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...
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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.