Robinson Jeffers' Life and Career
Arthur B. Coffin
JEFFERS was born John Robinson Jeffers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the son of the Reverend Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers and Annie Robinson Tuttle. A professor of Old Testament literature and exegesis and a reserved, reclusive person, Dr. Jeffers initiated his son's education at home by tutoring him in Greek, Latin, and Presbyterian doctrine. The Jeffers family traveled frequently to Europe, where Robinson attended boarding schools in Leipzig, Vevey, Lausanne, Geneva, and Zurich. In 1902 Robinson Jeffers entered the University of Western Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh) as a sophomore, with a mastery of French, German, Greek, and Latin. When the family moved to Los Angeles the next year, 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 at the University of Zurich, taking courses in philosophy and literature. Returning to USC in September 1907, he was admitted to the medical school, but in 1910, without completing his academic program at USC, Jeffers entered the University of Washington to study forestry for a year.
Jeffers met Una Call Kuster in 1906; she was three years older than he and married to a prominent Los Angeles attorney. In each other, Jeffers and Kuster found intellectual and emotional stimulation and compatibility that drew them powerfully together. At length, Kuster obtained a divorce and married Jeffers in August 1913. A year later the couple moved to Carmel, where, except for occasional trips to Europe and New Mexico, they spent the rest of their lives. In 1916 they became the parents of twin sons (a daughter born earlier did not survive infancy), and Jeffers began to build a stone cottage for his family. Later he added the famous forty-foot stone tower, the emblem of "Tor House" (as they called their home). Both structures--the house and the tower overlooking Carmel Bay and facing Point Lobos--figured significantly in Jeffers's life and poetry.
As an undergraduate and graduate student Jeffers had regularly contributed poems to various student publications. By 1911 he had written a number of generic love poems to Kuster and other women, and in 1912 he privately published some of these and other works in Flagons and Apples, to be followed by another collection, the commercially published Californians (1916). With the publication of Tamar and Other Poems (1924), however, Jeffers turned from the derivative versifying of his first volumes to themes and presentation that quickly won him an enthusiastic audience. The intensity of the long narratives he then began to write contrasted strikingly not only with his earlier work, but also with the works of other poets. In the introduction he wrote for Random House's reissue (1935) of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, Jeffers described briefly his misgivings about the direction and advance 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 "going farther and farther along the way that perhaps Mallarmé's aging dream had shown them, divorcing poetry from reason and ideas, bringing it nearer to music." But, he demurred, "It seemed to me that Mallarmé and his followers, renouncing intelligibility in order to concentrate on the music of poetry, 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, to contribute to poetry, Jeffers affirmed, would require "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"--which also meant, it should be noted, to recover the former vigor of poetry and to keep poetry related to reality--Jeffers brought enormous learning in literature, religion, philosophy, languages, myth, and the sciences.
Initially, Tamar and Other Poems received no acclaim, but when East Coast reviewers discovered the work and began to compare Jeffers to Greek tragedians, Boni & Liveright reissued an expanded edition as Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1925). In these works, Jeffers began to articulate themes that contributed to what he later identified as Inhumanism. Mankind was too self-centered, he complained, and too indifferent to the "astonishing beauty of things." The metaphors of incest in "Tamar" and in subsequent poems symbolized mankind's inability to "uncenter" itself. "Humanity is the mold to break out of" announces the narrator of "Roan Stallion." However, California, the heroine of this poem, discovers that she cannot achieve the intimate identification with the deity of nature she yearns for. Jeffers's longest and most ambitious narrative, The Women at Point Sur (1927), startled many of his readers. Heavily loaded with Nietzschean philosophy and other ideological cargo, it nearly capsized, but Jeffers was surprised that many readers of the poem insisted on focusing on what they perceived to be its sensational elements, instead of on the philosophical statement he meant to be of greater significance. Nevertheless, the balance of the 1920s and the early 1930s were especially productive for Jeffers, and his reputation was secure. In Cawdor and Other Poems (1928), Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929), Descent to the Dead, Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain (1931), Thurso's Landing (1932), and Give Your Heart to the Hawks (1933), Jeffers continued to explore the questions of how human beings could find their proper relationship (free of human egocentrism) with the divinity of the beauty of things. These poems, set in the Big Sur region (except Dear Judas and Descent to the Dead), enabled Jeffers to pursue his belief that the natural splendor of the area demanded tragedy: the greater the beauty, the greater the demand. Several of the poems are, indeed, tragedies, a few of them having evident Euripidean antecedents. As Euripides had, Jeffers began to focus more on his own characters' psychologies and on social realities than on the mythic. The human dilemmas of Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Medea fascinated Jeffers, as is clearly evident in his works.
If the narratives in Solstice and Other Poems (1935), Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems (1937), and Be Angry at the Sun (1941) sounded fatigued and strident, most of the lyrical poems sustained the fine elevation of their predecessors. Random House's The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1938), however, was warmly received and remained the central Jeffers text until after the Robinson Jeffers Centennial (1987), when the Stanford University Press began to publish the multivolume scholarly edition of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers's adaptation of Euripides' Medea (1946), written for Dame Judith Anderson, was a great success when it was produced in New York in 1947. Two of Jeffers's most interesting and problematic narratives"The Love and the Hate" and "The Inhumanist"--were at the center of The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948), which appeared with a disclaimer from the publisher. Many of Jeffers's references to current events and political figures (for example, Pearl Harbor, Teheran, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt) highlighted his isolationism and raised questions about his patriotism. In the preface to The Double Axe, Jeffers explicitly described "a philosophical attitude" he named Inhumanism, which had been implicit in his work since "Tamar"--certainly since "Roan Stallion." Inhumanism called for
a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.... This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist.... It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy.... it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.
Soon thereafter, Jeffers's beloved Una fell ill with cancer and died in 1950. She had played many roles for him: lover, wife, muse, protectress, and his ears and eyes to the social world he shunned. Jeffers's last volume, Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954), contains a moving eulogy to Una, who, for him, may have come closest to embodying Inhumanism. Jeffers died in Carmel; a posthumous collection, The Beginning and the End and Other Poems, appeared in 1963.
By the time of his death, Jeffers had lost most of his popular audience, and within two decades his works had virtually disappeared from anthologies and his name from classrooms, even as his works were being translated for avid readers in Eastern European countries. However, burgeoning projects by Jeffers scholars and the revising, in the late 1980s, of the canon of American literature reestablished Jeffers as an important figure in American literature and Modernism, who sought, like Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, to redefine the role of poetry in the human experience and to identify the authentic relationship of the human experience to the world at large and to God but, perhaps unlike them (Jeffers would affirm), also to preserve the reality beyond the poem.
The largest collections of Jeffers manuscripts and materials are in the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas and in the libraries at Occidental College, the University of California, and Yale University. One should also consult The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1887-1962 (1968).
Other books of criticism and poetry by Jeffers are Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years (1949), Themes in My Poems (1956), Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems (1965), The Alpine Christ and Other Poems (1974), "What Odd Expedients" and Other Poems (1981), and Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers (1987).
Sydney S. Alberts, A Biblography of the Works of Robinson Jeffers (1933), is informative but incomplete. One should also consult William Nolte, The Merrill Checklist of Robinson Jeffers (1970); Jeanetta Boswell, Robinson Jeffers and the Critics, 1912-1983 (1986); and Alex A. Vardamis, The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers: A Bibliographical Study (1972), which remains most useful for the scholar.
Biographical studies include George Sterling, Robinson Jeffers: The Man and the Artist (1926); Louis Adamic, Robinson Jeffers (1929); Melba Bennett, Robinson Jeffers and the Sea (1936) and The Stone Mason of Tor House (1966); Edith Greenan, Of Una Jeffers (1939); Mabel Dodge Luhan, Una and Robin (1976; written in 1933); Ward Ritchie, Jeffers: Some Recollections of Robinson Jeffers (1977); and James Karman, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California (1987), which is the most authoritative of the group.
Books about Jeffers's career include L. C. Powell, Robinson Jeffers: The Man and His Work (1940; repr. 1973); Radcliffe Squires, The Loyalties of Robinson Jeffers (1956); Frederic I. Carpenter, Robinson Jeffers (1962); William Everson, Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury (1968); Arthur B. Coffin, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism (1971); Robert Brophy, Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual and Symbol in His Narrative Poems (1973); Bill Hotchkiss, Jeffers: The Sivaistic Vision (1975); William H. Nolte, Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony (1978); Robert Zaller, The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers (1983); William Everson, The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure (1998); Robert Brophy, ed., The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter: A Jubilee Gathering, 1962-1988 (1988); James Karman, ed., Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers (1990); and Robert Zaller, ed., Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers (1991). The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter, ed. Robert Brophy, is a valuable scholarly resource.
An obituary is in the New York Times, 22 Jan. 1962.
From American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by the American Council of Learned Societies.
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