Robinson Jeffers

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Robinson Jeffers American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4380

Since first gaining public attention in 1925 with Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems, Robinson Jeffers has been remarkable primarily for his metrical innovations; for graphic, even sordid, plots set in scenes of spectacular beauty; and for themes that eventually resulted in the philosophical attitude he called “Inhumanism.” In all three respects Jeffers stands alone. However, as time passes, he appears increasingly to have anticipated later developments with uncanny foresight.

Metrical innovations—and the purposes to which he put them—are most immediately evident. Narrative poetry in the 1920’s held a larger share of popular culture than it would later; still taught as a literary staple in the schools, it appealed to a wide audience. In 1920, nineteenth century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was easily the most popular poet in the United States, as the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson had been twenty years before. Stephen Vincent Benét would have several best sellers in the two decades following. All of them wrote in traditional rhymed or unrhymed regular four-or five-stress patterns that had been familiar for centuries. Jeffers himself used these in his early narratives. For Tamar, however, an updated version of a myth variously recounted by the Greek poet Hesiod in Theogony (c. 800 b.c.e.) and by the authors of the biblical Book of Samuel, Jeffers believed that he needed English verses with the rhythmic suppleness of the Greek and Aramaic originals.

Few examples were immediately available in the English poetic repertory. True, there was the precedent of Old English verse, which Jeffers had studied and which Ezra Pound had raised to the status of cult object. Transcribed as nearly verbatim as possible into modern English, it produces a line with four or five stresses and a variable number of sequences of unstressed syllables. Literal translation of some Greek and Hebrew measures creates a similar effect. Measures such as those had been used in English poetry before, notably by Christopher Smart and William Blake, but without great success.

Jeffers had the genius to make his adaptation seem so natural that subsequent poets would routinely use the terms “four-and five-stress lines.” Basically, he doubled the five-stress line, thereby creating a ten-stress form unlike anything heard before; yet it sounded as inevitable as nature. It is more sinuous and patterned than the finest, most contoured prose, less precious and confined than any regular meter. It is relatively easy to read, yet it embeds itself effortlessly in the mind. It made Jeffers the most-read narrative poet of the twentieth century.

Jeffers’s second distinction is his choice of plots and settings. The building of Tor House caused him to feel that he had come to the “inevitable place” and that it was his vocation to capture its spirit. His scientific training in geology and biology had taught him that in the scales of cosmic time and space, humankind had hardly nudged the beam. The full course of human history cast a shadow as trivial as that of a single person on the face of Big Sur. Furthermore, he knew that as products of evolution, human beings were closer to the animals than to the angels. Their behavior was only fitfully rational; otherwise, primitive instincts dragged them, hopelessly trailing platitudes and rationalizations. His viewpoint was close to one expressed by Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, who in Gulliver’s Travels (1726) declared humankind “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.”

If Jeffers’s Calvinistic upbringing had indoctrinated him in the conviction of universal human depravity, his study of the writings of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud reinforced those views. Yet it gave him a different perspective. Humans were not responsible for their depravity: They were merely irredeemably animal. In fact, they made themselves worse by pretending to be more. Denying those impulses forced them to repress their animal instincts, which did confer a superficial propriety. Repression, however, far from eradicating instincts, merely held them at bay for a time. When they finally found an outlet, they exploded with accumulated pressure. Because these explosions of passion were unintentional, humans were not responsible for them and therefore could not be considered evil. They were, rather, as innocent as animals—which also meant they could not be considered good, either. Instead, they should be viewed indifferently, as part of the process of life.

These views gave Jeffers a predilection for plots of intense sensuality, irregular passion, and brutish violence, whether he was retelling ancient myths or creating more realistic, more contemporary narratives. This first appears in Tamar, which details multiple incidents of incest—brother-sister, father-daughter (implicit), second-generation brother-sister—as well as lesbianism, seduction, a séance of sorts, murder, arson, and self-immolation, all presented almost as everyday events. “Roan Stallion,” Jeffers’s most widely circulated work, includes a fantasized act of bestiality between stallion and woman, wife rape, and retaliation in which the woman uses the stallion to kill her husband before the eyes of their child.

The Tower Beyond Tragedy (1925) complicates Aeschylus’s Oresteia by making explicit the sexual relationship between Agamemnon and Cassandra, by suggesting that all the sexual relationships are mechanical when not forced, by emphasizing the callousness of the execution of Cassandra, and by expanding the multiple incestuous links among the characters. The Women at Point Sur (1927) includes father-daughter incest in a kaleidoscope of permissive sexual debauchery and violence that struck most readers as excessive, even by Jeffers’s standards.

This focus on the unrepressed savage or animalistic behavior of humankind is consistent throughout his life’s work. In “Dear Judas” and “The Loving Shepherdess” (1929), he does find something to admire in humanity. Yet even here, what he admired—zest for life and self-realization in the character of Jesus, and, in “The Loving Shepherdess,” Clare Walker’s clear-eyed acceptance of suffering and her determination to guarantee the best part of life for her doomed baby—did not strike everyone else as positive. His explicit repudiation of divinity, to say nothing of virtue, in Jesus appeared aggressively blasphemous. The term most often used by critics to describe Jeffers’s attitude is “tragic”; nearly as common is the adjective “unrelieved.”

Jeffers himself called his orientation “Inhumanism”; although he did not specifically define it until near the end of his career, it underlies all of his poetry. Inhumanism characterized the viewpoint that humans needed to acquire, in Jeffers’s view, in order to escape the limits and errors of human-centered thought and action. He considered all previous philosophies defective because they regularly assumed that existence pivoted on humans. The ancient Greek commonplace held that man was—or should be—the measure of all things. Moreover, that attitude underlies all systems of thought which use human reason as the means of analysis. Jeffers believed that this imparted a human bias to assessments of the universe and humanity’s role in it.

To correct this, Jeffers proposed a view which moved humankind from being the center to being part of the complex whole. This was not novel with him; it was consistent with contemporary perspectives of biology, geology, and cosmology, having been expressly formulated by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species (1859). Although some aspects of Darwinian thought had been accepted, his displacement of humans (and God) from central roles in the continuing evolution of the cosmos had not. That concept, however, allowed Jeffers a stark objectivity in his treatment of characters and plots.


First published: 1924 (collected in Tamar, and Other Poems, 1924)

Type of work: Poem

At an isolated Carmel farm, a girl, Tamar, becomes involved with her brother, learns of her father’s incest, and commits suicide by conflagration.

In capsule, the action of Tamar seems so contrived and decadent as to defy plausibility. Actually, it is an expansion of a generation myth told briefly by Hesiod and retold in a paragraph at the end of Herman Melville’s Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852). Another version, with Tamar as the main character, appears in chapters 13 and 14 of the Second Book of Samuel. In contrast, Jeffers’s development of the material is leisurely and expansive. Furthermore, it is presented in such compelling rhythms, such detail, and such a matter-of-fact way that the question of plausibility hardly arises during reading. The poem is sixty-two or seventy-two pages long (varying with edition) so that the story’s development is ample.

The narrative begins with a prelude in which Lee Cauldwell, Tamar’s brother, falls with his horse from a cliff during a drunken dare. Near death, he is nursed back to health by Tamar. The two grow closer after this. The house in which he lies recovering broods forebodingly, however. A midnight storm stirs the uneasy souls of their father, David, and their aunts, Stella Moreland, a ghost-seer, and Jinny Cauldwell, who is mentally disabled. By the following spring, Lee has recovered, and he finds himself increasingly drawn to his sister—to the point that he drives off a suitor. He stops going to local parties, giving up his former carousing. His father warns him that he will not have time for socializing once he is drafted for the war.

That April, brother and sister stop one hot afternoon to bathe in a stream. Overcome with passions for which she cannot even find words, Tamar tries to drown herself. As her brother rescues her, they find themselves instinctively making love. Afterward he despairs, but she accepts responsibility and declares her love for him.

Shortly afterward, Tamar interviews her Aunt Stella when Stella is in a trance; she learns that her father had been incestuous with his sister Helen, now dead. Feeling that her own relationship with Lee is foredoomed, Tamar continues it in despair, until she discovers that she is pregnant. After a vision in which she surveys all the various peoples who have lived along the coast, she rides to the Andrews farm, where she seduces Will Andrews so that she will have someone whom she can blame for her pregnancy.

This sets the stage for the longest, most detailed section of the poem. The mid-August heat frazzles Tamar; she begs Aunt Stella to summon the dead. That evening, they proceed to a nearby fjord, where Stella once more enters the trance state. Several voices speak through her but primarily a spokesman for the Indian people who once held rites in that place. He commands Tamar to dance naked, as the pregnant Indians did, to placate the spirits. Her dance turns into a frank, sensual invitation to the spirits to couple with her. Finally spent, she is allowed to speak to Helen, her father’s sister-lover, through Stella. The two harangue each other. Suddenly the séance is interrupted by an alarm bell from the cliff-house above. The voice announces that Tamar’s attempt to burn the house has failed.

Tamar loses her child and requires bed rest for recovery. Her father, David, denounces her and Lee for their sin, demanding retribution, and she has a vision of impending war. Mysterious events haunt the house. Lee tells Tamar that their father was going to kill him but relented when Lee offered to join the Army and not return until Tamar is married and David is dead. Tamar believes that Lee has betrayed her for the easy French women available overseas. The old man returns to denounce Tamar; she defies him, accusing him of hypocrisy and extorting from him a confession of lust for her and a condemnation of Helen. Meanwhile, Stella is able to induce a clairvoyant state in Jinny; she sees Tamar ablaze while Helen laughs and the old man has a rope around his neck.

Lee returns to find the two women—with Helen speaking through Stella—trying to get into the locked room. Tamar opens it for Lee; he finds Tamar in command and his father, broken, on his knees. Tamar taunts Lee, saying that not he but another lover had fathered the child, and Helen and Tamar continue wrangling. Tamar sets the signal for Will Andrews, to bring her three lovers together under one roof.

Lee enters to bid farewell. Tamar entices him to carry her to her bedroom, when she goads him until he strikes her with a riding whip. Soon Will arrives; Lee has been waiting for him. While he goes to bring David, Tamar tells Will that the two have beaten her, causing her to lose their baby. Will insists on taking her with him. Lee resists, and Will hits him. When the women intervene, Lee knifes Will. Jinny seizes the chance to thrust a piece of paper into the lamp, setting herself and the room on fire. Lee struggles to escape, first with Tamar and then alone, but the dying Will hampers him, and Tamar will not let him go. All die in the fire.

The poem has justly been praised for its elemental, mythic quality. It has the compelling quality of myth, an inner intensity that defies logic and plausibility because it possesses its own internal truth. Jeffers captured the essence of the way irrational human impulses operate.

“Roan Stallion”

First published: 1925 (collected in Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems, 1925)

Type of work: Poem

After establishing a rapport with their prize stallion, a woman flees to it for protection from her abusive husband; the horse kills the man.

“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.

“The Loving Shepherdess”

First published: 1929 (collected in Dear Judas, and Other Poems, 1929)

Type of work: Poem

A shepherdess, abandoned by the lover who has killed her father and shunted the blame onto her, wanders the cliffs with her bedraggled flock until her death.

Suggested by a character found in the work of Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott and transposed to the California coast, “The Loving Shepherdess” is the most straightforward and simplest in texture of Jeffers’s narrative poems. It lacks both the mythic overtones and the thematic commentary of the others. Structurally, it traces the course of Clare Walker’s last, doomed journey, during which she refuses to avert the suffering derived from her previous actions.

The poem opens with a ragged Clare leading her flock, reduced from fifty to ten, past a one-room schoolhouse at recess. The children jeer at her and threaten her, reminding her that she had killed her father and then been abandoned by her lover. One boy alone protects her, warning her to avoid the cattle ranches, where the dogs would be set on her sheep. Clare wanders on, obviously distressed in mind and body but devoted to her sheep. Near Fogler’s ranch the rancher’s dogs attack; he comes out to drive them off. Recognizing her, he wants to offer her shelter but knows that his wife would object. Hastily he packs some food, gathers a pair of old shoes, and kisses her, shame-faced, as she leaves.

Clare wanders northward. She has moments of pastoral bliss, but all pleasures are overshadowed. Near Point Sur, forgetting for the moment that she is in cattle country, she is warned off the pastures by a young cowboy, Will Brighton. He shows her an abandoned house, telling her that she can take shelter there. To thank him, she has sex with him. While their attention is diverted, two of the sheep fall into an old, half-collapsed well. They are able to save one, badly lamed, but the second dies.

The next day she climbs Sur Hill, then spends the night there; in the morning, she seeks help from a passing horseman. He is Onorio Vasquez, an itinerant visionary who figures in several of Jeffers’s poems. Clare tells him that her purpose in life is to care for her sheep until she dies, which will happen in five months. Thinking she is referring to something learned in a vision, he tries to reassure her, but she says that her trouble is physical. They are interrupted by a hawk attacking a heron. Clare’s sympathetic distress is physical, and Vasquez notes her love for animals. After they get the sheep to water, he points her toward a nearby cabin.

Finding no pasture there she presses on, reaching a farmhouse where an old farmhand offers them the use of the barn, mentioning that the owner is dying and will not notice. During the night he comes twice to visit, complaining that, though old, he is cursed with young feelings. She offers herself to him, explaining that since her trouble she finds herself filled with love for all, willing to please anyone in her short remaining time. She finds no food, though the sheep have hay.

Now in the rainy season, she continues north, hungry and deteriorating, as is her flock, two of which are suffering from bad feed. Onorio once again appears, bringing food and fire. Sheltering for the night under a bridge, Clare tells the story of her affair with Charlie Maurice, who had actually killed her father; she had lied to cover for him, because she was pregnant. At that time she contracted influenza and miscarried. The attending doctor told her that it was a blessing in disguise: A deformed pelvis would have caused the death of both baby and mother. Somehow, out of this suffering, she has learned that “all our pain comes from restraint of love.”

Later, a shipwreck occurred offshore near her farm. She did what she could to help the survivors, but in their hunger they began to slaughter her sheep, so she led the sheep away. She found no forage for them and no food for herself, however, and she was starving when rescued and nursed to health by a vagrant. Eventually he asked for sex. Despite the danger, she consented, out of gratitude and love. By midsummer she was pregnant again.

Onorio offers to procure an abortion, but Clare cannot bear to cause the death of anything. Moreover, she believes that the period of intrauterine development is the most serene, blessed time of life; how can she deprive her baby of that?

Onorio has a vision of cosmic order, in which the incidents of one individual life dwindle to the infinitesimal, yet the revealed order is compellingly beautiful. When Clare awakes, she says that she has seen the same vision in a dream. They are so caught up in the vision that they forget about the sheep, which drift off. Suddenly Clare realizes they are gone. When they find the animals, two have been attacked by a lion, and one is dead. Onorio offers to put her up at his father’s farm, but Clare has to follow her destiny. Onorio plans to stay with her, but a vision of Christ going up to Calvary deflects him.

Clare continues wandering, getting help periodically but becoming increasingly fearful and distraught. She watches a salmon struggling upstream to spawn and die, and she sees this course as parallel to her own. She becomes increasingly disordered as her flock dwindles away. She is last seen at a hobo camp. Finally her pains claim her; as she retreats, she calls the names of her now nonexistent sheep. Jeffers in this poem realized the objective incarnation of the idea of Inhumanism.

Descent to the Dead

First published: 1931

Type of work: Poetry

In a series of sixteen poetic meditations on scenes in Ireland and England, mostly archaic, Jeffers contrasts past with present and Old World with New.

Descent to the Dead, occasioned by a visit Jeffers and Una paid to Ireland, the land of their ancestors, and England in 1929, is the major sequence of short poems composed by the poet. Most of the works commemorate monuments of ancient cultures—cairns, cromlechs, graves, and standing stones—attempting to re-create the human consciousness that entered into their construction. Jeffers is most concerned with drawing connections between disparate moments of time, both to bridge the immense gulf between them and to mark humankind’s beautiful insignificance in the context of cosmic time. It is another means of disclosing Inhumanism.

Because Jeffers had chosen the Carmel coast—the final West—as his inevitable place and had accepted as his vocation the revelation of humanity’s triviality in that context, he had symbolically turned his back on the culture of his own country—thus his need to forge new poetic forms. By that same measure, he had rejected even more the culture of the Old World. This is the “dead” to which he descends, dead in two ways: It represents a rejected or transcended culture, and it is the culture of his ancestors, dead in a real sense. His object is both to reveal its irrelevance and to record its paradoxical beauty.

The poems focus on monuments of internment—“Shane O’Neill’s Cairn,” “Ossian’s Grave,” “In the Hill at Newgrange,” “Iona: The Graves of the Kings,” “Shakespeare’s Grave”—and of religious ritual—“The Broadstone,” “The Giant’s Ring”— because these are what the days and works of the dead have come to. The contrast between lofty aspirations and the cold reality of those graves (literally memorials to nothing, for nothing is left in them) is telling. Jeffers sees the end of humanity in this, and he accepts it; it is enough, for there is a great beauty and fitness in these places.

The primitive character of the places reinforces the theme; it brings to mind the brutishness of the lives so crudely remembered. Shane O’Neill was a name of power four centuries ago, controlling life and death for many; now he has shrunk to an empty grave surmounted by senseless blocks, and he is considered a petty king of an insignificant and primitive people. Moreover, this condition afflicts even the truly notable: lip service is paid to Homer and William Shakespeare, but twenty-six hundred years after his death only a few can read what the former composed, and the same will become true of the latter.

Jeffers believed that only from such a perspective could one accurately assess the role of humankind. For although humans may be insignificant and their self-importance a bloated lie, seen against the background of cosmic immensity their few moments of insight and self-realization can also appear heartbreakingly beautiful.

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Robinson Jeffers Poetry: American Poets Analysis