The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Injured when his horse stumbles and falls over a sea cliff, young Lee Cauldwell is nursed back to health by his sister, Tamar. Lee, who has lived a wild and dissolute life, vows to give up his drinking and debauchery. He and Tamar become devoted to each other during his convalescence, so much so that Lee jealously warns a former suitor of his sister to stay away from her. Old David Cauldwell, Lee and Tamar’s father, fears what might result from the isolation of his family. His fears are confirmed when the brother and sister, after swimming in the river, are drawn to each other.

The Cauldwell family members are a peculiar group. In addition to David and his two children, the family includes two old women: Jinny Cauldwell and Stella Moreland. Aunt Jinny, the mentally disabled sister of David, is cared for by Aunt Stella, the sister of David’s dead wife. Through the confused mumblings of Jinny, Tamar realizes that an incestuous relationship occurred years before between David and his sister Helen.

A short time later, Tamar discovers that she is pregnant. Rather than admit that Lee is the father of her child, she deliberately seeks out and seduces her former suitor, Will Andrews. Disgust and revulsion grow in her until she hates her two lovers and, most of all, herself. She feels that she will lose her mind if she does not talk to someone.

Aunt Stella is a medium through whom the voices of the dead sometimes speak. In desperation, Tamar appeals to Stella to let her speak to Helen. That evening she and Stella, with Jinny between them, steal down to the seashore so that they will not be discovered by the men. Stella gradually falls into a trance, and through her lips Tamar hears the voice of a man who tells her that the coastline country was once the land of the Indians, where their gods used to come to them. He orders Tamar to strip and dance so that the gods will come again. Against her will, Tamar dances to strange guttural chants from the lips of the entranced woman. After a while the chanting ceases, and Tamar returns slowly to her senses. Then through the lips of Stella she hears the voice...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Carmel. Northern California town near Point Lobos, the location of the fictional Cauldwell ranch. Robinson Jeffers lived in Carmel while he wrote this poem. He placed many of his later works in the area, repeatedly emphasizing his belief that its wild environment influenced its inhabitants.

Cauldwell ranch

Cauldwell ranch. Pastures and an isolated family residence overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In the first segment of the poem, the drunken son Lee, traveling home in the dark from Monterey, falls from his horse and tumbles down a steep cliff, where he lies unconscious on the beach, nearly drowning in the incoming tide.

*Carmel region

*Carmel region. After his recovery, Lee reforms, but as he rides through the springtime beauty of the high pastures, he sharply misses his sister Tamar. The same earthy senses overcome Tamar, and later, while out riding with Lee, she seduces him. The narrator suggests that the two were driven to incest by the forces of the “wild rock coast” with its “beaten trees” or by the “wing-subduing immense earth-ending water.” Tamar soon discovers a family history of incest. Fearing exposure of her relations with Lee, she rides to meet her old suitor Will under the Mal Paso Bridge. Although she seeks help, Tamar is prey to the wild forces that drive her. As the fall season commences and local men set brush and pastures afire in order to cleanse the land, the Cauldwell family moves toward its own fiery destruction.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Brophy, Robert J.“Tamar.” In Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976. Shows Robinson Jeffers’ use of Greek myth and world mythology to establish his view of humankind as fated to endure pain and suffering. Contains extensive bibliography on both Jeffers and myth criticism.

Brophy, Robert J. “Tamar, The Cenci, and Incest.” American Literature 42, no. 2 (May, 1970): 241-244. Investigates the connections between Jeffers and the romantics through the incest theme as it appears in both Tamar and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s drama, The Cenci.

Carpenter, Frederic I. “The Poetry of Myth: The Long Poems.” In Robinson Jeffers. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1962. Analyzes all Jeffers’ long narratives, with particular focus on Tamar. The best short introduction to Jeffers’ work. Contains bibliography.

Hunt, Tim. “A Voice in Nature: Jeffers’ “Tamar” and Other Poems. American Literature 61, no. 2 (May, 1989): 230-244. Reprinted in slightly different form as “The Problematic Nature of ‘Tamar’ and Other Poems in Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers, ed. Robert Zaller. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991. Shows how Jeffers’ poetic concerns are reflected in the revision of Tamar and the other poems in the volume in which it was first collected.

Zaller, Robert. “The Birth of the Hero.” In The Cliffs of Solitude. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983. A psychological reading of the character Tamar, along with Jeffers’ other major protagonists. Contains bibliography.