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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Robinson Jeffers

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].”

To 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.

Shortly 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.

In 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.”

During 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
Credo (1927)
Rock and Hawk (1935)
Self-Criticism in February (1937)
The Purse-Seine (1937)
The Bloody Sire (1941)
The Excesses of God (1941)
Cassandra (1948)
Carmel Point (1954)
The Beauty of Things (1954)

Other Works
Flagons and Apples (1912)
Californians (1916)
The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1938)
Be Angry at the Sun (1941)
Medea (1946)
The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948)
Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954)
The Beginning and the End and Other Poems (1963)

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Jeffers Studies
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.

Secondary Sources

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