| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
With the publication of Tamar (1924), Robinson
Jeffers turned from the derivative versifying of his earlier volumes, Flagons
and Apples and Californians, to themes and presentation that won him an
enthusiastic audience. The intensity of the long narratives he then began to
write contrasted strikingly not only with his early poetry but also with that
of other poets. Jeffers described briefly his misgivings about the direction of
the poetry of the 1920s. Without originality, he said, a poet was only a
verse-writer. Some of his contemporaries were pursuing originality by
“divorcing poetry from reason and ideas, bringing it nearer to music....” But,
he demurred, “renouncing intelligibility in order to concentrate on the music
of poetry, [the modern poet] had turned off the road into a narrowing
lane....ideas had gone, now meter had gone, imagery would have to go; then
recognizable emotions would have to go....” To make an advance in poetry, a
poet would need “emotions or ideas, or a point of view, or even mere rhythms,
that had not occurred to [his contemporaries].”
this plan to be “original” Jeffers brought enormous learning in
literature, religion, philosophy, languages, myth, and sciences. His father, a
professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis and Biblical and
Ecclesiastical History at Western Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh,
supervised Jeffers’s education, and the son began at five to learn Greek. This
tutelage was followed by travel in Europe. The family moved to California, and
Jeffers matriculated as a junior at Occidental College, from which he was
graduated in 1905. Jeffers immediately entered graduate school as a student of
literature at the University of Southern California. In the spring of 1906, he
was back in Switzerland taking courses in philosophy, Old English, French
literary history, Dante, Spanish romantic poetry, and the history of the Roman Empire.
Returning to USC in September 1907, he was admitted to the medical school,
where he distinguished himself as a student and taught physiology at the USC
dental college. A final episode of formal education took place at the
University of Washington, where he studied forestry. Another strong influence
on his intellectual development was his wife, Una, whom he met in a class on
Faust at USC and who later studied for a doctorate in philosophy at the
University of California at Berkeley.
after marrying (1913), the couple moved to Carmel, and in 1919 the poet himself
began building a stone cottage on land purchased overlooking Carmel Bay and
facing Point Lobos; near the cottage he built a forty-foot stone tower. Here in
the heart of the Big Sur region, Jeffers undertook his lifelong celebration of
the awesome beauty of coastal hills and ravines that plunged into the Pacific.
With very few exceptions, Jeffers’s verse praises “the beauty of things” in
this setting and focuses on his belief that such splendor demands tragedy: the
greater the beauty, the greater the demand.
Jeffers’s poetry, there is an undeniable, though challenging, religious intent
that shows him to be a pantheist whose God is the evolving universe. Images and
themes of cycle dominate his poetry and derive from many sources.
Civilizations—from Rome to twentieth-century America—follow a cycle of growth,
maturation, and decline. Jeffers’s uncomfortable view is that great wars were
welcome because they would purge the earth of humans who in their
self-centeredness showed themselves unworthy of existing amid the divine beauty
which they habitually defiled and failed to honor. Following these views is
Jeffers’s apocalyptic theme affirming that humankind will destroy itself and
thereby restore the world to its pristine state. Images of rocks and hawks are
central symbols—the former of the permanence of nature and God
(“disinterestedness”), the latter of “fierce consciousness.”
the late 1930s and the 1940s, Jeffers’s genius was judged to have faded;
furthermore, many of his references to current events and figures (such as
Pearl Harbor, Teheran, Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt) raised questions about his
patriotism in a period of national strife. Indeed, The Double Axe (1948)
appeared with a disclaimer from the publisher. However, Jeffers’s adaptation of
Euripides’ Medea (1946), which he wrote for Judith Anderson, was a great
success when it was produced in New York in 1947. In his final statement on
poetry—an article for the New York Times, “Poetry, Gongorism, and a Thousand
Years” (1949)—Jeffers says that the great poet writes for all times, renounces
self-conscious and labored obscurity, and favors straightforward and natural
statement. Thus Jeffers is consistent with his early views and separates
himself from his contemporaries as he viewed them.
Arthur B. Coffin|
Montana State University
In the Heath Anthology
Rock and Hawk
Self-Criticism in February
The Bloody Sire
The Excesses of God
The Beauty of Things
Flagons and Apples
The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers
Be Angry at the Sun
The Double Axe and Other Poems
Hungerfield and Other Poems
The Beginning and the End and Other Poems
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The ultimate Jeffers resource on the web; publishes a regularly-updated journal of criticism while offering a bibliography, book reviews, biography, chronology, and more.
Modern American Poetry
A biography, chronology, criticism on several works, and a few words about his cultural/historical context.
Robinson Jeffers's Tor House and Hawk Tower
Scanned photographs of the Jeffers home in Carmel, CA.
The Academy of American Poets
Web exhibit presenting a biography, links and etexts of Carmel Point, Rock and Hawk, and Summer Holiday.
Terry Beers, "…a thousand graceful subtleties": Rhetoric in the Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, 1995
Robert Brophy, Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual and Symbol in His Narrative Poems, 1973
Robert Brophy, ed., Robinson Jeffers: The Dimensions of a Poet, 1995
Frederic I. Carpenter, Robinson Jeffers, 1962
Arthur B. Coffin, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism, 1971
William Everson, The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure, 1988
James Karman, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California, revised edition, 1995
James Karman, ed., Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers, 1990
William H. Nolte, Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony, 1978
Radcliffe Squires, The Loyalties of Robinson Jeffers, 1956
William B. Thesing, ed., Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honor of William H. Nolte, 1995
Alex A. Vardamis, The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers, 1972
Robert Zaller, The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers, 1983
Robert Zaller, ed., Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers, 1991