Robinson Jeffers

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Jeffers, Robinson 1887–1962

Jeffers was an American poet and playwright whose fatalistic philosophy extols the savage beauty of nature over the inadequacies of man. Drawing his themes from the Greek classics as well as from the philosophies of Nietzsche and Freud, he often set his poems against the backdrop of the California coast. His is a grim poetry of violence, incest, and revenge, placing value upon what Jeffers called "permanent things," and upon freedom. The early response to Jeffers's work was highly enthusiastic. Praise came from such critics as Babette Deutsch and Mark Van Doren, and something of a cult following developed. Since the mid-1930s, however, his work has come under critical attack, and his reputation has steadily deteriorated. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3.)

Mark Van Doren

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The most rousing volume of verse I have seen in a long time [is Robinson Jeffers's "Tamar and Other Poems."]… Few recent volumes of any sort have struck me with such force as this one has; few are as rich with the beauty and strength which belong to genius alone….

[Two] long narrative pieces are its real contribution…. [The title-poem, "Tamar"], seems to me to point a new path for narrative verse in America. The rhythms, for one thing, are variable and free; now crabbed and nervous, now copious and sweeping, they get their story told as few are told—with style. And their story, though it is anything on earth but pleasant, was magnificently worth telling. Tamar, the heroine, begins by being like the Tamar who figures in the thirteenth chapter of II Samuel, but she develops in an ampler strain. It is obvious that Mr. Jeffers's inspiration has been Greek rather than Hebrew; the House of Cauldwell is the House of Atreus, and the deeds done there are such as have rarely been attempted in song since Aeschylus petrified an audience with his Clytemnestra and his Furies.

Mark Van Doren, "First Glance," in The Nation (copyright 1925 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), March 11, 1925, p. 268.

Delmore Schwartz

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[The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers] presents a sufficient span of writing … 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. (p. 30)

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 Jeffers, Nature] 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. (p. 31)

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. (p. 32)

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. (p. 33)

[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 emotions 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…. [What happens] 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…. [Characters are] 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 narrative it was a narrative lack, so in the lyrics what is absent betrays itself in lyrical terms…. What is to be noted [in the poem Science, for example,] 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…. 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. (pp. 33-5)

[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…. 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. (p. 37)

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…. [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. (p. 38)

Delmore Schwartz, "The Enigma of Robinson Jeffers," in Poetry (© 1939 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the editor of Poetry), October, 1939, pp. 30-8.

Radcliffe Squires

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Jeffers' poetry presents some difficulties, but it is in the main poetry of direct statement. Yet even if Jeffers were serving up a pastiche of metaphysical conceits and French symbolism, it seems unlikely that the "esthetic" critics [who have objected to his style] would feel moved to enthusiasm for his sprawling, often careless narratives. The poems need critical re-examination, but the need centers in their philosophical texture, in the relationship of idea to idea rather than the relationship of word to word, nuance to nuance. (p. 8)

In retrospect Jeffers' present reputation is contained within the beautiful symmetry of a completed irony. The virtues which the earlier reception proclaimed were his sense of restrained tragedy, his form and metrical accomplishment. The faults which later criticism has found are those of hysteria, formlessness and dubious metrics. Still, most critics have permitted him to retain one virtue, that of "power." (pp. 9-10)

[Jeffers] came to write violent "stories" about two heroes: Nature as permanence opposed to man as the perverse, ephemeral consciousness. But Jeffers' violence is not so much nostalgia for Thermopylae as it is scorn of modern man's playing the old fool: modern man with his bloody and mysterious myths gone and with his theory of ethics firmly established, yet behaving like a barbarian—like the child, instead of the adult of the age. War appears again and again in the backgrounds of the narratives as the secret, muted embodiment of a fate which, terrible as it is, may ultimately be the means of humbling the one hero (man) so as to bring him into unity with the other hero (Nature). (p. 18)

Because Californians contains stylistic and ideological particles from Flagons and Apples while suggesting the emphasis of the mature work, it has usually been thought a "transitional" book. (p. 21)

Considered as a whole, the early efforts are closer to the achievement of Californians than is Flagons and Apples. They are also cleaner and solider poems than the celebrations of "Helen." If they contain, as I believe they do, the kernel of Jeffers' mature work, and if Flagons and Apples (except very rarely) does not, then one must give up the idea that Californians is a "transitional" work and recognize instead that it continues the mood that Jeffers has courted with only one deviation since adolescence. That one deviation is Flagons and Apples. (pp. 21-2)

Jeffers has loved annihilation no more nor less than creation, death no more nor less than life. But loving both, he could reconcile them only in a mystical experience. If we read his poetry wisely, we gain insight into the severity, the humility, and discipline of a noble and great man's mystical solutions to problems which universally confront all men. (p. 26)

Yet Jeffers' mysticism, like all true mysticism, seeks to objectify as well as to discover the personality. His inner world is not the labyrinth of subjective emotions. It is rather the divine and terrible minotaur who waits in the final cavern of the labyrinth. The formative storm and stress in Jeffers' inner world between the years 1910 and 1918 is recorded in "The Truce and the Peace," and I judge that the important and catastrophic signification of his experience was the decision to destroy his own dandyism, the pastel romanticism of Flagons and Apples. (pp. 26-7)

The effect of Jeffers' reaction against dandyism appears in Californians, but it emerges full-fledged only in Tamar (1924) and Roan Stallion (1925). The change between these and Californians is far reaching. The regionalism has grown into an allegiance to place, but the Carmel coast of which he writes is a created world where the gothic splendors correspond less to any geography than to conditions of the imagination. The intricate verse forms have, except in a few poems which antedate Tamar, yielded to the long sweep of his verse paragraphs. (p. 29)

Taken together, Tamar and Roan Stallion reveal the double potential in Jeffers, the saga formula and the classical, the diffuse and the unified. All his later work is conceived in relationship to this artistic polarity. But he was never again to achieve the same kind of classical expression as in Roan Stallion. He was to write more simply than in Tamar, to be sure, but the crowded and episodic nature of Tamar is characteristic of even as remarkable a poem as Cawdor or as The Loving Shepherdess, Yet, if he could not wholeheartedly turn again to the classical control of Roan Stallion, he was able to hybridize his classical side with his undisciplined side in the narrative which achieves the greatest success, The Double Axe (1948). Part I of The Double Axe is as unified as Roan Stallion, whereas Part II is as diffuse and formless as Tamar or The Women at Point Sur. But Part II stands as a commentary on Part I and it takes the form of a strained, interior argument behind which the lurid lights of Tamar flash without dispersing the purity and intensity of the argument. Toward The Double Axe all of Jeffers' verse moved inexorably, and it is the result of his having been able, after years of dross, to hold the two poles of his artistic nature together. His dramas, it may be noted, display the same pattern. If one discounts his Medea, which is contained by the architecture of Euripides, one finds that The Tower Beyond Tragedy and At the Fall of an Age correspond in their unity to Roan Stallion, while Dear Judas and The Bowl of Blood correspond in their disunity to Tamar. Also, his best drama (as poetic drama) is At the Birth of an Age which, like The Double Axe, divides into two parts: the first, an orderly, lean set of actions; the second, a purposeful disunity spun out into the searching self-analysis of the hanged God. These hybrid creations, combining his two opposed powers, along with Roan Stallion and his recent supernatural allegory Hungerfield (1952), seem to me to be Jeffers' only long works that have a chance for permanency. (pp. 30-1)

The Women at Point Sur is even more tangled than Tamar,… [and] the lines of the action are twisted into an almost hopeless snarl. (p. 33)

Whatever rhetorical success the poem has, it fails to realize the manifold hopes that Jeffers entertained. Even as a study in abnormal psychology it is not successful, for the psychology with its excessive Freudian stratagems has merely the effect of mechanizing and defeating the characters. As for the poem's advocacy of "old-fashioned morality," it seems closer to what D. H. Lawrence would have called a "phallic" drama…. [An] orgasm of death is the final impression of the poem, and as such it seems more nearly a summons to a witches' sabbath than an invitation to morality. The primary trouble is, of course, as Jeffers admitted, the number of intentions. On the other hand it is these intentions which make The Women at Point Sur important to a study of Jeffers. It is the very matrix of his subsequent narratives. (pp. 34-5)

Jeffers has wanted the world to rehearse his own phases of maturation. His attack on man is a continuation of his attack on himself, for the faults he attacks in his heroes are fickleness, sexual athleticism, and jealousy, and these are more nearly the faults of the adolescent hero than of the mature hero…. Because one repudiates the passions, however, does not mean that one is not fascinated by them; it may mean quite the opposite. And this seems to be the constant and nourishing tension in Jeffers' verse. As a philosopher he negates what as a human being he cannot do without. (p. 40)

Jeffers attempts a grand, although awkward, synthesis of Idealism and pragmatism. The effort to compose these ideologies is documented in the poem "Love the Wild Swan."… Two quarreling conceptions direct the sonnet: the ordered program of Nature which relegates man to insignificance; and the subjective reality captured by the eye and the mind, which receive the impressions of order and beauty…. In part, of course, the mien of the experience is mystical, but the structure of the experience is founded on an idealistic metaphysics. This aspect of Jeffers' poetry has been strangely overlooked. I do not wish, however, to give the impression that criticism has ignored a German romanticism in Jeffers. The contrary is true. Yet the emphasis has centered in a Nietzschean influence, and that emphasis is not completely justified in a parallel reading of Jeffers and Nietzsche. (pp. 42-3)

Jeffers has made confessions of indebtedness to Nietzsche, and some critics have constructed unilateral hypotheses from his words…. My own reading leads me to minimize the Nietzschean elements although not to discount them, for in the broadest terms Jeffers' poetry mirrors the intellectual power and austerity which we may sympathetically attribute to Nietzsche. (pp. 43-4)

Although it is clear from the youthful poetry that [Flinders] Petrie and [Oswald] Spengler did not create Jeffers' endemic fatalism, I think it likely that they confirmed him in a set of dualisms intellectually related to that fatalism: a dualism between Nature and history, a dualism between Nature and man, a dualism between culture and civilization. (p. 57)

Jeffers' poetry has contemplated a society which he feels is about to enter its period of "finishedness." Like Spengler, he sees the present as the last evolution of the period of "Culture," the sunset glow of the final greatness of the age…. But the final collapse he tells us in "I Shall Laugh Purely" is centuries away…. Meanwhile he sees Western man in love with luxury and machines, inclining toward subjective passions—love, hate, jealousy—and dissipating his energies in minute, if painful, quarrels. The subjectivity mirrors the subjectivity of the declining civilization. (pp. 59-60)

The acceptance of a Spenglerian doom is obviously commensurate with the polarity of death and resurrection in the structure of Jeffers' temperament. But to this primum mobile we must add Jeffers' Schopenhauerian tendency to regard the species rather than the individual and to relate all human matters to a historical basis. To this tendency he has sacrificed certain elements of psychological realism in his narratives…. Jeffers is not claimed by the ordinary time-dimension of art. His narratives lean back upon the past and stretch forward into a future—a future complicated, neurotic. This intent explains what must otherwise seem a contradiction too absurd to merit serious investigation: the contradiction between "primitive" characters and their decadent behavior. To understand the characters at all, one must understand that they reflect past, present, and future historicity. They represent Western man in three aspects. One may logically observe, of course, that characters who belong to no absolute time cannot be "real." Often they are not. Sometimes they seem only Jeffers' phantoms created to save himself from the "wolves" of "pain and terror, the insanities of desire" over which he broods in "Apology for Bad Dreams."… (pp. 63, 65)

Like many of his contemporaries, Jeffers has used sexual symbolism too often, too bluntly, too easily, and there is no point in making a long list of the Freudian images. (p. 74)

The narratives after The Women at Point Sur [, however,] are less clinical, as may be observed in the treatment of lesbianism in Thurso's Landing…. Although male homosexuality is central to The Cretan Woman (1954), after Thurso's Landing (1932) Jeffers' interest is not detained by lesbianism. Incest as a symbol for "racial introversion," however, has endured. (p. 78)

The fascination with incest in "The Three Avilas" seems to me more distasteful than in Tamar for the reason that it is not turned to symbolical account. Even in Tamar the symbol is tentative, and it does not become formal until 1927 with the appearance of The Women at Point Sur, although The Tower Beyond Tragedy (1925) had moved in this direction. The theme does not appear again until Such Counsels You Gave to Me and The Double Axe. In these it is clear that the use is symbolical, but in each the motivation for incest is different…. In the contrast between Such Counsels You Gave to Me and The Double Axe lies one of the unnoticed growths in Jeffers' poetry. It is a growth away from Freud, away from the clinical and toward the mystical. (pp. 79-80)

Jeffers' narratives between Tamar (1924) and Mara (1941) are characterized by a Freudian scheme, with the result that the behavior of the characters is largely pseudo-naturalistic. They yearn toward incest; they revert to infantile dreams. This is not the case with Bruce Ferguson [in Mara]. His struggle is not with a hidden impurity entombed in childhood; he struggles with the projections of his own personality.

The volume Such Counsels You Gave to Me, which precedes Mara, may in this respect be considered a transitional work, illustrating Jeffers' movement toward a Jungian formulation. (pp. 84-5)

The observable trend in both Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Mara is toward the mystical rather than the naturalistic, toward the Oriental rather than the Western, toward an identification of man with cryptic, divine archetypes rather than disconsolate mechanisms. The momentum of this trend seems to have impelled Jeffers beyond both Freud and Jung in The Double Axe and Hungerfield (1952), for while neurosis and violence recur, they appear in a framework of supernatural allegory which no recognizable psychology, no behavioristic philosophy conditions. (p. 85)

The single most impressive characteristic of Jeffers' mature work is his preoccupation with all manner of violent action. The origins are not simple, but one can make inroads toward an understanding by considering the perplexing split between Jeffers' didacticism and its formulation. He arranges his characters so that they torture each other unbearably and then moralizes that if this is the human condition, it would be well to "break out" of it. He tries thus to solve the problem of passion through logic, but the effort augments his difficulties if only because it is man's irrational passions which most readily capture Jeffers' artistic allegiance.

This peculiar dichotomy … between the dictates of intellect and the pleas of passionate imagination gives us the portrait of a man who carefully gathers up dinner crumbs to scatter for the birds but who writes a sadistic poem about a mutilated hawk. (pp. 86-7)

The influence of the war is complicating. No violence appears in Jeffers' verse until after 1918. And more significantly, much of the violence in the poems can be taken as a symbol for war, even though the expression is often sexual. The identification, or at least the blurring in his work, of violence, war, and the passions is not superficial: For if Jeffers despises the brutality of war, he sometimes envisions war as an agency which, by humbling and upheaving, may create benefit. Likewise, if he seeks to deprecate the passions, he nevertheless envisions regeneration as the task of a primitive sexuality.

From his inability either to compose or ignore these conflicts, Jeffers has, I think, been forced to express them in an exaggerated form…. He does not, I suggest, turn to violence because his temperament longs for violence but because it longs to be rid of it. He seeks to destroy his own passions, along with the racial "passion" of war, by deliberately exaggerating them. (pp. 87-8)

Since for Jeffers there is no eternal life, no heaven nor hell, the perseverance of some sort of religious emotion demanding punishment for the original sin has had a profound effect upon his poetry…. Jeffers' characters, riddled with guilt, [cannot] expect punishment for their crimes in an afterlife. Aware, then, of their guilt, they cry out for a fiery cleansing…. (pp. 89-90)

[The] tortured animal plays a symbolic role [in Jeffers' later work]. This is made most clear in Cawdor where Michal keeps as a pet a caged eagle which her brother Hood has winged…. When the bird is finally put out of its misery Jeffers describes the flight of its "phantom" in one of his most successful pieces of writing, an elegy where death becomes an affirmation of life…. Not only does this passage articulate a meaning of life, but it also suggests that the eagle and his squalid cage are intended to symbolize the state of man, trapped in pain and filth, but yet performing a "necessary" task in the universal scheme. (pp. 92-3)

The tortured animal, then, is a symbol of man's plight. But often the symbol is dropped, and man himself is tortured, principally in two patterns—castration and crucifixion. (p. 93)

It is noteworthy that in [Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Mara], where the disease of life becomes especially painful, self-crucifixion is the forerunner of insanity and suicide. In this way the Christ-figure is related to the insanely self-tortured man. And Jeffers takes the relationship one step further by relating the Christ-figure to war. (p. 94)

During the course of Jeffers' career his God has changed from the wild god of Nature incarnate in the roan stallion that shakes "the red-roan mane for a flag on the bare hills," to a more nearly intelligent God in The Double Axe. The later figuration is that of Heautontimoroumenos, the self-tormentor, first hinted at in "Apology for Bad Dreams." In the image of the self-tormenting God, Jeffers cautiously narrows the gap between man and Nature. But he does not close it entirely…. [There is a] disparity between divine and human intention. God's torment is not "cruel," it is necessary to knowledge. Human perpetration of cruelty, however, is a different matter. Jeffers would have man suffer the pangs of tragic discovery but he would have him eschew the perversion of a pointless sadism…. (p. 99)

[The] important difference [is] to suffer "like a God, not a tortured animal," for this illumines the whole of Jeffers' scheme, revealing why the tortured animals are an elemental necessity to his negative didacticism. Man may suffer like God, but since man cannot become God, the tragedies of life are only a reflection of celestial tragedy; man's tortures are a dream in Nature, while God's tortures are "in earnest," meaningful, infinite. Within these relationships Jeffers reconciles his simultaneous love and hatred of violence: the "love" on the grounds that violence is a divine activity, the "hate" on the grounds that it is too often a human perversion. (p. 100)

By a devious path Christ comes to his traditional office; He interprets and evaluates pain and experience; He connects man and God. (p. 102)

From the opening of any of the narratives it is clear that Jeffers is deeply interested in the behavior of people whose passions are hasty and clumsy and whose experience is limited to rather elemental discoveries. I have somewhat arbitrarily assigned the term "primitivism" to this predilection. (p. 103)

In the work following Californians Jeffers set himself the task of creating characters as primitive as the country which his imagination urged his eyes to see…. Jeffers wanted his poetry to be of this age, while aimed at no age…. [He] told himself that his characters had to partake both of the permanent world of Nature and of the transient world of man…. Jeffers tried to [achieve this] by splitting most of his characters into dual symbols for the antitheses which preoccupied him: impotence and fecundity; decay and growth; decadence and primitivism. His characters behave symbolically like primeval savages but they fall symbolically into the snares of civilization. As bifocal symbols the inhabitants of his narratives achieve what he wanted them to, but all too often, lacking simple, human reality, they fail to convince the reader that they are characters. This is not so serious a flaw in poetry as it would be in prose but it is nevertheless a fault. (pp. 104-05)

Jeffers' adaptation [of Euripides' Medea] allows major shifts of emphasis. Medea, for whom Euripides apologized by saying that she behaves as no Greek woman would, in Jeffers' treatment becomes the primitive par excellence…. [The] tragedy develops from the contrast between her warmth, [Jason's] coldness; her naturalness, his opportunistic realism; her primitive spirit and his civilized urbanity. Where Euripides apologizes, Jeffers reveres. And so the play unfolds as the triumph of the primitive spirit over civilization…. (p. 115)

It is noteworthy that Jeffers' primitive characters seldom, however, triumph over modern civilization…. For, indeed, Jeffers, though a faithful primitivist in the long view, does not want primitivism to conquer civilization, but civilization to conquer itself. (p. 116)

Jeffers in an unusually compassionate mood told a world that was faltering toward war:

   I wish you could find the secure value,
   The all-heal I found when a former time hurt me to the heart,
   The splendor of inhuman things….

The "all-heal" Jeffers came eventually to call "Inhumanism."… His expressed "hatred" derives from and is inseparable from his unexpressed "love" of man…. [This] is the touchstone to Inhumanism. (pp. 118-19)

Jeffers recommended … that man turn from himself to Nature, where he would find evidence of God. The idea and its peculiarly hard-hearted phrasing had clarified and set by 1927, when he published The Women at Point Sur…. (p. 120)

The doctrine has not manifested any essential change since 1927, although Jeffers has added density and widened the scope of its application. The doctrine, however, had an immediate effect on Jeffers' literary method. Beginning with The Women at Point Sur, he fashioned narratives to illustrate what happens to those who refuse to uncenter their minds from humanity. His masochistic religious intensity and his scientific materialism were pressed into service so as to place man in the most alarming neurotic light. Incest became his particular symbol for man's self-consciousness…. The great wonder is that these narratives come off as well as they do. Yet they rise above vulgarity partly because the natural descriptions possess such somber beauty that a balance of sanity remains, and partly because the pathologic characters at times achieve such intensity that one is constrained to admire insanity itself. More pertinently, however, the narratives manage to acquire some dignity because Jeffers relates the violence of his characters and the failures of mankind to a plan of God. But "pattern" is a better word than "plan," for it is in the interplay of recurrent decay and resurgence that Jeffers observes divinity. (pp. 121-22)

The net for Jeffers is the symbol which permits man to correspond with all other manifestations of the universe. It is his multum in parvo. When he describes the involuntary nervous system (as in Cawdor and Such Counsels You Gave to Me) in such a way as to suggest that he is describing a solar system in a condition of vast, half-conscious somnolence, he is describing what he conceives as a quiddity common to both organic and inorganic existence. The reticulated nerves of the body, the passions, are the net which man is most aware of…. To allow oneself to surrender absolutely to the net of the nerves is, however, to lose touch with the corresponding net of stars. This is to love humanity rather than God…. (pp. 122-23)

Jeffers offers an escape to the individual, the rare individual presumably. He tells him to find the beauty of life by considering the universe wholly…. Nature, Jeffers suggests, can show the way to the Inhumanist's inner salvation by indicating the mutuality between man and the universe…. (pp. 125-26)

Most of Jeffers' work has focused on man's inability to abide by reason, but not the least rewarding of his poetry is that which portrays the potential nobility of life. The decent life is scarcely free from pain, but the pain is married to peace. And the peace derives from an awareness of belonging to a dignified order of things. (p. 129)

In these poems one is engaged by how different the tone is from that of the "bitter" poems. They celebrate a natural life characterized by perils and sadness but also by tenacity and purpose. And when one reconsiders the principle of reason in Inhumanism, one begins to sense that the whole construct is a thoroughly conventional one. (p. 130)

[In] considering what Jeffers recommends as the desirable life for modern man—the combination of reason and a proximity to Nature—one detects that Jeffers combines elements which are not ordinarily, and probably not easily, cohesive. He asks modern man to be both primitive and profoundly civilized at the same time. He asks him to denature his primitive instincts with civilized reasoning while he insists that he charge his civilization with primitive sensuousness. (p. 132)

To direct man toward a moral self by means of the wise, the solemn lessons of Nature: that has been Jeffers' life work. He has chosen to work with acid and a needlepointed stylus; he has beset his lines with crude, angry ornament, has disguised his message and been willing to squander hundreds of lines in febrile hyperbole in order to justify the admonitory lines. It has not been his nature to write in the convention of the humanist any more than it has been the nature of his times to encourage the convention. Nevertheless, beyond his fatalism, beyond his materialism, the God which Jeffers defines is the God who enhances and propagates life, human life…. (pp. 134-35)

Those who object to Jeffers' technique insist that his clambering lines result from an inability to achieve anything else. No doubt he has come to be pretty much committed to an informality. One should, however, remember that as a young man Jeffers achieved a certain metrical virtuosity. Californians contains examples of terza rima, Spenserian stanzas, and very regular iambic pentameter. And if some of his later conventional efforts are as uncomfortable as farm hands dressed in their Sunday best, there are also some fine sonnets and, upon rare occasions, a beautiful variation of the ballad form…. (p. 140)

Jeffers has not assumed a laxity in his mature work solely because of an inability to conform to the demands of regular meter and rhyme, but that as his artistic temperament set in the mold, precision of form became alien to much that he wished to say. We may observe the transition between the traditional prosody of Californians and the unconventional prosody of the later work in the poem The Coast-Range Christ…. [It] is in the emphasis of a prosody based on stress rather than on regular feet, and in the long line, that the nature of the transition lies. (p. 141)

There are lapses, to be sure, where no pattern seems to exist. When these occur at transitional points, such as shifting from one setting to another in the longer poems, I think the reader will find them, at worst, unimportant. But sometimes the lapses are unfortunate, for they leave the poetry embarrassingly suspended between passages of stridulous prose. This is to speak of Jeffers' metrical technique at its worst. To consider it at its best is to recognize that the heavy, sullen rhythm is a dimension of the dark, humorless tales. (pp. 141-42)

[Jeffers' enthusiasm] for the classics reveals itself not only in his adaptations of Greek themes but also in some of the elements of his style. In the middle work from Cawdor to Such Counsels You Gave to Me he experimented with a few of the devices which are the stock of classical epic: apostrophe, heroic simile, and a deliberately anacoluthic flexibility of syntax which encourages the impression that the poet is simultaneously involved in, and analytical of, a situation, or that a situation possesses a past value that is coeval with a present one…. But one suspects that most of Jeffers' classical mannerisms are accretions. They display his admiration for traditional artistry, but they do not always seem to belong in the verse. The least happy examples occur in the volumes between The Women at Point Sur (1927) and Be Angry at the Sun (1941), the period when Jeffers appears to have striven to capture the high seriousness of traditional tragedy. (pp. 142-43)

The power of Jeffers' language depends partly upon the immediacy of his direct description but in greater measure upon his faith in images. Like the Anglo-Saxon poets, with whom he shares this faith, Jeffers has produced some of the best metaphors and some of the worst. The worst derive from his wish to describe people in terms of vast geographies or to describe impersonal objects in animate terms…. His best images reflect his desire to freeze to a standstill the running beauty of natural things; they are embedded sparingly in the matrix of simple language. (p. 145)

[To] arrive at a full appreciation of Jeffers' style, it is necessary to educe his faith in "permanency." This faith relates to the primitivism in his philosophic Inhumanism; in his poetry it is expressed in the repeated symbol of stone. And it comes to the surface as a formal literary creed [in which Jeffers states that poetry must concern itself with permanent things]…. I think that this signifies that Jeffers elected to write in the pastoral tradition. If his characters are not purely primitive, they nevertheless inhabit a scene which is purely natural. (pp. 148-49)

By the time he had written The Women at Point Sur (1927), Robinson Jeffers had consolidated his experience and he ceased to receive any essentially new insights; what was factually new he tended to file away with what was imaginatively established. For better or worse he had forged a fictive attitude which, though it was in part the result of experience, has since tyrannized his subsequent experience. the attitude, by no means simple, may be described in a general way as a simultaneously sardonic and elegiac melancholy. (pp. 153-54)

It seems evident that the restrictions of Jeffers' elegiac mood are too severe to foster a broad understanding of character such as narrative or dramatic poetry requires. And this indeed is the primary restriction upon Jeffers' ability as a storyteller. Because he himself tends to see things in a light of resigned sadness, he thinks also that this is the way his characters ought to come to see them. One can put up with a single Hamlet in a play—three or four are troublesome…. There is a greater difficulty: Jeffers' omnipresent doctrine of Inhumanism which, as an injunction to avoid those very passions which underlie tragedy, is hostile to spontaneity in character. It is true that of all his "tragic" characters only Orestes and Lazarus are absolutely Inhumanists; nevertheless, the doctrine itself haunts the narratives; if the characters do not assail their own "human" natures, Jeffers by interpolation does it for them. (pp. 154-55)

Jeffers' sometimes clumsy, sometimes felicitous acknowledgment of Renaissance drama and his efforts to rework Greek drama suggest that in his own mind he wished to acknowledge both traditions by blending the Greek conception of an abstract fate with the Renaissance conception of a psychological fate. Either of these is potentially rich in dramatic situations, but together they are burdensome…. [In] being so exorbitant, the determinism gravely weakens dramatic possibilities. When to this inordinate determinism is added Jeffers' doctrine of Inhumanism, the dramatic possibilities at the level of character all but vanish. (pp. 157-58)

Jeffers' narratives are the diary of disparate phantoms who constitute a sensibility at war with itself. Excepting Roan Stallion, they all take on the lineaments of an inner debate which derives its puissance from the discernment of a discrepancy between the laws of God and the laws of man. (pp. 165-66)

[Only] his adaptation of the Medea realizes Jeffers' own aim in tragedy as "poetry … beautiful shapes … violence." And this only because of the organic simplicity that Euripides imposes on Jeffers' restive imagination—an imagination which, when free to follow its own bent, is hardly capable of producing a stageable drama. Almost every-where else in Jeffers' poetry the contentions grind against each other, reducing human character to dust, destroying those very structures and relatiońships which recommend themselves as essential to narrative and dramatic success…. Yet even after such a large loss, something large remains, and if we do not minimize this remainder, we see that it is poetry. (pp. 166-67)

Although the ultimate psychological effect of Jeffers's narratives is that of the insular soul warring within itself, it is also true that there is a public aspect to the poetry. The poetry is engaged with society to the extent that it takes up an isolated position which assaults society; it is not engaged to the extent that it enters society in order to criticize it. (p. 170)

Intense, almost anarchistic personal freedom; the loose structure, the vigor and audacity of the frontier republic: these are meaningful political conditions to Jeffers. But he believes we have passed beyond the period which produces these as the accidents of growth. (pp. 172-73)

Because Robinson Jeffers has consistently rejected the idea of an infinitely progressing America, he has generally been considered the reversal of Whitman's "dream." (p. 173)

As his interest in, and knowledge of, science grew, science itself became one of his instruments for attacking the humanistic tradition. It is not therefore very astonishing that his use of science has been attacked by humanists. (p. 178)

[One] need only consider the injunction of Jeffers' Inhumanism, the injunction to turn voluntarily from passion, to realize that whatever claims matter has upon man, his will, according to Jeffers, remains free…. Jeffers' narratives proceed on the grounds of an emancipated will, and while he may essay to describe the biochemical storms which surround, let us say, the emotions of love or anger, these storms do not of necessity supersede the will. (p. 185)

[God "comes and goes" in Jeffers' work], renewing himself infinitely, but if he "is not to be found in death," then Jeffers' conception of God is separate from his view of Nature; then Jeffers' conception of God is not finally pantheistic, even though for most purposes it is convenient and proper so to describe it. In the pinches, his God retreats from Nature, from death, and becomes a "spirit," hidden in the interstellar, or perhaps interatomic, spaces where the Epicurean gods reposed. This conception might underlie the symbolical implications of Jeffers' use of the word "desert." The desert in verse of the romantic tradition often symbolizes spiritual drought or the absence of God…. Jeffers' symbolic use of the desert runs counter to this tendency, and one is tempted to believe that if his God escapes the limitations of matter, which constrain all else, by dwelling in emptiness, it is appropriate that the desert should emerge as the symbol not of spiritual drought but of spiritual fullness. (pp. 189-90)

The "soul's desert" is the password to peace, but by reason of the idealist dilution of his materialism Jeffers has never been able to achieve [a] profoundly sane and dignified peace…. Only after burning and humiliation can Jeffers find God in the desert. But what the reader of poetry, or the reader who is interested in the destiny of man, can discover is that in Jeffers' work the first major poetic attempt to bring the split of the modern world together in a primarily materialistic vision has been made. (p. 190)

Radcliffe Squires, in his The Loyalties of Robinson Jeffers (copyright © by the University of Michigan, 1956), University of Michigan Press, 1956.

Ruby Cohn

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A contemporary of Stevens and Frost, Jeffers differs from them in his long free lines and his unrelieved solemnity. Though he turned to dialogue more often than they did, it was originally with no thought of theatrical performance. Only his Medea (1946) was specifically intended for the stage…. Besides Medea, Jeffers wrote five poems in dialogue form, all of them subsequently performed.

The Tower Beyond Tragedy is Jeffers' version of the Oresteia. Divided into three parts, the dramatic poem is faithful only to the surface events of Aeschylus. (p. 231)

In [his] conclusion, images are confusing, but Jeffers' approbation for Orestes is unmistakable. Jeffers himself explained his intention: "Orestes, in the poem, identifies himself with the whole divine nature of things; earth, man, and stars, the mountain forest and the running streams; they are all one existence, one organism. He perceives this, and that himself is included in it, identical with it. This perception is his tower beyond the reach of tragedy; because, whatever may happen, the great organism will remain forever immortal and immortally beautiful. Orestes has 'fallen in love outward,' not with a human creature, nor a limited cause, but with the universal God."

Though Jeffers was to write more speakable dialogue, he was not to modify the long, image-strewn lines, spoken by towering characters…. Cassandra's prophecies are tedious in their generalizations of doom …; Electra and Orestes regurgitate Freud. The determined loftiness of The Tower Beyond Tragedy robs its dialogue of humanity, but then Inhumanism came to be Jeffers' creed.

Nevertheless, Jeffers' next dramatic poem, Dear Judas (1929), exhibits his most sustained concern for mere human beings, even though Jesus, Mary, and Judas are hardly typical human beings. Jeffers himself thought that his play imitated the Japanese Noh form, in which ghosts at a haunted place re-enact their lives and deaths. However, Jeffers' reenactment is heavily verbal, lacking the grace of the Noh's culminating dance….

Since Jesus uses many biblical phrases, and Mary sounds like an unusually self-effacing Jewish mother, Judas carries the burden of Jeffers' rhetoric and imagery, in his usual long uneven lines…. (p. 232)

Neither quite Christian in theme nor quite Noh in form, Dear Judas is exceptional in Jeffers' canon because of the sympathy for small human emotions—particularly those of Judas and Mary. In spite of Jeffers' rhetorical monologues, gratuitous images, and final didacticism, individual moments achieve a dramatic interplay which reappears no-where in Jeffers' work.

The very titles At the Fall of an Age (1931) and At the Birth of an Age (1935) indicate the complementary nature of Jeffers' next two dramatic poems…. Both poems are steps along Jeffers' Inhumanist way—a kind of latter-day Stoicism in which man redeems himself by objectifying his experience and viewing it in the light of inhuman durability.

In At the Fall of an Age, this Inhumanist view is espoused by the dead Achilles and his Myrmidons. (pp. 233-34)

Jeffers proceeded to express the oppressive symbolism of rocks, sun, stars, and wild animals in non-dramatic poems which can accommodate them better…. [His next play was an adaptation of Euripedes' Medea.] Predictably, Jeffers viewed the Greek tragic heroine as a woman of elemental passions whose violence should teach us to rise above mere human emotion.

Since Euripides' Medea is already a creature of large passions, Jeffers emphasizes this through imagery which derives from fire, water, minerals, and above all animals. (pp. 234-35)

In the context of Jeffers' work, we suspect that he admires his psychopathic heroine, who knows none of the womanly weakness of the Euripidean character. And yet the lush lines root her strength in the psychopathology of sadism. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Jeffers savors that fury, rewarding her finally with stars that do not scorn her. (p. 236)

Jeffers uses myth to illustrate his Inhumanism—his view that man's grandeur lies in his stubborn and Stoic resistance to the petty ills and delights that flesh is heir to. Man achieves greatness only if he can view himself in the light of the inhuman—mountains and oceans, redwoods and boulders, hawks and lions. Though this rather puerile philosophy furnishes Jeffers with his rhythms and images, it is not only antipathetic to the modern temperament which tends to focus on the human, but it is antipathetic to dramatic form, whose imagery must be integrated into theater, whose rhythm must be spoken by actors. A nostalgia for poetic drama and thirst for operatic acting may explain the awe that greeted production of Medea, but today Jeffers' dramatic and undramatic poetry is most instructive as negative example…. (pp. 236-37)

Ruby Cohn, "Robinson Jeffers," in her Dialogue in American Drama (copyright © by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 231-37.

Frederic I. Carpenter

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On March 3, 1941, Robinson Jeffers read from his poetry to a large audience in Emerson Hall, Harvard University. The room seated four hundred, but many more crowded the halls outside. The next day I drove Jeffers to visit Emerson's Concord and Walden Pond, and in conversation inquired the title of his next book. "Beyond Good and Evil," he replied; and when I did not hear well, he added: "Nietzsche." Nine months later his new book bore the title, Be Angry at the Sun; and on December 7 Pearl Harbor exploded.

At that time the incident did not seem very important. The title poem of the new volume translated the Nietzschean idea into poetic language, while it recalled the German of Spengler (mentioned in another poem), whose Untergang des Abendlandes announced the setting sun of all Western civilization. But after Pearl Harbor the new volume seemed almost treasonous: one poem coupled Roosevelt with Hitler as equal instigators of the new world war…. (p. 86)

Now more than a generation later, 1941 looms as a watershed in American history. But it also marks a watershed in the history of Jeffers's reputation. In March, 1941, his popularity had reached its highest point (although some critics had been denouncing him since the publication of The Women at Point Sur in 1927). But after Pearl Harbor his attempts to argue that "The cause is far beyond good and evil,/Men fight and their cause is not the cause," effectively destroyed his reputation. At the very moment when Americans most needed to believe in the absolute goodness of their cause, Jeffers denied them. And when he refused to describe their arch-enemy Hitler as absolutely evil, they called him fascist.

From 1941 until his death in 1962, Jeffers's reputation suffered eclipse…. But beginning with the poet's death in 1962, a gradual reversal set in, causing his reputation to increase. Now in 1977 a new publisher … has reissued three of his least popular volumes (The Women at Point Sur, Dear Judas, and The Double Axe)…. (pp. 86-7)

[The worst of the volumes, The Double Axe,] certainly deserves reprinting, because the second of its narrative poems, "The Inhumanist," has always been recognized as a thoughtful and original philosophic poem. But "The Love and the Hate," which introduces the volume, has been condemned from the beginning.

"The Love and the Hate," on rereading, seems almost as bad as when first published. The story of the young soldier who returns from the dead to confront and kill the father who had sent him out to die in World War II remains both unbelievable and repulsive. But after rereading, the emotions of alienation and hatred which the poem projected seem to have been realized in the experiences of veterans of the Vietnam War. Recent novels and plays dealing with prisoners of that war who have returned verify the emotions which Jeffers had imagined a generation before. Although sometimes a bad poet, Jeffers was usually a good prophet.

The second volume of poetry now reprinted, Dear Judas, seems to me the best. The conflicts are always believable, and the poetry sometimes achieves magnificence. (p. 92)

The Women at Point Sur is the last of the volumes now reprinted, and the most controversial. It is the most complex, and in many ways the most interesting. Antoninus calls it "the most difficult and forbidding of all his poems," yet believes it to be his best. When first published in 1927, its extremes of plot and emotion so shocked many readers that they rejected it, while some turned against the poet entirely. Fifty years later we may confront the problems which it created.

The plot is simple and stark: a Christian minister renounces his faith and proclaims that "what was wrong's right, the old laws are abolished / … there is nothing wicked. What the heart desires, or any part of the body / That is the law." To symbolize his apostasy he commits incest with his daughter, April. Then in the second half of the poem he leads his demented followers through episodes of mounting violence and perversion, until at the end he lies down "in the mouth of the black pit." The plot illustrates the total destruction which results from the total denial of moral law. And the first part of the narrative develops this plot logically, with passages of magnificent poetry. (p. 93)

In the second half of The Women, Jeffers "suspends what Freud called the censor"—and I, for one, cannot follow him. But others may. And certainly there exists a strange kind of illogic in madness…. The point is that the archetypal plot-patterns of Tamar and The Women at Point Sur follow a different logic from that of Aristotelian tragedy or of narrative realism. They go beyond the human laws of good and evil to imagine the timeless patterns of inhuman nature. And in so doing they enter the realm of myth. (p. 94)

In all his mature poetry Jeffers sought to explore the realm beyond good and evil. In The Women at Point Sur his Barclay specifically announced this purpose. But in this realm there are no roads or reasons, and half-way through this poem Jeffers proclaimed that "these here have gone mad." In their belief that they could live beyond evil, these characters became alienated from the world of reason and law. And this is the fate of all who believe that to go beyond evil means to deny the reality of evil. Barclay proclaimed that there is no evil…. (p. 95)

Obviously this extremism is absurd…. In The Women he put this extreme statement in the mouth of his Barclay, then emphasized that it resulted in madness, and finally dramatized the destruction that it produced. But the emotional intensity with which he realized his characters, and the poetic eloquence with which he described their actions, have tended to make the absurd seem almost reasonable and the evil seem almost acceptable. After The Women, therefore, he wrote his "Apology for Bad Dreams" in a conscious attempt to make his own nightmares make sense.

The problem, I would suggest, is one of perspective. These poems literally describe bad dreams—but so vividly that the dreams seem to become realities. By suspending what Freud called the censor, these poems force the reader to realize that the impulses which civilization has repressed remain powerful. They still lurk below the level of consciousness, and if acted upon, result in evil. But his "Apology" warns that "it is not good to forget…."

The world which Jeffers's poetry explores is not beyond evil, but beneath (or before) evil…. All his poems, in Santayana's phrase, "stir the sub-human depths of the spirit." They recall those impulses which primitive myth once celebrated, and which early civilization sometimes practiced (the early Pharaohs practiced royal incest), but which modern civilization has put down. Buried beneath the level of modern consciousness, these impulses still exist beneath evil, "at the muddy root of things." Only if the author fails to distinguish between the two realms do problems develop. Jeffers's early poetry had distinguished clearly: "for good-ness and evil are two things and still variant, but the quality of life as of death and of light / As of darkness is one, one beauty …" ("Point Pinos and Point Lobos"). But his later poetry concerned itself more with the "one." (pp. 95-6)

Frederic I. Carpenter, "Robinson Jeffers Today: Beyond Good and Beneath Evil," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1977 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), March, 1977, pp. 86-96.

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Jeffers, Robinson


Jeffers, Robinson (Vol. 15)