, apparently startled by the apparition of the infant Jesus. Finally California abandons the wagon and swims the mare across, careful not to damage her daughter’s presents.
In her memories of the apparition, she persistently mixes the image of the stallion with the image of God. That spring, after spending a day breeding horses, Johnny leaves to spend the weekend drinking. Restless, California goes out after nightfall to ease herself with a moonlit ride into the hills, only to find that Johnny has taken the mare. Fantasizing a sexual union with the stallion, she decides to take it instead. The climb is ecstatic. On the peak, she feels herself rapt in union with the power that is God and the spirit of the horse, and she dreams of the unions of powers, animal and human, that have generated existence. They walk back down the hill.
Johnny returns the next evening, half-drunk, orders that the child be put to bed, and demands that California drink with him, after which he threatens her. The contrast between the real power she has known and his puny swaggering disgusts her, and she escapes outdoors. He calls the dog to track her, planning to run her down like an animal. She retreats to the corral, where the dog begins feinting with the stallion; Johnny climbs the fence, pursuing her.
Meanwhile, Christine awakes, becomes aware of the commotion, and wanders down to the corral. Seeing the stallion strike down the pursuing figure, she runs back to the house to fetch the rifle. She returns to find her mother watching the dog protect the crawling Johnny from the frenzied horse. Taking the rifle, California deliberately shoots the dog, then rests the rifle, saying that the moonlight had darkened the sights. While the child begs her to shoot, the stallion stamps the man into the mire. With infinite reluctance she raises the rifle and dutifully kills the man-killer, feeling that she has killed God.
Like most of Jeffers’s early poems, “Roan Stallion” incorporates mythic material, this time primarily concerning Egyptian and Near Eastern projections of beast-gods and of beast-god couplings. More notable is the use Jeffers makes of his material. He shows that humans such as California, sensitive to all aspects of their psycho-spiritual heritage, can respond instinctively to affinities higher than transient human ties. This is his first formulation of the doctrine he would later call Inhumanism. As he phrases it here,
Humanity is the mould to break away from, the crust to break through, the coal to break into fire,The atom to be split. Tragedy that breaks man’s face and a white fire flies out of it; vision that fools himOut 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 wild fence-vaulter science,. . . . . . . . . . . . . . The heart of the atom with electrons: what is humanity in this cosmos? For him, the lastLeast taint of a trace in the dregs of the solution; for itself, the mould to break away from, the coalTo break into fire, the atom to be split.