Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3936
Robinson Jeffers’s central concept of the universe and of humankind’s place in it, all-important in understanding his poetry, is grounded in his respect for scientific thought and in his own historical observations, but strongly colored in its expression by emotion. From science, he took a cool, analytical view of the human race as one species that evolved in one stage of an ever-evolving, dynamic universe—a mere “fly-speck” in the scheme of things. Perhaps because of his interest in astronomy (his younger brother, Hamilton, was for many years a scientist at the Lick Observatory in California), he took an extraterrestrial view even of Earth. The first photograph taken by the astronauts of Earth from the vicinity of the moon represented a view that Jeffers had achieved in his imagination long before: “It is only a little planet/ But how beautiful it is. . . .” In “The Double Axe,” Jeffers paid tribute to one of the scientists who helped him to achieve this view, Copernicus, hailing him as the first who “pushed man/ Out of his insane self-importance.”
A second factor that influenced Jeffers’s outlook was his study of history. From the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie and the Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico, Jeffers drew the concept of cultural cycles and the conviction that cultural or national groupings are inherently unstable and social progress temporary. This view, again, was bolstered by his observations of the inevitable cycles of growth, flowering, and decay in nature. It was given special force by Jeffers’s belief, influenced by Oswald Spengler, that Western civilization was already on the downgrade.
Many scientists share Jeffers’s objective view of the world but not the intensity of his feeling for the insignificance of humanity or the “beauty of things,” his often-used phrase for natural loveliness. The roots of Jeffers’s feeling seem to be in the Calvinistic teachings of his father’s religion, which proclaimed the glory of God and the nothingness of humans. Rejecting his father’s Christian God, Jeffers transferred his religious feeling to a new object, a universe whose parts are all “expressions of the same energy,” a dynamic universe, ever in strain and struggle, and ever in that process discovering its own nature. In a letter outlining his views, Jeffers wrote, “This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine.” He went on to say that he felt there was “peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one’s affections toward this one God, rather than inward on one’s self, or on humanity, or on human imagination and abstractions. . . .” Jeffers’s sole admission of the possibility that humans could have a positive effect was to say that one may “contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one’s own life and environment beautiful.” Although he granted that such action could include moral beauty, which he called one of the qualities of humanity, for the most part the weight of his emotions was on the side of sad resignation where the human race was concerned, or actual disgust with its frequent moral ugliness.
Jeffers’s intensity of feeling for natural beauty and especially for the dynamism of nature was profoundly affected by his lifelong residence on the spectacular Carmel coast. The area not only is ruggedly beautiful but also is wracked by periodic events reminding one of the awesome power of nature and of humans’ uncertain tenure on Earth: brush fires that sweep the dry hills in late summer and sometimes destroy farms and homes, earthquakes that shudder along the San Andreas fault, fierce winds that torture the picturesque Monterey cypresses, and drenching rains that bring floods and dangerous mudslides. These natural events, recalling the fire, earthquake, wind, and deluge of the biblical apocalypse, appear as major instruments of destruction in many of the narratives, and are centrally important, too, in some of the lyrics. Most important, probably, was the sheer beauty of the surroundings, beauty that Jeffers identified as one of the six major themes in his poems in a talk given in 1941 at the Library of Congress. It is possible to imagine Jeffers living on the coast of Ireland, or in the Scottish Hebrides, or on a mountainside, but not in a quiet New England meadow or an industrial city. He chose his landscape, his “inevitable place,” and it in turn formed him and became a major actor in his dramas. Today the Carmel/Big Sur area is known as Jeffers country.
The expression of his basic attitudes, to which Jeffers eventually gave the name “Inhumanism,” took three major forms in poetry: dramatic, narrative, and, loosely considered, lyric. The dramatic poetry includes not only a play primarily intended for stage production, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea (pb. 1946), but also dramas primarily intended to be read, a Japanese N play, and a masque. The narratives and dramas range in length to well above one hundred pages. The lyrics include some poems that are of substantial length—several pages or more. Some poems are mixtures of elements and defy classification.
The narratives and dramas reveal metaphorically—and occasionally through interposed comments—the poet’s preoccupation with the self-concern and solipsism of the human race. At the same time, they express Jeffers’s sense of the historical cycles of human behavior and of the larger cycle of death and rebirth that Jeffers called, in “Cawdor,” the “great Life.” To embody these attitudes, Jeffers chose a number of often shocking subjects: incest, murder, rape, self-mutilation because of guilt, suicide, and the sexual feelings of a woman for a horse.
One of the best of the long narratives, the one that caused the greatest initial sensation when it was published with other poems in 1924, is Tamar. The setting is an isolated part of the California coast, where the Cauldwell family lives. Circumstances lead the daughter, Tamar, and her brother, Lee, into incest. Later, Tamar learns that her father had committed the same sin with his sister, now long dead. In one strange scene on the beach at night, Tamar is possessed sexually by the ghosts of the Indians who once occupied the area; the scene is a kind of descent into death, and after it Tamar is a “flame,” self-destructive and demoniac, feeling herself doomed because of her breaking of natural laws. She then tempts her father sexually, as if to prove her depravity, although she commits no sexual act with him. Finally, the entire family is consumed in a fire from which they could have saved themselves had not Tamar, her brother, and her suitor, Will Andrews, been acting out the climax of fierce sexual jealousy.
This seemingly fantastic and occasionally lurid drama was based on one or both of the two biblical Tamar stories, and on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts (pb. 1819), all of which include incest. These tales in turn, however, are overshadowed by the Greek myth of the creation of the human race: the incest of Heaven and Earth to produce Titan, and Titan’s ensuing incest with his mother, Earth, to produce a child. Thus Jeffers has created a modern story based on layers of myth, reminding readers of the powerful libidinal forces that have been repressed by millennia of taboos but never, as Sophocles and Sigmund Freud noted, eliminated from human nightmares. Further, the isolated home of the Cauldwells on Point Lobos allegorically suggests the entire world, and the initial incest has strong overtones of Adam’s fall. Thus humans’ failure to relate themselves humbly to their environment, obeying natural laws such as the ban on incest, is comparable to Adam and Eve ignoring God’s command to know their place in the scheme of things. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise is comparable to the troubles visited on the little world of the House of Cauldwell. The story, moreover, is a chapter of apocalypse, with fire—persistently invoked throughout as an agent of cleansing destruction—accomplishing the destruction of Judgment Day. It is prophecy inasmuch as it warns against humankind’s self-concern. It is also persistently evocative, as Robert J. Brophy has pointed out (Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems, 1973), of the monomyth of the seasonal cycle of death and rebirth. Yet only in relatively recent years have critics paid systematic attention to the complexity of Tamar and Jeffers’s other narratives.
Jeffers’s other narratives similarly explore recurrent patterns of human conduct as expressed in folklore, myth, or religion. “Roan Stallion,” the poet’s most powerful short narrative, is a modern version of the myth of God uniting with a human. This pattern is seen not only in the Christian story of the fatherhood of Jesus, but also in myths from various cultures, especially the Greek tales of Zeus and his sexual encounters—with Leda, when he took the form of a swan; with Antiope, as a satyr; with Europa, as a bull; and others. “The Tower Beyond Tragedy,” one of Jeffers’s most successful long poems, is a free adaptation of the first two plays of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia (458 b.c.e.). In “Cawdor,” the poet reworks the Hippolytus story of Euripides, adding an element—self-mutilation—from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (429-401 b.c.e.). “The Loving Shepherdess,” another relatively early narrative that was well received, is imaginatively based on the Scottish legend of “Feckless Fannie.” “Such Counsels You Gave to Me” is built on suggestions from the Scottish ballad “Edward, Edward,” which in turn, like all true ballads, invokes deep folk memories. Other narratives explore age-old problems. “Give Your Heart to the Hawks” explores the question of who should administer justice; “Thurso’s Landing” considers when, if ever, it is right to take another’s life out of pity.
The Women at Point Sur
In one of his early long poems—the longest, in fact, at 175 pages—Jeffers did not base his story on myth or folklore, but created a poem that has become itself a kind of literary legend of magnificent failure: The Women at Point Sur. It is a violent, brilliant, chaotic, and difficult-to-comprehend story of a mad minister who collects disciples by telling them that there are no more moral rules and that they can do as their hearts, or bodies, desire. The poem did not generally achieve one of its main purposes, which, as Jeffers put it, was to show “the danger of that ’Roan Stallion’ idea of ’breaking out of humanity,’ misinterpreted in the mind of a fool or a lunatic.” The prologue and other parts are impressive, nevertheless, and the poem has a curiously prescient character. Barclay, who commits an incestuous rape to prove that he is beyond good and evil himself, leads his followers into sex orgies. Not very many years later, the Big Sur area of the poem was the scene of sometimes tragic experimentation in sexual behavior amid some of the more extreme communes and “sensitivity institutes.” Further, Barclay’s corrupting influence on those around him prefigured the monstrous sway that Charles Manson held over the young women who went out from his remote California hideaway to do murder at his bidding.
The nature of the narratives and dramas changed somewhat through the years. In Jeffers’s first mature period (his youthful work, when he produced two volumes of conventional verse, is of interest only to specialists), the concentration was on writing modern versions of myths, such as Tamar. In the second period, ranging from the late 1920’s to about 1935, the narratives were realistic, though still based on older stories. Such scenes as the violation of Tamar by ghostly Indians were no longer written. “Cawdor,” “Thurso’s Landing,” and “Give Your Heart to the Hawks” were in this vein, while “Dear Judas,” chronologically a part of the period, a play in the Japanese N form, was based on myth and religion. In the late 1930’s, Jeffers again concentrated on myth. In two of his least successful narratives, “Solstice” and “Such Counsels You Gave to Me,” he focused on what Frederick I. Carpenter (Robinson Jeffers, 1962) has called “case histories in abnormal psychology.” In the same period Jeffers wrote “At the Birth of an Age,” a philosophical poem, partly in dramatic form, which has as a central figure a self-torturing Hanged God of the universe. One of the most interesting of Jeffers’s poems, it is also one of the most complex and difficult, often appealing primarily to the mind, and having some of the same virtues and faults as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts (pb. 1820).
“The Double Axe”
Jeffers again ventured into the mythic and the supernatural in “The Double Axe,” a two-part poem published in 1948. In the first part, “The Love and the Hate,” he took an idea from his earlier “Resurrection,” a short narrative (1932) about a World War I soldier returned miraculously from the grave. In “The Love and the Hate,” Hoult Gore has similarly returned from death in World War II. His denunciation of war and his presentation of the facts about who actually suffers for the pride of patriots and politicians are sometimes eloquent, but the ghoulishness of the central figure, the walking corpse, is so naturally repellent that it is difficult for the reader to sympathize with the hero emotionally, much less to identify with him. Additionally, there are moments when the writing comes close to unintentional humor, as when Gore’s widow, first seeing him, says he looks “dreadful.” The violence of the action, even though it is meant to be cleansing, is not properly prepared for by the buildup of emotions, so that it seems exaggerated and gratuitous. The second half of the poem, “The Inhumanist,” is much more successful. In this poem, Jeffers creates a new mythical hero, an old man armed with Zeus’s double-bitted axe, which is a symbol both of divine destruction and procreation. This Inhumanist has various adventures in the course of a complex and sometimes supernatural story. Despite its flaws, which include prosy passages of bitter political ranting, it is one of the essential poems for anyone wishing to achieve a full knowledge of Jeffers’s thought.
“The Double Axe,” which dealt a heavy blow to Jeffers’s reputation, was succeeded by one other major narrative, another excursion into the supernatural, but this time a generally successful one—“Hungerfield.” Written after the crushing blow of Una Jeffers’s death, “Hungerfield” tells the story of a man who wrestled with death to save his mother from cancer. This violation of natural laws causes all kinds of other natural disasters to occur, recalling the way that the “miracle drugs” and chemical sprays with which people and farmlands are treated cause unforeseen and often disastrous side effects. The Hungerfield story, which also has mythic references (Hungerfield is a Hercules figure), is framed by Jeffers’s personal meditation on the death of his wife, and ends with his reconciliation with it. These framing passages lack the compactness and intense poetic power of Jeffers’s best lyrics, but their directness, tenderness, and simplicity carry them past the danger of sentimentality and make them moving and effective.
“The Place for No Story”
The lyric poems, which are here taken to include all the shorter poems that are not basically narratives or dramas, celebrate the same things and denounce the same things as the narratives. Being primarily meditations on one subject, they are more intense and unified, and are free of the problems of multilayered poems such as The Women at Point Sur. Typically, a Jeffers lyric describes an experience and comments on it; and it does this in the simple, declarative voice that stamped every poem with his unique signature.
“The Place for No Story,” although exceptionally short, is an excellent example. Jeffers opens with a simple description: “The coast hills at Sovranes Creek:/ No trees, but dark scant pasture drawn thin/ Over rock shaped like flame.” Then he describes the “old ocean at the land’s foot, the vast/ Gray extension beyond the long white violence.” Jeffers describes a herd of cattle on the slope above the sea, and above that “the gray air haunted with hawks. . . .” Ending this section with a colon, he draws, figuratively and spiritually, a deep breath and simply states:
This place is the noblest thing I have ever seenNo imaginableHuman presence here could do anythingBut dilute the lonely self-watchful passion.
There are many qualities to notice in this simple poem, qualities that will stand for those of scores of other lyrics, meditations, mixed-mode poems, and sections of the narratives and dramas. First, there is the voice. It is simple and colloquial, as characteristically attuned to the rhythms of everyday American speech as anything by Robert Frost. The word order is natural. The diction is simple and dignified, but not formal. It reflects Jeffers’s conscious decision to focus on things that will endure. It would have been easily comprehensible in sixteenth century England, and will almost certainly be so for centuries to come. The poem is written in the typical style of the mature Jeffers: no rhyme, no regular metrical pattern.
As Jeffers explained, however, he had a sense of pattern that made him disagree with those who called his lines free verse. His feeling, he once wrote, was for the number of beats to the line and also for the quantitative element of long and short syllables. Most of his poems break up into recurring patterns of beats per line—ten and five, six and four, five and three alternations being common. In this poem, less regular than many, there is still a recurrence of four-beat lines, culminating in a pair at the end to make a couplet effect. The longer lines run mostly to six stresses, depending on how the poem is read. Binding the whole together is a subtle pattern of alliteration, a device that Jeffers used with full consciousness of his debt to the strong-stress lines of Anglo-Saxon verse.
In the first few lines, for example, the hard “c” of “coast” is repeated in “Creek” (and picked up much later in another stressed word, “cows”); the “s” in “Sovranes” reappears in “scant” and “shaped”; the “d” in “dark” reappears in “drawn”; the “f” of “flame,” in “foot”; the “v” of “vast” in “violence”; the “h” in “hills” appears five lines later in “herd,” six lines later in “hardly,” seven lines later in “haunted” and “hawks.” A notable assonance is “old ocean,” which works to slow down its line with its long syllables.
In this short lyric, too, are embodied some of Jeffers’s key ideas. The ocean’s “violence” reminds the reader of the struggle ever present in the natural world. The contrast between rock, a symbol of endurance, and flame, a symbol of violent change, suggests that even rocks undergo change from the same process of oxidation that produces flame. Above, the hawks are Jeffers’s preferred symbol of independence and of the inexorable violence of nature. The poem simply and unaffectedly celebrates beauty and at the end reminds the reader of the insignificance of human beings in a universe still discovering itself in the “passion” of its dynamic life.
The qualities found in this short lyric are found in abundance in many other poems of varying length. Among the most notable of the short poems not already cited are “To the Stone-Cutters,” “Night,” “Boats in a Fog,” “Noon,” “Rock and Hawk,” “Love the Wild Swan,” “Return,” “All the Little Hoofprints,” “Original Sin,” “The Deer Lay Down Their Bones,” and “For Una.”
Among the longer lyrics, several are important for a full understanding of the poet. Chief among these is Apology for Bad Dreams, Jeffers’s ars poetica. “Meditation on Saviors” and “De Rerum Virtute” are also important philosophical poems, as is “Margrave,” a short narrative framed by an approximately equal amount of meditative lyric. Two large sections of “Cawdor” contain particularly powerful lyric sections. These, “The Caged Eagle’s Death-Dream” and “The Old Man’s Dream After He Died,” have been reprinted in The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1938).
The Beginning and the End
After passing through a period (1938-1948) during which many of his poems were bitter political harangues, Jeffers achieved a quieter tone in the poems that were posthumously printed in The Beginning and the End. They lack the close texture and the intensity, however, of his better poems from earlier years, and tend to become prosy. At the same time, in their increasing concern with astrophysics, the origins of human life, and the terrible prospect that all may end in a nuclear catastrophe, they explore new territory and provide a fitting, relatively serene end to an enormously productive career.
In seeking to place Jeffers in the continuum of American poets, one is drawn to generalizations that often apply surprisingly well to Walt Whitman, who was temperamentally and sometimes philosophically Jeffers’s polar opposite. Like Whitman, Jeffers was a technical innovator, developing a typically long, colloquial line and a voice that can be mistaken for no other. Like Whitman, he was often charged, with some justification, with using inflated rhetoric and exaggeration to achieve his effects, and with repetitiveness. Like Whitman, he was a poet of extremes, and for that reason perhaps he will be best appreciated when some of the political and social passions that he stirred have been forgotten. Like Whitman, too, Jeffers had a well-developed set of attitudes toward society and the world. These views put both men in the prophetic stance at times. Like Whitman, Jeffers was deeply religious in a pantheistic way, and so profoundly conscious of the cycle of birth and regeneration that he thought of death as a redeemer.
Many of these characteristics are those of a public poet, a person in a dialogue with his nation and the world about its life and the right way of living. Beyond these qualities, Jeffers had other attributes of the public poet. He was not only prophetic, admonishing and seeking reform in attitudes and behavior, but also apocalyptic, standing apart and reminding his readers of the immanence and possible imminence of worldly destruction. He was historical, reminding them that cultures and nations had risen and fallen before them. He was an early environmentalist, reminding Americans that they were part of a complex cycle of life, and castigating them for their sins against the earth. He was an explorer of the depths probed by Freud and Carl Jung—and thus a psychological poet. He was also a mystical poet—the “Caged Eagle’s Death-Dream” constituting a supreme illustration.
The process of sifting out and properly appraising the poems in which Jeffers succeeded in his various roles has begun. No single long narrative has been acclaimed by all favorable critics as entirely successful, but it is certain that at least half a dozen, probably led by “Roan Stallion,” will survive. Many lyrics and shorter mixed-mode poems, however, are generally esteemed, and it is these poems that already have assured Jeffers a place among the honored writers of the century. Finally, the quality that seems most likely to ensure Jeffers’s future stature is his very lack of timeliness. His references are not to ephemera but to rock, hawk, sea, and mountain—things that will be with the world as long as humans are there to perceive their beauty and their significance.
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