Jeffers, Robinson 1887–1962
Jeffers was an American narrative poet. His poems were often structured around Biblical and classical sources.
Mr. Jeffers is … much admired by Californians for the beauty of his California landscape-painting. What Wordsworth has done for the Lake District, Frost for New England, Shelley for the Italian sky, he, they feel, has done for California, particularly for the Monterey coastal mountain region. Descriptions of this locale are the sole subject of many short poems and provide the setting in which his dramas are played. Nowhere else in his work is he so attuned to his subject-matter. Nothing else is so important to him. 'There is,' he says in 'Contrast,' 'not one memorable person, there is not one mind to stand with the trees, one life with the mountains.'
He is not interested in the veins of a leaf, although he has noticed them. He prefers nature's grander aspects. He is Byron rather than Wordsworth, although at times he seems to share the latter's mystical association with nature. He senses decadence, however, in the quiet English landscape. Only in his Monterey country does he breathe freely. The landscapes of his poems are, one often feels, the chief actors, the chief moulding forces of his characters. He likes high plateaux, whale-backed hills, rock heads and precipitous cliffs, the gorges where they fall to the rocky or sandy shore, and what he calls the mysticism of stone. He rarely admires any of these in their serene and gentle moods; but prefers them licked by the sea-fog, in terrific storms, or on a hot day when the sun burns the water. His sunsets over the sea, like his pictures of the coast itself, are riots of colour, and the mere juxtaposition of colour words from the entire spectrum on vast and awe-inspiring objects plunges the reader into a different world, particularly into a different world of feeling. It is the proper setting for the Manfreds that throng his poems. Even when he describes the 'vast calm vaulting glory of the afterglow' the birds returning to their nests are cormorants. His favourite bird is the hawk. He likes everything it typifies: freedom, wildness, and cruelty….
It is his landscapes that are responsible for the plots of his long poems and for the characters that resolve the plots. However superficially the characters might give the impression of being drawn from life their inspiration is almost wholly literary. He conceals this beneath his over-complicated plots—plots as involved as those in the early Hardy novels. The subject-matter is essentially what Mr. C. S. Lewis would call the 'primary' rather than the 'secondary' material of epic. He is chiefly concerned, that is, with the family rather than with national themes as in the Aeneid or super-national as in Paradise Lost; and then with the family whose members are in bitter conflict. He is concerned with violence rather than with genuine tragedy….
Jeffers' characters are devised rather than real. Besides being devised to resolve the intricacies of the plot they are all projections, often compensatory ones, of the poet himself. His all too obvious lack of any sense of humour permits him to see nothing in its true focus. Distortion rules his pages. His characters are such persons as Mr. Jeffers, had he been born and bred in this isolated region, would have liked to be. His women are wild and free like the hawks with an elemental passion that makes the ordinary episodes of sex in fiction or real life pallid and anaemic. His young heroes are primitive, and strong and willing to fight for...
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their women as viciously as beasts; his older men are patriarchal and resemble the Biblical old men in that retention of their potency past the age when a civilized man is willing to take his warm place in the chimney corner and stroke the cat. His sensitive young idealists succeed in winning nothing but disillusionment and release in death. These latter are probably most nearly Mr. Jeffers….
He believes that professed Christianity with its doctrine of love for the common man is dangerous. It is, he says, the degradation of life and its eventual dissolution. 'The Apes of Christ lift up their hands to praise love,' but the present saviour of mankind is 'wisdom without love.' More important is 'power without hatred, mind like a many-bladed machine subduing the world with deep indifference.' Pity is unnecessary; love is dangerous because it is a clever servant, and insufferable master, and the trap that caught Christ…. Humanity, he adds elsewhere, 'is the mould to break away from, the crust to break through, the coal to break into fire, the atom to be split.' Because peace is such a personal, unique quality, he who has found it for himself cannot help others to find it. The masses will find salvation in death; all each can do while he lives is to 'make his health in his mind, to love the coast opposite humanity.'…
Where some see progress, Jeffers sees decay. Our rapidly expanding consciousness of empire is the decay that will lead America to dissolution. To avert that dissolution he would have man return to vision, desire, unnatural crime, inhuman science, wild love—all of which would 'slit eyes in the mask.'… The 'communal people' do not know 'the wild God of the world.' The hawk, however, remembers and with the blue-heron and the red-shafted woodpecker 'live their felt natures; they know their norm and live it to the brim; they understand life. While men moulding themselves to the anthill have choked their natures until their souls die in them; they have sold themselves for protection.' Such people are 'fractional' with no centre 'but in the eyes and mouths that surround them, having no function but to serve and support civilization, the enemy of man.' After further excoriation, he finally admits, however, that 'it is barely possible that even men's present lives are something.'…
Figures of speech thickly stud his work, similes and metaphors being applied with so lavish a hand that one is reminded of a young poet at work rather than an artist who has learned to use his ornamentation sparingly. Passages abound in which every line contains a metaphor or simile…. Subtlety is absent and rightly so. Mr. Jeffers seeks the larger effects, and from the point of view of the general reader, probably finds them, although the serious student of poetry remains unimpressed. Metaphors, too, are thickly strewn throughout the poems. Those arising from implied biological comparisons are scientifically accurate….
In Mr. Jeffers' earliest volumes he used traditional verse-patterns which he discarded simultaneously with his early idealism…. [He] practically abandoned rhyme and developed the long unrhymed line that he has often used with outstanding effectiveness; often but not invariably. Too frequently this line degenerates into prose, and were it printed as such, few would suspect from its inner tension that it was meant to be anything else. He sought a rhythmic line 'moulded more closely to the subject' than was the older English poetry. The rhythm came from many sources: 'physics, biology, beat of blood, the tidal environments of life.'…
What his isolation gave him in one way it took from him in another. He detached himself from the important things of earth at the moment he sought to come closer to earth. His work can never be thought of as a reading of life. In seeking the permanent he has missed it. Had he had the saving grace of humour he might have been more successful, but in the writing of no poet of genuine importance are there less visible signs of humour, that saving grace which enables a man to see himself in perspective. Mr. Jeffers takes himself far too seriously. On the other hand, were he not always so intensely serious his rhetoric would degenerate into burlesque.
James G. Southworth, "Robinson Jeffers," in his Some Modern American Poets, Basil Blackwell, 1950, pp. 107-21.
In a way it is unfortunate that Jeffers wrote any long narratives at all, for none succeeds, 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' narratives, from Tamar through the later poems, is the author's contentions of symptomatic and representative status for the perverse obsessions of his characters. Obviously the single-mindedness of Jeffers' 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. Jeffers was mistaken in that his means were not adequate to the task the task he set himself. Never a good judge of the work of other poets, Jeffers really was incapable of criticizing his own poetry, even after a period of years had gone by to provide a measure of detachment. Attempts to justify the narratives on philosophical grounds held but mild interest for Jeffers, who could barely force himself to breeze through books written on his work, and none of these succeed in justifying the narratives as poetry in terms that Jeffers himself could have admired….
Only "Roan Stallion" among Jeffers' 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 absurd, as 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' 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…. Familiarity with Jeffers' 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' 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….
In short, then, for a number of reasons, Jeffers devoted a great deal of his time and energy to the cultivation of a subgenre—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. What more signal instance have we of the capitulation of criticism to what is most gross and obvious in a man's work….
It is as though there had been a tacit agreement among all influential parties that Jeffers' shorter poems should be looked upon as nothing more than an 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' 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 much less we are disposed to object to Jeffers' 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' 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' 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….
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' 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' 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' achieved works there is rarely an impression of a static quality, despite the weight of particular images….
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 disparaged not human life, but the ways in which human beings could destroy their world and each other….
Jeffers' exaltation of the hawk … 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: not a matter 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 agressions, 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' thesis was not developed as fact, but as intuition. In the development of an ideal of what is beautiful and can authentically be meaningful to men, Jeffers' 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' message is embodied and reflected….
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 Shakespeare and a Yeats, he did at least project a vision worthy of our attention and capable of giving pleasure. The felicities of Jeffers' poetry ought no longer to be denid, but received with gratitude. If he was not among our supreme poets, they have been few who were his equals.
Robert Boyers, "A Sovereign Voice: The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers," in Modern American Poetry: Essays in Criticism, edited by Jerome Mazzaro (copyright © 1970 by the David McKay Company, Inc.; used with permission of the publishers), McKay, 1970, pp. 183-203.
Though he is clearly committed to a number of philosophical perspectives, Jeffers is not parading as a philosopher. He is under no constraint to be logically consistent in his views; as a poet he is free to contradict himself; he is portraying a reality which is ambiguous and multifaceted. Certain clusters of imagery do emerge, however, which express his feeling that civilization, a late comer on earth, is doomed. Measured against the background of cosmic time the human adventure dwindles into insignificance. Whatever changes of mood his poetry rings, he continues to espouse a naturalistic outlook. Though aware of the limitations of science, he never questions the validity of its method or the truth of its interpretation of reality….
In his portrayal of a universe that gives no warrant for anthropomorphic conceit, he voices a total nihilism. In the second poem in The Double Axe, "The Inhumanist," he releases the full force of his disillusionment with all things human. It is in this volume that he presents his philosophy of Inhumanism. Jeffer's spokesman, the old caretaker, questions the nature of God. Whatever this God may be, he has no interest in providing the means of happiness; he is the creator of beauty, but without any regard for the needs of humanity….
As he contemplates the spectacle of the inordinate vanity of the human species, Jeffers is moved to Dionysian laughter; he knows, and underscores, the utter insignificance of man. The most salutary lesson the human upstart can learn is that his suffering is without meaning; his torment is swallowed up by "the sea-mouth of mortality," "the fountain six feet down." Though he lashes out at the incestuous sin of self-love in which men indulge, he holds open for them the gates of deliverance. He would liberate them from the trammels of illusion. When he counsels them to turn away from love of mankind and turn instead to love of God, he is referring to the God of nature that makes possible a welcome release from the tyranny of the biological will. He bids them give up their childish faith in immortality or in the divinity of Christ….
Unlike Nietzsche, Jeffers does not call for the advent of the superman. Like a Buddhist, he shows men caught in the net of life, but he adds that their saviors are trapped no less than the other fish….
He will not seek solace in Christianity, socialism, or science, but he does succumb to the last infirmity of creative minds, the urge to write poetry, even though he confesses in "Love the Wild Swan" that he hated his verses. Another contradiction informs his work. Though he is convinced of the futility of the human struggle, he speaks out angrily on the crucial issues of his time. In language that is excoriating and apocalyptic, he denounces the vices of modern civilization: industrialism, the cult of progress, the recurrent saturnalias of war, the lie of religion. He does so in order to hail death as a blessed state of freedom, in which man is reabsorbed into the flaming sun, the nebulae, the heart of the electron….
Jeffer's lyrics, apart from his narrative and dramatic compositions, are for the most part the products of a brooding vision that transcends the egocentric manias of mankind. The steadfast character of nature includes not only the unalterable law of change but also the process of decay and the pointlessness of human striving. Humanity is unimportant. Even the stars, tiring of their radiance, think of silence and dream of the dark peace. Jeffers makes a sincere but unavailing effort to reconcile the antithetical principles of creation and annihilation, life and death, cruelty and compassion, illusion and truth. His Inhumanism recommends that man liberate himself from his racial introversion, abandon his all-too-human desires. It is nature that is divine, it is the physical universe that endures and remains immortal. Life is a ceaseless and purposeless torment. If life is unremitting pain, then death is a most desirable consummation….
Jeffer's vision of life underwent no fundamental change as he aged. He still contrasts the immensity of sidereal space, the mighty pulsation of energy in the universe, with the introverted sickness of man. Whatever monstrous aberrations to which history will give rise, the source of energy in the nebulae will remain and perpetually renew itself. That is the secret of life's grandeur. God is energy incarnate, instinct with beauty, but indifferent to the scene of human folly….
Down with life! is his prevailing cry. The human infection will eventually be wiped out, mankind will die, the sun will continue to reign, the earth will resume its pristine glory. In Jeffers's view, nature, compared with the vile creature man, always comes off the victor. He consistently supports a naturalistic interpretation of existence, but when he pits man against nature it is unfailingly to the former's disadvantage. Man perverts the pure life of nature. He deludes himself into believing that he is essential to the universe whereas nature is sublimely indifferent to his existence. Jeffer's Inhumanism is rightly named: it is a nihilism that categorically denies all value to the human enterprise.
Charles I. Glicksberg, in his Modern Literary Perspectivism, Southern Methodist University Press, 1970, pp. 151-60.