Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4610
Jeffers, Robinson 1887–1962
American poet, known for his individualism and admiration for the hero.
Today young people simply do not read [Jeffers]. Few young poets of my acquaintance have ever opened one of his books, and know only the anthology pieces which. I am afraid, they dislike….
In my opinion [Jeffers'] verse is shoddy and pretentious and the philosophizing is nothing but posturing. I say this with distaste. I do not like to put down a colleague and a fellow Californian. Many friends of mine of my own or a slightly older generation, leading poets and critics of poetry, still like Jeffers. Some even think he is great. I simply cannot see it. His reworkings of the plots of Greek tragedy make me shudder at their vulgarity, the coarsening of sensibility, the cheapening of the language and the tawdriness of the paltry insight into the great ancient meanings. His lyrics and reveries of the California landscape seem to me to suffer in almost every line from the most childish laboring of the pathetic fallacy, elevated to a very system of response. This is the sort of sensibility which calls a sunset "a picture no artist could paint." His philosophy I find a mass of contradictions—high-flown statements indulged in for their melodrama alone, and often essentially meaningless. The constantly repeated gospel that it is better to be a rock than a man is simply an unscrupulous use of language.
Kenneth Rexroth, "Robinson Jeffers," in his Assays (© 1961 by Kenneth Rexroth; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 1961, pp. 214-16.
Few … figures in contemporary literature have endured such extremes of praise and blame in their own lifetimes [as has Robinson Jeffers]. For a period of about ten years, from 1925 to 1935, Jeffers was often ranked with T. S. Eliot as our greatest poet and with Eugene O'Neill as our greatest writer of tragedy. But beginning with the Great Depression and continuing through World War II, his critical reputation and popularity alike declined. The author who had been almost universally acclaimed in the 1920's found himself almost universally damned in the 1940's. Such a sudden reversal of literary fortune is rare, and is as interesting as any sudden fall from power. (p. 11)
… The figure of Jeffers would never have become so interesting if his mind had described only conventional ideas in conventional language. What makes his poetry challenging is that it has always dared to follow his thought to its end, wherever it might lead. And what has made it disturbing is that it has often led to dangerous ground, where the slough of despond may engulf, or the snows of Kilimanjaro may kill. Like other literary explorers, he has visited the dark continents of the mind, and his characters have journeyed to the end of the night. (p. 13)
[In] 1935 Jeffers' reputation had already begun to decline. The great depression certainly contributed to this unpopularity, for violent tragedy seems acceptable only in times of comparative health and prosperity: the career of Eugene O'Neill closely parallels that of Jeffers, and in the 1940's the two tragic writers often were damned together. Moreover, the critical superlatives which had been lavished upon Jeffers' poetry in the 1920's now began to cause reaction; his over-enthusiastic following had indeed begun to "praise him into obscurity." But perhaps the chief reason for the decline of Jeffers' reputation after 1935 was, quite simply, the decline in the quality of the long narrative poems published during the following decade. (p. 44)
Throughout his life Jeffers had struggled to understand...
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and to describe the universal problem of involvement and isolation—of society and solitude. His early poetry had succeeded to a remarkable degree in suggesting objectively the tragic emotions of involvement through the techniques of myth and of prophecy. But his later poetry tended to naturalize myth in the form of contemporary realism and to abandon prophecy for simple exhortation and denunciation. Therefore, his later poetry became sharply divided—the narratives became more realistic; the poems of idea and interpretation became more intellectual. And this new dichotomy found its clearest expression in the title poem ofThe Double-Axe. (p. 50)
Considered historically, Jeffers remains one of the most important poets of the years before the great depression. But in the last quarter of a century his reputation has fluctuated not only with the events and tastes of the times but with the changing tone and quality of his own successive poems. Always a few readers—including some major poets and critics—have considered his work of the greatest permanent value. Always other readers—including many major critics—have considered it beneath notice. Few authors in the history of literature have excited greater differences of opinion; and few have seen their reputations change so greatly in their own lifetimes. But critical praise and blame affected Jeffers himself very little. From his isolated rock tower he continued to gaze southward at the wild promontories of the coast and westward at the far horizons of the ocean, rather than eastward at his fellow men. (pp. 53-4)
… His poems do not fit into any of the usual categories of literary criticism. His long poems are sometimes narrative, sometimes dramatic, sometimes philosophic; they are usually a mixture of all three. His short poems are sometimes lyric, sometimes philosophic, sometimes personal, but seldom conventional. The only quality that can be affirmed of them all is that they are Jeffersian—few could have been written by any other poet. (p. 55)
Although the techniques of myth, which dominate Jeffers' long poems, were universal in primitive times and have continued to dominate the literature of many Oriental countries, they have proved less popular in the Western world and in the Age of Reason. Therefore, perhaps, many readers and critics have preferred Jeffers' short poems. These have seemed to enjoy a "freedom from excess" which has characterized the long narratives. They have preserved "a more even quality." And they have been judged "better works of art."… The short poems of Jeffers not only differ from the long ones, but possess virtues of their own. They are as unconventional as the long ones, and show an even greater variety. Very few are lyrics in the strict sense, although many give expression to a single emotion, and a few actually sing. Perhaps the phrase "meditative lyric" best describes the largest number. Some of the longer poems, such as "Apology for Bad Dreams," have been called "free odes." And "The Humanist's Tragedy" and "Margrave" are clearly fables, or apologues. But the majority defy strict classification, having a form, and often a subject matter, entirely their own. (pp. 96-7)
More completely than any other modern American, Jeffers is a philosophical poet. Like the Roman Lucretius, his true subject has always been "De Rerum Natura"—the problem of the nature of things. Although his long poems have never been didactic, his shorter pieces have often considered philosophic problems in purely rational language. And like the poetry of Lucretius, all of Jeffers' has been deeply serious, pessimistic, and naturalistic…. The philosophic nature of Jeffers' poetry has always been recognized. And it has constituted one of the chief attractions, and also one of the chief difficulties of the poetry. Many readers dislike all philsosphy, of course; but those interested in it prefer the philosophy clear and consistent. That of Jeffers is not always either clear or consistent. It is challenging, and sometimes profound; but the poet himself has admitted its inconsistency, and has struggled throughout his life to describe his ideas more clearly…. Jeffers has titled his own philosophy Inhumanism, and many of his critics have described it as mere "materialism." Certainly it opposes the traditional idealistic philosophies and religions that have imagined mankind as the central concern of a personal God. But in attacking idealistic philosophy and anthropocentric religion, Jeffers has always affirmed the existence of some kind of God, or cosmic order, beyond blind materialism. Against man, he has idealized the cosmic order of nature—or, as he prefers to call it, "beauty."… Inhumanism is a complex philosophy, involving both the poetics of tragedy and the religious experience of mysticism. But it begins with the historic philosophy of naturalism whose negative approach and whose occasional ambiguity it shares. Rather than materialism, Jeffers describes a poetic version of modern naturalism…. George Santayana emphasized that all aesthetic and intellectual activity was part not only of man's "nature" but also of the nature of things. Although Jeffers' attacked the traditional idealizations of man, his philosophy is much closer to the aesthetic naturalism of Santayana than to the materialism of earlier science. (pp. 109-15)
The ideal Inhumanist … symbolically exorcises the human emotions of pity and terror, and this preserves him from reinvolvement in the tragic drama of history. But this exorcism seems to deny the efficacy and value of tragedy itself. For tragedy seeks not to destroy the emotions of pity and terror but to transmute and sublimate them. Jeffers' late reflective poetry seems to deny the value of his own earlier tragic poetry, and these contradictions, or ambiguities, confuse his doctrine of "inhumanism."… The religion of Inhumanism centers upon an experience rather than an idea: it is poetic rather than logical. All the Inhumanist heroes of Jeffers' poetry have celebrated the experience of mysticism. They have not sought to know God so much as to fall in love with Him. Beyond the consolations of philosophy, they have described a positive "union with God," or the cosmic order of things. And what has seemed merely an acceptance of the inevitable, considered negatively, has become, positively, the love of even an inhuman God. This mystical ideal of union with God has expressed the positive aspect of Inhumanism…. But Jeffers' mysticism, like Whitman's before him, differs from the traditional Christian and Western pattern. It approaches the mystical experience by way of the subconscious mind, and it continues to value many of the emotions of the subconscious which have traditionally been called evil. Like Whitman, Jeffers identifies dramatically with criminals and with the animals. The way to the heights lies through the depths. (pp. 127-33)
By traditional standards, therefore, Jeffers' poetry is illogical and inhuman. It is ambiguous in meaning and ambivalent in feeling. By means of myth and metaphor it implies not only that man must live with this ambivalence but that he may even use it for creative purposes. Objectively, in his role as godlike discoverer, man may use his own suffering to unlock the secrets of the universe. And subjectively, he may use his knowledge of the nature of things to comfort himself in his own tragic predicament in nature. (p. 137)
Jeffers' poetry reflects [the] ambiguities of the modern world. Both his fictional characters and his personal poems sometimes become confused by this ambiguity, and they dream nightmares…. But often Jeffers, like his mythical Cassandra, realistically prophesies the actual nightmare of modern history, and then his very ambiguities seem to clarify our actual confusions. In many different senses, Jeffers is the poet of the Atomic Age. His long narrative poems consciously build up physical and psychological pressures upon his unstable characters until violent explosions result. The impact of these upon the reader's consciousness is often great; and, judged by the simple standards of sensation, the best narrative poems are extremely powerful. But beyond sensation, Jeffers' poetic explosions of the human consciousness often release psychic energy and produce intellectual illumination. At best this released energy induces an extraordinary exhilaration, and the sudden illumination opens up new insights. Yet beyond both sensation and illumination, Jeffers' poetry prophesies—and in the deepest sense. It shadows forth the historic ambiguities and the actual dilemmas of the scientist and the poet of the Atomic Age. His denunciations of man and his prophesies of doom both foreshadow, and are shadowed by, the mushroom cloud. Jeffers may be described as the poet of the "big bang." (pp. 141-42)
… [The] quality of Jeffers' poetry may be compared with that of the Elizabethan Christopher Marlowe. Like Marlowe, Jeffers has dealt with the extremes, not the norms, of human emotions; both poets have described unrelieved violence and inhuman cruelty, pure sensuality and the primal lust for power. Like Marlowe, Jeffers has manifested the gift of verbal magnificence in describing these. Like Marlowe also, he carried this gift to the verge of extravagance: the poetry of both is full of "purple passages." If Jeffers never equalled Marlowe's immortal "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" he imagined for his Helen "the terrible halo of spears." Readers of Jeffers' poetry are often struck by the mere evocative power of the phrases and metaphors. At its best, his poetry does approach that of Marlowe in its raw power and in its verbal magnificence. If this praise seems extreme and this criticism subjective, it may also suggest the limitations of Jeffers' poetry. Like Marlowe, Jeffers lacks all the variety and subtlety of a poet such as Shakespeare. Indeed, poets like Marlowe and Jeffers seem to gain their emotional intensity by their very exclusion of those shades and subtleties which describe "humanity" in all its fullness. (p. 145)
Frederic I. Carpenter, in his Robinson Jeffers, Twayne, 1962.
Robinson Jeffers has taken an interesting and unusual part of the world and has described it, narrated some overpowering events that have occurred in it, with great—but crude and approximate—power. He celebrates the survival of the fittest, the war of all against all, but his heart goes out to animals rather than to human beings, to minerals rather than to animals, since he despises the bonds and qualifications of existence. Because of all this, his poems do not have the exactness and concision of the best poetry; his style and temperament, his whole world-view, are to a surprising extent a matter of simple exaggeration. The motto of his work is "More! more!"
Randall Jarrell, "Fifty Years of American Poetry" (1962), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.
To those who, like him, were disaffected by the preciosities and pedantries of the New Poets, of Eliot and Pound and the Imagists, Jeffers seemed a sound American voice. Here was a sort of disillusioned Walt Whitman, rolling out nightmarish tragedies and harsh landscape studies of the California coast in long rhetorical lines. These were poems to be shouted aloud. Surely this was the American tradition: Whitman and Robinson had given in to Sandburg and Frost and Lindsay, to Edgar Lee Masters and Robinson Jeffers. Great poetry, it seemed, could still speak to the people and be under-stood….
Jeffers may have been the only public spokesman of our time actively anticipating the equivalent of a nuclear war. Man's story, for him, has been one of the pettiest, most hateful cruelties; his narrative poems are a bloody sequence of violent crimes, his "lyrics" are screaming with majestic birds and beasts whipped and mangled by their master Man. The second World War, to Jeffers as grotesque as it was predictable, gave the occasion for his most scornfully misanthropic verse—and probably his worst….
Even the most sympathetic critics were disappointed as book after book came out, and no new paths were taken, no change, no self-renewal occurred. Mark Van Doren, who all but "discovered" Jeffers' first major book, already saw, while still affording high praise to his second, the dangers of his idée fixe: "He seems to be knocking his head to pieces against the night."
It is hard to say, though, where one would have had Jeffers go. The most benignantly-inclined cannot deny a measure of truth to his ugly Inhumanistic visions—and he need not look far beyond himself. Still, since we cannot do it, it is hateful to think that another man could stop on that dry rock for a lifetime, without even trying to move. There is hope for man at least in Yoknapatawpha, but none on the wuthering heights south of Monterey.
David Littlejohn (1962), in his Interruptions (copyright © 1970 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Grossman, 1970, pp. 109-15.
[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's 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's 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…. Few visions have been more desperate than his, and a few lives organized around such austere principles. It seems to me that we must honor these things, each in his own way.
James Dickey, "Robinson Jeffers" (1964), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 187-89.
All of Jeffers' best poems are short, and all of them develop aspects of his single real theme, his desperate effort to teach the heart not to love….
The bulk of Jeffers' work is in the long narratives that are seldom read any more, that are not even easily available for the most part. These are allegorical poems with a superficially "realistic" surface. The violence in them has often been called meaningless sensationalism, but it would be hard to get further from the truth. The poems are obsessive, to be sure, but meaningful at the same time, as obsessions can be meaningful. Incest in them stands for man's love of man; to love one's own kind is in effect to love within the human family, hence incestuous. Incest leads to perversions, mass murder, and finally to nameless and all-pervasive horrors, like those in a nightmare that are at once real and indefinable.
Hyatt H. Waggoner, in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, Mifflin, 1968, pp. 469-77.
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….
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 the urgency 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….
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….
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…. 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….
What is also distressing … 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….
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….
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 disparage human life but the ways in which human beings could destroy their world, and each other….
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…. What is unmistakable … 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.
Robert Boyers, "A Sovereign Voice: The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers," in Sewanee Review (© 1969 by The University of the South), Summer, 1969, pp. 487-507.
At the source of the continuing debate over the achievement of the poetry of Robinson Jeffers lies a fundamental conflict between two competing loyalties on Jeffers's part. The first of these is the poet's lifelong philosophical preoccupation, the stoic "doctrine of Inhumanism." Jeffers articulated this complex doctrine as only a bleak personal alternative to continued participation in what he felt was a corrupt and dying civilization. Briefly, Inhumanism postulates a complete withdrawal of the individual from all involvement with other humans and a painful religious catharsis in which all emotions are purged forever and an indifferent non-human god is embraced. The Inhumanist release in life affords the individual a measure of detachment while he awaits the final peace of death and, it is hoped, the promise of eternity in a silent, inanimate universe. However, just as Jeffers fervently committed himself to the doctrine of Inhumanism, so at the same time he subscribed to a second and equally strong conviction that poetry should seek to reclaim the narrative realism which he felt had been abandoned in the Imagist movement. For Jeffers, this desire manifested itself in a return to the traditional narrative form of poetry complete with plot development, setting, and characters. Given these two essentially unrelated commitments—to Inhumanism and to narrative realism—Jeffers automatically set a trap for himself: the doctrine of Inhumanism clearly advocates a rejection of all that can be considered human, while narrative realism by definition prescribes detailed attention to it. The implications of this conflict for Jeffers must have been overwhelming…. His willingness to confront the dilemma he created for himself constitutes the basis of an integrity which cannot be denied his poetry…. [The] "inconsistencies" for which Jeffers is so heavily criticized are actually superficial manifestations of the true conflict lying beneath the surface of the poems—a conflict which Jeffers consciously sought to express in them. Whether or not the tension in the narratives is to be construed as a source of strength and not of weakness depends upon the extent to which his aesthetic commitment augments, rather than confounds, his philosophic commitment.
John R. Alexander, "Conflict in the Narrative Poetry of Robinson Jeffers," in Sewanee Review (© 1972 by The University of the South), Winter, 1972, pp. 85-99.