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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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)
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In Robinson Jeffers we find a poet concerned … with the cosmos in which man is but a momentary flicker, [and] the magnificent strophes of this strangely obscure poet show a [rich] maturity. This reviewer, reading Jeffers, felt somewhat as Keats professed to feel, on looking into Chapman's Homer…. The opening poem, "Tamar," is a powerful dramatic narrative on the stern Greek model, given a native setting and written in a free verse that has in it the long roll and swing of the elder seas. Jeffers has his own style, which is worthy of his high moods and gnarled thinking. For there is thinking in these lyrics, which lifts them … on to the plane of great writing. It is possible not to share the Oriental philosophy expressed in certain of his poems, but it is impossible to have strong poetry without the force of some equal conviction beating like a heart in its body….
Permanent things—bound together in a cosmic pattern, as Jeffers binds them—permanent things, edged with the light of our new knowledge of the world—permanent things torn up from the sea-floor of emotion and giving off the aromatic odors of fossil resin in the fires of the poet's mind. That is what one is granted in such work as this—work that is hard and cool and precious as amber, and like amber, charged with electricity. (p. 23)
Babette Deutsch, "Brains and Lyrics," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1925 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 43, No. 547, May 27, 1925, pp. 23-4.∗
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[Robinson Jeffers' poem] "Post Mortem" is a prophetic warning of the future dangers of over-population. As such it is more true, more relevant, more important now than when it was written…. The dangers of exploding population which Jeffers proclaimed in 1927 have become the crucial concern of our time. And I would suggest that the present renaissance of his poetic reputation is due, in part at least, to the accuracy and timeliness of his prophecy, and to the depth of his concern with "these evils," which he described so eloquently. Together with his deep love of the beauty of wild nature …, Jeffers' concern with the overpopulation of the earth speaks to the present more urgently even than it did to his own time.
But of course this poem would not affect us so powerfully as prophecy if it did not first succeed so brilliantly as poetry. It seems to me one of Jeffers' best—certainly it is one of his most "singular." Its point of view, its imagery, and its emotional impact are all typically "Jeffersian." And this very personal point of view, this violent imagery, and this powerful impact all make the poem not only poetically memorable, but critically important. I would direct your attention to one single line: "And dragged from between the thighs of what mothers will giggle at my ghost when it curses the axemen."
This single line is utterly imaginative: it imagines the poet to be clinically present at the birth of "how many remote generations." Its imagery is both violent and shocking: these future births will be both clinical and painful—the unborn generations will be "dragged" from the womb. And the emotion is in every sense, passional: Jeffers' preoccupation with sexual passion combines with his preoccupation with the passional suffering of pain to create an image of excruciating power. But finally this power becomes almost too intense to be endured, so that, paradoxically, it almost becomes excruciatingly funny. These unborn generations will "giggle at my ghost." And although this "giggle" is, as Everson says, a "terrible verb," it is also terribly necessary. For this is a cosmic giggle: it expresses the natural revulsion of the human animal at the painful indignity of its own birth.
The point which I wish to emphasize is that, in this poem, Jeffers has given expression and recognition to the universality of the cosmic giggle. As in O'Neill's Iceman, the snicker of sex balances the horror of death. Here Jeffers has balanced his characteristic imagery of violence with this primal giggle. But, never noted for his sense of humor, his later poetry usually omitted this leaven, and suffered loss as a result. Or—so it seems to me…. (pp. 4-6)
But, for whatever reason, Jeffers' reputation suffered loss after 1927 (which was also the date of The Women at Point Sur). The characteristic violence of his imagery and the unrelieved horror of his narratives increased, while the almost missionary fervor of his prophetic denunciations increased also. More and more readers turned away from this mess of violence served without the necessary pinch of humor. And even those who recognized the truth of his prophecies of "these evils" were repelled by the almost hysterical insistence with which he repeated them. (p. 6)
["The dark thoughts"] to which Jeffers' poetry gave expression have become increasingly the preoccupation of the modern world. The "sheer / Excesses of vision" upon which his "pen / Splintered," projected only too realistically the "bad dreams" of many modern poets and authors. Even the violent hatred of civilization which gave rise to Jeffers' grotesque metaphor of "Life" as "blonde and a harlot" has found realization: Jean Genet, for instance, has structured his play, "The Balcony" upon the metaphor of modern society as a house of prostitution. And the same preoccupation with sex, combined with an equal distaste for sex, which characterized Jeffers' poetry from "Tamar" to "Hungerfield," has become the hallmark of much contemporary literature and art. (p. 9)
The apparent flaw in Jeffers' poetry derives from its failure to resolve the fundamental dilemma of our civilization. That most natural of human instincts, sex, inherits not only the guilt-feelings of traditional Christianity, but also the denunciations of futurists who fear "the women's abundance." The greatness of his poetry lies in the completeness of its expression of both conflicting values: the narratives describe sexual emotions so vividly that they sometimes seem pornographic, yet they also describe frustrations and guilt so vividly that they sometimes seem moralistic. If the poetry fails to produce the catharsis of classical tragedy, it is because it realizes this ambivalence so completely that it refuses to ascribe any "tragic flaw" to the protagonists. The flaw lies rather in that "monster," civilization; yet when his modern maenads roam the barren hills of Point Sur they find only madness. Jeffers' poetry speaks to us the more urgently because it prophesies our problems, although it does not solve them. (pp. 9-10)
Frederic I. Carpenter, "'Post Mortem': 'The Poet Is Dead'," in Western American Literature (copyright, 1977, by the Western Literature Association), Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1977, pp. 3-10.
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Even a casual reading leads one to conclude that much of Robinson Jeffers' poetry is profoundly apocalyptic. Fires, deluges, storms, and earthquakes menace the lives of his major characters, and serve as constant reminders of nature's catastrophic potential. There are forebodings of Armageddon and gloomy speculations about man's fate. A number of narratives result in the destruction of a small group of people in such a way as to suggest that they symbolize the human race itself. All of these facts recall strikingly the apocalyptic books and passages of the Bible. The Biblical writers, like Jeffers, thought of man as incapable of permanent self-improvement, and envisioned redemption as coming only after Armageddon and a series of natural catastrophes had destroyed mankind. Believing this, they fixed their gaze on the coming doom and on the glorious new heaven and earth that would succeed it. Calling for "the rejection of human solipsism and the recognition of the transhuman magnificence," Jeffers, too, looked beyond humanity to find redemptive splendor. He too sought not to reform but only to write down his gloomy visions. His outlook, for which he invented the word Inhumanism, lays the philosophical basis for the apocalyptic nature of his work: if one thought that man was merely a fly-speck in the universe, it was easy and even comforting to contemplate his end. But this stance does not explain the intensity of Jeffers' apocalyptic feeling. It does not explain the extraordinary frequency with which the characters in his narratives are menaced by the same agents of destruction found in Biblical apocalyptic: fire, earthquake, wind, rain. (pp. 111-12)
[The California coast, consistently the setting of Jeffers' poems,] was the epitome of the world itself and man's situation in it. Its remarkable beauty was only an intensification of the splendor of the entire non-human world: "It is only a little planet, but how beautiful it is." Not beautiful, however, were the humans who dwelt on the earth. In "Original Sin" and many other poems, he set forth his view of man as naturally vicious. The consequence of his nature would be the instability of all cultures and national groupings: all would in some way come up against a final ocean and fail. Further, he saw in the contrast between man-the-polluter and the beauty of his surroundings a symbol of man everywhere on the earth. The human race was an inglorious and insignificant stage in the evolution of the "one life" composed of the birth and death of many lives, from one-celled beings to mountain ranges, planets, galaxies, universes. (p. 113)
As Jeffers pointed out to inquirers, his narratives were usually based on a particular place in the landscape, often with a story attached to it; so too, did the fires, winds, earthquakes, and rainstorms of the area find their counterpart in his poems, and particularly in his narratives. (p. 114)
These natural agents of destruction are not mere backdrops of dramatic accents, but important symbolic forces in the narratives. Of the four agents, fire most often plays an important part, just as it does in the Biblical apocalypses. Sometimes it is merely a dramatic accent or a plot mechanism—to drive characters together or apart. Most often, however, it is the instrument that threatens to destroy the particular setting of the narrative, as in "Give Your Heart to the Hawks" and "Cawdor," or does destroy it, as in "Tamar," "Hungerfield," or Part I ("The Love and the Hate") of "The Double Axe." in all of these stories, the families live in self-contained worlds in more or less isolated parts of the coast. When the homesteads burn in the latter three poems, one gets the impression that a holocaust has occurred. The reader is seldom reminded that humanity exists anywhere else.
In "The Double Axe," the most obviously apocalyptic of these three latter poems, Jeffers leaves little doubt that the fire is of more than incidental importance. In the end of Part I, a fire started by man's carelessness destroys the Gore family ranch. Hoult Gore, the speaker in the passage which follows, has risen from the grave—as will all bodies on Judgment Day—to accuse his family of acquiescence in what he calls the folly of World War II. (pp. 114-15)
The fire is apocalyptic for the Gores: it is an instrument of cleansing of the land they have polluted with their sins, of retribution for those sins, and finally of mercy, for it puts and end to their torment by Hoult. It is the climax of Part I, and prepares the way for the second part and the introduction of the old, wise, and cynical Inhumanist, who is the caretaker of the burned-over property, and to a considerable extent a persona for Jeffers. Part II ends in a war in which nuclear weapons devastate the world in a "fire-death," and only the old axe-man is left alive. At the end of the poem he wakes in a red dawn. The whole world is burning. (pp. 115-16)
As he does with fire, Jeffers makes use of wind and rain for apocalyptic suggestions. Wind is purifying…. It may suggest the burning of human energy and the storms of human emotion, as in the bloody conclusion of "Thurso's Landing," played in a howling wind on a platform overlooking the sea. Above all it is a destroyer, a cosmic force indifferent to human life and capable of wiping it from the earth. This feeling is suggested in the "Thurso's Landing" platform scene, and in the storm scenes in "Cawdor." In the latter, the wind has been blowing for hours, when a pane of glass, just tapped by a broken branch, "exploded inward, glass flew like sparks, the fury of the wind / Entered like a wild beast." The final simile recalls the wild beasts that were one of the traditional four horsemen of the apocalypse.
The winds of storm bring rain, too. The rains in "Cawdor" threaten to wash away the garden at the foot of the canyon; though the entire ranch is not endangered, the suggestion of menace is clear. In other poems, lyric meditations such as "November Surf," Jeffers emphasizes the purifying quality of deluge: the earth, he says, "keeps dreaming of the bath of a storm" that would "scour" the works of man, ruin the cities, render the rivers "from mouth to source pure" and give man "the dignity of room, the value of rareness."…
Earthquake, the last of the four common agents of apocalypse, usually functions as a suggestion of menace rather than as an actual destroying force. (p. 117)
Jeffers' choice of standpoint from which to view these horrific events is highly significant…. [His characteristic Inhumanist stance was that of] the detached observer turning his thoughts to the design of things. This attitude was precisely that of the apocalyptic writers of the Bible. (pp. 118-19)
Although they share with Jeffers a grim, resigned outlook on the world and a stance apart, the writers of Biblical apocalypses seem to differ with him radically in one particular. Their despair is balanced by hope. In their parousia, spelled out in greatest detail by St. John in Revelation, the sordid world is replaced by a New Jerusalem, glowing with precious stones and radiant with holy light. Jeffers, who had specifically rejected the Christianity of his father, a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology, could not focus on any conventionally religious antidote to his radical pessimism, and he did not envision any future golden age for humanity. Yet there is a hope in his poetry to match his despair. Perhaps paradoxically, its rational foundation is the scientific and specifically Darwinian attitudes which quite early in his life had led him to reject Christianity or any other creed. Its emotional foundation is found precisely in his relationship with the same physical world that provides his catastrophic imagery—his intense sensitivity to what he repeatedly called "the beauty of things."… His sense of beauty, however, was focused not merely on the conventionally beautiful scenes about him, but also on the stark and violent processes of nature…. The reason for these catholic tastes is that Jeffers saw beauty not as a static quality but as a dynamic force, a cycle of growth, decadence, death, and rebirth in which all forms of life would play a part worth respecting. This process he called "discovery." The concept embodies both his passionate, sensuous love of "things" and his coolly impersonal, scientific conclusions about the way things are. The process of discovery, which brought man into existence out of other forms, would surrender man one day through mutation … to a different kind of creature, perhaps a better one. He in turn would yield to new change, and the world, too, would one day perish, if not in an atomic holocaust, then in one of the great pulsations of an expanding and contracting universe. This event, however, would not be tragic, any more than St. John's Revelation is tragic; rather, it would be part of the beauty of discovery. (pp. 120-21)
Jeffers' discovery, however, is simply one of the alternate words for uncovering or unveiling, as are the Greek-root "apocalypse" and the Latinate "revelation." Discovery is apocalypse, the continual manifestation of evolutionary struggle. In this process, the fires and windstorms, driving rains and wrenching earthquakes of the California coast are part of redemptive beauty just as much as the towering, treeless mountains, the narrow canyons with their little groves of redwoods, and the swirl and toss of the sea against granite rocks…. Apocalyptic poet and apocalyptic place were inextricably and inevitably united. (pp. 121-22)
Edward A. Nickerson, "Robinson Jeffers: Apocalypse and His 'Inevitable Place'," in Western American Literature (copyright, 1977, by the Western Literature Association), Vol. XII, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 111-22.