Robinson Jeffers was the son of an Old Testament theologian who gave him a classical education in Europe and in the United States. After beginning graduate studies first in medicine and then in forestry, Jeffers concluded that he wanted to become a poet, but he did not find his own voice in verse until he and his wife settled in the small town of Carmel, California, at the northern end of the spectacular sweep of coast known as Big Sur, with its towering highlands, wild rivers and creeks, abundant wildlife, and crashing surf. He built a stone dwelling, Tor House, and next to it Hawk Tower, made of boulders from the shore below the house. Jeffers built the tower to please his wife, Una, who admired the towers of Ireland; he named it for his favorite animal, whose intense awareness and frightening ferocity seemed to Jeffers emblematic of life at its most intense.
Jeffers had found not only a home but also a locale for his poems. The dramatic landscape, with its tall mountains falling abruptly into the immense, boiling ocean, an arena for the struggle of animal and marine life, seemed to cry out for tragedy like all beautiful places, to paraphrase another poem by Jeffers. Directly across the mouth of the Carmel River from Tor House lies Point Lobos, its wild beauty now preserved as a state park. Here Jeffers places Tamar, the story of the Cauldwell family; the poem is the first of many long narrative poems through which he presents his poetic themes and develops his philosophical viewpoint.
The themes of Jeffers’s long poems involve the fatal effects of human passion, which is always egocentric and, therefore, self-destructive, not only for the people who indulge that passion but also for those around them—usually a family. This passion is acted upon in a natural setting of beauty and power, a reminder that people are part of nature and thus are driven by impulses and instincts beyond their control or understanding. They are also subject to forces outside themselves—forces that eventually defeat and destroy them. This assessment of the human condition is bleak, but the philosophical viewpoint that Jeffers adopts goes beyond that bleak position. Passion, violence, sin, and death are not just elements in people’s lives;...
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