John Robinson Jeffers was the first son of William Hamilton Jeffers, professor of Old Testament literature at Western (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary, and Annie Robinson Tuttle, a gifted amateur musician. On both sides, Jeffers was descended from generations of strict Calvinists. For seven years an only child, he was treated as a prodigy by his father, who introduced the boy to reading Greek at five, after working on English and French. Jeffers’s early education included extended travel to England and the Continent. This home tutoring continued throughout most of his early life, while he attended various private schools near Pittsburgh and in Europe. At fifteen he entered college in Pennsylvania, transferring to Occidental College in California when his parents moved there a year later. In 1905, he began graduate studies in literature at the University of Southern California (USC).
There Jeffers met Una Call Kuster, a fellow student who was already married to a Los Angeles attorney. Jeffers, with little worldly experience, was overwhelmed by her combination of beauty, polish, and sophistication. The couple fell in love, and Una considered divorce, at that time still a radical, socially unacceptable act. The two were separated forcibly: Una went to live with relatives in the East and then in Europe, and Jeffers embarked on tour with his parents. He broke with them, however, declaring independence at the age of nineteen, and enrolled briefly in the science curriculum of the University of Zurich. From there he returned to USC, entering medical school and completing the three-year program, although he did not take his degree.
This was an eight-year span of acute emotional turmoil and social experimentation in his life, and it was the only time Jeffers pursued the bohemian lifestyle of young intellectuals. He lodged at his professors’ homes, at beachfront cottages, and at laborers’ boardinghouses, and he did things as diverse as winning the heavyweight college wrestling championship and spending a summer bumming on the beach. Two elements, however, survived this upheaval. One was his dedication to poetry; from age fifteen he had vowed to become the American equivalent of English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the leader of the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite movement. Though the kind of poetry Jeffers aspired to write would change, the intensity of his dedication never wavered. The second was his love for Una.
After leaving medicine, Jeffers moved to Seattle, where he spent a year studying forestry. In 1912, he returned to Los Angeles; a small bequest allowed him to publish Flagons and Apples (1912), a collection of largely derivative, competent lyrics in traditional forms. The next year he was back in Washington, where Una finally acquired her divorce; the two were married on August 2, 1913. This was the turning point in Jeffers’s life, for Una proved exactly the person to stiffen his will.
In the first year of their marriage, Jeffers’s father died; then the couple’s newborn daughter survived only one day; and World War I, the cataclysmic event of their generation, broke out in Europe. They needed a solitary retreat to recover their balance, which they chanced upon in the then-remote Carmel, on the Monterey peninsula. They rented a cottage in the pines. As their stay extended to several years, they came to identify, spiritually and emotionally, with the rugged coast. Eventually Jeffers purchased several acres, on which he began constructing, from native stone and mostly by his own effort, the house-and-tower complex he named“Tor House.” There he and Una raised and educated their twin sons, Donnan and Garth, born in 1916.
That year also saw the publication of Jeffers’s second volume, Californians
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Californians, which, while accomplished, falls short of distinction; he had not yet found his voice and his form. That would take him several years, and exactly how he did so remains a mystery. It was influenced by the experience of building Tor House, and also by the war, in which Jeffers, after some delay, volunteered to serve. He was still awaiting a commission when hostilities ceased. The two events together caused a spiritual awakening in the thirty-one-year-old poet akin to religious conversion. That awakening brought him a new voice, new forms, and new themes, all centered on the country and people of the Carmel coast.
The new voice declared itself in a variety of novel, nonrhyming narrative measures, most of them flexible five-and ten-stress lines largely unprecedented in English. The closest analogues are some ancient Greek and Hebrew narrative measures. Subsequently they have been adapted effectively in translations; when Jeffers introduced them in 1924 they were unique, however, opening up an entirely new dimension for English poetry.
Jeffers published the work Tamar, and Other Poems (1924) privately, after eight years of routine rejections. The reception was so enthusiastic that an expanded volume—Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems (1925)—was published the next year. This was a poetic best seller, establishing Jeffers as one of the few poets of his time to become (and remain) commercially successful. Like the visions of many other innovative writers of the mid-1920’s— Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—Jeffers’s was bleak, bitter, and harsh, a pungent antidote to the easy optimism of the era’s boosterism and boom times. It ripped off the mask of complacency with which the industrial United States covered its injustices.
Thereafter, volume followed volume almost annually. The Women at Point Sur (1927) did not enjoy the critical acclaim and popular sales of Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems, but the poem—a depiction of a minister who loses faith, develops a natural religion of abandon, and finally is destroyed by the unconstrained animalism he preaches—is in many ways his most ambitious and complex achievement. Cawdor, and Other Poems (1928) and Dear Judas, and Other Poems (1929) recaptured much of Jeffers’s audience, though the liberties he took in “Dear Judas” offended the orthodox. “The Faithful Shepherdess” and Descent to the Dead: Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain (1931) are among his most memorable works. Thurso’s Landing, and Other Poems (1932) and Give Your Heart to the Hawks, and Other Poems (1933) secured his hold on the public.
Thereafter, his success with narrative poems declined, especially when he voiced what were taken to be anti-American sentiments during World War II. In retrospect, however, these seem consistent with his earlier vision, which was never pro-American, and they certainly call for reexamination in the light of postwar history. His final successes were in different venues. His 1946 translation of Euripides’ Medea (431 b.c.e.) was a theatrical hit in 1947, and the dramatic versions of The Tower Beyond Tragedy (1951) the The Cretan Woman (1954) were both well received. Una died in 1950, and Jeffers’s final volume to be published in his lifetime, Hungerfield, and Other Poems (1954), is a collection of lyric memorials to her and their life together. He died on January 20, 1962.
Jeffers is unparalleled among twentieth century poets in the range of his achievements, his technical innovations, and the cast of his vision. He alone reached master status in lyric, narrative, and dramatic poetry, and he created a unique voice and idiom in each genre. Much of this eminence derived from his radical approach to the writing of poetry in English: He wrote as if poetry in his time stemmed from the same impulses that produced poetry in ancient Greece and Israel. To communicate his vision, he invented flexible five-and ten-stress lines rare in English before him. He projected a Darwinian vision of humankind as only one life form in a complex ecosystem.