Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905
In capsule, the action of Tamar seems so contrived and decadent as to defy plausibility. Actually, it is an expansion of a generation myth told briefly by Hesiod and retold in a paragraph at the end of Herman Melville’s Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities (1852). Another version, with Tamar as the main character, appears in chapters 13 and 14 of the Second Book of Samuel. In contrast, Jeffers’s development of the material is leisurely and expansive. Furthermore, it is presented in such compelling rhythms, such detail, and such a matter-of-fact way that the question of plausibility hardly arises during reading. The poem is sixty-two or seventy-two pages long (varying with edition) so that the story’s development is ample.
The narrative begins with a prelude in which Lee Cauldwell, Tamar’s brother, falls with his horse from a cliff during a drunken dare. Near death, he is nursed back to health by Tamar. The two grow closer after this. The house in which he lies recovering broods forebodingly, however. A midnight storm stirs the uneasy souls of their father, David, and their aunts, Stella Moreland, a ghost-seer, and Jinny Cauldwell, who is mentally disabled. By the following spring, Lee has recovered, and he finds himself increasingly drawn to his sister—to the point that he drives off a suitor. He stops going to local parties, giving up his former carousing. His father warns him that he will not have time for socializing once he is drafted for the war.
That April, brother and sister stop one hot afternoon to bathe in a stream. Overcome with passions for which she cannot even find words, Tamar tries to drown herself. As her brother rescues her, they find themselves instinctively making love. Afterward he despairs, but she accepts responsibility and declares her love for him.
Shortly afterward, Tamar interviews her Aunt Stella when Stella is in a trance; she learns that her father had been incestuous with his sister Helen, now dead. Feeling that her own relationship with Lee is foredoomed, Tamar continues it in despair, until she discovers that she is pregnant. After a vision in which she surveys all the various peoples who have lived along the coast, she rides to the Andrews farm, where she seduces Will Andrews so that she will have someone whom she can blame for her pregnancy.
This sets the stage for the longest, most detailed section of the poem. The mid-August heat frazzles Tamar; she begs Aunt Stella to summon the dead. That evening, they proceed to a nearby fjord, where Stella once more enters the trance state. Several voices speak through her but primarily a spokesman for the Indian people who once held rites in that place. He commands Tamar to dance naked, as the pregnant Indians did, to placate the spirits. Her dance turns into a frank, sensual invitation to the spirits to couple with her. Finally spent, she is allowed to speak to Helen, her father’s sister-lover, through Stella. The two harangue each other. Suddenly the séance is interrupted by an alarm bell from the cliff-house above. The voice announces that Tamar’s attempt to burn the house has failed.
Tamar loses her child and requires bed rest for recovery. Her father, David, denounces her and Lee for their sin, demanding retribution, and she has a vision of impending war. Mysterious events haunt the house. Lee tells Tamar that their father was going to kill him but relented when Lee offered to join the Army and not return until Tamar is married and David is dead. Tamar believes that Lee has betrayed her for the easy French women available overseas. The old man returns to denounce Tamar; she defies him, accusing him of hypocrisy and extorting from him a confession of lust for her and a condemnation of Helen. Meanwhile, Stella is able to induce a clairvoyant state in Jinny; she sees Tamar ablaze while Helen laughs and the old man has a rope around his neck.
Lee returns to find the two women—with Helen speaking through Stella—trying to get into the locked room. Tamar opens it for Lee; he finds Tamar in command and his father, broken, on his knees. Tamar taunts Lee, saying that not he but another lover had fathered the child, and Helen and Tamar continue wrangling. Tamar sets the signal for Will Andrews, to bring her three lovers together under one roof.
Lee enters to bid farewell. Tamar entices him to carry her to her bedroom, when she goads him until he strikes her with a riding whip. Soon Will arrives; Lee has been waiting for him. While he goes to bring David, Tamar tells Will that the two have beaten her, causing her to lose their baby. Will insists on taking her with him. Lee resists, and Will hits him. When the women intervene, Lee knifes Will. Jinny seizes the chance to thrust a piece of paper into the lamp, setting herself and the room on fire. Lee struggles to escape, first with Tamar and then alone, but the dying Will hampers him, and Tamar will not let him go. All die in the fire.
The poem has justly been praised for its elemental, mythic quality. It has the compelling quality of myth, an inner intensity that defies logic and plausibility because it possesses its own internal truth. Jeffers captured the essence of the way irrational human impulses operate.
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