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Robinson Jeffers did not launch his poetic career until he was in his thirties, but he ultimately became known both as a ”poet of place” and as a ”scientific poet.” Stylistically, Jeffers composed long, straightforward narratives and combined scientific theory, an ecologist’s observations, and knowledge of the classical canon with a directness that offered a fresh and controversial vision of the world, often through the landscape of California.
Biographical and Historical Context
A Boarding-School Education
Jeffers was born John Robinson to Annie Tuttle and William Hamilton Jeffers. His father, a professor of Old Testament literature at Western Theological Seminary in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, was a strict disciplinarian and had high standards for his son. To motivate his son, he used corporal punishment to encourage good study habits and forced him to run timed sprints for exercise. At eleven years old, Jeffers was sent to boarding school in Switzerland, and, over the course of his education, attended four different schools: in Vevey, Lausanne, Geneva, and Zurich. Jeffers’s intense education influenced his later poetry, which draws heavily on classical Greek drama, the Bible, science, medicine, and nature.
College, California, and Love
In 1902, after his stint at boarding schools abroad, fifteen-year-old Jeffers graduated from the University of Western Pennsylvania. In 1903, he attended Occidental College in Los Angeles when his family moved to Pasadena, California. This move was a catalyst for the creative direction his life would take. California, to Jeffers, felt like a physical, social, and spiritual home. The state stimulated Jeffers’s imagination and finally, after many years of moving around, allowed him to put down roots and identify with a particular place. Jeffers enjoyed hiking and camping in the Los Angeles mountains, and, in his poetry, Jeffers employed rich detail of land, water, and sky from a life spent close to nature. He also moved increasingly toward a view of nature as being superior to any works of humankind, and even toward the idea that humans in general were neither worthy nor fully capable of appreciating the beauty of nature.
Jeffers graduated from Occidental College in 1905 and took graduate courses in German literature at the University of Southern California where he met his future wife, Una. At the time, Una Call Kuster was married to a young attorney. Two years older than Jeffers, she took an interest in both his poetry and him. Their romance became a great influence on his later poetry, despite the fact that the families of both Jeffers and Una tried to stop the scandalous relationship. In the introduction to his Selected Poetry (1938), he writes that, although Una never saw any of his poems until they were finished, ”by her presence and conversation she has co-authored every one of them.”
Forestry and First Works
Jeffers and his family moved to Seattle in 1910, so that Jeffers could enroll in the forestry program at the University of Washington. Jeffers left the program, however, after discovering the course of study focused on timber harvests rather than an ecological study of forests. Still, he ultimately finished his forestry studies in the spring of 1913 and married Una in the fall. Their marriage was fodder for gossip, splashed across the front page of the Los Angeles Times, but the couple did not care. They moved to the coastal town of Carmel where Jeffers concentrated on writing poetry.
Before marrying Una, Jeffers, with a small inheritance from a relative, published a small volume of his poetry called Flagons and Apples (1912). In 1916, he submitted the collection Californians to Macmillan, and it was published late that year. Though the book did not receive much critical attention, Oscar Firkins of The Nation noted that Jeffers reminded him of the poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Because Jeffers realized that the unique Tamar and Other Poems (1922) might be controversial, he published the volume himself. After a pair of well-known editors got hold of the collection, the volume became a critical success, went through several editions, and was translated in foreign languages. After this collection, Jeffers came out with The Women at Point Sur (1927), a volume that garnered mixed reviews. The narrative focuses on Barclay, a minister experiencing a crisis of religious faith following World War I. Jeffers’s reputation remained solid, and he published Cawdor and Other Poems (1928) and Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929).
Ireland and Writing in the 1930s
After Dear Judas, Jeffers and his wife went to Europe and lived in a cottage in the Irish countryside near Una’s relatives for almost a year. Jeffers began to see Ireland as his native home. This outlook resulted in a series of poems called Descent to the Dead, Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain (1931) and the collection Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems (1932). Jeffers also wrote Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems (1933), Solstice and Other Poems (1935), and Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems (1937).
World War II
In 1941, Jeffers, with his wife, went on a reading tour of the American East Coast. At every university, Jeffers was received by huge audiences. As World War II raged on, Jeffers wrote political poems, accusing the government of lying to its people. These poems were not published during the war but were printed in the 1948 collection The Double Axe and Other Poems. Random House published a disclaimer with the volume, disavowing the political content.
Rising on Broadway, Losing Love
In 1947, Jeffers adapted Euripides’s play Medea at the request of actress Judith Anderson. With the famous actress playing the title role, Jeffers’s adaptation opened on Broadway to rave reviews. He also adapted poetic narratives, including his ”Dear Judas,” for the stage. As Jeffers’s popularity as a poet declined, his reputation as a playwright rose correspondingly. In 1950, after he and Una went to Europe and returned to the States, Una died. Jeffers dedicated his last volume of poetry, Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954), to her. Between 1954 and 1962, Jeffers lived in the home they had shared, editing poems despite his declining health and near blindness. On January 20, 1962, Jeffers passed away in the bed he had memorialized in his poem ”The Bed by the Window.”
Works in Literary Context
Thematically, Jeffers tends to present the same ideas throughout his work: the notion of an organic universe, the intersection of science and spirituality, man’s relationship to God, the definition and existence of God, the indifference of the universe to man, and the moral obligations of humanity.
The Poet, Nature, and Human History
Jeffers’s interest in the individual’s spiritual and physical connection to nature and the world at large resembles the Romantic style of poets like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. For Jeffers, human history was insignificant compared to the infinitely larger and more important cyclical narrative of the history of the earth and cosmos. Stuart
Noble-Goodman wrote, ”Living apart from nature, man is like a severed hand, useless and repellent. Jeffers insisted that man live within the world of phenomena, of rocks and hawks and sky—an existence that does not really require a higher consciousness.”
Jeffers was often known for having views that went against the mainstream. In many of his works about nature, he suggests that humans are too caught up in modern existence to grasp the divine qualities of the natural world. In The Double Axe and Other Poems, he so staunchly opposes American participation in World War II that many considered him anti-American. In Dear Judas and Other Poems, Jeffers stirs controversy by making the Biblical figure Judas a hero. In the poem, the ghosts of Judas, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary comment on what happened before and after the crucifixion, offering their hindsight and firsthand points of view. Through their comments, Judas becomes human, even admirable in his actions. Jeffers portrays him as a man who predicts that any attempt to rebel against the occupying Romans would worsen the social and political situation, and who therefore tries to prevent rebellion by having its most probable leader put to death.
Works in Critical Context
At his most popular in the 1920s and 1930s, Jeffers wrote in the voice of a sturdy outdoorsman living alone in the American wild. During his rise, he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, one of the few poets to be showcased. He was also invited to read his work at the Library of Congress and, after his death, he was honored by having his image put on a U.S. postage stamp. Jeffers’s career did sink when he vocally opposed United States involvement in World War II. The collection The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948) strongly criticized U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, Jeffers’s work has greatly influenced such contemporary poets as William Everson, Gary Snyder, and Mark Jarman.
The Women at Point Sur
The Women at Point Sur (1927) received mixed reviews. The title poem was described by Frederic Carpenter as ”the most violent and unrelieved of all the long poems.” Even those who championed Jeffers’s early work found fault with the collection. These critics included Yvor Winters, who, in Poetry, calls Jeffers’s writing ”pretentious trash” filled with ”hysteria.” However, some critics did recognize that Jeffers was employing incest and murder to heighten drama and as motifs for the unhealthy ways in which humans are attracted to each other.
Tamar and Other Poems
Tamar and Other Poems (1922) was different than Jeffers’s previous work. The book, published privately, hardly received critical notice, but when Jeffers submitted a few poems to an anthology, he sent the editors copies of the book. Impressed, the editors sent copies to Babette Deutsch and Mark Van Doren, influential poetry critics of the day. Reviews then appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and The Nation. Jeffers’s originality began to generate critical debate that only intensified as his career continued.
- Coffin, Arthur B. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971.
- Gelpi, Albert. The Wild God of the World: An Anthology of Robinson Jeffers. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003.
- Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. Rev. ed. Brownsville, Ore.: Story Line Press, 1995.
- Jeffers, Robinson. The Beginning & the End: And Other Poems. New York: Random House, 1963.
- Noble-Goodman, Stuart. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 342: Twentieth Century American Nature Poets. A Bruccoli Layman Book. Edited by J. Scott Bryson and Roger Thompson. Detroit: Gale Group, 2008, pp. 191-203.
- Steinman, Lisa M. Made in America: Science, Technology, and American Modernist Poets. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.
- Winters, Yvor. In Defense of Reason. Denver: Swallow Press, 1937.
- Carpenter, Frederic I. ”The Inhumanism of Robinson Jeffers.” Western American Literature 16:1 (1981): 19-25.
- Winters, Yvor. Review of The Women at Point Sur. Poetry 35 (February 1930): 279-286.
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