Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)
Contributing Editor: Arthur B. Coffin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Many readers/critics feel that Jeffers's most readable poetry is in his lyric poems; others feel that his most powerful verse is in his long narrative poems, which, of course, cannot be anthologized. It is useful-- perhaps necessary--therefore to provide students a sense of the larger context in which the lyrics stand and to describe the evolution of Jeffers's personal philosophy, which he called "Inhumanism." Even students who respond readily to Jeffers's reverence for a distant God made manifest in the "beauty of things" (i.e., nature)--and many of them embrace these views instantly--will ask, "Where's this guy coming from?" Consider some of the following suggestions.
One may assign individual students or groups of students narrative poems to read and report on to the class, but, with the exception of "Roan Stallion," this is long and sometimes laborious work. And it is time-consuming in the classroom. The traditional approach of lecturing to provide the necessary context is the most efficient one. (As the bibliography indicates, there is a large body of scholarly work to draw on for this purpose.)
Another possibly more appealing approach from the students' perspective is to introduce Jeffers's Not Man Apart (ed. David Brower, Sierra Club, San Francisco, 1965: Ballantine Books, New York, 1969), which, taking its title from a Jeffers line, is a collection of magnificent Ansel Adams photographs of the Big Sur landscape (accompanied by quotes from Jeffers), which has a central role in this poetry.
Hearing these poems is very important, and, whether or not the instructor is a competent reader of these verses, he or she might consider obtaining recordings of William Everson's superb reading of them (available from Gould Media, 44 Parkway West, Mount Vernon, NY 10552-1194; Tape #826-- The Poetry of Robinson Jeffers by William Everson).
Students respond to Jeffers's concern for the beauty of nature and the divinity he finds there. Often they are receptive to the theme of the destructive nature of human beings, especially to human pollution of the earth. Many students are drawn to what they identify as Jeffers's isolationism, his fiercely held individualism. In addition to questions about Jeffers's religious views and his varied intellectual background, they often ask about the poet himself, biographical data which, in this instance, do not take one far from the texts.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
With the publication of the long narrative "Tamar" (1924), Jeffers declared his literary independence and attempted to write poetry appropriate to the times as he saw them. In "Self-Criticism in February," which reviews this effort, he wrote, "[this] is not a pastoral time, but [one] founded / On violence, pointed for more massive violence." Like T. S. Eliot and others, Jeffers searched myth and literature for a "usable past," but he employed these materials more radically than his peers, who, he thought, were fading out in effete aestheticism. Generally, Jeffers saw Euripides's vision as more akin to his own than those of Aeschylus and Sophocles; in the Roman poet Lucretius (On the Nature of Things, which embodies the materialism of Epicurus) Jeffers found support for his view of nature and divinity; classical mythology and tragedy helped him to structure his personal vision and his poems. American capitalism was morally bankrupt and defacing the landscape; both American politics and international affairs were threatened by "Caesarism"--ruthless leaders and timid followers. The advent of nuclear war seemed to assure the imminent destruction of human beings--but, for Jeffers, not of the world itself--which change, the poet believed, would allow the beauty of the world (the manifest God) to start over again, without the contaminating presence of mankind. His doctrine of Inhumanism--"a shifting of emphasis from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence"--encourages humans to become "uncentered" from themselves. "This manner of thought and feeling," he wrote, "is neither misanthropic nor pessimistic. . . . it has objective truth and human value."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Jeffers's early verses are late-Victorian in manner, reflecting the influences of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, and George Moore, but prior to writing "Tamar" he decided to break with modernism, which he saw typified by Mallarmé and his followers. These modernists had forsaken content, Jeffers believed, in favor of aesthetics, which weakened their verse. His narrative poems are heavily laden with statement and action, and their lines are long and supple after classical models. "Apology for Bad Dreams" and "Self-Criticism in February" tell us nearly all there is to hear about Jeffers's poetic. Despite Jeffers's disclaimer (and the views of critics who agree with him on this point), I see him as a modernist sharing much with other modernists such as Robert Lowell, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Theodore Roethke, who also tried to re-order a fragmented world and to find adequate structures for the task. It may be useful to compare Jeffers's views of religion, order, fictive constructs, and reality with the more sophisticated ones of Wallace Stevens (cf. Stevens's "Sunday Morning," "The Idea of Order at Key West," "The Snow Man," and others).
In several places, Jeffers said that he wrote for all time, not for the moment (even though many of his lyrics of the 1940s are very topical, like carping letters to the editor that criticize world leaders indiscriminately), because he believed poetry should bespeak permanence. His work was very popular during the late 1920s and the 1930s (he appeared on the cover of Time magazine), but his audience left him during WWII, when his individualism and their patriotism diverged in a wood. During the 1960s and 1970s, his work was widely translated in Europe, where he gained an enthusiastic readership in the Slavic countries. On this continent, he has been adopted by members of the ecology movement, disaffected members of traditional institutional religions, and academic scholars, who together have revived his reputation. Although Jeffers has been severely slighted in the academic texts of the last decades, he is one of the few poets, I find, that the general student is most apt to have read before taking an American literature or poetry course.
Jeffers's disinterest in a particular audience--his writing for all time--simplifies the audience problem in class and permits a wide range of responses.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare Jeffers's themes to Euripides's, whose tragedies he used and "adapted" as in Jeffers's Broadway hit "Medea." He follows the Greek closely, but the differences are arresting.
Consider also Lucretius, whose version of Epicurus's materialism attracted Jeffers, who fused it with his pantheistic view of nature.
For another interesting comparison, look at Shelley, whose view of Prometheus and the poet as legislator are reflected in Jeffers. Jeffers's incest theme has been traced to Shelley.
Nietzsche's philosophy appears to have attracted but not to have held Jeffers. Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and The Birth of Tragedy would be the main texts of interest.
Wallace Stevens's interest in the imagination, reality, and fictive constructs provides bases for comparison/contrast.
T. S. Eliot's use of mythic materials and the literary tradition to construct an authentic religious outlook suggests some interesting similarities and dissimilarities.
Eugene O'Neill was similarly preoccupied with Greek tragedy.
Theodore Roethke's mystical view of nature and of the spirit that resides in nature offers fertile possibilities for comparison/contrast.
W. B. Yeats's interest in towers, in social unrest versus change, and in the cycles of nature compare with those of Jeffers.
Ansel Adams's photographs of "Jeffers country" offer opportunities for discerning comparisons/contrasts between visual and literary texts.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. After reading the Jeffers poems included in the text (and any others of his you wish to look at), write two or three pages of response to them. In your brief paper, assume that you are a developer (real estate or commercial, for example), or an environmentalist (perhaps a member of the Sierra Club or other similar group), or a TV evangelist, or some other role of your choice. You should imagine how you think the person you choose to be in your paper would most likely respond to Jeffers's work.
2. You have just been reading Jeffers, and your roommate or brother or sister or parent comes and says, "Reading Jeffers? What does he have to say? Should I read his poems?" Assuming that you and your interrogator are on good terms, write a compact essay summarizing what Jeffers says and include in your response to the last question why you make the recommendation you give. Saying simply "yes" or "no" or "you're too young (or old)" to the last question is to evade its point; develop a reasoned reply. Be specific.
For the instructor in survey courses, the handiest and most comprehensive source is Robert Brophy, Robinson Jeffers. Boise: Western Writers Series, 1973; James Karman, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California (1987) is excellent for biographical information.
To keep abreast of Jeffers scholarship, one should consult Robinson Jeffers Newsletter (Occidental College, 1600 Campus Road, Los Angeles, CA 90041).