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The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

by Robinson Jeffers

Permanent things, or things forever renewed, like the grass and human passions, are the material for poetry...

Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

John Robinson Jeffers, the great poet of the American West Coast, was born in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father, William Hamilton Jeffers, was a professor of Old Testament Biblical theology and a Presbyterian minister. A strict disciplinarian and serious intellectual, the elder Jeffers gave his son rigorous private lessons in Greek, Latin, and religion. By the time he was twelve, Jeffers was also fluent in French and German (learned during his schooling in Switzerland), but awkward among other children. Not surprisingly, the boy developed complex feelings toward his deeply loving but authoritarian father.

Jeffers entered the University of Pittsburgh at fifteen. When his father retired the next year, the family moved to Los Angeles and Jeffers transferred to Occidental College, from which he graduated in 1905 at the age of eighteen. The precocious teenager did graduate work at several universities, studying literature, medicine, and forestry before realizing poetry was his calling.

At the University of Southern California, Jeffers met Una Call Kuster, a beautiful woman who was not only two years older than he, but married to a wealthy local attorney. Robinson and Una fell irrevocably in love. After seven years of guilt-ridden romance with many renunciations, separations, reconciliations, and eventually a public scandal, Una obtained a divorce on August 1, 1913. The next day she and Jeffers married. They traveled north to the wild Big Sur region of coastal California and rented a small cabin in the village of Carmel-by-the Sea, which they recognized as their "inevitable place."

The twenty-seven-year-old poet knew that he had not yet written anything of enduring value, despite the publication of his first book, Flagons and Apples (1912). The death of both Jeffers's father and his own newborn daughter in 1914 heightened his sense of mortality.

After issuing a second collection, Californians (1916), Jeffers published nothing for eight years. He divided his time between writing and building a house for his family—which now included twin sons Donnan and Garth—on a promontory overlooking the Pacific ocean.

In 1924 Jeffers published Tamar and Other Poems with a small press in New York. It attracted no initial notice, but a year later it was suddenly taken up by several influential critics. Jeffers produced an expanded trade edition containing what would be his most famous narrative poem, "Roan Stallion." Both public and critical opinion were extraordinary. Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1925) went into multiple reprintings. Critics compared him to Sophocles and Shakespeare, but Jeffers ignored his sudden celebrity and focused on his work. Over the next ten years he wrote the most remarkable, ambitious, and odd series of narrative poems in American literature, published in eight major collections.

By World War II, Jeffers's critical reputation had collapsed and would not rise again until after his death. In 1945, however, the noted actress Judith Anderson asked the poet to translate and adapt Euripides's classical tragedy Medea for the modern stage. When Jeffers's Medea opened on broadway in 1947, it stunned audiences and critics with its power and intensity.

Medea's success relieved Jeffers's financial worries, but the happiest days of his life were now behind him. After Una's slow death from cancer in 1950, he withdrew further from the world. Jeffers published only one book during the last fourteen years of his life, Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954). But even as his eyesight failed, he never stopped writing. A few days after his seventy-fifth birthday, he died in his sleep at Tor House.

"Permanent things, or things forever renewed, like the grass and human passions, are the material for poetry... "
—Robinson Jeffers from his essay "Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years" (1948)

Jeffers and California

After their marriage in August 1913, Robinson and Una Jeffers hoped to live in England for a while. Before they could finalize their plans, however, World War I began in Europe and they were forced to remain in America. Seeking a coastal village where they could live a simple, quiet life, they decided to visit Carmel, California.

Jeffers had traveled widely in Europe and America, but Carmel and the Big Sur coast were different from any place he had ever been. "For the first time in my life," he later wrote of this first encounter, "I could see people living—amid magnificent unspoiled scenery—essentially as they did in the Idyls or the Sagas, or in Homer's Ithaca. Here was life purged of its ephemeral accretions. Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white sea-gulls, as they have done for thousands of years, and will for thousands of years to come. Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life...."

During the next few years, Jeffers hiked the nearby mountains, explored the seacoast, and listened to the stories of people who lived there. He began to feel a profound connection to the landscape. In 1919, when he and Una built Tor House, his feeling of kinship with the land deepened. By 1925, when he completed Hawk Tower, Jeffers and Carmel were one.

"Jeffers Country" extends along the Monterey County coastline from Point Pinos in the north to Lucia and beyond in the south. This stretch of central California includes the Santa Lucia mountains, the Ventana wilderness, and Los Padres National Forest, as well as the rugged canyons and steep cliffs of the incomparable Big Sur. Native Americans inhabited the area for hundreds of years before father Junípero Serra built a mission there in 1771 and before a scattering of settlers arrived—a situation Jeffers alludes to in such poems as "Hands."

By Jeffers's time, the city of Monterey was well established and the small village of Carmel was growing, but the area was mostly wild. "It is not possible to be quite sane here," Jeffers said of the dramatic landscape. Like the local cypresses bent and twisted by the relentless ocean wind, some of the area's people led tortured lives—especially those who lived in remote canyons or in isolated cabins within sight and sound of the sea.

Like his contemporary John Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers set much of his work against a California backdrop. Through his haunting lyrics and dramatic narrative poems, Jeffers captures the energy and beauty of a landscape he called "the noblest thing I have ever seen."

Carmel Point
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
—Robinson Jeffers

Tor House and Hawk Tower

Tor House derives its name from the rocky hill (called a “tor” in Gaelic) upon which the house is built. One of the rock outcroppings serves as a cornerstone and is celebrated in the poem “To the Rock That Will be a Cornerstone of the House.” Jeffers named Hawk Tower for the hawk that would visit him daily while he worked.

Local contractor M. J. Murphy built the west wing of Tor House (1918–1919); Jeffers’s son Donnan completed the east wing in 1957. In the intervening years, after spending mornings writing in the attic by the window looking outward to the mountains, Jeffers labored afternoons to make the other stone structures that compose the buildings collectively known as Tor House: a stone wall and a detached garage (1919–1920), the latter converted to a kitchen in 1954; Hawk Tower (1920–1924); a dining room (1926–1930); and the first floor of the east wing (begun in 1937).

Jeffers gathered the granite stones, which he called “the primitive rock”—more than 80-million-year-old Santa Lucia granite—from the shoreline below Tor House, “each stone Baptized from that abysmal font” (“To the House”). He rolled the stones up from the sea, some of them weighing close to 400 pounds. Working alone, Jeffers built the forty-foot high Hawk Tower for Una. As his hands worked with stone, his mind worked on the poetry he would write the next morning.

In addition to the exceptional stonemasonry—the beautiful Roman arch of the original garage, the flat arches of the north-facing windows of the dining room, the hidden passageway of Hawk Tower—the house and tower are notable for the artifacts that Jeffers embedded in the walls. These include pre-Colombian terra cotta heads from Mexico and small tesserae from the baths of Caracalla in Rome. He painted mottoes and verses on some walls, house beams, and furniture. The house did have running water, but lacked electricity or telephones. In and around the property, Jeffers planted some two thousand trees.

Taken together, the poetry inspired by Tor House, the stonemasonry, the artifacts, the mottoes, and verses make the house and tower a living monument to one of America’s greatest poets.

If you should look for this place
after a handful of lifetimes:
Perhaps of my planted forest a few
May stand yet, dark-leaved Australians or the
coast cypress, haggard
With storm-drift; but fire and the axe are devils.
Look for foundations of sea-worn granite, my
fingers had the art
To make stone love stone, you will find some
—Robinson Jeffers, from his poem "Tor House"

Jeffers and American Culture

In a culture where many believe that "poetry makes nothing happen," Jeffers remains strangely influential among both artists and scientists.

Environmentalists and conservationists consider him an influential figure in the movement to protect natural habitat, wilderness, and coastal land. Guided by Ansel Adams, the Sierra Club's lavish folio Not Man Apart: Photographs of the Big Sur Coast combined lines from Jeffers's poetry with photographs in a work that helped focus political efforts to preserve that spectacular stretch of California coastline. Poet Robert Hass calls Jeffers an "early environmentalist," as he was "perhaps the first American poet to grasp the devastating extent of the changes human technologies and populations were wreaking on the rest of the earth's biological life."

Jeffers thoroughly understood and embraced the scientific worldview of his time. Indeed, the physicist freeman Dyson, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1995, compares Jeffers to Einstein and says, "He expressed better than any other poet the scientist's vision." Astronomers and geologists remain interested in his work.

Jeffers's poetry inspired two original and seminal Californian photographers: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Throughout his life, Ansel Adams was particularly inspired by Jeffers: "I am going to do my best to call attention to the simplicities of environment and method; to 'the enormous beauty of the world,' as Jeffers writes." Morley Baer, another important California photographer, read Jeffers's poems as a college student and many years later claimed, "Jeffers helped me see and sense the coast of California as a place of great tensions, great natural tensions that are part of life and not to be subdued and eradicated."

Many musicians have been inspired by Jeffers's poetry—from jazz musician Walter Tolleson to UCLA geophysics professor Peter Bird. Composer Alva Henderson's first opera, Medea—after Jeffers's adaptation—was originally performed by the San Diego Opera. Even the California-born Beach Boys were inspired to write a song after Jeffers's poem "The Beaks of Eagles," which originally appeared on their 1973 album Holland.

Jeffers's great triumph is that now—more than seventy-five years after his radical poetic voice first sounded—his poetry retains its power to inspire and disturb.

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