Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)
About the Poet
John Robinson Jeffers, a master of cadenced verse in short lyric and long narrative, stands out from his contemporaries for earnest craftsmanship and tragic, doomed battles between nature and technology. Amid the constant cycles of earth, sea, and sky, his harsh voice strove in vain for a lyrical contentment in nature. In a poetic struggle unmatched by his contemporaries, Jeffers' solitary strife sets him apart from literary movements in a poetic world order of his own making.
Jeffers was born January 10, 1887, in Allegheny near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and grew up in Sewickley and Edgeworth, Pennsylvania, and various parts of Europe. He was tutored and educated at private schools in Zurich, Lucerne, Vevey, Lausanne, and Geneva. In 1902, his family settled in California, where his lyric consciousness took shape. When he was 17 years old, he published "The Condor" in Youth's Companion.
Jeffers attended the University of Pittsburgh and Occidental College, where he edited a school journal, The Occidental. His only satisfying achievements in college were swim meets and running the mile. Unfocused graduate work at the universities of Southern California, Zurich, and Washington proved that his future lay in verse, not medicine or forestry.
After publishing a tentative volume, Flagons and Apples (1912), Jeffers came into a legacy that allowed him leisure to produce a steady flow of rough-hewn, idiosyncratic poems. In 1916, Jeffers published Californians, then achieved critical and popular fame with Tamar and Other Poems (1924). Subsequent collections — Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems (1925), set in Monterey, California, and The Women at Point Sur (1927), a well-received narrative poem — cinched his reputation for tragic lyricism and austere themes and backgrounds. His mature work — Cawdor and Other Poems (1928) and Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929) — reached toward a hopeful humanism. In the 1930s, Jeffers developed primitive passion in Descent to the Dead (1931), Thurso's Landing and Other Poems (1932), Give Your Heart to the Hawks (1933), Solstice and Other Poems (1935), The Beaks of Eagles (1936), and Such Counsels You Gave to Me (1937), all imbued with moodiness and naturalistic creativity. In Two Consolidations (1940), Be Angry at the Sun (1941), Medea (1946), The Double Axe (1948), and Hungerfield and Other Poems (1953), he revealed a complex world view comprised of bleak introversion and inept reaches for the sublime through myth.
In 1941, John Gassner adapted Jeffers' Tower Beyond Tragedy for the stage at an outdoor theater in Carmel, where Dame Judith Anderson played the lead. In 1947, two more works — Dear Judas and Medea — were staged. Jeffers died in his sleep at home on January 20, 1962.
"Shine, Perishing Republic" (1925), Jeffers' most anthologized piece, contemplates the natural attrition of nations, which follow the flower in a three-stage development: fruit, decay, and absorption into earth. Characterizing the fall to earth as "home to the mother," the poet urges, "You making haste haste on decay," a deliberate repetition through a double beat to illuminate the rhythm of the process. With heavy irony, he impels the republic to emulate a meteor in hurrying toward a bright-hued demise.
At the beginning of the fourth stanza, the poet steps aside from personal wish to ponder his children, who risk corruption at "the thickening center," a viscid image that calls up visions of volcanic lava. Encouraging his sons to rise above fallen cities into moral mountains, like a god-driven Moses, he exhorts, "be in nothing so moderate as in love of man." The crux of the poem lies in the source of evil. Reflecting on classic myth, he envisions the natural lure to temptation, which even God did not elude "when he walked on earth."
"Apology for Bad Dreams" (1925) perpetuates the poet's placement of events at the extremes of good and evil. The four-part meditation expands from a view of seaside grandeur to a theatrical view of human savagery below as a woman and her son torment a horse chained by its tongue to a tree. Section II opens on bold strokes of red and black as the poet makes a choice between personal and invented suffering. Opting for literature, he justifies his choice with a warning: "It is not good to forget over what gulfs the spring / Of the beauty of humanity . . . floats to its quietness."
Following strong alliterated b sounds in Boulder/blunted/beds/ break/below, section III looks into the past, when Indians "Paid something for the future / Luck of the country." The irony of luck prefaces another burst of bs as the poet-speaker asks that the "Beautiful country burn again." In the final segment, the poet identifies the work of the poet, "to bring the savor / From the bruised root." The characterization accounts for the troubled dreamer, who tortures himself to perform "the ways of my love."
Jeffers' identification with nature in a narrative, "Hurt Hawks" (1928), creates a palpable tragedy as a wing-damaged bird hobbles about, dragging one wing while contemplating slow starvation. As though honoring a fallen titan, the poet-speaker anticipates death as a form of divine blessing. With a stern Old Testament misanthropy, the poet comments that, in contrast with the humble bird, humanity has grown too arrogant for such grace. Distanced from God by choice, human sufferers deserve a graceless fate.
In the second half, the poet looks candidly at the choice between euthanizing a bird or a man. After six weeks of feeding the crippled hawk, he chooses to honor its unspoken request for release. With a "lead gift in the twilight," he frees the redtail. Its once-noble frame crumples into "Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers" as the spirit flies upward, "quite unsheathed from reality."
From a later period, "Carmel Point" (1951) speaks the poet's annoyance in urban sprawl as "the spoiler," a personification of all interlopers, arrives in his seaside neighborhood. The meditation, like a sonnet, breaks at line ten with the separation of human subjectivity and nature's objectivity. Human settlers mimic the ocean in their tide, which dissolves earthly works. Although dispersed into fragments of ancient beauty, nature's loveliness survives in minute glimpses of "the very grain of the granite." With a gesture to his contemporaries, the poet urges that we "uncenter our minds from ourselves," the "unhumanizing" effort that Jeffers committed himself to at his seaside hermitage.
"Vulture" (1954), one of Jeffers' clearest statements of merging with nature, is a first-person experience composed in a less gloomy and sorrow-laden period. The unnerving, up-close examination by a flesh-eater gladdens the observer, who lies as still as a corpse to follow the sweep of the vulture's circles. The surprising element of the poem is the notion that human beings die and become "part of him, to share those wings and those eyes." In celebration of such a rebirth, Jeffers looks forward to a sublime "enskyment," his personal notion of "life after death."
Discussion and Research Topics
1. Contrast Jeffers' heart-weary imagery in "Hurt Hawks" with the reflective phrases of Ted Hughes' "Hawk Roosting" and the haunting cries in Edward Thomas' "The Owl."
2. Compare the nationalistic theme of Jeffers' "Shine, Perishing Republic" with that of Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California."
3. Characterize the grim fatalism in Jeffers' "Credo."
4. Discuss Jeffers' use of the repeated "haste haste" in "Shine, Perishing Republic." Why does Jeffers repeat this word?