Robinson Jeffers

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Harriet Monroe (review date 1926)

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SOURCE: A review of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, in Poetry, Vol. 28, June, 1926, pp. 160-64.

[In the following review of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, Monroe disparages the long poems in the volume but praises such short poems as "Woodrow Wilson" and "Night."]

"Tamar" and all the final three-fifths of this book [Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems] were exhaustively reviewed by James Daly in Poetry [in August, 1925] so that the present writer need only record her hearty agreement with that review, her recognition of the "deep poetic compulsion" in Mr. Jeffers' usually distinguished art. All the more is it to be regretted that the title-poem of this larger book, if not 'prentice-work dug up and retouched, as I suspect, is of a quality quite unworthy of the author of "Tamar." But it is doubtful whether even the most accomplished artistry would excuse the deliberate choice of so revolting a subject. Apparently Mr. Jeffers wanted to see how far he could go with himself and his newly acquired public; and we may be permitted to express a hope that the poet has now registered his final limit in a direction so repellant to modern taste.

Mr. Jeffers was brought up on classic literature, his father being a professor of Greek; therefore the class of subjects under discussion may come to his mind more naturally than to another's. But whereas to the Greek poet all the pagan energies of life were open ground for his spirit, ground almost sanctified by his myth-haunted religion, to a poet of our time and country it is impossible to explore certain jungles in the old simple and natural way. He has to force himself in; he is conscious of breathing noxious vapors in a dark melodrama of evil. The Greek audience accepted quite simply the horror as well as the beauty of its inherited myths; but the world has lived a number of centuries since then, and all the dark power of Mr. Jeffers cannot quite persuade us to swallow his modern tales of abnormal passion with the simple inherited faith of a more primitive time. The danger is that such a preoccupation may make his majestic art an anachronism, without vitality enough to endure.

In "The Tower Beyond Tragedy" the subject is appropriately Greek—the Clytemnestra story—and the poet's version, while too expansive, has passages of splendid eloquence, done in huge pounding rhythms like the Pacific at Carmel. Here are nine lines of Cassandra's despair:

For me there is no mountain firm enough,
The storms of light beating on the headlands,
The storms of music undermine the mountains, they stumble and fall
Such music the stars
Make in their courses, the vast vibration
Plucks the iron heart of the earth like a harp-string.
Iron and stone core, O stubborn axle of the earth, you also
Dissolving in a little time like salt in water….

This Cassandra ranges over the centuries; her prophecies reach out to the day "when America has eaten Europe and takes tribute of Asia, when the ends of the world grow aware of each other."

One turns with relief to the shorter poems which follow these. Here we have a stern and stately beauty, the expression of a harsh loneliness of soul which has studied the world afar off as it communed with sea and mountains. Perhaps this brief one, "Joy," will suggest the sweep of this poet's imagination and the temper of his spirit; also his way of striking off vivid images in lines of mournful music:

Though joy is better than sorrow, joy is not great;
Peace is great, strength is great.
Not for joy the stars burn, not for joy the vulture
Spreads her gray sails on the air
Over the mountain; not for joy the worn mountain
Stands, while years like water

Trench his long sides. "I am neither mountain nor bird
Nor star; and I seek joy."
The weakness of your breed: yet at length quietness
Will cover those wistful eyes.

Not that Mr. Jeffers has been unobservant of passing events, or unpitiful of human agony. In "Woodrow Wilson," a dialogue between "It" and the hero's death-enfranchised soul, we have a really noble tribute, a high recognition of tragedy. Here are the first two of the eight stanzas:

I should like to quote lengthily from "Night," with its proud recognition of newly discovered immensities of space—

A few centuries
Gone by, was none dared not to people
The darkness beyond the stars with harps and habitations.
But now, dear is the truth. Life is grown sweeter and lonelier,
And death is no evil.

"The Torch-bearer's Race" shows man "at the world's end," where, all coasts and jungles explored, he is daring the air, "feet shaking earth off." But the poet reminds him:

Brooding on his rock over "the deep dark-shining Pacific," this poet has watched the course of stars and nations, and the music of his verse has acquired large rhythms. What he thinks of his own nation in its hour of splendor he tells in the poem "Shine, Perishing Republic," which may be quoted as of immediate interest, and representative of his art in one of its less detached moods:

A poet of extraordinary power is Mr. Jeffers, with perhaps a purple pride in the use of it.


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Robinson Jeffers 1887–1962

(Full name John Robinson Jeffers) American poet, playwright, and essayist.

Jeffers is a controversial figure in twentieth-century American poetry whose prophetic admonitions against modem civilization have attracted both critical censure and admiration. He is perhaps best known for long dramatic narrative poems in which he combined brutal imagery with a somber tone and dense syntax to explore unsettling topics. Guided by his philosophy of "inhumanism," which he defined as "a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence," Jeffers contrasted the strength and enduring beauty of nature with a tragic vision of human suffering and inconsequence. Incorporating structures and themes from Greek drama, the Bible, and Eastern mysticism, and influenced by such thinkers as Lucretius, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Jeffers drew upon science, history, nature, and contemporary events for subject material. Jeffers was also inspired by the landscape and legends of southern California's Monterey coast, where he lived throughout his adult life.

Biographical Information

Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was tutored by his father, a Presbyterian preacher and theologian, in various languages, the classics, and the Bible before being sent to boarding schools in Switzerland and Germany. Following his graduation from Occidental College in 1905, Jeffers earned a master's degree in literature from the University of Southern California; he later spent several years studying medicine at USC and forestry at the University of Washington. A modest inheritance enabled Jeffers and his wife to settle on an isolated plot of coastal land in Carmel, California, where he built a stone house and tower overlooking the Pacific Ocean and devoted himself to his art. After suffering from numerous illnesses later in his life, Jeffers died in 1962.

Major Works

Jeffers's first two books, Flagons and Apples (1912) and Californians (1916), are generally considered derivative and undistinguished. Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1925), which was originally published at Jeffers's own expense as Tamar and Other Poems (1924), exhibits a significant advance from his earlier work. Rejecting traditional modes, Jeffers utilizes simple, declarative, and often colloquial language as well as long narrative forms, while

exploring sexual themes that display the influence of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Havelock Ellis. "Tamar," for example, illustrates the folly of incest through a tragic tale of sexual passion between a sister and her brother. Based on a story from the second book of Samuel, "Tamar" combines California locales with biblical diction and themes. "Roan Stallion" centers on a woman whose abusive husband is killed by her horse when she flees to the animal for protection. After slaying the horse in retaliation for the death of her husband, the woman realizes that she has destroyed the embodiment of her freedom. Her subsequent anguish symbolizes the suffering that humanity inflicts upon itself when it squanders opportunities for change and improvement. "The Tower beyond Tragedy" is drawn from Aeschylus's Oresteia, in which Orestes kills his mother to avenge her murder of his father, Agamemnon. In his version, Jeffers focuses on the character of Cassandra whom Agamemnon obtains as spoil from his victory at Troy and who prophesies many of the grim events that follow. Jeffers's Cassandra foretells not only the fall of old empires, as in the Greek myth, but that of future civilizations. Some of the shorter lyrics in this collection describe southern California's terrain and display Jeffers's knowledge of biology, astronomy, and physics.

The Women at Point Sur (1927) is a complex dramatic narrative poem that is considered one of Jeffers's most controversial works. Described by Dwight McDonald as "a witches' dance of incest, suicide, madness, adultery and Lesbianism," this piece relates the story of Barclay, a Christian minister whose disillusionment with the war that claimed his only son turns him from theology. Abandoning his wife and church, Barclay withdraws to the Carmel coast, where he seeks to establish a new religion based on the external world. He is distracted from his intention, however, by overbearing narcissism and lust for his daughter. Barclay eventually goes insane, and following an orgy of destruction, he wanders off to die in the hills. Modern in its use of science for poetic material and its candid, realistic concern with sex, The Women at Point Sur satirizes human self-importance and explores harmful aspects of civilization.

Cawdor and Other Poems (1928) is regarded by some critics as Jeffers's finest single volume. The title poem of this collection is based on the plot of Euripides's Hippolytus, in which Hippolytus is cursed by Aphrodite with the physical love of Phaedra, his stepmother. When Phaedra hangs herself in grief over her stepson's resistance to her advances, Hippolytus is driven from Athens by his father, whose prayers are fulfilled when his son is dragged to death by his own horses. This book also contains several short verses in unrhymed forms that focus upon the benefits of death over life. The title piece of Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929) dramatizes the crucifixion of Jesus Christ by adapting elements of Japanese Noh theater. Narrated by the ghosts of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Judas, "Dear Judas" exhibits Jeffers's most sustained concern with human emotion. This volume also includes "The Loving Shepherdess," a dramatic narrative about a long-suffering young woman who roams the southern California coast. During her travels, she encounters a friendly vaquero to whom she relates the events which have led to her tragic predicament. Descent to the Dead: Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain (1931) contains sixteen short poems written in stately verse that feature local color and lore. In the title piece of Thurso's Landing and Other Poems (1932), Jeffers recounts the tale of an unhappily married couple whose passion is unable to save them from misery and confusion. Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems (1933) presents a psychological portrait of a strong-willed man who is driven insane by remorse for the murder of his brother. This volume also includes several short pieces that are predominantly concerned with themes of death and resurrection, poems from Descent to the Dead, and "At the Fall of an Age," which concerns the death of Helen on the island of Rhodes twenty years after the fall of Troy.

In Solstice and Other Poems (1935), Jeffers presents a modern version of the Greek legend of Medea based on an account by Euripides. This volume also contains the long narrative "At the Birth of an Age." Derived from the final sections of the Teutonic epic the Nibelungenlied, this poem portrays a petty argument between three sibling leaders of a small Germanic tribe and their sister. Jeffers overshadows the individual personalities of his characters by emphasizing the enormous consequences of their small-minded conduct. The title piece of Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems (1937) features a modern version of a traditional Scottish ballad in which the protagonist's medical acumen provides Jeffers with a vehicle for demonstrating his knowledge of science. Also included in this volume are short poems concerning Jeffers's refusal to align himself with any particular economic, social, or political movement, a position for which he was frequently criticized. Be Angry at the Sun (1941) contains several controversial portraits of Adolf Hitler, whom Jeffers considered historically necessary and simultaneously fascinating and disgusting. In The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948), Jeffers utilizes elements of Eastern ideology to convey the alienation and hatred experienced by many veterans of war. The title poem of this collection is a tale of a young soldier who returns from the dead to confront and kill his father, who had sent him into battle during World War II. This volume also features the philosophical poem "The Inhumanist," in which Jeffers expounds his fundamental convictions. In the final collection published during his lifetime, Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954), which was inspired by his wife's death in 1950, Jeffers portrays death as a welcome respite from life's distress.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Jeffers's work has fluctuated greatly. During the 1920s and early 1930s, Jeffers was hailed as among the greatest living American writers; Time magazine, which is often considered a barometer of popular achievement, placed him on its cover in 1932. During the Depression and World War II, however, Jeffers suffered a reversal of literary reputation that critics variously attribute to his unpopular social and political views, the diminishing quality of his verse, and the rise of New Criticism. Since his death, Jeffers's work has undergone extensive reevaluation, and several of his shorter poems, including "Shine, Perishing Republic," "Boats in a Fog," and "To the Stone-Cutters," remain essential to anthologies of American verse. Mercedes Cunningham Monjian concluded in 1958: "Whatever the future holds for this poet, our own age is still awed by the magnificent talent and effort of a burdened mind struggling to free humanity from the shackles of an impoverished self-love, and the myths to which he believes it gave birth."

Morton Dauwen Zabel (review date 1929)

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SOURCE: A review of Cawdor and Other Poems, in Poetry, Vol. 33, No. 6, 1929, pp. 336-40.

[In the mixed review of Cawdor and Other Poems below, Zabel praises Jeffers's technical skill as a poet but questions his detached treatment of such themes as fear and violence.]

The theme of Robinson Jeffers' new poem ["Cawdor"] is the tragedy of a woman who meets the passion and selfish pride of men on their own terms, but finds herself the victim of an unimagined lust whose end comes only with the hideous defeat of those who caused her own humiliation. Even this curt summary is sufficient to indicate that "Cawdor" shares with "Tamar," "Roan Stallion," and The Women at Point Sur those properties of tragic violence and broad dramatic conflict which we have come to regard as this poet's particular marks. The sensitiveness to all the forces of ancient terror, the infinite pathos of human blindness and vanity, and the strange unerring ways of biological and psychological life—these came out in that first obscure volume which gave us, five years ago, a new and remarkable writer. Since then it has become customary to think of Mr. Jeffers as the only one of our contemporary artists who has plunged bravely into the darkest waters of experience and found there the incalculable tides and currents which the Greeks tried to fathom. The comparison with Euripides has been inevitable, not only because of the subject-matter of these narratives, but also because of their style. And critics have even found occasion to point out the essential dissimilarity of Mr. Jeffers' work to that of the Greeks: its lack of real penetration, its barren spirit, its dearth of the pity which an instinct for scientific curiosity has denied him. Meanwhile Mr. Jeffers continues to write, probably quite un-influenced by the mandates of his readers and eager to complete a body of work which he outlined long ago and determined to see to its end.

It is not necessary to deny his work the truth and beauty which it unquestionably has. Any individual reader may fail to discover here a genuine reality, but that after all remains the failure of the individual reader. When work shows, as this does, ringing eloquence combined with a passionate search for honor, we are quite safe in crediting the author with some of the final attributes of genius. His shortcomings are to be credited largely to an age which has disestablished many of the relationships and laws whereby it was possible for former generations to think of life in terms of noble pity and grief. The very factors which make it possible for Mr. Jeffers to stand apart from our huge cities, our political warfare and our industrial vanity allow him to indulge in a kind of oracular aloofness. The disclosures of science have armed him with a seer-like omnipotence from which he looks down on the swarming efforts of man. He is not one of the struggling millions, like Sandburg or our other city poets. He is no road-side humanitarian, like Frost. Therefore he scorns to extend the hand of compassion to his creatures; he allows them to murder, to blind themselves, to wound and mutilate their bodies, and to break their fearful hearts.

When, in the course of his mounting drama, he stops to comment, it is with an almost disinterested candor:

The nerves of man after they die dream dimly
And dwindle into their peace; they are not very passionate,
And what they had was mostly spent while they lived.
They are sieves for leaking desire, they have many pleasures
And conversations; their dreams too are like that.

Or, translating science into a more fantastic imagery, he speaks with the calm demeanor of a laboratory worker:

In their deaths they dreamed a moment, the unspent chemistry
Of life resolving its powers; some in the cold star-gleam,
Some in the cooling darkness in the crushed skull.
But shine and shade were indifferent to them, their dreams
Determined by temperatures, access of air,
Wetness or drying, as the work of the autolytic
Enzymes of the last hunger hasted or failed.

The mistake behind this lies in the fact that, instead of writing poetry wholly in the spirit of modern reason and logic, he has endeavored to combine these factors with antique dramaturgy. His obsession for heroic violence and the grand passion of the Greeks furnishes him with wild and massive themes, and the comments of science seem very weak and puny in the midst of them. He wrote one masterpiece "The Tower Beyond Tragedy." The lesson in singleness of motive there presented has not served him very faithfully.

But "Cawdor" has passages of magnificence not often found in poetry today. Some of the early pictures of the Pacific coast and the redwood forests, the sweeping fires and gaunt ranges, are unforgettable. Where the ocean beats on the rocks three people hunt for sea-food:

And, since this is a narrative poem, it must be said that few others of our time can compare with it for technical skill. The interest is consistent, the movement certain, and the shaping coherent. The characters of Fera Martial and Cawdor suffer because they are charged with too much purpose and too futile a passion; but the girl Michal and the inviolate brother Hood are alive with sympathy, and the minor figures have much variety and picturesque charm. Certain details are worked out with a sure touch. At one point Fera goes dizzy:

And many incidents are amazingly sharp in definition.

There are shorter poems in this book, notably a fine elegy on George Sterling, which aid in showing Mr. Jeffers' complete mastery of his instrument. His line may often be regular blank-verse, but it can swell into a full diapason of great power.

Principal Works

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Flagons and Apples 1912

Californians 1916

Tamar and Other Poems 1924

Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems 1925

The Women at Point Sur 1927

Cawdor and Other Poems 1928

Poems 1928

Dear Judas and Other Poems 1929

Descent to the Dead: Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain 1931

Thurso's Landing and Other Poems 1932

Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems 1933

Solstice and Other Poems 1935

Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems 1937

The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers 1938

Be Angry at the Sun 1941

The Double Axe and Other Poems 1948

Hungerfield and Other Poems 1954

The Loving Shepherdess 1956

The Beginning and the End and Other Poems 1963

Selected Poems 1965

The Alpine Christ and Other Poems 1974

Brides of the South Wind: Poems 1917-1922 1974

What Odd Expedients and Other Poems 1981

Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers 1987

The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. 2 vols. 1988-1989

Other Major Works

Medea (drama) 1946

Poetry, Gongorism, and a Thousand Years (essay) 1949

The Tower beyond Tragedy (drama) 1950

The Cretan Women (drama) 1954

Themes in My Poems (essay) 1956

The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1897-1962 (letters) 1968

Yvor Winters (review date 1930)

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SOURCE: A review of Dear Judas, in Poetry, Vol. 35, No. V, February, 1930, pp. 279-86.

[Winters was a prominent American poet and critic who maintained that all good literature must serve a conscious moral purpose. In the negative review of Dear Judas below, he examines the themes and narrative structures in the volume, concluding that Jeffers's "aims are badly thoughtful and are essentially trivial."]

It is difficult to write of Mr. Jeffers' latest book [Dear Judas] without discussing his former volumes; after his first collection he deals chiefly with one theme in all of his poems; and all of his works illustrate a single problem, a spiritual malady of considerable significance. Mr. Jeffers is theologically a kind of monist; he envisages, as did Wordsworth, Nature as Deity; but his Nature is the Nature of the physics textbook and not of the rambling botanist—Mr. Jeffers seems to have taken the terminology of modern physics more literally than it is meant by its creators. Nature, or God, is thus a kind of self-sufficient mechanism, of which man is an offshoot, but from which man is cut off by his humanity (just what gave rise to this humanity, which is absolutely severed from all connection with God, is left for others to decide): there is consequently no mode of communication between the consciousness of man and the mode of existence of God; God is praised adequately only by the screaming demons that make up the atom. Man, if he accepts this dilemma as necessary, is able to choose between two modes of action: he may renounce God and rely on his humanity, or he may renounce his humanity and rely on God.

Mr. Jeffers preaches the second choice: union with God, oblivion, the complete extinction of one's humanity, is the only good he is able to discover; and life, as such, is "incest," an insidious and destructive evil. So much, says Mr. Jeffers by implication, for Greek and Christian ethics. Now the mysticism of, say, San Juan de la Cruz offers at least the semblance of a spiritual, a human, discipline as a preliminary to union with Divinity; but for Mr. Jeffers a simple and mechanical device lies always ready; namely, suicide, a device to which he has not resorted.

In refusing to take this logical step, however, Mr. Jeffers illustrates one of a very interesting series of romantic compromises. The romantic of the ecstatic-pantheist type denies life, yet goes on living; nearly all romantics decry the intellect and philosophy, yet they offer justifications (necessarily foggy and fragmentary) of their attitude; they deride literary "technique" (the mastery of, and development of the sensitivity to, relationships between words, so that these relationships may extend almost inimitably the vocabulary) yet they write (of necessity, carelessly, with small efficiency). Not all romantics are guilty of all of these confusions, nor, doubtless, is Mr. Jeffers; but all of these confusions are essentially romantic—they are very natural developments of moral monism. And Mr. Jeffers, having decried human life as such, and having denied the worth of the rules of the game, endeavors to write narrative and dramatic poems—poems, in other words, dealing with people who are playing the game. Jesus, the hero of "Dear Judas," speaking apparently for Mr. Jeffers, says that the secret reason for the doctrine of forgiveness is that all men are driven by the mechanism-God to act as they do, that they are entirely helpless; yet he adds in the next breath that this secret must be guarded, for if it were given out, men would run amuck, would get out of hand—they would begin acting differently.

The Women at Point Sur is a perfect laboratory of Mr. Jeffers' philosophy. Barclay, an insane divine, preaches Mr. Jeffers' religion, and his disciples, acting upon it, become emotional mechanisms, lewd and twitching conglomerations of plexi, their humanity annulled. Human experience, in these circumstances, having necessarily and according to the doctrine no meaning, there can be and is no necessary sequence of events: every act is equivalent to every other; every act is at the peak of hysteria; most of the incidents could be shuffled around into varying sequences without violating anything save, perhaps, Mr. Jeffers' private sense of their relative intensity. Since the poem is his, of course, such a private sense is legitimate enough; the point is that this is not a narrative, nor a dramatic, but a lyrical criterion. A successful lyrical poem of one hundred and seventy-five pages is unlikely, for the essence of lyrical expression is concentration; but it is at least theoretically possible. The difficulty is that the lyric achieves its effect by the generalization of emotion (that is, by the separation of the emotion from the personal history that gives rise to it in actual concrete experience) and by the concentration of expression. Narrative can survive in a measure without concentration, or intensity of detail, provided the narrative logic is detailed and compelling, as in the case of Balzac, though it is only wise to add that this occurs most often in prose. Now Mr. Jeffers, as I have pointed out, has abandoned narrative logic with the theory of ethics, and he has never achieved, in addition, a close and masterly style. His writing is loose, turgid, and careless; like most anti-intellectualists, he relies on his feelings alone and has no standard of criticism for them outside of themselves. There are occasional good flashes in his poems, and to these I shall return later, but they are very few, are very limited in their range of feeling and in their subject matter, and they are very far between. Mr. Jeffers has no remaining method of sustaining his lyric, then, other than the employment of an accidental (i.e., non-narrative) chain of anecdotes (i.e., details that are lyrically impure); his philosophical doctrine and his artistic dilemma alike decree that these shall be anecdotes of hysteria. By this method Mr. Jeffers continually lays claim to a high pitch of emotion which has no narrative support (that is, support of the inevitable accumulation of experience), nor lyrical support (that is, support of the intense perception of pure, or transferable, emotion), which has, in short, no support at all, and which is therefore simply unmastered and self-inflicted hysteria.

"Cawdor" alone of Mr. Jeffers' poems contains a plot that in its rough outlines might be sound, and [Cawdor and other Poems] likewise contains his best poetry; the poem as a whole, and in spite of the confused treatment of the woman, is moving, and the lines describing the seals at dawn are fine, as are the two or three last lines of the apotheosis of the eagle. Most of the preceding material in the latter passage, however, like most of the material in the sections that give Mr. Jeffers' notions of the post-mortem experience of man, are turgid, repetitious, arbitrary, and unconvincing. The plot itself is blurred for lack of stylistic finish (that is, for lack of ability on the part of the poet to see every detail of sense and movement incisively down to the last preposition, the last comma, as every detail is seen in Racine or Shakespeare); and it remains again a fair question whether a moral monist can arrive at any clear conclusions about the values of a course of action, since he denies the existence of any conceivable standard of values within the strict limits of human life as such. In "The Tower Beyond Tragedy" Mr. Jeffers takes a ready-made plot, the Clytemnestra-Orestes situation, which is particularly strong dramatically, because Orestes is forced to choose between two sins, the murder of his mother and the refusal to avenge his father. But at the very last moment, in Mr. Jeffers' version, Orestes is converted to Mr. Jeffers' religion and goes off explaining (to Electra, who has just tried to seduce him) that though men may think he is fleeing before the furies he is really just drifting up to the mountains to meditate on the stars; and the preceding action is, of course, rendered morally and emotionally meaningless.

In the latest volume, the title poem, "Dear Judas," is a kind of dilution of The Women at Point Sur, with Jesus as Barclay, and with a less detailed background. Mr. Jeffers' mouthpiece and hero, Jesus, is little short of revolting as he whips reflexively from didactic passion to malice, self-justification, and vengeance. The poem shares the structural principles, or lack of them, of The Women at Point Sur; and it has no quotable lines, save, possibly, the last three, which are, however, heavy with dross. "The Loving Shepherdess," the other long poem of the present volume, deals with a girl who knows herself doomed to die at a certain time in childbirth, and who wanders over the countryside caring for a small and diminishing flock of sheep in an anguish of devotion. The events here again are anecdotal and reversible, and the emotion is lyrical or nothing. The theme had two possibilities: the poet could have immersed the girl in a dream of approaching death, or he could have immersed her in the sentimental pathos of the immediate situation. There are moments when he seems to be trying for the former effect, but his perceptions are not fine enough and the mass of anecdotal detail is too heavy; the poem succeeds in being no more than a very Wordsworthian embodiment of a kind of maudlin humanitarianism—which is a curious but not an unexpected outcome of Mr. Jeffers' sentimental misanthropy. The heroine is turned cruelly from door to door, and the sheep fall one by one before the reader's eyes, the doors and the sheep constituting the bulk of the anecdotal material; till finally the girl dies in a ditch in an impossible effort to give birth to her child.

The short poems in the book deal with themes that Mr. Jeffers has handled better before. He has written here and there impressive lines descriptive of the sea and its rocks, and of dying birds of prey. "Hurt Hawks II," in the Cawdor volume, is the most perfect short poem and is quite fine; there are excellent lines scattered through other pieces. These poems are, however, limited both in paraphrasable content and in experiential implication: they glorify brute nature and annihilation and are numb to the intricacies of human feeling; they share in the latter respect the limitations of all mystical poetry. Mr. Jeffers' insistence on another of his favorite lyrical themes, his own aloofness, is becoming, by dint of repetition, almost embarrassing; one has the constant feeling that he is trying to bully the reader into accepting him at his own evaluation.

Self-repetition has been the inevitable effect of anti-intellectualist doctrine on all of its supporters. If life is valued, explored, subdivided, and defined, poetic themes are infinite in number; if life is denied, the only theme is the rather sterile and monotonous one of the denial. Similarly, those poets who flee from form, which is infinitely variable, since every form is a definite and an individual thing, can achieve only the uniformity of chaos; and those individuals who endeavor to escape morality, which is personal form and controlled direction, can, in the very nature of things, achieve nothing save the uniformity of mechanism. One might classify Mr. Jeffers as a "great failure" if one meant by the phrase that he had wasted unusual talents; but not if one meant that he had failed in a major effort, for his aims are badly thoughtful and are essentially trivial.

Further Reading

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Vardamis, Alex A. The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers: A Bibliographic Study. Hamden, CT: The Shoe String Press, Inc., 1972, 301 p.

Primary and secondary bibliography. Vardamis also analyzes critical reception to Jeffers's work in the introduction.


Bennett, Melba Berry. The Stone Mason of Tor House. Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1966, 264 p.

Biography that includes a chronology of the poet's publications as well as a bibliography.

Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1987, 149 p.

Biography in which Karman emphasizes the influence the Big Sur coastline of California had on Jeffers's works.


Ackerman, Diane. "Robinson Jeffers: The Beauty of Transhuman Things." American Poetry Review 12, No. 2 (March-April 1983): 16-18.

Examines the transhumanance in Jeffers's poetry. Ackerman concludes: "[Jeffers's] fits an apocryphally definitive idea of the American mind: close to nature, to the universe, closer to them than to fellow-humans."

Bennett, Joseph. "The Moving Finger Writes." The Hudson Review XVI, No. 4 (Winter 1963-64): 624-33.

Laudatory review of The Beginning and the End and Other Poems in which Bennett states: "This volume … contains some of the best work Jeffers has produced."

Brophy, Robert. "Robinson Jeffers." Western American Literature XX, No. 2 (August 1985): 133-50.

Surveys Jeffers's life and career, concentrating on the influence of western American landscapes on his works.

——, ed. Robinson Jeffers: Dimensions of a Poet. New York: Fordham University Press, 1995, 248 p.

Collection of critical essays.

Carpenter, Frederic I. Robinson Jeffers. New York: Twayne, 1962, 159 p.

Detailed discussion of Jeffers's narrative and lyric poetry.

Coffin, Arthur B. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971, 300 p.

Studies major themes in Jeffers's works.

Conrad, Sherman. Review of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. The Nation 148, No. 12 (3 June 1939): 651-52.

Mixed review of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers in which Conrad discusses Jeffers's treatment of such themes as truth and art.

Davis, H. L. "Jeffers Denies Us Twice." Poetry 31, No. V (1928): 274-79.

Mixed review of The Women at Point Sur. Davis praises the language and style but states that Jeffers seems to have wanted "to divorce his mind from … all things human."

Gioia, Dana. "Strong Counsel." The Nation 246, No. 2 (16 January 1988): 59-64.

Review οf Rock and Hawk in which Gioia discusses the lack of critical acceptance of Jeffers's works.

Hicks, Granville. "A Transient Sickness." The Nation 134, No. 3484 (13 April 1932): 433-34.

Mixed review of Thurso 's Landing.

Hunt, Tim. "A Voice in Nature: Jeffers' Tamar and Other Poems." American Literature 61, No. 2 (May 1989): 230-44.

Examines how Jeffers's treatment of nature changed and evolved in the years after he abandoned rhymed verse.

Murphy, Patrick D. "Robinson Jeffers' Macabre and Darkly Marvelous Double Axe." Western American Literature XX, No. 3 (November 1985): 195-209.

Analysis of The Double Axe in which Murphy states that while the work "is focused on the single thematic purpose of a poetic protest against the direction of the United States during and after World War II, it consists of two contrasting halves."

Nolte, William H. "Robinson Jeffers as Didactic Poet." PMLA 42, No. 2 (Spring 1966): 257-71.

Examines the didacticism inherent in Jeffers's poetry, concluding "of all major modern poets, Robinson Jeffers came closest to expressing himself in a uniquely singular style."

Scott, Robert Ian. "From Berkeley to Barclay's Delusion: Robinson Jeffers vs. Modern Narcissism." Mosaic XV, No. 3 (September 1982): 55-61.

Contrasts Jeffers's unsentimental view of humanity with the delusional narcissism of such modern poets as Sylvia Plath.

Schweizer, Harold. "Robinson Jeffers' Excellent Action." American Poetry 5, No. 1 (Fall 1987): 35-58.

Compares Jeffers's tragic vision to that of English writer and critic Matthew Arnold.

Squires, Radcliffe. The Loyalties of Robinson Jeffers. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1956, 198 p.

Examines various influences on Jeffers's works, including philosophy, science, and other writers.

Thesing, William B., ed. Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers. Contemporary Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995, 218 p.

Collection of essays in which the contributors compare Jeffers to other modern writers.

Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, 263 p.

Extensive critical study in which Zaller attempts to "locate Jeffers's narrative impulse in a series of efforts to mediate Oedipal trauma and recurrent crises of personal autonomy."

Zaller, Robert, ed. Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991, 282 p.

Anthology of critical essays published in the past four decades.

Additional coverage of Jeffers's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 3, 11, 15, 54; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Poets Module; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 35; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1917-1929; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 45; and Major Twentieth-Century Writers.

Robert Penn Warren (review date 1937)

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SOURCE: A review of Solstice and Other Poems, in Poetry, Vol. XLIX, No. V, February, 1937, pp. 279-82.

[In the following mixed review of Solstice and Other Poems, Warren states that "this collection brings nothing new."]

It is not probable that Solstice and Other Poems will do much to alter the reputation of Robinson Jeffers, for this collection brings nothing new. It is hard to say what kind of newness we expect when we pick up another volume by an established poet whose work we have read in the past. To expect something new need not brand one as light-minded and frivolous, even though the appetite for novelty, once out of hand and without center, is a dangerous thing for poets and readers of poetry, and accounts perhaps for the fickleness of the public, the hysteria of reviewers, and the random experimentation of the poets themselves. Needless to say, when we pick up that recent book of the established poet, we expect something not new; we expect some characteristic turn of mind, a development of faculties with which we are already acquainted, a flavor of the old idiom—on the whole, a continuity of some kind, for we do not like to feel that the poet in his new self has betrayed the poet in his old self more glibly and irresponsibly than we would do so. If the new self has betrayed the old self too readily, we are inclined to suspect that the poet never did mean what he said, that he is merely a clever eclectic, and that we were deluded in our former estimate; if the poet's experience of his poetry was meaningless, perhaps ours was meaningless too, and we ourselves should reconsider. But we also demand in the new book something new, a new formulation of the old qualities, perhaps, but that at least, and a somewhat lively sense of potential variety in experience. We do not like to feel that, though we can predict the beginnings, we can predict the ends. If not new concepts, we want at least new percepts to keep us awake and to feed the understanding by their just relations to, and embodiments of, the old concepts.

The present book contains a great deal of self-imitation. The title poem, "Solstice" is like nothing so much as an ether dream Jeffers might have about some of his own poetry. The stereotypes of situation and language are here without the interest that was now and then achieved in "Taraar," "The Roan Stallion," or The Women at Point Sur. In relation to the better of the earlier narratives the present one is repetition without direction. Waiving any question of the basic theme and impulse in the work of Jeffers, one might say that the only probable escape from this vice of self-imitation would be by a process of emphasizing and exploring the aspect of special character instead of the aspect of the general symbol on which Jeffers' poetry is so largely based. For these symbols have themselves been stereotyped. Our interest in the symbolic force of these narratives might be refreshed if we could be made to apprehend more intimately the persons as persons. All of this merely goes to say that Jeffers is often deficient in the dramatic sense; and this deficiency is more than of trifling importance in a writer who sets out to be a dramatic and narrative poet. The figures, gigantic, terrifying, and parabolical, are often on the verge of sinking back, again to be undifferentiated, into the general and often vague matrix of emotion from which they are shaped.

"At the Birth of an Age," a much more interesting poem than "Solstice," suffers less from this situation. The strictly dramatic part of the poem gives the story of Gudrun's self-conflict in relation to her brothers, Gunnar, Hoegni, and Carling, who are finally killed, not because she clearly wills her revenge for the death of Sigurd, but because she stands in vacillation after they have been lured to the camp of Attila's Horde. After Gudrun herself is dead, and the action proper is complete, the spirit of Gudrun, various choruses of spirits and voices, and the Hanged God, moralize the meaning of the preceding events and of life in general. The poet has assisted in pointing the rather inadequate communication coming from the spirit world by providing an introductory note on the meaning of the poem:

The theme of self-contradiction and self-frustration, in Gudrun's naturem intends to express a characteristic quality of this culture-age, which I think should be called the Christian age, for it is conditioned by Christianity, and—except for a few centuries' lag—concurrent with it. Its civilization is the greatest, but also the most bewildered and self-contradictory, the least integrated, in some phases the most ignoble, that has ever existed. All these qualities together with the characteristic restlessness of the age, its energy, its extremes of hope and fear, its passion for discovery, I think are bred from the tension between its two poles, of Western blood and superimposed Oriental religion…. This tension is really the soul of the age, which will begin to die when it ceases.

The first half of the poem has some of the most effective dramatic writing in Jeffers' work, and some of the most sharply visualized scenes. The action, as action, is given a real psychological focus in Gudrun. But the idea in the introductory note is not satisfactorily assimilated into the action—is not really dramatized—and the rhetorical fury of the last half, with occasional bursts of moving phrase, scarcely welds the materials of the poem into a whole.

On the whole, the short poems in the present volume compare less favorably with earlier pieces of the same nature than does "At the Birth of an Age" with previous long pieces. Jeffers has done several extremely effective short pieces, but the short poem usually shows him at his most turgid and feeble. When the support of a narrative interest is withdrawn, as in the short poems, Jeffers is ordinarily unable to achieve the concentration of interest in detail that gives the short poem its power. His short poems tend to be fragmentary comments, gnomic utterances without adequate context.

Delmore Schwartz (review date 1939)

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SOURCE: "The Enigma of Robinson Jeffers," in Poetry, Vol. 55, Part 1, October, 1939, pp. 30-8.

[In this excerpt from a review of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Schwartz discusses Jeffers's treatment of such themes as science, war, and nature.]

Although only half of his poetry is here [in The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers] and the important poem called The Women at Point Sur is omitted, evidently because "it is the least liked and the least understood" of his poems, nevertheless this selection presents a sufficient span of writing in its six hundred pages to give any reader a just conception of what Jeffers has done. Above all, this selection invites a brief consideration and judgment of Jeffers' work as a whole, especially with regard to its sources.

At least one source is the scientific picture of the universe which was popular and "advanced" thought until a few short years ago. The versions of the implications of 19th-century science afforded by writers like Haeckel and Huxley seemed to create a picture of the world in which there was no room for most human values. The world was a wound-up machine or a whirling mass of chemical elements which stretched out without end and without purpose. No Deity assured justice or love or immortality, but the infinite emptiness reported by astronomy and the survival of the fittest of Darwinism seemed to comprise a definite and indubitable answer to human effort and belief. This is the world-view which has been the basis, in part, of the work of many other and quite different authors. It is to be found in the novels of Theodore Dreiser, in the plays of Bernard Shaw, in the criticism of H. L. Mencken (who suggests Nietzsche as an early and much more serious example), in the early philosophical writing of Bertrand Russell, in the poetry of Archibald MacLeish, and Joseph Wood Krutch's The Modern Temper, where it is explicitly announced that such things as loveand tragedy and all other specifically human values are not possible to modern man. Russell suggests I. A. Richards, whose "sincerity ritual" to test the genuineness of a poem operates in part by envisaging the meaninglessness of the universe in the above sense, and Krutch suggests some of the best poems of Mark Van Doren, where the emptiness of the sky is the literal theme.

When Jeffers says in his foreword and in a number of his poems that he wishes to avoid lies, what he means by lies are all beliefs which would somehow deny or ameliorate this world-view. When he speaks repeatedly of stars, atoms, energy, rocks, science, and the power of Nature, it is the Nature of 19th-century science which he has in mind and which obsesses him. For Wordsworth, but a hundred years before, Nature was an image of the highest values; for Jeffers it has become merely a huge background which proffers only one delight, annihilation, and which makes human beings seem to him puny and disgusting beasts whose history is the tiniest cosmic incident.

But Jeffers' disgust with human beings seems to have another and less intellectual source. The poems he has written about Woodrow Wilson and Clemenceau and the brutality of modern warfare suggest that the source of his obsession with human violence was the World War. Here again parallels plead to be mentioned, as if an age were an organic entity, for one remembers that other writers who came to young manhood during the war, William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway, have been similarly obsessed with violence, cruelty, rape, murder, and destruction. The California coast which serves as a background for Jeffers, and to which he came, he says, by pure accident, provides a third dominant element. "The strange, introverted, and storm-twisted beauty of Point Lobos," as Jeffers' stage-set for his narrative poems, is merely another example of how birds, or perhaps one should say, hawks, of a feather flock together.

The world-picture of 19th-century science, the World War, and Jeffers' portion of the Pacific Coast are not, however, merely sources of his work, but actually, with little disguise, the substance of his poems. Of these three elements, the cosmology in question has definitely been discarded with the radical progress of science and scientific thought, and with the recognition that some of the supposed implications of 19th-century science were only the emotions of those who had lost their childhood faith or been dismayed by the bigness of the universe, as if bigness were an especially significant aspect. The World War too turns out not to have been either merely a display of human brutality or the crusade of an idealist, as Jeffers seems to take it to be when he writes of Wilson; but something quite different. And as for Point Lobos, one may very well question whether it can be accepted as a more accurate exhibit of Nature than Wordsworth's Lake Country, the state of Connecticut, or the city of New York. Such a question is to be raised only when the poet takes his landscape as being of universal significance.

The point involved is one of truth, the truth not of ultimate beliefs, but given facts. The poetry of Jeffers represents for the most part a response to the particular facts just mentioned. But if the facts are poorly envisaged, how adequate can the response be? Stated in terms of ideas, Jeffers' response is an ideology. Stated in terms of the emotions, his response is hysterical. Human beings are often brutal, Nature is sometimes violent, and life is indeed a mystery, but to respond as Jeffers does by rejecting humanity and saluting the peace of death is to come to a conclusion which is not only barren, a result which pleases Jeffers, but also false, and thus in the end without interest and without value.

This falsity has various consequences which define it precisely. There is no need to raise the usual and banal objections, to argue like a schoolboy over whether or not Jeffers is self-contradictory in denying human freedom and presenting characters who choose their actions, or to urge the contradiction of writing poetry which will only be read by the species which is being rejected, or to howl with facile radicalism that this tragic attitude is made possible by an income. It would be simple for the admirer of Jeffers to answer each of these accusations. But what cannot be adequately defended are the consequences in the poetry itself, both in the lyrics where we are presumably to get a representation of emotion and in the narrative poems where we ought to be getting a representation of human action.

The narrative poems constitute the major part of Jeffers' work and it is upon them that the weight of untruth is most unfortunate. In "The Tower Beyond Tragedy," for example, the alternatives presented to the hero are: either incest or a complete rupture with humanity. One needs no knowledge of the Agamemnon story to know that this is not a genuine tragic dilemma, either for Orestes or for any other human being. And again in "Roan Stallion," the two alternatives presented to the heroine, either sexual intercourse with a drunken and brutish husband or with a horse, are not mutually exhaustive of all possible choices, and the dénouement is not made more plausible when the stallion kills the man, in obedience to nothing but the doctrinal requirements of the poet. What happens in both stories and throughout the narrative writing is not only not true of human life even at its most monstrous—such untruth might conceivably be justified as an extreme use of symbols—but the untruth is essentially a matter of the contexts provided by the poet, the situations which he has furnished for his characters. Orestes' choice is unjustified by the character he has been given and the life which confronts him, and the heroine of "Roan Stallion" is untrue in the same literal sense, both characters being compelled to their acts by nothing but the emotion of the poet, an emotion utterly removed from their lives and differently motivated.

The same lack is present in the lyrics, and as in the narratives it was a narrative lack, so in the lyrics what is absent betrays itself in lyrical terms. The following poem, "Science," is worth quoting as an example to justify this judgment and also as a typical statement of doctrine:

What is to be noted here is the number of shifts the poet finds necessary in order to state the observation which concerns him. The machines of science which man cannot manage are named as giants, hybrids, knives. The knowledge of science which makes possible these machines is successively compared to a vision of Diana, a pebble, and a drop of water. The classical allusion to Actaeon's vision of the goddess is also in abrupt disjunction with the previous metaphor, man as a dreamer who has bred knives and as an introvert who has begotten giants. There is no rule or law which makes it impossible for a poet to go from one metaphor to another even in a very short poem, but such a transit can only be justified if it accomplishes some expressive purpose. Here the shifts, however, weaken each metaphor, preventing the reader from getting a clear picture of a thing, process or condition, by means of which to grasp the notion and the emotion in question. Actaeon's vision of Diana is plainly not at all symmetrical with man as a begetter of dangerous giants. And the reason for this disorder is the desire of the poet to state an emotion about modern industrialism or armament in terms of the belief—too general to be meaningful—that knowledge is a dangerous thing for man. If the emotion were justified by a fact, then the fact would provide the emotion with adequate lyrical terms. But, to repeat, since the fact was imperfectly envisaged and the poet saw modern industrialism merely as an instance of incestuous brutality (man is introverted, self-loving, and thus incestuous for Jeffers), the emotion could not command the metaphors which would make it consistent and vivid upon the page.

The argument may seem theoretical and had better be made more evident and more lucid by comparison. Lear upon the heath with Kent and the fool represents a vision of the cruelty of the human heart which is in every sense more appalling than any equivalent desolation to be found in Jeffers. And yet the difference in literary terms is immense. The poet has managed to adhere to the formal burden of the play and of blank verse, he has provided a suitable individuation for the main characters, and he has not found it necessary to resort to continuous physical violence in order to present the emotion he feels about the human heart. A further point to be made, probably by the open-eyed optimist, is that Kent, the faithful friend, does accompany Lear upon the heath, and Cordelia does balance the cruelty of Goneril and Regan at the plausible ratio of two-to-one. One could scarcely consider King Lear a play in which it is affirmed that God's in His heaven and all's well with the world. Nor could one conceivably affirm that the poet was engaged in telling comforting lies about the human species. But the play is nevertheless a representation of life which can stand as a measure of what one means by the whole truth when one is confronted by such writers as Jeffers. Two other relevant touchstones may be mentioned in passing, Moby Dick, in which there is a similar regard for Nature, and the writing of Pascal in which the astronomical diminution of man is considered in its implication as to man's importance in the universe.

The mention of Shakespeare, however, may suggest a fundamental difficulty with the critical method which is being used. If the poet is examined by his ability to present the truth, and if many of his formal defects are attributed to emotions which spring from a distorted view of particular facts, then what is one to say when a ghost or witch appears in Shakespeare, or when in some respect the poet's substance is a response to beliefs about the world which the reader does not find acceptable? The problem of belief in poetry makes its inevitable re-appearance, like an unwanted cat. Without wishing to raise the whole subject, the answer here seems fairly plain. The predicament of Hamlet does not depend in the least upon the actuality of ghosts (a question about which there is no need to be dogmatic), and in general, most great poetry does not depend upon the truth of its philosophical beliefs, although it requires them as a structure and a framework. But in Jeffers the beliefs about the world and the consequent emotions are the substance of the poetry, and the observations of land and sea and the narrative characters are merely the means, which reverses the relationship. In the Inferno, the Christian system helps to make possible a vision of human beings; in Jeffers, the human beings are there to make possible a vision of Jeffers' ideas of the world. Hence the literary critic is pressed to judge the ideas and the emotion which they occasion. It might also seem that Jeffers is being taken too literally, that his avowed rejection of humanity is "really" a subliminal disguise; and his hatred of cities might be understood as a social reaction. But in Jeffers, as opposed to other poets, it is impossible to make such a translation without ceasing to be a literary critic and becoming biographer, psychoanalyst, or sociologist. The substance of the poetry is his emotion about humanity and the wide world. The poet's business is to see, by means of words, and we can only judge him by what he presents as seen.

One is permitted to adopt any belief, attitude, or emotion that especially pleases one. But when one begins to act upon belief or emotion, and in particular when one begins to write poetry, a million more considerations, in addition to the few already mentioned, intrude of necessity. When one attempts to write narrative poems about human beings, the obligation of a sufficient knowledge of human beings intervenes, the necessity of a definite measure of rhythm descends upon one, and literature as an organic tradition enters upon the scene. Jeffers undoubtedly has a keen sense for the landscape and seascape he writes about and he is by no means without a knowledge of human beings. But on the basis of detesting humanity, the natural tendency is to turn away from a strict view of human beings as they actually are and to regard a concern with literature, technically, as being at best unnecessary, at worst a hindrance. The result is that the characters Jeffers writes about tend to become repetitive abstractions, and the long line of Jeffers' verse is corrupted repeatedly by the most gauche inconsistencies of rhythm. The causal sequence seems indubitable. The poet has decided that the emotion he feels is strong enough to justify any manipulation of characters; and the breaches of consistency in his rhythm appear to him to be merely a "literary" or formal matter:

and the poet is breaking away from literature as well as humanity in his poems, which we are asked to accept as literature, and in which we are presumably presented with humanity.

Stephen Spender (review date 1963)

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SOURCE: A review of The Beginning and the End and Other Poems, in Chicago Tribune Magazine of Books, May 12, 1963, p. 3.

[In the review below, Spender extols the "ruggedness" and "grandeur" of Jeffers's poetry but disagrees with the poet's "abdication" of human consciousness.]

Robinson Jeffers lived in vast scenery opposite the vast Pacific on the coast of Monterey where he built with his own hands a tower in which he lived. His poetry is rugged as the hills of that landscape, with lines ragged as that ocean, and the spirit of the poet is most often likened in his poetry to a hawk. On the whole it provokes awe and enthusiasm, but it is not poetry to live with, because it lacks intimacy.

It is like a net with too wide a mesh which only catches the most cosmic experiences and the most ultimate feelings. Most of us, altho we may have such feelings, live most of our lives experiencing and feeling thru a smaller mesh, which is the scale of our own bodies, families, occupations. We do not live on rocky cliffs, under vast skies, and over great oceans. We do not act like hawks.

Death, however, is both an extreme and a universal situation, and these last poems of Jeffers, [in The Beginning and the End and Other Poems], in which he is largely concerned with his own approaching death, in which he discovers a metaphor for the approaching end of the world, imminent as a result of nuclear fission, are extremely moving. They may well be his best poetry.

They are written by a poet who remains completely in command of his own technical and intellectual resources. Jeffers shows an ability to express ideas which are derived from reading modern scientific works, which is very rare in modern poetry.

Lines such as these about the "volcanic earth" are both exact and exhilarating:

The view of life expressed here is tragic, heroic, but ul timately rather detached. Jeffers tends to see the earth in relation to the cosmos, history in relation to infinity. Destruction and defeat, indeed civilization itself, therefore, are not very important. What matters is affirmation, courage, a gesture of cosmic defiance:

I happen to disagree with this, because I think that consciousness is what gives significance to the universe, and for this reason it is not valuable to measure or weigh immensity against the littleness and brevity of man.

Without consciousness time and space would be meaningless, and meaning is what we exist for. Until it is proved that there is a super-consciousness inhabiting some other planet, the heroics of a poet such as Jeffers merely recommend the abdication of consciousness. But even if one rejects hisphilosophy, these poems confront one with final issues to choose among. They have imaginative grandeur.

James Dickey (review date 1964)

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SOURCE: A review of The Beginning and the End and Other Poems, in Poetry, Vol. 103, No. 5, February, 1964, pp. 316-24.

[Dickey was an American poet and critic. In the excerpt below, he suggests that despite Jeffers's conspicuous flaws, he is a poet of greatness and power.]

Now that Robinson Jeffers is dead, his last poems have been issued, culled from hand-written manuscripts by his sons and his secretary, Though some of the pieces [in The Beginning and the End and Other Poems] were obviously left unfinished—there are several different ones which have the same passages in them—it is worth noting that they are actually no more or less "finished" than the poems Jeffers published in book after book while he lived. This is typical of Jeffers' approach to poetry, I think; he had, as someone remarked of Charles Ives, "the indifference of greatness." Yet now, in some fashion, we must come to terms with Jeffers, for he somehow cannot be dismissed as lesser men—and no doubt better poets—can. As obviously flawed as he is, Jeffers is cast in a large mold; he fills a position in this country that would simply have been an empty gap without him: that of the poet as prophet, as large-scale philosopher, as doctrine-giver. This is a very real, very old and honorable function for poets, and carries with it a tone that has, but for Jeffers, not been much heard among us, in our prevailing atmosphere of ironic shrugs and never-too-much. Admittedly a great deal of bad poetry in all ages has been written from such a stance, but that does not invalidate the idea, or take from Jeffers the credit that is duly his. Surely he provides us with plenty to carp about: his oracular moralizing, his cruel and thoroughly repellent sexuality, his dreadful lapses of taste when he seems simply to throw back his head and howl, his slovenly diction, the eternal sameness of his themes, the amorphous sprawl of his poems on the page. The sheer power and drama of some of Jeffers' writing, however, still carries the day despite everything, and this is not so much because of the presence of the Truth that Jeffers believes he has got hold of but because of what might be called the embodiment of that Truth: Jeffers' gorgeous panorama of big imagery, his galaxies, suns, seas, cliffs, continents, mountains, rivers, flocks of birds gigantic schools of fish, and so on. His Truth is hard to swallow—try looking at your children and drawing comfort from Jeffers' "inhumanism"—but one cannot shake off Jeffers' vision as one can the carefully prepared surprises of many of the neatly packaged stanzas we call "good poems"; it is too deeply disturbing and too powerfully stated. One thinks, uneasily, that the prophetic tone may be more than just a tone, remembering that Jeffers was telling us long before Hiroshima that the ultimate and of science, of knowledge and tool-using, is not comfort and convenience (how he despises such ideals!) but unrelieved tragedy. It is extraordinarily strange how the more awful and ludicrous aspects of the romic age have come to resemble Jeffers' poems. In a film like Mondo Cane, for example, one sees the dying sea-turtles, disoriented by the Bikini blasts until they cannot even find the Pacific Ocean, crawling inland to die in the desert, in the blazing sand they think is water, and the hundreds-of-miles-long trail of dead butterflies, the seabirds trying to hatch atom-sterilized eggs, and one thinks compulsively of Jeffers. Few visions have been more desperate than his, and few lives organized around such austere principles. It seems to me that we must honor these things, each in his own way.

Robert Boyers (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: "A Sovereign Voice: The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers," in Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, Winter, 1969, pp. 487-507.

[In the following essay, Boyers provides a reexamination of Jeffers's poetry, focusing in particular on "the ferocity of the critical reaction against Jeffers" since the late 1940s.]

A generation of critics and observers has agreed to bestow upon Robinson Jeffers the gravest sentence the critical imagination can conceive, the conclusion of ultimate irrelevance for both his life and his work. And though Jeffers, dead now since 1962, never gave a damn about either criticism or the critical imagination, nor for that matter about responses to his own poetry, those of us who continue to find in Jeffers a good deal to study and admire ought to speak out a little in his behalf from time to time. The propitiatory ritual need not always be wholly gratuitous, after all, and one has reason to fear that the inevitable decline in Jeffers's reputation may not contain within it the seed of some future revival.

Already the figure of Jeffers as a kind of gloomy apparition haunting the parapets of the stone tower he built and lived in has come to assume nearly mythical dimensions, and his isolation from the movements, whether artistic or political, of his time has been too easily attributed to savage intemperance or to idiotic philosophic ideologies relating to the doctrine of inhumanism. Indeed, more than any other poet of the modernist or post-modernist periods, Jeffers has served as a whipping boy to a variety of well-placed poets and critics who have found it stimulating to deal with him exclusively on their terms, though never on his. Thus, for Mr. Yvor Winters, Jeffers's poetry presented a simple spectacle of "unmastered and self-inflicted hysteria" working upon concerns that were "essentially trivial." For Randall Jarrell, an infinitely more gifted and judicious writer than Winters, Jeffers's poetry demonstrated that "the excesses of modernist poetry are the necessary concomitants of the excesses of late-capitalist society," and what is more set up "as a nostalgically awaited goal the war of all against all." For Kenneth Rexroth, whose championing of the most defiantly mediocre talents on the West Coast is notorious and might at least have extended to a major talent like Jeffers's, his poetry is "shoddy and pretentious," with "high-flown statements indulged in for their melodrama alone."

There is no single source for such misstatements and half-truths, and it would seem clear that any correctives would lie in the direction of Jeffers's verse itself, illuminated in part by the interesting documents that have been recently brought to light. And in turning to Jeffers and his work it is also useful to acknowledge that distinctions must be made and retained, in discussing what is fine and what is not, for Jeffers wrote a great deal in the course of a professional career that spanned fifty years, and he was not always a meticulous nor especially prudent craftsman. Clearly he did not linger over brief passages to the degree Ezra Pound might have urged him to, and he felt none of theurgency to revise and refine his work that is characteristic of modern poets as diverse as Eliot and Marianne Moore. Not that Jeffers is crude, or simple-minded, for he is not. Jeffers knew his gift and trusted his ability to give it adequate expression. As to whether that expression was sometimes more than adequate, he would leave it to others more anxious about such questions than he to decide.

In fact, the ferocity of the critical reaction against Jeffers that really began to set in after the end of World War II is in certain respects explicable in terms of the adulatory sympathies his earlier verse inspired in a number of people who might have been expected to know better. One of Jeffers's most consistent admirers, Mark Van Doren, in the foreword to Jeffers's Selected Letters, concludes with the line: "Homer and Shakespeare. In what more fitting company could we leave him?" Such conjunctions are not likely to sit well with more balanced observers of our poetry, and there is no doubt that Jeffers was frequently embarrassed by attempts to claim more for his achievement than it could realistically support. No doubt there is in Jeffers's best work a peculiarly sovereign quality, peculiar in our time at least, an ability to make large statements on large questions with little of the customary qualification and caution we have come to accept as almost obligatory in our serious literature. Only Jeffers's concerns are so much less varied, the range of his poetic devices so limited by contrast with Eliot's and Yeats's and Auden's, the generosity of his commitments so restricted by his fear of excessive involvement with other human beings as reflected in his poetry and in personal documents. Even in the case of Jeffers's characters in the long narratives, which would seem to confer some degree of similitude with Homeric figures, his creations do not really warrant such a comparison, for the memorable characters are largely maniacal, gripped by obsessions that never really evoked what Jeffers thought they would. Unable clearly to distinguish his own views from those of his characters in ambitious works like The Women at Point Sur, perhaps because he never fully considered the long-range implications of his sentiments and avowals, Jeffers could do no more than "look grim" when confronted by articulate critics of his narratives, "and assure them that my hero was crazy but I am not." The Homeric perspective can by no means be equated with such a muddle.

In a way it is unfortunate that Jeffers wrote any long narratives at all, for none succeed, and for reasons that need hardly be elaborated in detail. Structurally, they are sound enough, but the texture of these poems is swollen by effusions of philosophizing and by attempts to impose representative signification on characters and actions which are so extraordinary as to be either ludicrous or simply shocking. Not that any serious reader is going to rush shrieking from the room at the mention of a little incest at a time when every perversion has been relieved by repetition and familiarity of its capacity to extract from readers even a bit of a chill. What is shocking in Jeffers's narratives, from "Tamar" through the later poems, is the author's contention of symptomatic and representative status for the perverse obsessions of his characters. Obviously the single-mindedness of Jeffers's pursuit of his themes in the long poems ought to dispel any notion that he indulged his fantasies in the interests of melodrama alone, as Rexroth claimed. Jeffers simply thought he had hit upon a fruitful means for engaging the most profound problem he could imagine: the relationship of the individual to his time, and the uses and limitations of human freedom.

Only "Roan Stallion" among Jeffers's narratives would seem to provide the consistently varied texture that is requisite in a long poem, but even here one finds it difficult to accept Jeffers at his own estimate, and in the terms of his advocates. While the entire poem is powerful, and not at all absurdas some have claimed, the whole fails to sustain particular elements in the imagery. The magnificent evocation of the roan stallion as a symbol of male potency is quite as fine in its way as D. H. Lawrence's comparable use of horses in his novel The Rainbow, published ten years before Jeffers's poem. But the eroticism in these passages of "Roan Stallion" is not clearly related to the basic thrust of the poem, which cannot be taken to be an indictment of male potency in general. If, as Jeffers wrote in a letter, "the woman fell in love with the stallion because there was no one else she could fall in love with," why is her attraction to the horse evoked in literally sexual terms? Unabashed sexuality the woman had had a good deal of, and there was no reason for her to be drawn to the horse for more of the same. Familiarity with Jeffers's universe, with the universe created by his many poems, suggests that the stallion was to call to mind qualities quite distinct from pure sexuality, though related, and yet these qualities are never sufficiently identified. The figure refuses to yield its latent connotations, and is distinguished by an opacity that characterizes the image rather than the symbol. In this respect Jeffers's failure has a good deal in common with much of the narrative poetry produced in the Romantic period. In each there is a strong lyrical element which calls into question the poet's center of interest, and the consequent interest of readers. While the structure of the work naturally tends to focus attention on the unfolding of events in the phenomenal world, the poet's interest seems always elsewhere, in the emotions that give rise to action and in abstract conceptions of fate and will. Poets find themselves more immediately and intimately involved in their characters than they ought to be in narrative poems, unable to decide where their creations begin and they leave off. W. H. Auden has lately described Byron's failure in poems like Childe Harold in such terms, and post-Romantic critics like Bradley have been similarly concerned with these matters.

In short, then, for a number of reasons, Jeffers devoted a great deal of his time and energy to the cultivation of a sub-genre, narrative poetry, to which his gifts were not especially adaptable. What is also distressing, though, is that the attention Jeffers has received has been so disproportionately weighted in the direction of these failed narratives, and that his stock has fallen so badly as a result. It is as though there had been a tacit agreement among all influential parties that Jeffers's shorter poems should be looked upon as nothing more than adjunct to the narratives, perhaps even as something less, as filler for the volumes his publishers issued with remarkable regularity for so many years. As it is, Jeffers's short poems, many of them rather lengthy by standards of the conventional lyric, will fill an enormous volume when they are collected, and an impressive volume it will be, for at his best Jeffers could blend passion and restraint, image and statement, contempt and admiration, as few poets of any time have been able to, and often with a music so ripe and easy that it is able to impress itself upon our senses without our ever remarking its grace and majesty, its sureness of touch. How better to know what we mean when we speak of such qualities than to locate them in those poems whose perfection of form and control of tone set them apart from the rest of the poet's work? I would select the following as representative of Jeffers at his best, in an order I might recommend to a skeptical and rather hard-nosed student whom I especially wanted Jeffers to reach: "Ossian's Grave," "The Broadstone," "The Low Sky," "Antrim," "A Little Scraping," "November Surf," "Hurt Hawks," "Fire on the Hills," "Ante Mortem," "Post Mortem," "Credo," "Rearmament," "Haunted Country," "Return," "The Treasure," "Practical People," "The Maid's Thought," "To the Stone-Cutters," "The Cruel Falcon."

No doubt I have neglected someone's favorites in drawing up such a list, but consensus is not what matters here. I am sure that responsible arguments might be made for poems like "The Purse Seine" and "Shine, Perishing Republic," which have been frequently anthologized, or for a sobering longer poem like "Hellenistics," so earnestly extolled by Brother Antoninus; but each of these has a ponderousness that is somehow too reminiscent of the longer poems, an indulgence of the explicit statement that runs against the grain of the hard, oblique quality we are given to demand of the poetry we admire. Of course there are many fine things in many of the poems I have rejected, if we may use so strong a word: one thinks of the weaving of exclamations in and out of "The Purse Seine," the parallelisms binding the otherwise loosely flowing, open-ended line structures, the colorful images sheathed in the poet's wonder, quietly unfolding a vision of entrapment that is to stand in analogy to our own:

How starkly these fine lines contrast with Jeffers's attempts to draw his analogy, with the crude simplifications of a political and social reality that leads to confusion and a blunting of those energies the poem had quietly released: "I cannot tell you how beautiful the city appeared, and a little terrible. / I thought, we have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now / There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated / From the strong earth." What can one say to all this as poetry, except that it is disastrous to use inflated rhetorical expressions of the sort represented in this sampling without some sense of irony, of the disparity between the more poetic language one familiarly relies upon and the gross sociologisms Jeffers would permit to roughen the texture of the verse.

There is, we have been given to understand, a certain ignominy readily to be associated with the use of the term "poetic language," and it ought perhaps to be justified in connection with a poet like Jeffers who has been accused of shoddy versification and pretentious inflation of imagery and rhetoric. Clearly, it would seem, what is shoddy can never be poetic, since what is poetic is always to some degree conscious, restrained, elegant, and delivers up its meanings in terms that are pleasurable wholly apart from what is being delivered or represented. The experienced reader of poetry will usually have little difficulty in distinguishing what is shoddy from what is not. In the matter of pretension there may be a good deal of difficulty that will be less securely resolved. Pretension, after all, has to do with qualities that may be largely extrinsic to the poetry itself, with an attitude or pose that may be justly or unjustly presumed to have dictated not only the broad contours of a poem, but its particular words and images. Often, one may safely predict, thepresumption of general attitudes by readers will have little to do with what actually inheres in a given body of work, but will be used to explain or to justify an antipathy which may have more to do with the limitations of a reader than with the failings of a poet. Surely Yvor Winters's abstract identification of mysticism with muddle is fundamentally responsible for his inability to achieve even an elementary understanding of Jeffers, whose poetry evinces a materialism that is distinctly removed from the kind of mysticism to which Winters so objected. Given his constitutional incapacity to apprehend as genuine any perspective on human life other than his own, Winters found in Jeffers's work a muddle, and it was inevitable that he should then seek to wither his adversary by the positing of mysticism as the source of his defection from authenticity.

But as to the question of what does and does not constitute poetic language, one may concede that critics of Jeffers have on occasion found fruitful grounds for argument. There is a good deal of pretension in the narratives, where prophetic rant frequently mounts to a kind of hysteria that has very little to do with the appeal poetry is to make to our senses. John Crowe Ransom has written that "the poetic consideration of the ethical situation is our contemplation and not our exercise of will, and therefore qualitatively a very different experience: knowledge without desire." I am not certain that I like the Aristotelian antithesis between knowledge and desire, but Mr. Ransom's formularization will do for our purposes. What is pretentious in the work of art, Mr. Ransom's statement suggests, is its attempt to be more than it can be, to do where its function is primarily to be. Which is not to say that a work of art, in particular the poem, cannot represent a position, take sides, for obviously it can, but if it does it must do so almost in spite of itself. What is important about it is the metamorphic flexibility which facilitates the passage of our imagination into and out of a number of conditions of being, for without such passage, and without real variety, there will be no tension, and no intensity of concern on our part. One thinks of Keats's famous letter in which he describes the poetical character: "it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing." That is to say, the poet is conceived in terms of a neutrality that permits him to assume qualities of the objects he contemplates.

What does such speculation lead us to conclude about those elements in Jeffers's work which have been vigorously assailed? Again, distinctions must be kept in mind. In what sense can Jeffers's work be said to suffer from pretension? It is pretentious when it ceases to control those elements of will that stand behind any creative act, elements which for the most part cannot be permitted to govern the nature or intensity of the poet's expression. Only the precise materials the poet uses can legitimately determine the intensity of expression and the poet's posture, for in its own terms the poem posits a world of its own, a word-world, if you will, which stands not so much in imitation of the phenomenal world we inhabit, as it stands merely in analogy to it. Given such a relationship, degrees of intensity and tonal qualities of a poem cannot be said to issue legitimately from contemplation of a reality which is not that poem's authentic reality. We take for examination a brief poem from Jeffers's final volume, entitled "Unnatural Powers":

The poem has the merit of focusing in brief compass what may be said of Jeffers's failures in a great many short poems. The poet here stands not within his poem, as Keats would have had him, not dissolved in the terms of his saying; nor does he stand beside his materials, gently or fiercely ordering, arranging them as Wallace Stevens would characteristically reveal himself handling the creatures of his own imagination; nor does Jeffers even stand here above his materials, for to stand above would be to retain some manner of relation. Jeffers here stands without the substance of his poem, not above or aloof, but apart. The words are connected by a will that is in no way implicated in the words themselves, so that the ordering, the structuring, of sentiments cannot be judged except by reference to that will, which we can have no way of knowing. The poem calls neither for understanding, nor for contemplation, but for simple assent, for a process of suspension in which the reader ceases to be himself, and gives himself wholly, not to the poem, but to the poet. To abandon one's self-possession temporarily, as to suspend disbelief, is to participate in a ritual which calls upon our instincts of generosity in the interests of a pleasure and enlightenment that are ideally to repay our gesture. The work of art requests, as it were implicitly, that we be generous in the interests of our senses. At his worst, and even to some extent when he is not writing badly at all, Jeffers insists that we agree to heed what he says though there be nothing in it for us, not even the extension or stimulation of our imagination. Utterly without art, and without sympathy either for us or for the materials he manipulates, Jeffers coldly mocks our foibles, our dreams, our delusions. The ideological content of Jeffers's fine poetry here hardens into a mannered response to experience, so that no valid experience is lived through in the poem. What we have is a system of response, but nothing valid or poetically real to respond to. Confronted by such poems as "Unnatural Powers," we can have no alternative but to speak of arrogance and pretension.

How much less we are disposed to object to Jeffers's poetry when he reminds us of his mortality. We remain wary of prophecy in general, and of false prophets in particular, but we consent nonetheless to attend to Jeffers's prophetic rigors on occasion, perhaps even to be a little moved by the spectacle of a man obviously concerned for a purity of spirit, an integrity so hard for any man to come by. We are moved, for example, by "Shine, Perishing Republic," a poem too familiar to quote. It is not one of Jeffers's best things, but there is a fine tolerance for humankind in this poem that is attractive and that we respond to repeatedly. The theme of the poem is, after all, not so very new or terrible, having to do with the corruption of institutionalized life in the modern world, the tendency of mass culture to absorb protest and distinction and to heighten vulgarity in its citizens. Yeats had no less to say of such matters than Jeffers, and one need only think of those unbelievably awful poems of Lawrence's on the beastly bourgeoisie to realize how conventional among recent poets these concerns of Jeffers's have been. In fact, what is most responsible for the effectiveness Jeffers's poem has is the relatively understated quality it shares with some of the leaner lyrics that are not as well known. It is as though Jeffers were here dealing with realities too long pondered and accepted to fight over, and the assimilation of these contemporary realities to the perspective of eternal recurrence, ripeness and decay, allows Jeffers to speak of them with a calmness we admire. The poet's accents are firm, rather than petulantly defiant, as he counsels his children on the course he would have them follow: "Corruption / Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there are left the mountains." There is something almost plaintive in those words "there are left the mountains," the procession of weak accents falling towards the final unaccented syllable, suggesting the encouragement of an option that is to be embraced only after others have been definitively abandoned, as they had been perhaps too casually by Jeffers himself.

What "Shine, Perishing Republic" lacks is a richness of sound and of metaphor. The language of the poem is not very interesting at all, dealing rather broadly in abstractions which yet do not confound, but which evoke, really, only other abstractions. If America is settling, as the poet claims, "… in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire, / And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens …," we can be expected to feel nothing more than modest dismay, for our sympathies have not been engaged by anything more than an issue, nicely stated, but hardly made manifest. And nowhere does the poem improve upon this initial evocation, the poet settling for modest effects, again largely concerned with assent rather than with intensifying our experience of a reality we are presumed to recognize as pertinent to our own.

I have no doubt whatever that Jeffers was more than aware of his inclination towards prophetic abstraction, towards the hollow exclamation patently ringing with WISDOM, as he was aware of a solemnity in his own demeanor that could degenerate into sententiousness in the poetry. But a brief sonnet like Jeffers's "Return" is so perfect in its way that to read it, again and again, is to forget Jeffers's faults, and to wonder how a hard-boiled materialist often abused for the purple pride of his verse could manage to sound so much like Whitman, and yet like the Jeffers who was always so different from Whitman.

A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will go down to the lovely Sur Rivers
And dip my arms in them up to the shoulders.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders.
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky,
The insect clouds that blind our passionate hawks
So that they cannot strike, hardly can fly.
Things are the hawk's food and noble is the mountain, Oh noble
Pico Blanco, steep sea-wave of marble.

Here at last is a poetry of sensation, of touch, in which form is meaning and substance, in which a restless and mobile imagery is the very whole and perfect embodiment of emotion. Here the poet feels not about his materials, but into and through them—things are his message, and as the poet thinks things he makes a poem. He has seen that to the degree that he thinks primarily thoughts he will cease to be a poet, and become a philosopher, a spokesman, a critic, anything but a poet. Does it matter that there is a minimum of paraphrasable content in such a poem, as Winters argued against Jeffers's output generally? I think not, for then, what would we do with a Herrick, or with a lyricist like Hardy, were we forced to consider the content of a poem as the quantity of ideas to be gathered there-from? And indeed, what more is Jeffers saying but "no more thoughts"—not absolutely and forever, but now, when we embody a poem, allow an image to course through and work upon our sensibilities, when we would be reverently humble, and grateful to life for what it is, which is more than we usually deserve. How marvelous Jeffers's image of thoughts as a swarm of "mouthless May-flies," and we need hardly remind ourselves how often our poets have railed against the intellect that darkens the possibilities of human feeling, that distracts and weakens both passion and pleasure. Are such commonplaces banal? Not as Jeffers has them in "Return" and in his better poems, for Jeffers here proceeds through an intuition that is more than an assertion of will. He is not a poet of the world, but of a world he knew well, a world partial at best, but firmly gripped and eagerly loved, and his ability to make it known and real for others is a measure of his success as a poet.

Who among us that has read Jeffers with devotion, though critically, will not confess to an admiration for a man who could so charge a created universe with a network of images so consistently developed, so densely woven into the very fabric of the verse? Who more earnestly than Jeffers has confronted the frailty of our lives, and engaged more desperately the attempt to reorient our customary perspectives, to take us beyond pain into praise and wonder? Jeffers knew all too well how men could suffer, and did, and he knew why they suffered, and his awareness rarely failed to leave him either angry or amused, or both, for he felt that most human suffering was the result of unwarranted expectations, foolish illusions. His entire career was dedicated to the chastisement of a pity he felt, and knew others felt, for he did not believe that pity was an essentially human quality, though for the most part peculiar to our kind. He felt that pity, and the suffering it often implied, was a product not of human emotion, but of human civilization, and with this he had no sympathy at all. Against this civilization, the pride of western man with its "little empty bundles of enjoyment," Jeffers set the figure of the hawk, the eagle, the falcon, the vulture, predators all, and cast them winging alternately amidst towering rocks and seething waters, landscapes of permanence and of violent energy. The ambience of Jeffers's poems is characteristically stark, though rarely barren, and one has in them a sense of granitic harshness, as of objects tempered in a flame so blazing as to burn away all that is ephemeral and soft, and pitying, everything in a word that is simply and merely human. But Jeffers's poetry is neither antihuman, nor inhuman. It plainly works itself out within a system of values which includes much that is human, in terms of what we are capable of responding to at our most intense. As one would expect in a created universe of considerable density, though not of great complexity, there is a recurrence of specific symbols within the pervasive imagery of the poems, and a consequent cross-fertilization of meanings, so that we are presented a vision of experience that is everywhere interfused, a frame of reference that cuts across entire groups of poems. Everywhere meanings seem to beckon away beyond themselves, so that in Jeffers's finished works there is rarely an impression of a static quality, despite the weight of particular images.

Here is an irregular sonnet entitled "The Cruel Falcon," which ought to help us with some of the things we have been saying:

Contemplation would make a good life, keep it strict, only
The eyes of a desert skull drinking the sun,
Too intense for flesh, lonely
Exultations of white bone;
Pure action would make a good life, let it be sharp—
Set between the throat and the knife.
A man who knows death by heart
Is the man for that life.
In pleasant peace and security
How suddenly the soul in a man begins to die.
He shall look up above the stalled oxen
Envying the cruel falcon,
And dig under the straw for a stone
To bruise himself on.

With this extraordinary performance we move more securely into that created universe which we know with every accent as Jeffers's. The setting is harsh, the features of the landscape characteristic in the marmoreal coldness of their surfaces, the poetic energies intensely abiding in the carefully chiselled phrases. What we have here is not the movement and vitality of life, but of an art that enhances life by appropriating its features in the interests of a vision at once more passionate and more lovely than any vision of life itself. Here is not that looseness of texture which even discerning readers like Brother Antoninus have sought to legitimize in their defenses of Jeffers, for Jeffers knew that as a poet and as a man he could achieve liberation only through scrupulous concern for style, for form. There are no paradoxes in this mature vision, so finely wrought, no telling nuances to qualify the poet's commitment; but everything is precisely placed, distributed its proper weight, and there are elements of style so subtly woven into the poem's basic structure that they largely escape observation. Notice the delicacy with which Jeffers effects tense shifts in this poem, moving from the conditional into the hortatory, to the present indicative, to the future tense where he rests his case. It is a little triumph of the prophetic voice, urging without sinister overtones, stealthily proclaiming its insights without violence, for it has earned the privilege of prophecy by the substantiveness and accuracy of its representations in the course of the poem.

The language of "The Cruel Falcon" is, as we have intimated, perfectly accurate, and if this language is without that exotic strangeness we so admire in a Stevens, its dismissal of abstraction and of the commonplace routines of experience is impressive enough. And what precisely does Jeffers mean when he admonishes us to "keep it strict," to speculate on the contours of a "pure action," to abandon the "pleasant peace and security" that is the extinction of the soul? I do not know why critical observers have found it so difficult to explain these admonitions, why they have resorted to the interpretation of inhumanism to explain the work of a man all too frail, too human, and in his way enamored of a beauty our best men have long sought to capture and identify. Jeffers's concern in his poems is with the liberation of spirit from what is gross. Human flesh is gross, the conventions by which men cultivate the pleasures of flesh utterly ingenious and thoroughly destructive of alternative values. Jeffers's concern is with a resurrection of spirit out of the ashes of human display, a religious concern, and frequently expressed in terms that have their source in religious archetypes. The chastisement of flesh has, after all, been a staple feature of religious practice for any number of millennia, though Jeffers's extension of this tradition has its unique attributes. For Jeffers the God who creates and observes His universe cares not what we do, so long as we do it well, so long as life is clean and vibrant with energy and possibilities of renewal, so long as it is whole, sufficient unto itself like the rocks Jeffers loved to contemplate, like the white bone of the desert skull in his poem, freed of gross desire, liberated to "lonely exultations."

If Jeffers is truly a religious poet, he can be said to worship largely at the altar of art, for his resolution of the problems of spirit is really an aesthetic resolution, just as his politics, if he did indeed have a politics, is fundamentally determined by an aesthetic response to the world. Jeffers did not disparge human life but the ways in which human beings could destroy their world, and each other. There is nothing barbaric or fascistic about these lines from "November Surf," generated by the poet's disgusted observation of the summer refuse that litters the clean surfaces of his beloved shoreline, with its smoldering waves and granite promontories:

The earth, in her childlike prophetic sleep,
Keeps dreaming of the bath of a storm that prepares up the long coast
Of the future to scour more than her sea-lines:

The cities gone down, the people fewer and the hawks more numerous,
The rivers mouth to source pure; when the two-footed
Mammal, being someways one of the nobler animals, regains
The dignity of room, the value of rareness.

It is distressing that at this late date one should feel it necessary to defend such writing, when its intentions are so clear, and so fundamentally decent. Perhaps the crucial words in the passage are "childlike," "dignity," "rareness." Yeats would have understood Jeffers's meanings without any difficulty whatever, and though the Irish poet could speak in certain poems of "all hatred driven hence," and of the blight that is arrogance, he knew the value of passions bordering on violence, and of sudden purgation. And just as Yeats could speak of ceremonies of innocence, so Jeffers sanctifies the "childlike prophetic sleep" of the elemental, innocent in its contentment with the wholeness, the unity of all things. For Jeffers the cities of man, representing industrial civilization, are a violation, an index to the disharmony and spurious competitiveness that have always distinguished our species. In the perspective of Jeffers's poems, human life is a defilement of all that is dignified and whole, and we are to listen to him not because he says we should, but because the poetic manifestations of his vision are sufficient to his message. How easy it is to ridicule Jeffers, to parody his preference of a hawk to a man, but given the terms of his vision there is nothing in this to mock. For poetry is not a program, not a series of proposals which are literally to be carried over into the domain of normal human activity. Brother Antoninus has written eloquently on these matters: "We must not shut ourselves off from the archetypal sources in [an artist's] vision by virtue of [our] revulsion from their social consequences when attempted politically in our time." The poet "makes his vision permanent by virtue of its inherent aesthetic, which protects it from misapplication in the phenomenal world, because once it is translated into another idiom it vanishes."

Jeffers's exaltation of the hawk, then, is not an exaltation of a naked violence that will see the destruction of man by man, but an exaltation of nature, of need, of instinct. For Jeffers the instinct of the hawk is tolerable, even majestic, because it does not seek to aggrandize itself at the expense of creation—it strikes according to its need and within a framework that does not threaten the fundamental harmony of other things. Its rarity he saw as a quality intrinsic to its nature, associated also with its reasonable relationship to its surroundings. At the point where the environment could not support increasing numbers of the species, the species by a law intrinsic to its nature would cease to multiply: a matter not of will but of nature. How different is man, clamoring for a little space, killing for programs and ideologies. And anthropological investigations into the similarity of human and animal aggressions, explanations of territoriality as a fundamental impulse of all life, would have left Jeffers no less secure in his mounting of the distinction, for Jeffers's thesis was developed not as fact but as intuition. In the development of an ideal of what is beautiful and can authentically be meaningful to men, Jeffers's vision resists the disparagements of scientific critiques.

Jeffers does not succumb, it must be said, to pure aestheticism. His indictments of mass man, which is to say of man in our time, are not without a measure of conventionally human sentiment, and a number of the poems evoke a tension in which the resort to aestheticism is viewed as an element of necessity rather than of will or choice. The conflict in Jeffers is powerfully dramatized in the poem "Rearmament," a poem in whose broadly undulating rhythms and the sweep of its long line the very quality and substance of Jeffers's message is embodied and reflected:

These grand and fatal movements toward death: the grandeur of the mass
Makes pity a fool, the tearing pity
For the atoms of the mass, the persons, the victims, makes it seem monstrous
To admire the tragic beauty they build.
It is beautiful as a river flowing or a slowly gathering
Glacier on a high mountain rock-face,
Bound to plow down a forest, or as frost in November,
The gold and flaming death-dance for leaves,
Or a girl in the night of her spent maidenhood, bleeding and kissing.
I would burn my right hand in a slow fire
To change the future … I should do foolishly. The beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.

The rhetorical aspects of this poem are not so subdued as they might be, but a poem dealing with the disastrous currents of an entire civilization heading toward ruin need not apologize for a vocabulary that includes such terms as "fatal," "tearing pity," "monstrous," and "disastrous." It is a poem that teaches us a good deal about the function of art, or at least of an art that would transcend our sufferings and the evils we promote. It is an example of an art that through identification with the impersonal roots of all human behavior, of all activity in this universe, permits us to contemplate the reality of our foolishness and mortality without much pain, but with praise forming at the lips. Here, perhaps more clearly than in any other poem, Jeffers makes clear what we ought to have known even in his lesser work. To attribute, as Jeffers does, foolishness to the instinct to "burn my right hand in a slow fire / To change the future" is not to consign oneself to the perdition of the heartless, but to seek to forge out of futility a perspective in which futility can be relieved of its manifest failures, purified, rhythmically interpolated into a pattern in which it has meaning as part of that process that is life on this planet. The detachment that makes most great art possible is not heartless, nor is the distancing that is the process of the historical perspective, and that consigns to men the relative insignificance they deserve in the scheme of things, without its virtue. Throughout his career Jeffers tried to resolve the ambiguities of his vision in a direction that would take him further and further from concern with his fellows. How successful he was we can see in "Rearmament," with its persisting ambiguities and unresolved tensions. What is unmistakable, though, is the poet's steadfast refusal to counsel violence among men, and his ability to achieve a perspective wherein the violence men would and did commit could be made tolerable, in a way even absorbed into the universe as an element of necessity. It is nothing less than a tragic vision, and if Jeffers in his poetry could not sufficiently examine and evoke the larger potentialities of man within his limitations, as could a Yeats, he did at least project a vision worthy of our attention, and capable of giving pleasure. The felicities of Jeffers's poetry ought no longer to be denied, but received with gratitude. If he was not among our supreme poets, they have been few who were his equals.

William H. Nolte (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: "Robinson Jeffers Redivivus," in Georgia Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1978, pp. 429-34.

[In the essay below, Nolte surveys critical reception to Jeffers's work, concluding that after many years of suffering critical disdain, his reputation is once again on the rise.]

When Robinson Jeffers died in 1962 his reputation was probably at its lowest ebb in nearly forty years—since, to be precise, the publication (at his own expense) of Tamar and Other Poems (1924), a volume that at first seemed to have been stillborn. Through one of those happy accidents that now and again occur in the literary world the book was brought to the attention of various influential critics—notably, Mark Van Doren, James Rorty, and Babette Deutsch—who praised it so enthusiastically that a new and expanded edition, Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, followed a year later under the imprint of Boni and Liveright, then one of the most prestigious of American publishers. Few volumes of poetry in our history have been greeted with such ecstatic praise from important critics or have met with such demand by the reading public. H. L. Mencken expressed the consensus in the concluding remark of his brief review in the American Mercury: "Now that success has come to him at last, it seems to be solid and promises to be enduring." As book followed book (Jeffers was extremely prolific), that praise remained constant. I doubt that Dwight MacDonald surprised very many readers when, in a long two-part article in 1930, he called Jeffers the greatest poet America had yet produced, adding that he was not only "the most brilliant master of verse among contemporary poets, but his is also incomparably the broadest and most powerful personality." From such a pinnacle of renown there was no way to go but down.

Considering his rejection of all mass beliefs and faiths, his extraordinary individualism, and his abhorrence of all intrusions on his privacy, one might marvel that Jeffers gained so large an audience in the 1920's and 1930's, when he was featured on the cover of Time magazine (in 1932 with the publication of Thurso's Landing and Other Poems). At the time only T. S. Eliot, who now is in at least partial eclipse, offered competition for the laurel as our most important serious poet. In an article in Saturday Review of Literature (9 March 1935), Niven Busch marveled at the sale of Jeffers' books: "Although he has never written anything designed for a restful afternoon in a hammock, he has not, in the last nine years, written anything which sold less than six editions, and [Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems] zoomed through fourteen, and this month received the accolade of inclusion in the Modern Library." His manuscripts and the early editions of his books were then bringing higher prices than those of any other living poet.

After a sharp decline in popularity just before, during, and after World War II, Jeffers' stock has in recent years been on the rise again both at home and abroad. His out-of-print volumes, for example, are once more in great demand. One bookfinder (with House of Books, Ltd.) wrote me in 1966: "Jeffers books which a few years ago were found all over at fairly reasonable prices have suddenly disappeared and when available the prices have skyrocketed." New editions are appearing and then selling out almost at once. In the last ten years translations of his poetry have been very well received on the Continent, and especially in Iron Curtain countries, where he is probably the favorite American poet. (Incidentally, Ezra Pound's daughter translated some of his poetry into Italian.)

When Gilbert Highet wrote over twenty years ago that the critical neglect of Jeffers constituted the greatest shame in American letters, he expressed a view that I have heard numerous times since. Indeed, the constantly reiterated query about why Jeffers is not more read today makes me wonder if he isn't the most widely read "unread" poet in world literature. Poetry anthologies are once again giving him prominent place; critical studies are appearing almost yearly; and, as I said before, his out-of-print volumes are being reissued by different publishers. The times, I am convinced, are now catching up with what was most timeless in his verse. Even his political views, the central cause of his temporary decline, now seem much less radical than before. If the events that occasioned the verse are dated, the poetic personality or voice has upon it a dateless stamp.

While it is true that most major writers go through a "cooling period" following their days among us and are then resurrected within ten or twenty years, Jeffers' reputation went into eclipse while he was still living and writing. True enough, Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954) and the posthumous The Beginning and the End and Other Poems (1963) were well received, but they did little to send readers back to the earlier volumes or make them forget the causes for his being out of favor. That the causes for that decline were primarily political was, of course, apparent to readers at the time. Jeffers would doubtless have enjoyed the irony implicit in the fact that at least part of the newinterest in his work centers in the ideological and political views for which he was roundly condemned thirty years ago. As Jeffers put it in "The Bowl of Blood," written just before our entry into the European war: "The present is always a crisis; people want a partisan cry, not judgment." Needless to say, Jeffers gave the latter, for which he was summarily sent to Coventry. In brief, his reputation was a (temporary) casualty of the European holocaust. Had he remained silent, his renown would not have suffered. As it was, he spoke out loudly and clearly—both before and after the War. While lamenting, in a prefatory note to Be Angry at the Sun and Other Poems (1941), "the obsession with contemporary history that pins many of these pieces to the calendar, like butterflies to cardboard," Jeffers refused to remain silent before the gathering storm in Europe, which he knew would eventually involve America: "Poetry is not private monologue," he wrote in his note, "but I think it is not public speech either; and in general it is the worse for being timely…. Yet it is right that a man's views be expressed, though the poetry suffer for it. Poetry should represent the whole mind; if part of the mind is occupied unhappily, so much the worse. And no use postponing the poetry to a time when these storms may have passed, for I think we have but seen a beginning of them; the calm to look for is the calm at the whirlwind's heart." The "calm" that Jeffers found and reported was not at all to the liking of most of his fellows who were caught in the whirlwind.

If his poetry written just before the War made many people uneasy, that which he wrote during and just after the conflict caused critics, in self-defense actually, to attack him with an unprecedented fury. Not even Whitman received so much abuse during his long lifetime. To read today those old reviews that greeted The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948) is both a sobering and an enlightening experience. People wanted to believe that the war effort constituted a moral mission, a kind of twentieth-century Crusade against the forces of Darkness, and that, moreover, an allied victory would usher in a lasting period of peace on earth, if not necessarily good will among all men. For Jeffers to drop his stink bomb into the midst of those who were celebrating a "moral" victory and forgetting the dead was simply unforgivable. Even his publisher, Random House, attached to the book a pious disclaimer of his political views, and has since refused, in the face of a clear public demand, to keep his books in print. Only The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, published in 1938 and now it its fifteenth printing, and the Vintage paperback edition of Selected Poems (1965) are available from that publisher. Just recently, in James Shebl's In This Wild Water (1976), have we been given a full account of the editorial disagreements between poet and publisher—an account that leaves no doubt that the publisher behaved in a churlish fashion in suppressing various of the poems and insisting on changes in numerous others; but then one could hardly expect an entrepreneur like Bennett Cerf to comprehend a poet like Jeffers. Still, I cannot help feeling some sympathy for the publisher, who knew, after all, that The Double Axe was probably the most incendiary volume of verse ever printed on these shores; it was and is certainly the most scathing indictment of war and war-mongers ever composed by an American. That the first part ("The Love and the Hate") of the title poem drips with venom and hatred is certainly obvious to anyone who can read; that the second part ("The Inhumanist") is Jeffers' most serene, and even at times humorous, work was less obvious thirty years ago. It may be that the visceral clout of the first part prevented readers from understanding the poem in its entirety.

No doubt about it though: Jeffers was a good hater. Indeed, one of his most admirable qualities, to me at least, was his titanic hatred of buncombe, hypocrisy, and what Francis Bacon called the Idols of the Marketplace. One must go back to Swift, who also served time as a persona non grata, to findhis equal as master of vitriol. Jeffers knew, of course, that his long views—that is, his insistence on placing things in the context of history, coupled with his refusal to ascribe eternal significance to temporal affairs—would cause readers to misunderstand his work and/or condemn him for saying what only a few could bear to hear. He has in fact been misunderstood by many critics from the beginning of his career, or at least since the 1920's when his mature verse first appeared. I doubt that even Eliot has been the subject of so much errant interpretation, since once Eliot's manner has been plumbed his verse can be generally understood. Jeffers' difficulty rests not so much with any stylistic barrier he imposes between himself and the reader as it does with the philosophical content of the verse. In a word, Jeffers is disturbing, and we consciously or unconsciously seek to avoid that which is unsettling either by denying its validity or misrepresenting its meaning. He was, moreover, a bit inhuman: he refused to tell lies. And for that refusal he knew he would pay dearly, at least during his lifetime. He says as much in various of the "apologies" he wrote, perhaps most clearly in "Self-Criticism in February," published in 1937:

The bay is not blue but sombre yellow
With wrack from the battered valley, it is speckled with violent foam-heads
And tiger-striped with long lovely storm-shadows.
You love this better than the other mask; better eyes than yours
Would feel the equal beauty in the blue.
It is certain you have loved the beauty of storm disproportionately.

But the present time is not pastoral, but founded
On violence, pointed for more massive violence: perhaps it is not
Perversity but need that perceives the storm-beauty.
Well, bite on this: your poems are too full of ghosts and demons,
And people like phantoms—how often life's are—
And passion so strained that the clay mouths go praying for destruction
Alas, it is not unusual in life;
To every soul at some time. But why insist on it? And now
For the worst fault: you have never mistaken
Demon nor passion nor idealism for the real God.
Then what is most disliked in those verses
Remains most true. Unfortunately. If only you could sing
That God is love, or perhaps that social
Justice will soon prevail. I can tell lies in prose.

Jeffers believed, however, that future readers—the only readers, he insisted, that should concern the poet—would be better able to discern the meaning of his poetry than were his contemporaries, who were too caught up in the passions of the present and, above all, too imprisoned by anthropocentricism to analyze coldly either the world they inhabited or the values they professed. I think it beyond a peradventure that Jeffers was our most far-sighted poet; and nearly the whole of his work concerns the values that men hold, usually to their detriment and despair.

Now, thirty years after the flap over The Double Axe, a new edition has been made available by W. W. Norton, issued under the old Liveright imprimatur, along with two other long out-of-print volumes, The Women at Point Sur and Dear Judas and Other Poems, originally published by Liveright in 1927 and 1929 respectively. Identical in format and beautifully printed from the original plates on thick paper, the editions contain uniformly excellent editorial and critical contributions by William Everson, Robert J. Brophy, Bill Hotchkiss, and Tim Hunt. The reappearance after so many years of these three extraordinary volumes offers additional evidence that Jeffers is undergoing a renaissance greater than that of any other modern poet. His cooling period over, Jeffers now occupies a solid niche in the pantheon of great poets.

Terry Beers (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Robinson Jeffers and the Canon," in American Poetry, Vol. 5, No. 1, Fall, 1987, pp. 4-16.

[In the following essay, Beers examines the negative reaction to Jeffers's poetry among the New Critics and suggests that feminist and deconstructionist critical approaches may be more receptive to his work.]

The poetry of Robinson Jeffers has drawn from critics some of the most vicious—and arguably some of the most entertaining—condemnations afforded to any modern body of literature. At midcentury, R. P. Blackmur attempted to anticipate future critics by predicting which poets of the twentieth century then known to him would enjoy lasting reputations. He finds fault with a wide variety of writers, among them Auden, Empson, and Housman, only to conclude that "all of them are better than the flannel-mouthed inflation in the metric of Robinson Jeffers with his rugged rock-garden violence." Not many years later, Kenneth Rexroth added his voice to the vociferous anti-Jeffers crowd while reviewing Radcliffe Squires' source study of Jeffers, and again the condemnation is nothing it not extreme:

In my opinion Jeffers's verse is shoddy and pretentious and the philosophizing is nothing but posturing. His reworking of Greek tragic plots makes me shudder at their vulgarity, the coarsening of language, and the tawdriness of the paltry insight into the great ancient meanings.

But as all Jeffers scholars would agree, these are mild expressions of dislike, comparatively weak heirs to a tradition established two decades earlier by Yvor Winters, whose disdain for Jeffers' verse was as constant and abiding as the coastal headlands in which Jeffers set his narrative poetry. As Rexroth himself has noticed, Winters' attacks were the most devastating in modern criticism, helping to push Jeffers' reputation—then at its height—into a steady decline.

Winters poisonous antipathy first emerged in reviews of Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929) and Thurso's Landing and Other Poems (1932). Of the former, Winters claimed the work had "no quotable lines, save possibly the last three, which are, however, heavy with dross." Of the latter, he claimed that the writing could hardly be equalled for "clumsiness and emptiness," a claim that led him to a characteristically unequivocal judgment: "The book is composed almost wholly of trash." Winters' invective was not limited to reviews, of course, and his disdain for Jeffers' verse found expression again in an essay "The Experimental School in American Poetry":

The Women at Point Sur [1927] is a perfect laboratory of Mr. Jeffers' philosophy and a perfect example of his narrative method. Barclay, an insane divine, preaches Mr. Jeffers' religion, and his disciples, acting upon it, become emotional mechanisms, lewd and twitching conglomerations of plexuses, their humanity annulled.

As Squires has wryly observed, "It is impossible to improve on Winters' diction when he is inspired by indignation."

Of course these condemnations were no more extreme than the praise of some of the most influential reviewers of the time, including Mark Van Doren, who said of Tamar (1924), "Few [volumes] are as rich with the beauty and strength which belong to genius alone." Many of Jeffers' early critics were moved by his compelling imagery and the depth of his philosophic conviction, intangible qualities which gave Jeffers his "power." Harriet Monroe, though by no means an enthusiastic admirer, claimed that Jeffers was nevertheless a "poet of extraordinary power." Granville Hicks, reviewing Thurso's Landing, named the same quality: "There is, one cannot deny, a kind of validity in this and all of Jeffers's poems; such power was not born of self-deceit." Babette Deutsch found it in Solstice and Other Poems (1935): "The poem which opens Jeffers' latest volume restates his familiar themes, with no loss of power, and with the additional interest of a greater technical variety." And Van Doren, while offering only qualified praise of Point Sur, carefully reports: "I have read it with thrills of pleasure at its power and beauty." Whatever the qualities of Jeffers' verse, one must evidently agree with Rolfe Humphries' claim that Jeffers "either knocks you or leaves you cold," a claim that on the surface explains much about Jeffers' critics: Winters was left practically freezing, while other critics, both before and since, have fallen like tenpins.

Extreme critical disagreements like these invite our attention not only for what they reveal about particular works, but also for what they reveal about the critical environment in which they are expressed, the values and procedures by which critics make and defend their judgments, and as a result, the question of whether or not particular writers are widely read within the academy. These are central concerns for Jeffers scholars, especially if they are to have comprehensive answers to two fundamental questions. First, why isn't Jeffers' poetry more respected and more often taught within the academy, especially since some influential critics recognize its extraordinary power? Second, will the academy eventually bestow the respect that it has so far stubbornly withheld?

These two questions presuppose the assumption that Jeffers' work draws scant critical attention, and at first glance such an assumption seems dangerous. In 1978 William Nolte mused, "The constantly reiterated query why Jeffers is not more often read today makes me wonder if he it not the most widely read 'unread' poet in world literature." Earlier, Bill Hotchkiss had pointed to a flurry of activity in the seventeen years following the publication of Rexroth's "decline of the poet" article—the book-length studies of Jeffers' work, the reissue of some Jeffers volumes, and the publication of Jeffers' selected correspondence—to support his assertion that "someone is reading Robinson Jeffers." And in 1976 Robert Brophy expressed the cautious hopes of Jeffers critics by noting a significant increase in Jeffers dissertations and articles since the mid-sixties and remarking upon the passing of a generation of biased or hostile critics.

The regeneration of Jeffers scholarship in the sixties and seventies, moreover, seems to have established a receptive environment for continuing scholarship in the present decade. A glance through those numbers of the Robinson Jeffers Newsletter published in the last six years reveals that scholars continue to serve Jeffers' poetry by publishing hitherto unpublished correspondence, checklists, and notes of bibliographical and biographical interest; that Stanford University Press has contracted for the Complete Works; and that work has begun on at least one scholarly biography. Articles and dissertations about Jeffers' work continue to appear; Cambridge University Press recently published Robert Zaller's Freudian study of Jeffers' poetry, Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers; and, of course, there are the celebrations and scholarly work planned to coincide with the centenary of Jeffers' birth in 1987. Robinson Jeffers is being read, but how much and by whom?

According to notes in RJN, the first five years of this decade have produced only four dissertations on or dealing with Robinson Jeffers, and in three of these studies, Jeffers is only one of two or more poets being compared under a general rubric such as "long narrative poems" or "the problem of rationalism." Because of their scope, these dissertations may indeed serve Jeffers scholarship by flagging the attention of scholars who otherwise take no notice of a Jeffers dissertation. Even so, the relatively small number of recent Jeffers dissertations leaves unfulfilled the optimism felt by earlier critics.

The first of the two questions I posed above—why isn't the poetry of Robinson Jeffers more respected by the academy?—can now be seen in more complicated ways, for as I have shown, the reputation of Robinson Jeffers languishes despite ongoing scholarship sympathetic to Jeffers' poetry and despite the passing of the hostile critics to which Brophy has alluded. Hotchkiss offers a partial answer, conjecturing that critics like Rexroth have done little more than follow the lead of their fire-breathing predecessors and echo their judgements. But this explanation—positing a sort of critical inertia whereby opinions set in motion are not easily deflected—seems inadequate when we realize that not only has a generation of hostile critics passed, but those critics largely represented a mode of critical perception that in recent years has been challenged, some believe overthrown.

I am referring, of course, to the New Criticism, that movement of critics dominating English studies in the middle decades of this century. There is no question that these critics are responsible for the neglect of Jeffers' poetry by the academy: Alex Vardamis' bibliography shows that many influential New Critics—for example, R. P. Blackmur, Robert Penn Warren, and Yvor Winters—condemned Jeffers' poetry, while others demonstrated their indifference through silence. The only influential New Critic to offer a sympathetic opinion is Allen Tate, who refers to Jeffers in familiar terms as "a poet of great power."

Although the approaches of these critics differed, they collectively strived for an almost scientific objectivity in order to isolate poems—verbal artifacts serving as the practical objects of literary study—from a host of correlative matters, including the specific intentions of their authors and the affective responses of their readers. Thus despite their internecine differences, the New Critics actively sought a common goal. Cleanth Brooks, with characteristic common sense, puts it best in The Well-Wrought Urn:

I insist that to treat the poems discussed primarily as poems is a proper emphasis and very much worth doing. For we have gone to school to the anthropologists and the cultural historians assiduously, and we have learned their lesson almost too well. We have learned it so well that the danger now, it seems to me, is not that we will forget the differences between poems of different historical periods, but that we may forget those qualities which they have in common.

In recent years, New Criticism has suffered from the attacks of critics like E. D. Hirsch, who argues that the isolation of a privileged text from the intention of its author leaves no compelling criterion by which to judge the validity of an interpretation; of critics like Stanley Fish, who is suspicious of the idea that poems are objective literary artifacts; and of scores of deconstructionists, reader-response theorists, and linguistic and language-philosophy critics who reject the notion that literary texts "contain" specific literary qualities or demarcate specific boundaries for linguistic meaning. As a result, most agree that contemporary skepticism has discredited New Criticsm as a theory of interpretive practice. But according to William Cain, despite the news of its demise, New Criticism still exerts a vital influence within the academy:

It is the New Criticism that defines and gives support to the central job of work that we perform: "practical criticism," the "close reading" of literary texts…. If a new theory cannot generate close readings, if it fails the test of practical criticism, if it seems unable to make us understand the classic texts in new ways and appears unlikely to function well in the classroom, then it is usually judged to be irrelevant.

Accepting Cain's thesis goes a long way toward a clearer, more comprehensive explanation of why Jeffers' reputation languishes. Not only have some critics tended to accept the extreme judgments of influential predecessors, but the stubborn tendency of critical practice to do close readings, whatever the dominant theoretical mode, has often tended to put critical approaches on a competitive footing, each approach vying for validity by attempting to create new, insightful readings of already canonical texts. A classic example is Roland Barthes' reading of Balzac's novella, Sarrasine, where despite the fact that Barthes denigrates the conventional quality of "readerly" classical texts, he shows that an innovative, structuralist reading can transform that text into a "writerly" one, dependent upon changing social codes and their idiosyncratic application by a reader. Thus as long as contemporary critical movements still center on close reading, they have no urgent need to reform the canon. But as we shall see, the pressures for reform are building.

If I have complicated the original question, it is only to offer a comprehensive answer: despite the decline of New Criticism, the academy in general largely ignores Jeffers' poetry because there has been little impetus, thanks to the continued practice of "close reading," to attend to noncanonical works, to question the canon as it has been shaped by the New Critics. At best, Jeffers' poetry remains on the periphery as an example of "Experimentation in Poetry," as William Stafford (perhaps echoing Yvor Winters) classified it in his anthology Twentieth Century American Writing; at worst, it is completely ignored, as in the first edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

But despite institutional lethargy, some critics do challenge the shape of our literary canon. Many of these challenges stem from sometimes unpopular political and social imperatives—imperatives felt, for example, by critics of Feminist and Minority literatures especially, who point to the inherent prejudices of a literary canon dominated by white, male authors. But other challenges originate when these and other critics extend the founding assumptions of their preferred critical principles to question the very idea of a literary canon, especially one based upon qualities supposedly inherent in the works that it would include. Rather than the mere passing of hostile critics, or the undoubted fact that Jeffers' poetry continues to attract the interest of some intrepid and talented literary scholars, I believe the challenge to the idea of an authoritative literary "canon" offers the best hope if the academy in general is to extend to Jeffers' work a greater measure of respect.

The philosopher Richard Bernstein sees recent interest in modern hermeneutics as potentially transforming how we view the sciences and the humanities: "what has happened is that thinkers in diverse fields, working on a variety of different problems, have come to share many of the insights, emphases, and concerns of contemporary, philosophic hermeneutics"; included is new skepticism toward what Bernstein calls an underlying Cartesian anxiety, a "seductive Either/Or. Either there is some support for our being, a fixed foundation for our knowledge, or we cannot escape the forces of darkness that envelop us with madness, with intellectual and moral chaos." Bernstein believes Gadamer has shown a way to destroy the dichotomy, for it objectivism is a myth—because "objective" facts are constituted by the presuppositions which precede them—the resulting relativism is not therefore arbitrary: "Gadamer reminds us that we belong to a tradition, history, and language before they belong to us."

One way or another, many critical modes reject the Cartesian dichotomy and recognize (in some cases celebrate) a principled relativism. For example, deconstructionists set out, says Jonathan Culler, to show how discourse undermines the philosophy it asserts by identifying the rhetorical operations that produce the grounds for argument, the key concept or premise. Meaning—and the elements of a text that serve it—depends upon convention and contextual factors which themselves are inexhaustible, though not necessarily arbitrary and thereby unprincipled. Like the New Critics, deconstructionists perform a sort of "close reading," but to a different purpose: instead of identifying in particular works supposedly objective features "common" to good poems, deconstructionists celebrate the processes by which language avoids such certainty, by which it remains always equivocal. Some reader-response theorists, too, question the objectivity of literary qualities either by emphasizing readers' contributions to the constitution of the literary work or by emphasizing that the constitution of the work is constrained by conventions and interpretive procedures extrinsic to the text. Taken together, these modes of critical analysis make of literature an always open category by destroying the objectivist notion that special literary qualities inhere within canonical works.

Partly as a result of these theoretical and philosophical shifts (even more compelling, it seems to me, because they derive from concerns not particularly limited to literary study) we can more easily see canons for what they really are: "what other people, once powerful, have made and what should nowbe opened up, demystified, or eliminated altogether." Once theory overturns the assumption of objective literary values inherent in poetic works, the New Critics' de facto exclusion of Jeffers from the canon need no longer be questioned from within their exclusionary model of criticism; instead, the question of Jeffers' literary value may be reconsidered in light of new theories with their criteria for rigorous analysis and their theoretical openness to a better understanding of the dynamics of canon formation.

Reconsidering Jeffer's reputation in terms of contemporary critical modes, however, assumes that his poetry will hold interest for the critics who practice them. The potential certainly exists, and I will here point to two possibilities.

I agree with Elaine Showalter that feminist criticism focusing on, among other things, the ways in which a given text may awaken readers to the significance of its sexual codes may in fact tend to "naturalize women's victimization making it the inevitable and obsessive topic of discussion." This objection, however, need not imply (nor is it meant to) that there is no value in such readings, and many of Jeffers' poems lend themselves naturally to an analysis of gender roles and the power structures encoded by them through strong female characters and Jeffers' own philosophy of Inhumanism, which looks skeptically upon humanity's solipsism.

For instance, Jeffers' narrative poem "Solstice," a modern re-working of the Medea myth, explores the philosophy of Inhumanism through the central character, Madrone Bothwell, who laments her own humanity excessively. Madrone (the Medea figure of the poem) wishes to protect her children from their estranged father, Bothwell (the Jason figure), who serves as an emblem of the self-absorbed human world through his hopes for his children. He wishes for them "radio, motion-pictures, books, / The school, the church. And when they're old enough to go to college."

Feminist critics will especially notice that Madrone's excessive hatred of humanity only makes sense when set within a restricted world of human concerns, which Jeffers, following a sort of symbolic-realism, represents in terms of patriarchal forces: Bothwell and his retinue of male allies, who collectively signify a patriarchal society's support for Bothwell's claim upon the children. The tragedy of Madrone, who escapes her dilemma by slaying her children and taking her own life, stems not only from her excessive hatred of humanity, but also from the reluctance of a patriarchal human world, threatened by her rejection, to let her or her children escape its self-interest. Jeffers' Inhumanism, which insists upon humanity's place within the natural cosmos and the attendant reification of human values necessary to accept that place, defines the moderate stance that neither side accepts. Thus an analysis of this text with special attention to the roles of gender would demonstrate not only how the text rejects the narrowness of human concerns for the transcendent values of the natural world, but also how it comments implicitly on patriarchal structures which authorize human values. Other Jeffers texts, for example "Roan Stallion," seem to me susceptible to the same mode of analysis, revealing Jeffers to be a much more complex critic of the human condition than some detractors discern, especially those who, like Rexroth, see in his poetry only a "paltry insight into the great ancient meanings."

Deconstructionist critics, too, might discover an interest in Jeffers' work, finding a rich source of rhetorical paradox through exploring the question of how Jeffers' poetry, intended to focus attentionon the transcendent natural world, actually questions the possibility of such a focus since it depends upon a system of language conventions and interpretive practices that derive from human value systems. Such an analysis might begin by noticing how the word that Jeffers chose to signify his philosophy, Inhumanism, introduces a surprising indeterminacy. Jeffers intended the word to represent values that were "not human," in the sense that they were of a greater order; but some readers may read the word as "not human," in the sense of lacking kindness or sympathy, as expressing a love for cruelty. Such readings often seem authorized by Jeffers' appreciation of natural events and his refusal to project human sentimentality into natural scenes. For instance, in the short poem "Fire on the Hills" Jeffers writes, "Beauty is not always lovely; the fire was beautiful, the terror / Of the deer was beautiful," lines which may strike some readers as a gruesome celebration of destruction and terror. In any case, Jeffers' terms for his poetic philosophy can now be seen to function more subtly. First, it signifies a complex of transcendent, "inhuman" values of a greater order than the more parochial human values which we uncritically and often unknowingly accept. Second, it demonstrates to readers, forced to disentangle the term "Inhumanism" from its historical and apparently legitimate usages, how deeply they are enmeshed in their own human value system.

Deconstructive analyses might also focus on specific works—both the longer narratives and the shorter lyrics—to show, for example, how narrative intrusions in these poems perform similar functions by simultaneously asserting the primacy of the natural order and demonstrating the difficulty of apprehending it, since these narrative intrusions often argue for a shift to an inhuman perspective even while calling attention to the humanity of the narrative voice. A specific example comes easily to mind, a passage from Jeffers' narrative poem, "Roan Stallion":

The passage serves several functions, including, according to Brophy, serving as a chronic pronouncement urging that "man willingly submit himself to an expansion of his human nature." Consequently, the passage slows the narrative pace by asking readers to suspend their attention to narrative events and instead attend to an inhuman vision of deity, "not in a man's shape." Yet the very power of the language to affirm a deep conviction in the perspective for which it pleads—partly represented by the image of a God who "walks lightning-naked on the Pacific"—plays a subtle trick on readers, for that power draws attention to itself, to the humanity of the narrative voice, and thus to the eventual realization that the author and the reader are both trapped in a human linguistic system that makes the shift of perspective that Inhumanism demands a difficult act of will, if not an impossible one. The text itself, then, demonstrates the human predicament as forcefully as the story which it tells: just as the protagonist California is moved by "some obscure human fidelity" to destroy the roan stallion which represents her vision of God, readers are moved by the same obscure human fidelity to listen to the compelling voice of the narrator. Attending to the humanity within pronouncements seemingly functioning to implicate determinate, transcendent principles helps readers to question the felicity of language intended to direct attention away from the human world and reveals in Jeffers' poetry a quality that enriches reading.

Whatever the mode of analysis—deconstruction, feminist, reader-response, or even sympathetic "close reading" in the style of New Criticism—I believe Jeffers' reputation may benefit: not only because contemporary critical methods may lead to compelling readings of Jeffers texts, perhaps finding in their reading a greater complexity and a more subtle aesthetic than many in the academy previously have recognized, but also because the plurality of critical methods and their collective rejection of the objectivist myth guarantee that we can no longer naively accept canons formed in the tradition of Matthew Arnold's dictum, "the best that has been thought or said," for we no longer can be confident that the meaning of "best" is somehow an absolute.

Jeffers once wrote, "Poetry is less bound by circumstances than any of the arts; it does not need tangible materials; good poetry comes almost directly from a man's mind and senses and bloodstream, and no one can predict the man." I will concede that no one can predict the man, but as for the other point, Jeffers was dead wrong: poetry, like any mode of discourse, is certainly bound by circumstances. The reputations of few other poets demonstrate this so clearly as does that of Robinson Jeffers, a writer who found extraordinary power in poetic forms that defied the critical formalism of his age. We can hope, however, that with the decline of that formalism, Jeffers' poetry may be appreciated within the academy more fully and taught with the intelligence, verve, and dedication that it deserves.

Robert Brophy (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: "Robinson Jeffers," in A Literary History of the American West, Texas Christian University Press, 1987, pp. 398-415.

[In the essay below, Brophy places Jeffers's work in the context of the American West, concluding "the westering experience was for [Jeffers] the exemplar of all journeys. Western motifs gave him vehicles for a larger philosophizing."]

Jeffers's themes are … consistent from the beginning of his mature period (Tamar, 1924) till the end of his life (The Beginning and the End, 1963). He was a pantheist who believed that God is the evolving universe, a self-torturing god who discovers himself in the violent change which is at the center of life's dynamic. One need not go far in Jeffers to find that all his images are cyclic: cycle is the truth of the stars, the life of the planet, the fate of man, insect, and flower. Cycle moves through birth, growth, fullness, decay, and death. In ritual terms cycle translates into sacrifice (fragmentation of each entity at the cycle's end) and sacrament (reintegration and rebirth). For him, being involves change which is brought about only by violence and pain because each form resists its own dissolution. These realities, though customarily repugnant to man, are essential to beauty and divinity. For Jeffers there is only matter and energy; there is no spirit, or soul, or immortality (these being merely men's attempts to escape the cycle). God endures forever; man is a temporary phenomenon, something of an anomaly in the universe because of his megalomanie self-regard. But man is also unique, able to reflect on God. In fact man is, for the cosmic moment he endures, one of God's sense organs ("The Beginning and the End").

Consciousness is a universal quality of the cosmos, but man's participation in it will pass ("Credo"); beauty survives man's faculty to perceive it. Death is at the end of each cycle, ending the individual existence; the material from each man's body is reassimilated into soil and air ("Hungerfield"). Man's energy sometimes endures for a moment after death, like a St. Elmo's fire, in psychic phenomena. The world in its various rhythms is determined. The universe expands and collapses, oceans condense and evaporate, mountains and civilizations rise and fall; nations emerge and grow old. The mass of men is fated in its course, but the individual can choose to remove himself from the breaking wave, can stand apart and contemplate instead of being blindly caught. God himself (the pronoun of course is an anomaly) is in no way like man; he is savage, indifferent, and wild ("Hurt Hawks"), encompassing both good and evil. If seen wholly, all things are sacred and in harmony. Evil itself is only part of the mosaic of beauty, indicating the close of the cycle ("The Answer").

To Jeffers the task of living a "good life" lies principally in detachment from insane desires for power, wealth, and permanence, in a measured indifference to pain, joy, or success, and in a turning outward to God who is "all things." Wisdom, a word little used in his poetry except in irony ("Wise Men in Their Bad Hours") means cosmic perspective ("Signpost") and unfocusing from mankind (Jeffers's "inhumanism"). Peace, as cessation from strife, is an illusion in life. True peace is found in death; in life it can be anticipated in a stoic balance which discounts man's innate anxieties for immortality, invulnerability, stability, and immunity from pain and sickness. The great and most subtle temptation for the good person lies in the implicitly self-aggrandizing notion that one can change the world (saviorism). Jeffers himself must have desperately fought this "demon," he writes about it so often. He saw love as an abnormality of an incestuous race, leading to many other insanities. One love is pure: the love of God who is indifferent to man. Piety lies in an undistracted regard for beauty, earthly and cosmic. Terrible beauty is the god who commands worship. The poet is one who creates as God creates ("Apology for Bad Dreams"), who reconciles existence for man, putting man's preoccupations with sin, guilt, corruption, pain, and all other confounding fears and desires into saving context. The "good person" is not the leader, rebel, or savior; he is the selfcontained mystic, contemplating God and living out the necessary conspiracies of life with a certain aloofness (Tamar achieves this amidst her melodrama of family destruction).

Jeffers's art grew out of his life and vice versa; it was a consequence of his philosophy and of his sense of vocation. Once one grasps the dimensions of his beliefs, it becomes clear that Jeffers's poetry is incredibly centered and predictable. The theme of every poem, one way or another, is the divine beauty of the cosmos and the mutability of man. Jeffers has a deep sense of ritual, not only in nature's rites of death and renewal but in every rhythm of being. His ritual intent is strikingly evidenced in a letter to his editor in 1926, in which he explained that the movement of his narratives was "more like the ceremonial dances of primitive people; the dancer becomes a raincloud, or a leopard, or a God … the episodes … are a sort of essential ritual, from which the real action develops on another plane" (Selected Letters). He embraces tragedy in its pre-Sophoclean sense of the inevitable, blameless fall which yields new beginnings. "All life is tragic" translates into "all life is cyclic." Though civilized man flees the metaphysical implications of cycle, primitive man seems to have accepted and celebrated them. Characteristically in Mediterranean fertility cults, each year the cycle god, Attis, Osiris, Tammuz, Dionysus, had to suffer the consequences of reentry into being; each was born in order to die (and be reborn ten thousand times). Decline and death were not blameworthy or cataclysmic but inevitable and natural. Death is perhaps Jeffers's most frequent theme; it is a truth to understand, accept, and move within.

Of course subordinate themes abound in Jeffers's poetry, but they all bear on the truth of the cycle—human mutability, reconciliation with evil, confrontation of pain, indifference born of cosmic perspective, acceptance of God on his own terms, desirability of death and annihilation, inevitability of processes, delusion of human effectiveness, presumptuousness of man's self-importance, the nature of the poet's art, the omnipresence and beauty of tragedy.

The poetics of Jeffers are fairly simple and direct. His is a poetry of the external landscape, not the landscape of the mind ("Credo"). After the lyrics and semi-narratives of his first two books, he consciously avoided meter and rhyme. He replaced the first with the larger, more supple rhythms of Hebrew and Old English verse and the second with symmetries of parallelism and alliteration. Ten-beat lines are common in the narratives although there are many variations; four-beat lines are more likely in the lyrics.

Much of Jeffers's poetic effect comes through word-choice or diction. He chose words for etymology and for their successive layers of meaning. He kept a huge unabridged dictionary by his side and pondered word possibilities, sometimes for days. His imagery makes a fascinating study. Most of it is taken from his immediate coastal experience: hawks, herons, wild swans, pelicans, mountain lion, deer, and cattle; redwood, cypress, grass, wildflowers, rock, ocean, headland, clouds, sky, stars, and planets. Hawks are godlike, totem birds, representing what is noble and fierce. Lion and deer are the predators and victims, metaphors for all victimhood, neither blameworthy. Flora and fauna almost always fill a twofold function in his narratives: they are part of the realistic backdrop for the action; they also foreshadow the tragedy imminent in all drama, recalling animal surrogates of the year-gods and the sacrificial flowers which sprang from the gods' blood. Rock is a consistent image of God, mysterious chthonic presence and stoic endurance; it is volcanic origins, the bones of motherearth. The sea is a mind-subduing expanse, life and death, matrix of all life, source of story, change of season. Mountain and headland are measure of the heavens and reminder of human life's precariousness. Storm represents elemental apocalyptic forces; earth, air, fire, water (quake, storm, holocaust, and deluge)—all are fearful agents in Jeffers's narratives. Clouds are a dream medium on which the poet projects human folly ("The Great Sunset"). Sky and stars are the universe beckoning. Stars are used both mythically, as in the constellation patterns of Orion and Scorpio in "Tamar," but more often scientifically—gigantic atomic fusion furnaces whose lifespan predicts the fate of our sun and solar system ("Nova"). The far stars and galaxies are the ultimate actors of Jeffers's ultimate metaphor, the expanding and contracting universe which recycles every eighty-two billion years and is God's heartbeat ("The Great Explosion," "At the Birth of an Age").

Jeffers wrote and spoke little of his poetics. His 1938 foreword to Selected Poetry declares his intent to reclaim the subject matter which poetry had surrendered to prose. He meant to write about permanent things or the eternally recurring ("Point Joe"). He promised to pretend nothing, neither optimism nor pessimism. He would avoid the popular and fashionable; he would write as he believed, whatever the consequences.

In "Apology for Bad Dreams," an early ars poetica in lyric form, Jeffers indicates that he creates his narratives and dramas (bad dreams) principally for his own salvation. Using the vignette of a woman beating a horse amidst the magnificence of a coastal sundown, he attempts to reconcile man's perversity with the essential beauty of things. The landscape, he says, demands tragedy (pain, sacrifice, horror); the greater its beauty, the stronger the demand. It would seem that the poet wrote out these vicarious terrors in order to be spared the real terror of personal tragedy. Exactly what metaphysics is involved, Jeffers does not explain. He may write stories to educate himself to violence and the cycle, thus taking some of the terror out of the pain that he, as everyone, must endure. He may write as a form of therapy, letting out his inner violences, lest he act them out and beat horses himself. Or he may see in his writing a way of participating in being's ritual, acting out a discovery-process that parallels God's own creative process—a kind of "magic" (as he calls it).

Anyone who doubts the religious intent of Jeffers's poetry should read carefully the choric invocation in "Tamar" (section V), his first narrative poem of note. He calls on the god of natural beauty to enter into his "puppet" characters—a brother and sister who have just committed incest and the disintegrating family that surrounds them. God, Jeffers says, chooses the twisted and lame to be his signs and the agents of his revelation. For this same reason God has chosen him. The same kind of lyric interruption greets us in "The Women at Point Sur," Jeffers's most tortured and convoluted narrative. Here again he has created human grotesques, he says, to praise God, "puppets" to speak of him; they "stammer the tragedy." There are other writers, Jeffers tells us in the "Prelude" to the poem, who will tell tales to entertain; his vocation is to slit open the eyeholes in mankind's mask. Human resistance to God and to integration into the organic whole of the universe can be broken only by dramatic means ("Roan Stallion"): disorienting vision, limit-vaulting desire, unnatural crime, inhuman science, and tragedy. "These break [the mould], these pierce [the mask], these deify, praising their God shrilly with fierce voices: not in man's shape. He approves the praise" ("Roan Stallion"). Later Jeffers will clarify this view of storytelling and further its religious context in the lyric "Crumbs or the Loaf" where, in a parallel to Jesus's story of the sower and the seed (Matthew 13), he characterizes his narratives as parables, as contrasted with his lyrics which are confrontive apodictic pronouncements.

Jeffers's final statement on poetry comes toward the end of his writing career. In 1949, amidst the triumph of Medea and impending rejection of The Double Axe, he characterizes the truly great poet in an article for the New York Times, "Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years." The poet, he says, stands alone. He renounces self-consciousness, over-learnedness, labored obscurity (by which Jeffers would probably have characterized most of contemporary poetry). He is direct and natural, saying what he must say clearly, out of the spirit of his time but as understandable for all times.

Elsewhere I have called Jeffers the "metaphysician of the West." Metaphysics is that most fundamental area of philosophy which studies being itself. Metaphysics has to deal with all that exists; it delves into the nature of all processes, of all that is—the workings and interactings of the universe and of the molecule and atom. "Of the West" suggests more than writing in and from the point of view of the West, or using its scenes as a setting. Jeffers does all these things, but his peculiar genius is his use of the West, the Far West, the continent's end and drop-off cliff of the world on which he perched his home, to explore the nature of being, the relevance of the human race, and the bridge between man and the furthermost expanses of the cosmos.

Jeffers represented his western landscape exactly; it stretched from Point Pinos in the north to Point Sur and Pfeiffer Beach in the south. This fifty miles of storm-scoured promontories, precipitous headlands, wave-wracked points, windtwisted trees, and precarious beaches was known intimately to him. It was the subject for solitary walks and family pilgrimages. The place names in his poems are almost all right off the geological survey map: Point Pinos and Joe, Robinson Canyon, Carmel Beach, Point Lobos, Mai Paso Creek, Notley's Landing, Palo Colorado Canyon, Rocky Point, Soberanes Reef, Bixby's Landing, Mill Creek, Little Sur River, Point Sur. The terrain, the beaches, the weather, the flowers, the animals are all true-to-life re-creations. Jeffers Country is no mythical Yoknapatawpha County; only the characters' names are made up.

Yet, in their own way, Jeffers's characters are authentic, arising as they do from the violent legends of this forbidding and isolating terrain. Someone has suggested that the Big Sur country causes madness because of something in its dynamic which either produces or attracts the grotesque, the macabre. Robinson Jeffers himself suggests this in "Apology for Bad Dreams." Jeffers's characters are ranch families, self-exiled hermits in shacks, wandering Indian cowboys from a previous era.

The land has never been domesticated; it is inconceivable that it ever will be; this is not so much remote backpacking country as impenetrable space. As one can see from the Sierra Club photo book, Not Man Apart, the coast is an almost continuous headlong precipice. The Coast Highway, an engineering triumph of the 1930s, strung a precarious ribbon of asphalt just above the drop-off, dynamiting through shoulders of rock, leaping over creek gorges with delicate butterfly bridges. Almost every winter a storm carries a lane of the highway into the sea. Behind this coast road are a few grassy knolls and fields, backed by wilderness. As one passes over it in a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco, one sees tightly corrugated peaks and gulleys choked with trees and brush—no roads, no lights, no water, no signs of life. This is wilderness in an almost mystic sense, a place to correspond to the empty places in the soul. One need not visit it; it was comforting to Jeffers just to know it was there and that it would never be humanized, subdivided, asphalted andfitted with sewer systems.

Very conscious of writing as a westerner, Jeffers perceived his land and his conscience as scarred with the vestiges of westward expansion. All around him were the ghosts of Indians who were too easy a victim to the white man's ambitions and diseases. San Carlos Mission, a few blocks from Tor House, presided over the death of local tribes. A spade on his knoll may turn over the remains of a tribal feast, abalone and clam shells and charcoal from their fires. Jeffers is conscious that his Carmel River mouth is the center of a line which marks the final coast of migrations which began millennia ago, first crossing Europe, then the Atlantic, and finally the American continent ("Tamar," Section V, makes use of this, as do "The Loving Shepherdess" and "Continent's End"). Somehow this coast sums up all migrations and all that men have done for good or evil in their "progress." Jeffers's Doppelganger, the self-stigmatizing hermit in "A Redeemer," summed it up: "Not as a people takes a land to love it and be fed, / A little according to need and love and again a little; sparing the country tribes, mixing / Their blood with theirs, their minds with all the rocks and rivers, their flesh with the soil … Oh, as a rich man eats a forest for profit and a field for vanity, So you came west and raped / The continent and brushed its people to death. Without need the weak skirmishing hunters and without mercy."

Jeffers is not a regionalist in the usual sense of the word—one who writes knowingly of his geographic section, reflecting its genius and foibles, relating its topographic and climatic peculiarities, reciting its idiom and its philosophy. The California coast for him is not a region; it is a final statement, a philosophical, metaphysical study. There are neither enough people nor customs in his mountains for regionally, and the landscape is unearthly, not picturesque. The final frontier is an ontological statement, not a geographic or cultural one. It is final as the coast is final—to all of mankind's hopes and illusions and indirections. America's violence, its rape of the land, its betrayal of the Indians, its pillaging of resources—all of these must ultimately be faced here.

Before concluding a discussion of Jeffers's themes and aesthetics, it is important to confront some of the objections to his writing—not in order to excuse his faults but to clarify his intent and identify his genre so that judgments may be better focused. With regard to his narratives, one can merely repeat what has been said above: Jeffers is a tragedian; he cannot write comedy for he saw comedy as an unfinished story. His stories are grotesque and usually end in blood. Whether he succeeded or not, his intent is to write parables, to instruct and to move his readers beyond their limits. His genre is, at an important level, ritualistic: that is, the story represents a Dionysian process, illustrating the cycles of life and death. His central characters, he says (in "My Loved Subject"), are the landscape: "Mountain and ocean, rock, water and beasts and trees / Are the protagonists, the human people are only symbolic interpreters." His human characters therefore are not primarily psychological or humanistic studies. Actually Jeffers chooses a sort of stereotyping (he has consistently called his characters "puppets"): his men tend to be Appolonian, stoic, cerebral, presumptuous that their power and plans will carry the day; his women tend to be Dionysian, sudden, intuitive, destructive; they are divine agents. Stories tend to follow the pattern of Pentheus's destruction by Agave in The Bacchae (Jeffers's version: "Humanist's tragedy"). The reader must be cautious: Jeffers should never be identified with his characters; their attitudes and statements are rarely or never his. He has no heroes or heroines, only maimed, floundering "idols." At some points Tamar, Orestes, and Fayne Frazer might be exceptions.

With regard to the short poems several additional precautions should be noted. Jeffers has many voices, the most prominent of which is, by far, that of prophet, a voice which may have been familiar to him out of the Old Testament literature of his childhood. The prophet primarily proclaims the truth, no matter how bitter the consequences. The prophet is a man obsessed and desperate to communicate. He has a vision of holiness which he sees desecrated usually by a middleor upper-class "establishment" who live by idolatry, injustice, and dishonesty. The prophet deals in exaggeration, overstatement, hyperbole. As Flannery O'Connor notes: For those who are almost blind, the prophet must write in huge caricatures; for those who are marginally deaf, he must shout. A prophet by definition must shock to communicate. But just as Isaiah did not rant and excoriate all of the time but also cajoled, admonished, comforted, and extolled, so Jeffers has other intonations and messages. At times he is pure mystic, praying to his God in the solitude of his tower as in "Night." At other times he is a teacher, reasoning and unfolding, suggesting how to live, as in "Signpost," "The Answer," or "Return." He can be a discerning philosopher as in "Theory of Truth." He can even be autobiographic as in "To His Father" or "The Bed by the Window." He could assume a sort of priesthood over the rituals of nature and celebrate their holiness and rhythms as in "Salmon-Fishing" and "To the House." He could turn himself inward to purify his art and sharpen his focus, always questioning the validity of his message and examining his poetic talents from the perspective of eternity as in "Self-Criticism in February" or "Soliloquy." Often his tones take on the gravity of the ecologist, lamenting the imbalance and guilts perpetrated by his own nation, or the apocalyptist, judging cities the ultimate idolatry and forecasting global purgation.

By this it should be clear that Jeffers should be approached with some patience and informed understanding. He cannot be summed up in one poem nor is he heard well until he has been listened to in several voices. He has often been dismissed by critics and the general reader as a misanthropist, pessimist, or nihilist. Isaiah might fall under the same charges. As one rightly balances the vitriolic rhetoric of the Old Testament prophet's first chapters with his Book of Comfort (Isaiah, chapters 40ff.) or his suffering servant songs, so one needs to balance Jeffers's heavier poems ("Summer Holiday," "November Surf," "What Are Cities For?", "Original Sin," for example) with the lighter, more positive statements: "The Excesses of God" or the final lines of "The Beginning and the End."

A final word on Jeffers's role as western writer. When one reviews the spectrum of themes from the literature of the West, one sees that Jeffers came to grips with all of them, he dealt with agrarian and pastoral types, the epic sweep of migrations, hero archetypes, violence, search for Eden, the disaster of the American Dream, Indian extermination, land and landscape, the mysticism of wilderness, immersion in nature, the folly of progress, the moral dilemmas of ownership, land-development, law, power, and greed. Grandson of an early pioneer of Ohio, he was inextricably involved in the nation's historical progress and in judgment upon it.

There is in his poetry a deep-seated ambivalence, arising from the clash between mystic and prophet. On the one hand he espouses an Eastern, Buddhist type of passivity and inner peace, assuming that nothing can be done. War, betrayal, moral and political corruption are variations of a natural process of decay that inevitably follows the cresting of nation's vitality and idealism. He can pro nounce this process "not blameworthy" as in "Shine, Perishing Republic." On the other hand he can, and more often does, deal with it with a heavy prophetic hand. Though he rejected the savior syndrome, heacted in many ways the redeemer whom he pictured in the short narrative by that title, "here on the mountain making / Antitoxin for all the happy towns and farms, the lovely blameless children, the terrible / Arrogant cities." He tried to base his peace in the philosophy of inhumanism. At times he seemed to reject not only American life but the life of the race as well. Yet he is ever conscious of his roots, ever ready to pay his "birth-dues," to discover new meanings for his people. The westering experience was for him the exemplar of all journeys. Western motifs gave him vehicles for a larger philosophizing. The continent's end provided a yardstick to measure the divine cosmos. The western shore was full of life, yet inhospitable, ancient and yet young, violent yet serene, a platform above the Pacific set for tragedy.

Tim Hunt (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: An introduction, in The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Vol. 1, Stanford University Press, 1988, pp. xvii-xxviii.

[In the essay below, Hunt provides a biographical and critical overview of the Jeffers's life and work, focusing in particular on the poet's rejection of modernism.]

By 1914 modernism was already transforming American poetry. Ezra Pound and Imagism were unavoidable presences; [T. S. Eliot's] "Prufrock," as yet unpublished, was four years old; and Wallace Stevens was about to write "Peter Quince" and "Sunday Morning." In 1914, though, Robinson Jeffers was still poetically adrift. Two years younger than Pound, a year older than Eliot, he was still imitating his Romantic and Victorian predecessors. His mature idiom was a full six years in the future, and "Tamar," which would make his reputation, would not be completed until 1923. Even so, by 1914 Jeffers had (by his own report) already made his "final decision not to become a 'modern'" ["Introduction," Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems]

Even if the modernist work Jeffers would have been reading in Poetry and other magazines was not yet The Waste Land or The Cantos, it already offered the one decisive alternative to nineteenth-century attitudes and techniques, and Jeffers' rejection of it is in some ways surprising. Why should he have chosen to write long narratives when the mode seemed hopelessly old fashioned? Why, in his shorter poems, to blend painstaking naturalistic detail with direct statement and forego the sophisticated formal experiments and indirection of his most talented contemporaries? Why, most simply, should he turn his back on the dynamic world of modern British and European art toconcentrate instead on the isolated landscape of California's Big Sur coast and the simple, though intense, people of the foothill ranches that surrounded his home in Carmel? Some have wanted to assume he was a California original, a primitive, looking west from the "continent's end" without realizing, or caring, what was behind him in New York or London or Paris. But Jeffers was not a primitive. Rather, the Calvinist faith of his minister father and his own immersion in the world of modern science helped direct his sophistication in a radically different direction from his modernist contemporaries.

Jeffers' early years were dominated by his father, a professor of Old Testament literature and biblical history at Western Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers was a 46-year-old widower when he married Annie Robinson Turtle, a church organist 22 years his junior. John Robinson Jeffers was born a year and a half later on January 10, 1887. Jeffers' only sibling, Hamilton, a prominent research astronomer, was born in 1894. Jeffers' father was a reserved man impatient of childish play. He introduced his first son to Latin, Greek, and the tenets of Presbyterianism early on, and Jeffers' first ten years were a succession of houses and schools as the elder Jeffers looked for the right combination of seclusion for himself and intellectual rigor for his son. In 1898 Jeffers entered the first of five Swiss boarding schools, and four years later, when he entered what is now the University of Pittsburgh, Jeffers already had a mastery of French, German, Greek, and Latin to go with his newest enthusiasm—Dante Gabriel Rossetti and poetry. After his first year of college, the family moved to Los Angeles for Dr. Jeffers' health. Jeffers enrolled at Occidental College, where he graduated two years later with coursework in astronomy and geology to supplement biblical literature and Greek. Then came a year and a half of graduate study, first at the University of Southern California and then the University of Zurich. Jeffers' courses included Old English, Dante, Goethe, Spanish Romantic poetry, and late nineteenth-century French literature.

When Jeffers returned from Zurich in September 1906, he was not yet twenty and already had what even Pound would have seen as a promising start for a modernist-to-be. Had Jeffers encountered a Santayana at this point, as did Stevens and Eliot at Harvard, or even an energetic and opinionated peer such as Pound, as did H.D. and Williams at Pennsylvania, his work might well have developed differently, but Jeffers spent the next six months translating German medical papers and then in 1907 enrolled in the USC medical school, where he excelled in physiology and earned an assistantship in his second and third years. He left in 1910 without completing his training and entered the University of Washington to study forestry. A year later he returned to Los Angeles, again, without completing his studies.

How seriously Jeffers considered either profession is not clear. Certainly he was already developing his interest in poetry. By 1911 he had already written a number of the imitative, dandyish poems of Flagons and Apples, which he issued privately in 1912 after receiving a small inheritance. Whatever his sense of vocation, though, medicine and forestry would have been a sharp contrast to his literary studies. Both emphasized direct and close observation of the actual world and involved alternative views of time and tradition. Moreover Jeffers' medical studies would have introduced him to modern biology in a more than casual manner, while his study of forestry would have strengthened his interest in a specifically Western landscape and offered a view of nature unmediated by poetic conventions.

Jeffers' early and mid-twenties were also years of personal turmoil. However much he may have resented the strict round of study imposed by his father, Jeffers was, through his boarding school years, a properly shy and studious minister's son who presumably acted from his sense of doctrine and belief, rather than mere obedience. But by the time Jeffers entered medical school at twenty his allegiance had begun to shift to the religion of art and the wine, women, and song appropriate to a turn of the century poet-to-be. This drift might have simply replaced his earlier views (it did for many of his generation) had he not become increasingly involved with a married woman, a situation which neither his father's values nor the priorities of his bohemianism seemed able to resolve. Jeffers met Una Call Kuster when both were literature students at USC. She was three years older, and their relationship apparently started innocently and probably continued that way for a time. By 1910 the matter was a serious concern to both and likely a factor in Jeffers' decision to leave for Washington to study forestry. However, when he returned to Los Angeles at the end of that year, the affair began again and became known to Una's husband, a young Los Angeles attorney. Scandal and divorce followed.

On August 2, 1913, Robinson Jeffers and Una Call Kuster were married. Witty, vibrant, and ambitious, Una Jeffers became a prime force in her husband's life. She had faith in his talent as a writer and the will to discipline him to that faith. The crisis of courtship might have confirmed Jeffers' bohemianism. Instead it was the beginning of a renewed moral seriousness. This is not to suggest his affair left him guilty for his actions nor that he came to accept society's norms or his father's. Rather, the crisis seems to have combined with the deaths of his father and infant daughter and the discovery of the West as a subject for his writing to commit him to struggle with the question of whether actions have moral consequences in a world where the methods and discoveries of science had already undercut the pieties of the past.

It may seem odd to suggest Jeffers needed to discover the West when he had already spent a number of years in Los Angeles and Seattle. But Los Angeles took its cue from other centers of fashion. It was, that is, provincial. Los Angeles tyros read The Smart Set right along with their Chicago and New York counterparts, and their fantasies were of Europe. Jeffers, judging from his letters, even toyed with becoming a sort of Los Angeles F. Scott Fitzgerald. Certainly at the time of his marriage the West meant relatively little to him in terms of his writing. He and Una planned to settle in Europe and presumably would have done so had she not become pregnant. Their daughter, born in May 1914, survived only a day, and by the time the couple was ready to consider the move again, the war in Europe persuaded them to look closer to home.

In September of 1914, they traveled north to Carmel, probably because it was something of an artists' colony, a rustic and inexpensive spot of culture. The decisive factor that led them to settle there, though, and the decisive factor for Jeffers' work, was the landscape itself and the people of the isolated ranches and farms about it. These demanded to be viewed on their own terms, not through any European lens or lens of literary convention. As Jeffers wrote in the "Foreword" to The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, "for the first time in my life I could see people living—amid magnificent unspoiled scenery—essentially as they did in the Idyls or the Sagas, or in Homer's Ithaca. Here was life purged of its ephemeral accretions. … Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life; and not shut from the modern world but conscious of it and related to it." The intensity of this new landscape coming on top of his scientific training, courtship and marriage, the death of a child, and the first signs of Europe's political and cultural collapse led Jeffers, apparently within months, to his aesthetic declaration of independence. Whatever he would be as a poet, he would not be "a 'modern.'"

For Jeffers (reacting against the modernist work found in the little magazines of the time) the moderns were writing a poetry of form, not content, a poetry that indulged technique for its own sake. And if this work celebrated the imagination's power to remake the materials of the tradition, to him it did so, finally, be celebrating the aesthetic object's superiority over the ordinary and actual. His training in science, however, meant he could only be satisfied with an art that used the imagination to attend to the actual, not escape it. To Jeffers, that is, the work of the early Pound and others seemed a poetry of fashion, and the world he had discovered in Carmel was anything but fashionable. It was, though, in Jeffers' view, fundamental, authentic, and relevant to the larger world. It offered the freedom to be regional without being provincial, which Los Angeles did not, and just as importantly, Carmel suited the energetic severity of his temperament at a time when his training in the sciences had freed him to respond to it. Just as importantly, this new, yet archaic, world seemed to require a poetry of moral seriousness at a time when his own personal experience and the reality of world conflict seemed to make such seriousness imperative….

The first phase of Jeffers' independence appeared in Californians, published by Macmillan in 1916. Like his later volumes, Californians featured several narratives of the rural West. Narrative gave Jeffers scope to portray this new landscape and even more importantly allowed him to explore the connection between the land itself and the people who inhabited it (or as he would later think of the matter, the people who expressed it). But these early narratives, though a decisive turn from his contemporaries and his own earlier work, are largely unsuccessful. Their traditional meters, rhyme, and diction fail to match the expansiveness of the material, and they read as if Jeffers, freed from the need to be technically fashionable, simply assumed he could borrow his form from tradition and allow the subject to make its own way. More importantly, the narratives of Californians, and those recently recovered from the few years following it, show Jeffers vacillating between a sentimental and a superficially nihilistic treatment of nature. In some of the poems nature offers a simplistic, if reassuring, moral norm to the human world. In others the world of nature moves with one logic while a seemingly disconnected human world moves with quite another; characters violate norms only to find that nature has no interest in their affairs and that society is unlikely to discover what they have done. In these poems Jeffers' sense of science freed him to look intensely and without preconception, but it also effectively divorced the human world from the natural. If his mood demanded a poetry of moral seriousness, the lesson of modern science seemed to deny that possibility. The perspective of science undercut any sense of a moral outcome to what he observed, even as it gave him access to his material and freed him from his contemporaries.

In the years immediately following Californians, Jeffers struggled with his work and the problem of the war. He temporarily abandoned narrative, trying his hand at an epic drama modeled on Hardy's The Dynasts, and then turning to sonnets. Both directions provided elegant, but stiff and mannered, comments on the moral and political crisis of Europe. Meanwhile Jeffers worried whether or not to enlist. Twin sons born in 1916, a wife, and a less than ample income argued no, but his application to serve was pending when the war ended. The war years, though, did confirm his desire to stay in Carmel. Shortly after the Armistice, he and Una purchased a headland on the south edge of Carmel and hired a local mason to build a low stone cottage from the granite about the site. Working with the masons, Jeffers discovered his other life's work—building with stone. After the house was completed, he began a six-year project, the construction of a two-and-a-half story stone tower, and he fell into the routine of his mature years—writing in the morning, stone work or planting and caring for his forest of trees in the afternoon.

Whether it was the war, the increased pattern and discipline of his life, or simply the trial and error of poem after poem, Jeffers' work began to coalesce shortly after the move into Tor House when he returned to writing narrative and working with local material. The first narratives after the war were written as ballads, the one after that in long-line couplets. None are fully successful, but they show Jeffers worrying again the problem of violence and nature, as he had in Californians, and pressing toward a resolution that came first in several short poems sometime in the early 1920's. The key was a minor, but telling, shift in emphasis in his sense of nature. In lyrics such as "Natural Music" he began to focus on nature itself and view it as a living organism, with man simply one of its elements, one of its expressions.

This shift in emphasis, from the life of individuals to the life of nature, enabled Jeffers to synthesize his sense of science with his Calvinist heritage, even as he discarded the latter's specific forms and justifications. Both Calvinism and science taught that man was not the measure of the world, and both, in different ways, taught that the world itself might be inherently beautiful and worthy of worship. Once Jeffers came to see the observation of nature and the observation of human actions, even perverse and violent ones, as inherently the same act of witness and to see the expression of them as a further witness to the inscrutable dynamism of nature, he began to overcome the dichotomy that had marred much of his earlier work. Poetry could not resolve, nor need it, the conflicts of nature or human experience. Poetry's task was to confront, reveal, and praise the grandeur of a universe in flux.

Jeffers apparently thought of this new mode at first primarily as one that allowed him to write lyrics that praised the beauty of nature in a new, more direct way. The lyrics that followed "Natural Music" show him quickly mastering the long, unrhymed accentual line that would be the basis of the rest of his writing. But sometime in 1922, perhaps quite early 1923, he seems to have realized his new sense of nature could be the basis of narrative as well. His reading of Freud and Jung likely played a role in this, along with his reading of the Cambridge anthropologists and their studies of ancient myth and ritual. Whatever the impetus, the return to narrative fulfilled the promise of his first sense of his Carmel material and resulted in the poem that would gain him recognition as a major poet.

Like his earlier narratives (and later ones) "Tamar" portrays a perverse, violent human world: Tamar's incest with her brother and her father, her father's earlier incest with his sister, the conflagration Tamar brings about to destroy herself, her brother, her father, and her lover. But in "Tamar," unlike the earlier narratives, Jeffers came to view nature itself as fundamentally in conflict—a cycle of destruction and renewal—and this recognition allowed him, finally, to write poems that combined his sense of modern science and high moral seriousness, even though the lessons of "Tamar" were neither specifically scientific nor moral in the usual sense of those words. In Jeffers' scheme, human conflict is an analogue of the larger rhythms of conflict in the natural world. The human world, though, is often blind to its own status and thus dooms itself to play out the cycles in an unnecessarily perverse, violent, and empty manner. In the narratives, Jeffers' characters are largely unable to recognize or accept themselves as elements of nature, and this dooms them to suffer nature's power without experiencing the compensatory vision of its beauty (even if that beauty is itself of the painful motion of stars consuming in flame, of rock eroding, of hawk dropping to feed). The characters can become more or less aware of their cycle and can even, as Tamar does, hurry on destruction, but finally the real salvation in these poems is the one available to reader and poet and comes from recognizing our place in nature, which frees us to witness the transcendent beauty of destruction and renewal and to accept its liberating beauty, even if the cycle of renewal takes place on a scale that never renews (only destroys) the individual ego.

Initially, Jeffers seems not to have known what to do with "Tamar." He first considered grouping it with a series of poems written in response to the First World War, as if that violent episode would best explain the violence of this new work. He then, apparently, came to see this new direction in his narrative work as of a piece with his more recent lyrics, restructured the collection, and after some months of hesitation chose to issue the volume privately, even though the printer he'd hired was so impressed with the collection that he offered to act as publisher. When Tamar and Other Poems did finally appear in April 1924, it made no more impression initially than Californians. After nearly a year, though, chance brought it to the attention of several major reviewers, and Jeffers suddenly found himself compared to the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Whitman, and a few others for good measure. Whatever the reviews left undone, Tamar's scandalous plot finished, and when Boni & Liveright reissued it in November 1925 in an expanded edition as Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, Jeffers became a popular, as well as critical, success. Ten major trade collections followed between 1927 and 1954, first with Liveright and then with Random House.

In the years following Tamar, Jeffers was intensely productive. He explored the implications of his breakthrough in such pieces as "The Tower Beyond Tragedy," a recasting of Aeschylus's Oresteia, and "Roan Stallion," another narrative of the California coast. Jeffers' most ambitious project, though, was The Women at Point Sur. He apparently began working on early versions of it almost immediately after "Tamar" and struggled with what he hoped would be "the Faust of this generation" through early 1927. In Point Sur he explored a topic that would recur in a number of later poems, that of the savior who mistakenly turns from his vision of nature's power and beauty to seek control of disciples.

Jeffers' longest, and in many ways most complicated, poem, The Women at Point Sur was less favorably received than Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems. But reviewers took his status as a major figure for granted, and his reputation remained strong through the rest of the 1920's and the early 1930's, as he produced Cawdor and Other Poems (1928), Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929), Thurso's Landing and Other Poems (1931), and Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems (1933). In these volumes Jeffers turned more to his characters' human dilemmas, the problems of guilt, of pain, of endurance. As a result, the narratives of this period tend to be more realistic, though less mythic, and to explore the characters' psychologies in more detail. These volumes, which refined and extended the directions implicit in his early work, have been among Jeffers' most popular.

After Give Your Heart to the Hawks, the narratives at least came more slowly. Solstice and Other Poems (1935), Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems (1937), and Be Angry at the Sun (1941), were generally less well received than the earlier volumes, though they contained some of Jeffers' finer short poems. Part of the problem may have been a kind of fatigue: Jeffers' work had consistently derived from his thematic perspective and formal principles of the early 1920's. Part of it may have been the Second World War. Jeffers' saw it coming earlier than most, and if the First World War had helped precipitate his mature work, this impending conflict threatened his creative equilibrium. Even though his vision of nature argued that war was a fact of nature, a part of the order of things, and so essentially beautiful and inevitable, the suffering it would bring and its futility challenged the answers of the early 1920's. As a result his work increasingly took the form of shorter meditations on contemporary politics or addressed explicitly the tenets of what he came to call in 1948 "Inhumanism," "a philosophical attitude" that called for "a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence." ["Prefact," The Double Axe and Other Poems].

A confirmed isolationist, Jefferson pleased few contemporary readers with his poems of this period, even though they have proved surprisingly prophetic. The war itself led to two of his most distinctive narratives, "The Love and the Hate" and "The Inhumanist." The first, written at the end of the war, is perhaps Jeffers' most controversial narrative, tracing the revenge of a soldier who physically returns from the dead to punish those whose blindness and hypocrisy have sent him to die. The second, perhaps Jeffers' most philosophical and allegorical narrative, examines the attempts of an isolated old man to maintain his integrity and balance despite the threats of society and its violence. Together "The Love and the Hate" and "The Inhumanist" made up the title sequence of The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948), a volume whose references to contemporary political figures, especially in its short poems, so upset his editors at Random House that they insisted on including an editorial disclaimer. Whether the editors properly understood the poems or the politics, the fact that the volume was published at all, even under such circumstances, suggests Jeffers was still regarded as a major figure in the late 1940's, though an increasingly isolated and troubling one. His other major project of the 1940's was his adaptation of Euripides' Medea, He had prepared the text in 1945 at the request of the tragic actress Dame Judith Anderson. The play was produced in late 1947 and was, like Roan Stallion, a major critical and commercial success.

Jeffers continued to write after The Double Axe, but intermittently. Traveling in Ireland in 1948, he nearly died from pleurisy. Shortly after that Una Jeffers began her own battle; she died of cancer in 1950. Jeffers' last narrative, the brief and poignant "Hungerfield," shows how devastating this loss was. It was collected, along with several short poems and an adaptation of Euripides' Hippolytus, in Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954), the last volume Jeffers published. Although Hungerfield was received more positively than The Double Axe, it was less popular than most of his earlier volumes—perhaps because he had, by and large, ceased to be a topic of discussion. The New Criticism of the 1950's had little patience for either narrative or direct statement, and critics such as Yvor Winters and R. P. Blackmur condemned both Jeffers' ideas and what they took to be his slack line and inflated rhetoric. The work of Jeffers' final years was compiled by Melba Berry Bennet, his biographer, and appeared as The Beginning and the End in 1963, the year after his death on January 20, 1962. In the 25 years since, Jeffers has attracted a steadily growing readership and renewed critical and scholarly interest.

Whatever future readers and historians may decide, it is clear that Jeffers made good his vow not to "be a 'modern,'" but it should also be clear that Jeffers, in his own quite different way, developed a distinctly modern poetry. Chance and decision led him to an alternative model to Pound's, one that owed more to Milton, Wordsworth, Darwin, and modern astronomy than to Coleridge, Mallarmé, Pater, and Hulme. Where the modernist aesthetic stressed the power of the imagination to transform perception, Jeffers' aesthetic stressed the paradoxical energy of consciousness and the way it allowed us to perceive our place in nature and yet, thereby, alienated us from it in self-consciousness. Where modernism emphasized the word as a thing to be valued for its own inherent properties, Jeffers treated it for its referential power. And where modernism viewed the poem as an aesthetic object, Jeffers viewed it as utterance, a kind of prophetic speech.

All of these matters reflect Jeffers' sense that poetry points to reality rather than transforming or replacing it and that poetry's task is to demonstrate the permanent and universal. At times these views give his work a didactic quality, but he saw no reason poems should not include direct statement. And if these attitudes placed him distinctly at odds with his modernist contemporaries and made his work, finally, technically more conservative than theirs, it may be that his sense of the interplay of culture and nature was in many ways more radical and forward looking. If Pound and others sought to make their poems permanent, Jeffers sought to make his reveal the permanences beyond the poem:

Permanent things are what is needful in a poem, things temporally
Of great dimension, things continually renewed or always present.

Grass that is made each year equals the mountains in her past and future;
Fashionable and momentary things we need not see nor speak of.

Man gleaning food between the solemn presence of land and ocean,
On shores where better men have shipwrecked, under fog and among flowers,

Equals the mountains in his past and future; that glow from the earth was only
A trick of nature's, one must forgive nature a thousand graceful subtleties.
("Point Joe")

Helen Vendler (review date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3103

SOURCE: "Huge Pits of Darkness, High Peaks of Light," in New Yorker, Vol. LXIV, No. 45, December 26, 1988, pp. 91-5.

[In the following review of Rock and Hawk, Vendler provides an overview of Jeffers's career, concluding Jeffers "will remain a notable but minor poet. "]

The poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) is periodically resurrected. Stanford University Press is bringing out his complete poems in four sumptuous volumes; and from the ashes of The Selected Poetry (1938), compiled by Jeffers himself, and of a second selection, compiled in 1965 by anonymous editors at Random House, there now arises a third, Rock and Hawk (Random House), selected by the Californian poet Robert Hass. Jeffers' own Selected ran to six hundred and twenty-two pages, the second to a hundred and eleven, and the new one—handsomely produced—is two hundred and ninety pages long and contains over a hundred short poems. Hass has dropped Jeffers' swollen narrative poems (ranging from fifty to ninety pages apiece), which have now sunk in critical estimation, though in the thirties they made Jeffers' name and brought him an adulation normally reserved for religious cult figures. Even reduced to his shorter works, Jeffers remains, it seems to me, a finally unsatisfying poet—coarse, limited, and defective in self-knowledge. Some modulation of intelligence or sensibility is missing from his writing. But because Jeffers was a man of very unusual linguistic equipment and literary training, because he felt so deeply compelled to poetry that he sequestered himself in Carmel and wrote obsessively, and because he had an extraordinary fame in both poetry and drama, his work asks for a scrutiny no one would bother to give to amateur writing. He has had warm defenders of his craggy philosophy—Czeslaw Milosz most recently—and impatient detractors, like Yvor Winters and Kenneth Rexroth (the California competition). It is not his opinions I would quarrel with. His descriptions of nature are made with an intent eye; his sensibility declares itself with apparent sincerity; his lexical range is enviable. And yet I resist grouping him not only with his greater contemporaries—Eliot and Frost—but even with such lesser contemporaries as Moore and Williams.

Robert Hass, in an earnest, intelligent, and winning essay prefacing this selection, gives an honest account of various unpleasant qualities he finds in Jeffers' work. Among the adjectives he resorts to are "pretentious," "repetitious," "bombastic," "humorless," "fuzzy," "obsessed," and "hysterical." Yet Hass's essay is fundamentally a defense of Jeffers, founded on his admiration for Jeffers' "truly obsessed and original imagination." Hass sets this internal power against what actually appeared from Jeffers' pen: "The most dangerous thing that can be said of him, I think, is that he was verbally careless." The risky division that Hass draws between imagination and writing may be dear to the heart of every poet; it is certainly, in some cases, dear to me. The extent to which any imaginative ardor outstrips its verbal after-image is commemorated in Shelley's vivid Biblical image: "The mind in creation is as a fading coal…. When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline." Beloved poets are valued for their imagination even in their less accomplished moments. But the distinction between fire and fading is rarely invoked for the whole of a poet's work. Hass seems to want us to take Jeffers' entire œuvre as the work of a vivid imagination that never quite found its exact verbal body. Hass perhaps extrapolates backward to the glowing coal in Jeffers, while I see the fading embers, the extant works. It is not humorlessness or bombast I mind (after all, Coleridge accused Wordsworth of just these faults), nor is it hysteria and obsession (which are everywhere in, say, Eliot and Plath). Even pretentiousness and fuzziness might pass (they are not absent from Whitman).

In an attempt to explain objections to Jeffers, Hass suggests that modern critics, uncomfortable with poetic statement, were seeking, and not finding in Jeffers, the modernist hermetic symbol (Eliot's rose garden, Stevens' pigeons sinking downward to darkness). Yet that account is unsatisfactory: critics showed themselves willing to praise Frost's plain speaking and Eliot's long discursive passages in the "Quartets." What, then, is it that fails to compel acquiescence to Jeffers' verse? My short answer would be "His moral timidity." Since I mean that phrase to apply to the morality of art, and not only to the morality of practical life, it may need some explanation.

Jeffers, though he seems not to have realized it, had a painful childhood. His father was a clergyman whose first wife died; he married again, and he was forty-eight when "Robin" was born. Biographers agree that Jeffers believed he loved his parents, and equally agree that behind the violent and incestuous family dramas that appear in his plays and poems there may have been some troubled Oedipal feelings toward his mother, who was in her twenties when she bore him. They also surmise that Jeffers as a child confused his father (a professor of Old Testament at the Western Theological Seminary of Pittsburgh) with God, and that his subsequent fierce atheism and his philosophy of scientific "Inhumanism" were the other side of the Presbyterian beliefs of his childhood. After severe paternal instruction in Latin and Greek and after European travel with his parents, the young Jeffers was apparently too unusual to fit in with other Pittsburgh schoolchildren, and he had a lonely youth. Between the ages of twelve and fifteen, he attended European boarding schools while his parents roamed about Europe and the Near East. Eventually, the family moved to Pasadena, and at eighteen Jeffers graduated from Occidental College. He went on to U.S.C., and there met a young married woman, Una Call Kuster, whom he married eight years later, after she was divorced. Jeffers' graduate work was in science, and was perhaps undertaken in an attempt to find a comprehensive world view different from that of his father. In 1912, Jeffers published his first book of poems, at his own expense; in 1913, he married Una; in 1914, they went by stagecoach to Carmel, built a house, and settled in for life. Their first child, a daughter, died; they then had twin sons. During the ten years after the publication of his fourth book, Roan Stallion (1925), Jeffers became an internationally famous man: a consciously Byronic studio portrait by Edward Weston ornaments the 1938 Selected Poetry, and Hass tells us that in the thirties Jeffers appeared on the cover of Time and in the pages of Vogue. His reputation, though it was somewhat resuscitated by Judith Anderson's 1947 appearance in his Medea, has since declined; his achievements (praised by Edwin Arlington Robinson and Mark Van Doren in the early years but disputed even then by Yvor Winters and later by R. P. Blackmur) continue to perplex evaluation.

Once Jeffers had found his free-verse style and his topics—the sublimity of nature, sexual violence, and the pettiness or degeneracy of mankind—nothing further seems to have happened fundamentally to his mind or his writing. This is agreed on by all. Hass sees some superficial mellowing in the later work. "The mind has relaxed somewhat," he says of the poetry of the last years, but he adds that Jeffers "still hammers away at his religious convictions." Not much, in short, has changed at the center. This permanent arrest at the point of youthful self-discovery is the central fact to be confronted by any commentator on Jeffers.

It is not that Jeffers did not work on his art. He learned to purge out a good deal of his earlier grotesquerie, lines of the sort we find in, say, "Tamar," where Tamar asks the dead:

More troubling than the surplus of the grotesque is Jeffers' never-purged sadism. Tamar's brother, sexually jealous, takes up a whip to flog her:

Passages like these suggest that a braver artist than Jeffers would have dared to bring his sadistic impulses under some reflective scrutiny. Jeffers, instead, simply continued to act them out in verse, and, worse, to find in them a justified contempt for the human. His sadism is accompanied by a fascination with the socially deviant. Even when he does attempt some analysis of this obsession (he speculates, for instance, that some psychological deformity prompts figures such as Jesus and the Buddha to form religions), the tone of hectic interest and covert excitement persists, unexamined. Jeffers' primary defense against his fantasies of sexual deviation, torture, dissolution, and sadism was an affectation of "coldness": while the narratives and plays run riot with incest, necrophilia, women sexually interested in stallions, and so on, the haughty poet watches aloofly. This Sadean reaction to sexual obsession and physical torture becomes a mechanical one in Jeffers—one by which he seems helplessly manipulated.

It is scarcely possible to prescribe a dose of intelligence to a poet so intelligent, or a dose of feeling to one so hopelessly trapped in a groove of feeling, or a deflection of obsession to one so obsessed. On the other hand, unanalyzed obsession is the opposite of moral intelligence, of aesthetic inquiry, and of that modulation of poetic rhythm and tone which makes for melody in verse as in music. Jeffers' anvil chorus is finally boring.

The argument against an opera omnia of dominant brasses and percussion is not—though it may appear so—solely a stylistic argument. A ceaselessly curious investigation of a chosen medium is the quality that above all distinguishes artists from the mass of other people (preachers, teachers, journalists) who spend time communicating thoughts, messages, and personal responses in prose and verse. It is true that Jeffers spent some years exploring language, and that he developed an early form of personal idiom. While in Flagons and Apples (1912) and Callfornians (1916) he stumbles along in apprenticeship to Swinburne and Yeats, and especially to Robinson (the chief begetter of Jeffers' long narratives), by the time of Tamar and Other Poems (1924) Jeffers' long-breathed style has become recognizably his own. Hass's selection begins with poems from this book, which appeared when Jeffers was thirty-seven:

This is Jeffers at his spacious and lofty best. In his seventies, he is writing lines that sound very much the same:

In short, from thirty-five to seventy-five Jeffers did not change his writing in any artistically important way. By the time he was thirty-five, both his parents had died, and he had acquired his lifelong wife, his lifelong house, and his two children. Perhaps he was through with seeking, and was preoccupied with recording.

In what Hass calls an "explosion of work," Jeffers wrote between 1920 and 1938 "fifteen narrative poems ranging in length from ten to two hundred pages, four verse dramas, and almost two hundred lyric poems." A writer he certainly was: a modest private income and timely gifts from rich friends enabled him to live without a job, and he wrote every day. After shearing the "rhyme-tassels" (as he called them) from his verse, he devised his all-purpose unrhymed long line—a unit indebted, according to one of Jeffers' private notes, to Greek quantitative metres and to tidal rhythms. In this flexible line, which may also owe something to Whitman, Jeffers could say almost anything at any length, and did. The absence of a stanzaic exoskeleton sets problems for free-verse lyrics, since all poetic structure—tonal, logical, visual—must then come from an inner armature. Jeffers' turgid narratives (and Hass makes no brief for them) were carried by their violent plots, but plots of this sort could not govern his lyrics. In 1932, Jeffers sent some remarks on poetry versus prose to a student at Berkeley—remarks that seem to convey absolutely no idea of poetry as a form with a structure of its own, different from structures appropriate to narration or exposition. For Jeffers, poetry was simply more primitive, concrete, musical, emotional, imaginative, sensual, unspecialized, passionate, and celebratory than prose. It was, in fact, prose made rhythmic, intense, and exalted:

Poetic content (the feeling, thought, and expression of poetry) may be found in prose also and is only distinguished from that of prose by having more of certain qualities and less of certain others. The thought is more primitive and less specialized. Language is more figurative, giving concrete images rather than abstract ideas and cares more for its own music. Poetry appeals rather to the emotions than to the intelligence and especially to the aesthetic emotion. It appeals more eagerly than prose does to the imagination and to the bodily senses. It deals with the more permanent aspects of man and nature.

When Jeffers pressed himself to go beyond such a feeble theory of poetic content, his remarks tended to be about what the poetic line should exhibit—rhythm and "singing emphasis," alliteration and assonance. It seems odd, given his long acquaintance with Greek and Latin poetry, that his comments never turned naturally to lyric genres, to larger compositional masses, to the structural supports of lyric, or to the modulation over time which is natural to a temporal art—not to speak of the qualities of concision, surprise, volatility, and intimacy so native to the lyric.

We can attribute Jeffers' indifference to such matters largely to the fact that he was not actually writing lyric. He was writing oratory—a rhythmical, emotional, sensual, and imaginative public prose he had absorbed from the Greek political tradition. And his oratorical stridency seems to me that of a timid man having to prove himself durable and masculine. Lyric for him is an oratorical sermon designed to persuade others—not a probe designed to investigate himself and his medium. A friend who was present at the reading Jeffers gave at Harvard in 1941 recalls that at the reception Jeffers turned to the wall, face averted from the crowd. The poet's attitude was at that time interpreted as hauteur; it could equally well be interpreted as the panicky ill-ease of a friendless, freakish boy (even though Jeffers was then over fifty).

Hass has omitted from his collection some poems once notorious—among them certain war poems of the forties, like "The Bloody Sire" and "Cassandra." In "The Bloody Sire" Jeffers asks the question that exposes nakedly his instinctive conjunction of beauty, sex, religion, and murder:

Who would remember Helen's face
Lacking the terrible halo of spears?
Who formed Christ but Herod and Caesar,
The cruel and bloody victories of Caesar?
Violence, the bloody sire of all the world's

And in "Cassandra" he places himself, as prophet, above both gods and men, who equally connive against "the truth" (a phrase, dear to ideologues, that comes easily to Jeffers' lips):

Though the mellower Jeffers of the late sketches is an altogether more appealing fellow than this rigidly self-appointed denouncer of the degenerate mob, the essence of Jeffers' defensive and tormented personality lies more in the excessive poems (deleted, probably on grounds of taste, by Hass) than in the milder late woodnotes. Hass has also deleted the more maudlin of these, such as the posthumous speech of Jeffers' dead dog to him and his wife:

I hope that when you are lying

Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.
No, dears, that's too much hope: you are not so well cared for
As I have been.

By sparing us poems like this, Hass makes a better Selected than the 1965 one compiled by Random House. And in some late poems he shows us the Jeffers who had at the end of his life the grace to doubt the sufficiency of his aesthetic of brutality and its denigration of human life. In a glimpse of a sublimity not of nature (which he had always responded to) but of man the old Jeffers speculated:

Perhaps he realized that all the California peaks and abysses he had spent his life describing were less "inhuman" and "objective" than he had suspected, since he transfers them here to interior steeps and pits, emblems of a perilous subjectivity like that admitted by Hopkins—"O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed." In his most honest piece of self-examination Jeffers mused, late in life, on an anthology of Chinese poems—poems of a restrained aesthetic almost incomprehensible to him, since it got along without frenzied contempt, oratorical excess, lurid prophecy, or illogical lineation. His poem on the Chinese anthology is a genuine query, all defenses down. For the first time, Jeffers lifts his visor and gazes at Tu Fu and Li Po. In this most gentle of the late poems we see the Jeffers who might have been, relenting instead of relentless, curious rather than repudiatory, regretful instead of disdainful—damned, so to speak, to his own aesthetic of sublimity rather than boisterously electing it. Here is Jeffers' reluctant homage to discretion, gentleness, affection, friendship, and peace as aesthetic motives, and as a moral summa remote from his harsh Calvinism:

Jeffers' plaintive question "But why / Do their rocks have no weight?" is the cry of the Christian against the Confucian. Pound, contemplating the same Chinese poems, decided to try a weightlessness of his own, in phrases floating unmoored from the British solidity of blank verse. Jeffers, timid and unballasted among people, felt secured and ballasted by stone, weight, long lines, mass. His bluster—what Blackmur called "the flannel-mouthed inflation in the metric of Robinson Jeffers with his rugged rock-garden violence"—needs to be read as the long-maintained armor protecting him against an investigation into his own private terrors. Jeffers condemned "introversion" as the decadent practice of decadent cultures:

There is no health for the individual whose attention is taken up with his own mind and processes; equally there is no health for the society that is always introverted…. All past cultures have died of introversion.

He added, in a moment of monumental self-delusion, "I have often used incest as a symbol to express these introversions." Perhaps what this really means is that when he practiced introspection he found incest, and that the price of introspection was consequently too high. It might have been too high for any of us; but the price of finding introspection too dangerous is in the layperson a self-stalled identity and in the poet a self-stalled art. Jeffers, it appears to me, will remain a notable minor poet, the first to give an adequate description in verse of the scenery of the California coast. His ambitions as a moralist and prophet were defeated by his lack of genuine moral curiosity and its counterpart, an original moral vision. If Jeffers' harsh contempt for human history had been tempered by personal insight, and framed in a flexible style, we might now read his poems as we read those of Milosz.

Robert Zaller (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4604

SOURCE: "Spheral Eternity: Time, Form, and Meaning in Robinson Jeffers," in Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers, G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, pp. 252-65.

[In the following essay, Zaller discusses Jeffers's narratives in the context of Aristotelian tragedy.]

Aristotle, that famous law-giver, laid it down that the action of a tragedy should occur within twenty-four hours. He was thus the first to inscribe an arrow in a circle—the accomplishment of a perfected sequence of events in the orbit of a day's passage. Robinson Jeffers has been faithful, in his fashion, to this dictum; and part of the fascination with ancient tragedy that appears both in his retelling of the Greek stories and in the California narratives that evoke them lies in the tension between human praxis and natural process that Aristotle found in tragedy and saw, with unerring insight, as its essence. To be sure, Jeffers's narratives do not keep to the single alternation of day and night prescribed by Aristotle, but his world is wider, and his notion of human fate and cosmic necessity is far less rigidly deterministic than that of the ancient poets. The essence of his art is still, however, like theirs, the inscription of human meaning within natural process.

If Jeffers owed his basic perception of the tensions between the human and the natural to the Greeks, he expressed it within a consciousness informed by Christian eschatology and the language of modern science. For the ancients, the relation of human time to that of cosmic process, however problematic, was linked by a shared nature. With the Christian appropriation of Neoplatonism, however, the temporal drama of human salvation was imposed on the natural world, subjecting it to a transcendent order that implicitly devalued and ultimately subsumed it. Jeffers regarded this as a vast and corrupting mistake, a myth that did not reflect or interpret reality but usurped it. The result was to obscure men from themselves no less than from the world. The Greeks had dealt frankly with incest and familicide as generically human violations of the natural order, and they sought to expiate them through tragic reenactment. Christianity repressed this painful but necessary consciousness as sin, subordinating all drama and ritual to the rite of redemption, as it had subordinated the temporality of natural process to that of divine history.

As Christianity had been (at least from this standpoint) a corruption of Neoplatonism, so secular humanism was a corrupted form of Christianity. Christianity had replaced the ancient relation between man and cosmos with a radical dichotomy between matter and spirit, self and world, time and eternity. The humanism which replaced a decadent Christianity in turn did not abandon the promise of salvation but recast it in political terms (from "Mother Church" to "Father State," as Jeffers sardonically put it) [Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers]. By making humanity the author of its own salvation, humanism fed what the ancients would have recognized as hubris, whose symptoms Jeffers described as introversion and the denial of temporal succession—in its extremest form, the denial of time itself—and which he depicted, as the Greeks had, by incest, sexual inversion, and familicide.

Humanism had captured not only politics (in the form of mass democracy, fascism, and communism) but philosophy as well. Kant had made reality a construct of the human intellect; by suppressing the transcendental pole of his thought, Marxists, utilitarians, pragmatists, and positivists made the real itself a product, in John Passmore's phrase, of the "community of finite selves." Set against this, however, was the enterprise of modern science. As humanism had contracted reality to the social organism, science expanded the cosmos forward in space and backward in time, dwarfing human presumption with a scale so vast as to humble the imagination. Jeffers saw science as ethically but not ontologically netural, for it proclaimed the cosmos as value, and by grounding itself in empirical observation and experiment it affirmed its material substratum as well. But science, too, was corruptible, and partook of its epoch; in "Prescription of Painful Ends," Jeffers linked "the immense vulgarities of misapplied science and decaying Christianity," and, in a moment of disgust, he likened the human race to a "botched experiment." Harnessed to the destructive impulses of cultural introversion, science could only hasten the impending collapse. It afforded, perhaps, a refuge, but no escape.

Nonetheless, science provided Jeffers with a perspective that, like the cosmogonie speculations of Lucretius and Empedocles before him, was the basis of a redemptive vision. The perception of beauty and the contemplation of order, he contended, afforded satisfaction to the senses and the intellect, discipline to the will, and peace to the mind. Yet truth to tragedy—fidelity to lived experience—demanded that human time be related to sidereal time, demanded narrative. Between the individual and the cosmos, however, stood a third term, the measure of collective human activity called history. History gave perspective to the individual act as cosmic evolution did to the world's daily occasion. As humanity was comprehended in nature, so history was assimilated in the wider entelechy of the universe.

Broadly speaking, the three major modes in which Jeffers wrote—narrative, meditative, and lyric—corresponded to the three tropes of time—personal, historical, and cosmic—in which the drama of being had its play. The three modes were freely woven through the fabric of individual poems; the narratives were punctuated by lyric or meditative strophes, while the predominantly meditative poems frequently took lyric or dramatic observation as their point of departure, and the lyric ones seldom lacked a meditative or didactic point. Some of the poems—"A Redeemer," "An Artist," "Steelhead," and "Going to Horse Flats" come to mind—are deliberately hybrid, consisting of lyric meditations set off by dramatic scenes. While particular poems may resist categorization, however, the modes remain distinct.

As the modes are mixed within the poems, so, consequently, are the temporal tropes that correspond to them. It would be difficult, if not bootless, to say which element was structurally primary, since temporal differentiation is always so present in Jeffers's consciousness. A mere glance at his titles will confirm not only his preoccupation with time but also its importance as an ordering principle in his verse and thought: "The Year of Mourning," "Dream of the Future," "Ante Mortem," "Post Mortem," "Solstice," "The Cycle," "At the Birth of an Age," "At the Fall of an Age," "Birth and Death," "Birthday," "Return," "Now Returned Home," "Resurrection," "No Resurrection," "Time of Disturbance," "Believe History," "The Day Is a Poem," "Moments of Glory," "New Year's Dawn, 1947," "End of the World," "The Beginning and the End."

As we have noted, Jeffers keeps to no set time scheme in his narratives, but their action tends to follow seasonal patterns and variations, often with a high degree of specificity. Thus, the opening of "Tamar," depicting the drunken, near-fatal fall of Lee Cauldwell, is set not with calendral but sidereal time: "grave Orion / Moved northwest from the naked shore, the moon moved to meridian." It is only several stanzas later that this is converted into calendral time: "he that fell in December / Walked in the February fields." But Orion is invoked again as Lee's sister, Tamar, recalls that their aunt, Stella, had foreseen him lying injured under Orion's sky in a vision. (The association of the name Stella itself with the sky is too obvious to required comment.)

Lee dismisses Stella's prophecy as without significance, just as he interprets his accident as banally as possible, seeing it as a call to abjure his youthful sins and become "decent." It is Tamar who returns to the shore where her brother had fallen to undergo a symbolic purgation of her humanity, rising for an instant beyond good and evil to bear "a third part / With the ocean and keen stars in the consistence / And dignity of the world," The twist of perspective recalls Jeffers's comment in "Thurso's Landing" that humanity could shine "at stricken moments … terribly against the dark magnificence of things" and the observation on tragedy in a late poem, "The World's Wonders": "Lear becomes as tall as the storm he crawls in." The willingness to suffer extremity, and even, as in Tamar's case, to willfully seek it, is tied to the sense of human destiny that tragedy reflects. Humanity is pathetic and admirable for the same reason, pathetic in its vulnerability to pain, but admirable, in singular individuals, in its ability to endure it. To quote the previously cited passage in full:

But pain is never properly sought for itself; it is the by-product of action, and action is the product of desire. Only in the tragic poet are these instrumentalities welded together. For the tragic protagonist, in Jeffers's view, the satisfaction of desire is the end of action; for the poet, it is the means whereby the revelation of suffering is accomplished. Suffering in itself, of course, has no value, but suffering plus endurance—the tragic virtue—is value.

So central was the notion of accepted suffering to Jeffers that the conceived of God himself as ultimately Promethean, and being—the material emanation of Godhead—as a con dition of pain. He expressed this vision most directly in the speech of the Hanged God in "At the Birth of an Age":

In God alone, however, was willed suffering a value for Jeffers, since God alone could not suffer except by willing. Suffering, he thought, was all we can know of God, since it was only in this attribute that he was intimately revealed to us, only this attribute that we could share, and only by participation in it that we could aspire towards him: "a tortured Jew became God."

We can thus begin to understand Jeffers's conception of humanity's place in the cosmos. Each person was, he said, one of God's sense-organs, immoderately alerted to feel"; but his distinguishing characteristic was consciousness:

Consciousness represented for Jeffers a principle of return from the created world towards its creator. In consciousness, the "splendor" of creation became apparent for the first time in the form of beauty, which Jeffers described as "the human mind's translation of the transhuman / intrinsic glory." But beauty posed, inevitably, the question of derivation, and, with that, the quest for origin. Thus consciousness took God as its ultimate subject, while God, by the same token, objectified himself in humanity as well. Consciousness was in this sense a participation in the divine, and a vehicle of its self-transformation. The import of this process was not to be fathomed; as Jeffers remarked succinctly, "[God] being sufficient might be still." But the task it imposed on consciousness was not mere contemplative understanding but tragic action, the imitatio Dei. This was fulfilled—could only be fulfilled—in suffering.

We may now put Jeffers's vision of tragedy in perspective. The setting of his narratives is the California coast, but their space implies cosmic depth. Indeed, the coast itself assumed for Jeffers the aspect of a cosmic stage whose grandeur seemed to reflect the immanence of the divine agon:

Similarly, while strictly narrative time was the duration of accomplished action, significant time was the time necessary for the tragic protagonist to assume the burden of pain that bound him to the divine agon. The prototypically tragic figures for Jeffers were Oedipus and Lear, and, historically, Jesus:

Jeffers's tragic exemplars were Cawdor in the poem that bears his name, Reave Thurso in Thurso's Landing, and Lance Fraser in Give Your Heart to the Hawks. These protagonists—the first middle-aged, the other two young but prematurely grave—are all ranchers, bluff and stolid men who not only have no desire to transgress limits but seem almost obsessively determined to live within them. They seek not power but only control, and what betrays them is not hubris but jealousy and resentment.

Cawdor, a man of fifty, unwisely takes a young wife, Fera Martial. Fera falls in love with Cawdor's son Hood, who rejects her advances. Vengefully, she tells Cawdor that Hood has raped her, and he kills him in a fit of rage. Consumed by grief and despair, he becomes monumental in his anguish, and threatening to those around him. When Fera at last confesses the truth, he admits his own guilt, and forestalls the judgment of others by putting out his own eyes. Even this, however, seems to him "mere indulgence": "'I'd not the strength,'" he says, "'to do nothing.'"

A similar tale is told in Give Your Heart to the Hawks. Lance Fraser surprises his brother Michael making love to his wife Fayne after a druken picnic, and he hurls him over a cliff. Lance's instinct is to confess, but Fayne persuades him to keep silent: "'What we have done / Has to be borne. It's in ourselves and there's no escaping, / The state of California can't help you bear it.'" Fayne hopes that time will ease his sense of guilt, and Jeffers, in an ironic passage, seems to agree:

Lance's guilt only intensifies, however. He seeks judgment from his father, but, finding none, gashes his hands to the bone on barbed wire in an attempt to divert himself from his moral agony, and finally leaps to his own death.

Reave Thurso, like Fraser and Cawdor, has an unfaithful wife, Helen. Reave's crime is not against law but against nature; wanting to control what he cannot possess, he forces Helen to return to a loveless marriage. His punishment is physical: attempting to cut the cable of his father's abandoned lime kiln that hangs like a symbol of his own failure above him, he is crushed and left paralyzed when it swings back on him. Lying helpless in a pain he can only assuage by the drugs he refuses to take, Reave discovers that "pain is the solidest thing in the world, it has hard edges, / I think it has a shape and might be handled." In Fraser and Cawdor, pain is mixed with guilt, and thus it distracts the will; for Reave, however, it becomes the will's very project, the most difficult and therefore the most necessary thing in the world to master. Paralysis has stripped away all else in his life, and pain is the only meaning left: if it ever ceased, he says, "I'd have to lie and burn my fingers with matches." Reave in fact dies unconquered; he is slain by Helen, who takes her own life in turn.

Cawdor, Thurso, and Fraser are all men on whom pain descends as a burden to be ceaselessly and immutably borne. Their endurance is not passive, however. It requires all the fortitude of which these supremely willful men are capable; it is, for all of them finally, the ultimate project of the will. In virtually all the narratives of Jeffers's classic phase, the action of the story may well be called a pretext for the occasion of pain; the crippling blow, be it physical or psychological, is the crux of the drama, and the remainder of the poem—in the extreme case of Give Your Heart to the Hawks, sixty-nine of eighty pages—is in each case devoted to the protagonist's struggle with pain and its effects on others. It is, needless to say, the moral character of this struggle that concerns Jeffers, and gives his depiction of agony the redeeming power of art.

With this in mind, we can more fully understand the choral apostrophe from Give Your Heart to the Hawks quoted above. Jeffers, addressing his own characters as "ignorant penitents," tells them that Lance Fraser has not "hurt" his brother in slaying him, for he has spared him the pain that would inevitably have been his lot in this life. These remarks seem to undermine the moral coherence of the poem, for they suggest that pain has no redemptive value and that grief should be temperate. But tragedy is precisely what exceeds the norm of life, and, by means of transfiguring pain, gives access to the divine. Were not certain natures predisposed to suffer this excess, the tragic epiphany, the imitatio Dei, would not be possible. Thus, while Jeffers's counsel to temper grief and avoid pain is entirely appropriate from an ordinary human perspective—indeed, is the only appropriate counsel from such a perspective—it has no applicability in the tragic realm; and the very function of theapostrophe is precisely to set off the merely human action of the poem from its tragic consequences.

In terms of our earlier distinction, Jeffers's tragic protagonists step from the arena of ordinary, personal experience—the place where, in the words of the prophet, there is to every thing a season—into the unbounded cosmos of the divine agon, where pain, as a manifestation of the divine essence, is inexhaustible and indivisible. Their suffering, that is, remains rooted in material cause—the act or event which, slight in itself from a cosmic perspective, casts them beyond atonement, and separates them from humanity. To those around them, their steadfast self-punishment seems monstrous and perverse. They seem fixated on a single deed that excludes all other meaning; in other words, they refuse to let time flow, and thereby heal. In the tragic realm, however, their acts are immitigable, because in this realm, the realm of epiphany, time does not flow, succession does not exist, and the divine wound is never stanched.

Tragic consciousness in this full and final sense, as the revelation of divinity, is beyond such men as Cawdor, Thurso, and Fraser, blunt skeptics who are, if anything, confirmed in their unbelief by the experience of suffering. They participate in the divine agon without realizing it, and their rejection of all consolation is the quality that perfects their suffering. They are "ignorant penitents," or, as Jeffers suggests elsewhere, the apes of God; and, like apes, their function is to mimic without understanding.

In so defining his heroes, Jeffers remained faithful to the spirit of Greek tragedy, in which the cosmic order can only be fully revealed by the acts which defy it. On the plane of history as well, he contended that the great religious founders were driven by inner shame or conflict, the epistemic equivalent of the tragic flaw. His paradigm was the figure of Jesus, which he explored in a number of poems, most notably the verse drama Dear Judas, a work contemporary with the California narratives we have considered here.

Dear Judas is set in the suspended time of Noh drama, whose protagonists enact their passions in the form of ritual. They are "nearly unfleshed of time," "fading" into eternity, Jeffers says; yet the Jesus-figure notes with exactitude that nineteen hundred years have passed since his passion first transpired, which places the poem in the historic present as well. This apposition seems to indicate the waning of Christian belief, whose final eclipse will release Jesus and his fellow performers from their purgatorial ritual. Jesus exists in both dimensions; he suffers his passion as if for the first time, and yet is conscious of it as repetition, repetition with a term.

This perception encapsulates Jeffers's view of historic time, which he saw, with Nietzsche, as a form of cyclical recurrence. Jeffers's concern was not whether exact persons or events would recur, but rather to assimilate historic time to cosmic process by showing homologous patterns of events. On the level of personal experience, this took the form of the archetypal passions incarnated by individuals; on the historic one, of the ebb and flow of great civilizations. Jeffers in fact pursued parallel projects in the 1920s and 1930s designed to illustrate this symmetry, alternating the narratives of the California coast, which depicted the fate of individuals, with the verse dramas (Dear Judas, At the Fall of an Age, At the Birth of an Age, The Bowl of Blood), which portrayed the crises of Western civilization.

At the same time, Jeffers commented on the relation between the great religious founders and their civilizations in such poems as "Meditation on Saviors" and "Theory of Truth," and, in a series of meditative and didactic poems from "The Broken Balance" (1929) to "Prescription of Painful Ends" (1941), on the cyclical nature of historical experience and impending decline of the West. He was thus able to link personal to historical time, and the historical cycle to cosmic process, in an overarching pattern of recurrence. The latter relationship is evoked with particular effectiveness in "Prescription of Painful Ends":

The image of the horse, with its portent of fatigue and collapse, is checked by that of the stars, whose duration is indefinite, though their extinction is certain. Jeffers thus combines gathering force and momentum with protracted duration, thereby suggesting the great scale of the event, and assimilating it to the cycles of cosmic change. At the same time, he suggests that the nature of historical process is necessarily concealed; the acceleration toward doom is portrayed as a mechanized advance ("slip, shift and speedup"), and, by a deliberately archaized usage, "progress," the promise of improvement, is stood on its head as the process of decay.

The suggestion that historical decay inevitably masked itself as progress and enlightenment was the most radical aspect of Jeffers's cultural pessimism. In the modern world, this decadent progress manifested itself most clearly in the post-Nietzschean injunction to overthrow conventional restraints and personal inhibitions. The result was an exaltation of the will, portrayed by Jeffers in the personae of Tamar Cauldwell, the Clytemnestra of "The Tower Beyond Tragedy," his verse adaptation of the Oresteia, and Arthur Barclay in The Women at Point Sur. If Cawdor, Thurso, and Fraser represent the negative exercise of the will as endurance, these earlier protagonists embody it as an assertion against the limits of existence as such. Tamar seeks nothing less than a reversal of the temporal ordinance itself. "All times are now," she declares, "to-day plays on last year and the inch of our future / Made the first morning of the world." Tamar not only assumes the temporal perspective of divinity, seeing the world as simultaneity and recurrence, but asserts a divine potency: "I am the fountain." When her megalomania (inevitably) collapses, she consumes the small world of her family and farmstead in a holocaust.

These key images of fire and fountain are repeated by Clytemnestra in her address to her lover, Aegisthus: "I'd burn the standing world / Up to this hour and begin anew. You think I am too much used for a new brood? Ah, lover /I have fountains in me." Aegisthus, a merely conventional sinner, counsels moderation: "We may pass nature a little, an arrow flight, / But two shots over the wall you come in a cloud upon the feasting Gods, lightning and madness." The "arrow" of individual action, even of vengeance and murder, must remain inscribed within the sphere of prescription. To come upon the gods is a catastrophe; to aspire towards them, unthinkable. But this is precisely what Clytemnestra does, and when she acknowledges that "It's not a little / You easily living lords of the sky require of who'd be like you," it is only to steel herself further for whatever may be necessary.

Unlike Tamar and Clytemnestra, who ultimately seek power on a merely personal level, Arthur Barclay is a savior, a man who would become a god for others. Such men—as Jeffers asserted in "Meditation on Saviors"—were the founders of great civilizations, which flourished as long as the metaphor of divinity they provided remained vivid. But the decadence of founding myths was as essential as their ripening; renewal could not come until the full course had been run. The Women at Point Sur was written in the aftermath of World War I, when Jeffers's sense of the West's decadence was particularly acute: "You kept the beast under till the fountain's poisoned, / He drips with mange and stinks through the oubliette window" (CP, 241). But Jeffers imagined Arthur Barclay as a product of his time's sickness, not as its cure. The West, as Jeffers had concluded by the time of "Prescription of Painful Ends," had its Byzantiums and Alexandrias yet ahead of it, and many false prophets to follow before a new messiah might, perhaps, appear.

Jeffers was skeptical whether civilization could transcend its need for myth, the apprehension of the true by means of the false. Communal truth, he felt, would always be partial, distorted, and transitory; and history followed from that fact. But if every man were obliged to endure history, it did not follow that he was necessarily bound by it. Again and again, Jeffers counseled what he called finally a "reasonable detachment" from the historical moment. This detachment was not to be gained by denial of or indifference to the world. One had to live the life of one's time no less than the times of one's life, and quietism was no more acceptable a response on the historical plane than suicide was on the personal one. Rather, detachment was the fruit of a deep, contemplative engagement with the natural, nonhuman world, and the perception of divinity that was its basis:

Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes;
Things are the God, you will love God, and not in vain,
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature.

Jeffers's own verse was the best testimony of his conviction that "Things are the God." For more than four decades, he celebrated the beauty of his chosen coast and the divinity he found manifested in it with the direct lyric earnestness of a religious witness. But if the natural world was the most immediate revelation of value, humanity too—as Jeffers never ceased to insist—was part of it, and to ignore the human pathos within the transhuman splendor was as much an error as the cultural self-absorption that had cut man off from his root in nature, and blocked the sight of God. The coast, as Jeffers noted, "cried out" for tragedy; man was implicated in landscape, and in a special (though not salvific) way, in divinity as well. Only by living all the times of man—the personal one of passional experience, the collective one of history, and the cosmic one of natural process and divine immanence—could the human condition be seen in proper perspective, and its terms accepted.

Jeffers did create one character who attains fully to such a perspective through purgative suffering and religious exaltation. In "The Tower Beyond Tragedy," Clytemnestra represents the misdirected passion for power, and the prophetess Cassandra, who is punished by seeing divine motion through human eyes, the terror of an unmediated perception of cosmic process. The hero Orestes experiences both trials, and emerges with a vision of final cosmic order:

Orestes' experience is not of a static order, but of one whose "eternity" is manifested in the flux and reflux of phenomena and bound by the sphere of recurrence. It is the vision of Jeffers's temporal beatitude, of a world that, perfected in God, is never finished. Such a world can only be expressed in terms of contradiction because it is a contradiction, a world which is both endless and bounded, active in repose, and "passionately at peace" ("Night"). The contradiction remains, too, between the individual and the historical community. "Let each man make his health in his own mind," Jeffers counsels in "Meditation on Saviors," and Orestes, alone among all his creations, perhaps does this; but he writes as well in "The Beaks of Eagles" that "It is good for man / To try all changes, progress and corruption … not to go down the dinosaur's way / Until all his capacities have been explored"; to remain, to the last, the ape of God.

Nicholas Everett (review date 1994)

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SOURCE: "The Inhumanist," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4782, November 25, 1994, pp. 10-11.

[In this review of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Everett finds Jeffers's doctrine of "inhumanism " incompatible with the demands of tragic narrative and suggests that the poet's lyric achievements will prove more enduring than his narratives.]

Despite their commitment to transcendence, religious writers usually want to persuade us not only that there is an persuade us not only that there is an accessible higher plane of existence but that our lives within society will be all the richer for our efforts to reach it. Robinson Jeffers's religious vision was by contrast defiantly antisocial. Taking to its extreme the familiar mystical preference for the objects of awe over the objects of emotion, he saw nature as absolute reality and humanity as just one of its many ephemeral and negligible accretions. "It is easy to see that a tree, a rock, a star are beautiful", he explained in a letter to a puzzled student, but "hard to see that people are beautiful unless you consider them as part of the universe—the divine whole." His obsessive message was that we should "uncenter our minds from ourselves" and regard ourselves chiefly as parts of nature rather than as members of society. For Wordsworth, love of nature led to love of mankind; for Jefferson, love of nature was an end in itself, attended more often than not by scorn for mankind.

As several critics have suggested, this extreme, dualistic stance must have owed something to the Calvinism of his father (a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology) though Jeffers always maintained it was derived from, and consistent with, modern (i.e., late nineteenth-century) science, in whose expanding scheme human history occupied a newly insignificant place. Whatever its provenance, it played a large part in both making and breaking his poetic reputation. The first published work in which he developed these ideas—Tamar and Other Poems, privately printed in 1924 when he was thirty-seven, and the expanded commercial edition which appeared the following year—earned him sudden and enormous, if comparatively late, critical acclaim. In particular, the long narrative poems set in the mid-Californian coastal mountains (where Jeffers settled with his family in 1914 and remained until his death in 1962), "Tamar" and "Roan Stallion" (1925), and the dramatic narrative, "The Tower Beyond Tragedy" (1924), a version of the Oresteia, were celebrated for their powerful, elemental vision of human destructiveness. The eponymous heroine of "Tamar" (a considerably altered version of the story in the Book of Samuel), herself the product of incest, seduces her brother and father, then bars their exit from a burning house, perishing with them but with a strong suggestion that she will rise phoenix-like from the ashes to claim the lives of future generations. The daring choice of subject-matter seemed to have been more than justified by the sobriety and dignity of its treatment. Here, many felt, was an American poet who could compete with the ancient Greeks.

In fact, Jeffers had intended sexuality (the "furious longing to join the sewers of two bodies"), and especially incest, as symbols of human "introversion"—our obsessive interest with ourselves and each other at the expense of the broader world around us. Encouraged by his success, he was also bemused by the failure of even the most adulatory reviewers to understand what he was going on about. So, in fifteen years of extraordinary productivity, he published ten more tragic narratives, four more dramatic poems and dozens of shorter ones, making his message increasingly clear and finally giving it the provocative but unappealing title of "inhumanism". Not everyone could live with this twin battery of familial violence and austere philosophy; and for many who could, the poems occasioned by the Second World War proved too much, if not because of their neutral and isolationist stance then because of their callously detached perspective on specific sufferings. "A star gives light, / So does a burning city full of dead bodies" reflects the protagonist of "Mara", "Warsaw's burning's no worse than Arcturus burning." Few could agree when Jeffers said of the possible nuclear conflict that "Pity and terror / Are not appropriate for events on this scale watched from this level; admiration is all." From what level, one wonders, and how did Jeffers get there?

If this is the "reasonable detachment" Jeffers advocated as "a rule of conduct", it is nevertheless not the inhuman truth he claimed it was but a human fantasy, and no more objective or scientific than the idea of a benevolent deity. Environmentalists have had to be very selective in adopting Jeffers as a champion of their cause, since, though he explicitly deplored urban encroachments on his beloved wilderness, his would-be universal perspective can be used just as logically to accept, and even justify, as to condemn the destruction of the planet's surface. It is also all but impossible to sustain, especially with regard to our own lives and the lives of those around us, a problem to which the longer narratives draw surprisingly strong attention.

Indeed, in this respect the long poems are the small print on the Jeffers manifesto: tedious, wordy, overlong but full of unignorable qualifications to the promises of his message. Mark van Doren can't have been the only reader who has taken one of them (in his case. The Women at Point Sur, 1927) as a refutation of what it was intended to substantiate. Despite their sparsely populated mountainous settings, their atmosphere is predominantly claustrophobic, the scenes often inside a house or a character's head, the characters hemmed in by family and self; when they do escape into the vast landscape, they are liable to confront ghostly doubles who pull them back into the social and psychological conflicts they were running from.

Only three characters, in all, actually achieve the exalted inhumanist position while alive (Orestes in "The Tower Beyond Tragedy", California in "Roan Stallion", and the Old Man in the first part of The Double Axe, 1948), and for each there is a considerable price to pay. California, for instance, must shoot the horse which has given her a mystical experience of transcendence because it has trampled her husband to death; she's glad to be rid of the husband, who was a brute himself, but can't stop herself reverting to type and taking the human side. Mostly, the characters can't rise above the human sphere except by dying, as the conclusion of Give Your Heart to the Hawks (1933) illustrates in a moment of unintended bathos. Fayne Fraser is exhorting her husband Lance to dismiss his guilt about murdering his brother by viewing the deed as one of the many inevitable and insignificant acts of violence in the earth's history; he patiently hears her out, admits she is right and leaps from a cliff to his death. Finally, in the later narratives, even death isn't enough to guarantee escape. The protagonist of "The Love and the Hate" (the first part of The Double Axe) has been killed in a Second World War battle, but can find no rest until he has dragged his rotting corpse, his stomach a gaping wound, back to California to murder his father for encouraging him to enlist.

Despite Jeffers's triumphant detachment, his vision belongs properly to the realm not of modern science but of ancient superstition, as he effectively admitted in "Apology for Bad Dreams", his defence of the persistent violence in his stories:

The tragic narratives were ritual sacrifices designed to appease, and thus protect his family from, the random forces of destruction. Lending the term "omniscient narrator" a new and scary nuance, their author behaves like a jealous and increasingly predictable God, killing off family after family, as if he must repeatedly acknowledge his own powerlessness before the unpredictable violence of the universe. The impression that grows and solidifies as the stories unfold is that, for Jeffers, whether consciously or unconsciously, to imagine even the possibility of happiness would have been as good as inviting the wolves to the feast. It is hard to think of a more extended case in literature of imaging the worst to stop it from happening.

Admirably and humanly humble though these motives are, the lofty and careless vision of humanity is a skewed expression of them and remains unpersuasive and objectionable. It is one thing to adopt and recommend a theocentric view, but quite another to regard humanity as you imagine God does. "No one with impunity / gives himself the eyes of a God", says Czeslaw Milosz in his poem "To Robinson Jeffers". When Jeffers stops looking knowingly back on humanity from a wholly fantasized divine or "objective" standpoint and starts looking ignorantly out towards God or nature, his poetry immediately becomes much more sympathetic, thereby confirming his essential point. He rarely keeps this up for long in the shorter poems, though, before his prophetic aspirations get the better of him. Almost all his admirers praise his discursive and didactic manner, not least for going against the twentieth-century grain, and blame the rise of modernist and New Critical values—with their prejudice against a poetry of directly stated ideas—for diminishing his reputation. It is not the didactic method in itself, however, but its inappropriate conjunction with his message which accounts for the main weakness of his work. As he frequently insisted in his many poetic studies of saviours and artists, but failed to realize in his own practice, the inhumanist position is peculiarly inimical to clear rational exposition and explanation. Only so much can be said—that we should look outwards to nature, not inwards to ourselves. A central aim for many post-Romantic poets has been to discover effective metaphorical procedures to overcome the pathetic fallacy and present themselves as a function of existence rather than vice versa. Jeffers would have served his purpose much better had he not so often let impotent, abstract assertions compromise—and sometimes altogether replace—his attempts to do the same.

As far as the course of twentieth-century poetry is concerned, then, Jeffers's work is an exception that proves the rule. His poetry only really takes off when he can resist the temptations of facile pontification and stay with the rigours of descriptive lyric, "surrendering himself to unpolemical nature" (as the critic John Elder puts it) instead of telling others to do so. To this end, he developed an effective form derived in part from Anglo-Saxon verse and from Hopkins. Alternate long and short accentual lines (usually ten and five stresses respectively) combined with more or less heavy alliteration and assonance enable the poetry's occasional flights from its relaxed conversational base into more purely lyrical intensities; where metaphor matches form—as, for instance, in "Birds", where the "cries of a couple of sparrowhawks" pierce like "arrows shot through a curtain the noise of the ocean / Trampling its granite"—the natural scene is suddenly and vividly arrested. Unfortunately, anthologists prefer the sensational poet ("I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk") to the poet of sensation and so tend to neglect the lyrics, such as "Return", in which thought and instruction yield to experience and desire:

Jeffers's minor lyric achievements will prove of more enduring value, I suspect, than the ambitious prophetic and narrative works for which he is still most famous. Like Edna St Vincent Millay and Edwin Arlington Robinson, contemporaries with whom he corresponded and shared poems, he didn't substantially extend but worked within Romantic tradition, adapting its forms and ideas all the same in his few really successful poems to apprehend the earthly wilderness in his own distinctive manner.

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