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.
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.
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 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."