With the publication of Roan Stallion in 1925, Robinson Jeffers finally achieved recognition and financial reward. In a literary career that spanned forty-two years, from Flagons and Apples (1912) to Hungerfield, and Other Poems (1954), the poet reached the height of his popularity in the early 1930’s. Jeffers, the son of a minister, had been educated in the classics, and many of his poems draw upon biblical and classical sources. His treatment of these sources is, however, extremely unconventional. He does not avoid topics of violence and sexual abnormality, but the center of his vision is at once religious (though not in the ordinary sense) and philosophical. His poetry, marked by dramatic power, has been called both “romantic” and “naturalistic.” Certainly, nature figures prominently in Jeffers’s thinking and in his works.
Roan Stallion, the shortest of Jeffers’s long poems, combines elements of myth, Christianity, and the poet’s own philosophy to produce a work that many consider one of his best. The story of the poem draws on those Egyptian and Greek myths in which a mortal falls in love with a powerful beast. In Roan Stallion, a woman falls in love with a magnificent horse that she comes to identify with God. Unlike the situation in traditional myth, however, here the union of woman and horse/god does not produce gods or demigods; rather, it leads to a heightened psychological awareness on the part of the woman. Roan Stallion is to some extent the story of California’s initiation and journey toward identity.
At the beginning of the poem, the woman California stands “at the turn of the road,” symbolic of the journey she is about to undertake. Throughout, she is opposed to her degenerate husband, Johnny. As the diminutive form of his name implies, Johnny has never become an adult; brutish and domineering, he spends much of his time gambling and drinking. He has no appreciation of his wife other than as an object for sex; indeed, he once gambles her away to another man for two nights. Johnny also has no appreciation for the majesty of the stallion, which he thinks of merely as a commodity for his use.
California, as her name implies, is “of the earth,” and her name is also suggestive of the American West, a land of freedom and possibility. She is connected with the forces of nature, has a profound love for her daughter, Christine, and is aware of a spiritual plane. It is this connectedness that places California...
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