Robinson Jeffers was committed to writing of modern life in his poetry, but saw in the example of the modernists a limitation both of theme and technical possibility that he was determined to avoid in his own work. In long narrative poems, shorter lyrics, and plays, often written in a long Whitmanesque line, he articulated his theme of the final insignificance of human life alongside the power of nature and of the corruption of what was inevitably a doomed civilization. He wrote his poems while living his life on the edge of the Pacific, in a stone cottage and tower that he built with his own hands. Many of the poems are filled with the surrounding landscape and people, although Jeffers's poems also often apply his view of the human condition to national and international politics. In his self-imposed isolation and self-sufficiency Jeffers lived an alternative to the "gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated / From the strong earth" that he condemned in his poem "The Purse-Seine."
Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh, where his father was a professor at the Western Theological Seminary, and he received a cosmopolitan education including training in the classics, knowledge of French, German, and Italian, and stints at a number of boarding schools in Europe. His family moved to California in 1904, where Jeffers graduated from Occidental College at the age of 18. He continued graduate study for a number of years, variously at the University of Zurich, the University of Southern California, and the
University of Washington, undecided between his interests in medicine and in forestry. He published two early books of derivative poems, Flagons and Apples in 1912, and Californians in 1916, before finding his own voice with the 1924 volume Tamar, and other Poems.
Jeffers went on to a good deal of critical and popular success in the 1920s and 1930s with a series of volumes that articulated his theme, influenced by his reading of Nietzsche, of a necessary stoicism against the power, violence, and beauty of nature. His adaptation of Euripedes' Medea (1946) was a great success in New York, with the title role played by Judith Anderson, and this triumph brought him national attention. But his view of the Second World War as a prime example of the human propensity to self-destruction was not a popular one. His 1948 volume, The Double Axe and Other Poems, now considered by some critics his finest, appeared with a disclaimer from the publisher, who had also insisted upon some of the intended poems being removed. He insists in his late poem "Carmel Point": "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." And his stoic pessimism is summed up in the lines from "The Deer Lay Down their Bones" (1954): "We have been given life and have used it - not a great gift perhaps - but in honesty / Should use it all. Mine's empty since my love died -."
The "love" in these lines is Jeffers's wife, Una Kuster, who had died of cancer in 1950. The two met in 1906 when she was already married, and married in 1913 following her divorce. She became an important muse and subject in his work. Together they moved to what was then the village of Carmel, and Jeffers designed Tor House on Carmel Point for their home, apprenticing himself to the building contractor and thus learning stonemasonry. Electricity was not installed until 1949. Between 1920 and 1924 Jeffers added, entirely by himself, the 40-foot Hawk Tower, and both stone structures figure largely in his poetry. Following the death of his wife, Jeffers lived on in Tor House with his family, although increasing illness forced him to give up writing in 1958. The house and tower are now preserved as a historic landmark.
Commentators have often noted the recurrence of the rock and hawk symbols in Jeffers's verse, and their significance has been variously described. In his poem "Rock and Hawk" Jeffers juxtaposes a number of the qualities:
bright power, dark peace; Fierce consciousness joined with final Disinterestedness:
Life with calm death; the falcon's Realist eyes and act Married to the massive
Mysticism of stone,
Which failure cannot cast down
The unblinking look at what he saw as the powerlessness of humanity against the forces of nature, and the sense of perspective that he argued for in the light of this reality, characterize Jeffers's poems at their best. Along with this theme, Jeffers's poems emphasize the inevitable suffering inherent in nature and in the human condition, and he wrote poems rivaling those of D. H. Lawrence in their treatment of violence and their frankness about sexuality. Jeffers's achievement, both in his longer narrative poems and his short lyrics, is one that, while having comparatively little influence upon later poets, nevertheless demands recognition as one significant alternative to the direction taken by the modernist poets.
Was this article helpful?