By Gary Suttle
The poetry of Robinson Jeffers shines with a diamond's brilliance when he depicts Nature's beauty and magnificence. His verse also flashes with a diamond's hardness when he portrays human pain and folly. Early acclaim (reflected in a Time magazine cover appearance on April 4, 1932 ) faded as Jeffers's work, spurred by the horrors of war and the despoliation of Nature, cast darkening visions. More recent positive scholarly appraisals and increased environmental consciousness have repositioned the avowed Pantheist to the top tier of 20th century American poets.
Jeffers was born on January 12, 1887, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to a 49 year old Protestant minister and his 27 year old wife. His parents emphasized education. The scholarly, sober-sided father secluded young Jeffers from playmates, drilled his son in classical subjects, and sent him to private schools in America and Europe. By age 12, he had learned three languages and also grasped Greek and Latin. He graduated from Occidental College in Southern California at 18, yet found time for distance running, mountaineering and other extracurricular activities. Jeffers pursued graduate studies as varied as medicine and forestry. He also pursued an attractive young married woman named Una Call Kuster. After a divorce, Una married Robinson in 1913. About this time, Jeffers compiled his first book of poetry and decided upon a writing career. Seeking a peaceful place for his work, the young couple moved to Carmel-By-The-Sea, then just a hamlet, located near the fabled central California coastline called Big Sur.
The reticent Jeffers and his affable wife made friends in the area, explored the wild countryside, and, in 1919, bought land for a bluff top home site located just 50 yard from the ocean. Jeffers helped build their "Tor House" (named after the 'Tors' or rocky promontories of Dartmoor, England) from native stone . The dwelling featured a large fireplace and a cozy loft where Robinson, Una, and their twin sons, Garth and Donnan slept (a first-born daughter named Maeve died shortly after birth). Tor House had piped-in water, but no gas, electricity, or telephone. Between 1920 and 1925 Jeffers also constructed a courtyard and an adjacent four-story "Hawk Tower," topped by an open turret with expansive views. Within the tower walls he mortared pieces of lava, fossils, and other artifacts from around the world. Jeffers died at age 75, lying in bed at his Tor House.
The poet experienced an epiphany while working with the granite boulders that formed his home. His wife Una witnessed "... a kind of awakening such as adolescents and religious converts are said to experience." According to biographer James Karman, "he felt the grave and earnest energy packed within stone, the calm that masks the spinning atomic structure...the infinite energy enflaming and interconnecting everything that exists--from flowers on the foreland to stars in the distant sky..."
Before this galvanizing event, Jeffers's poetry had showed promise but proved unremarkable. Afterward, his prosody began to have, in writer Loren Eiseley's words, "..the roll of surf and the jaggedness of rocks about it.... Something utterly wild had crept into his mind and marked his features...The sea-beaten coast, the fierce freedom of its hunting hawks, possessed and spoke through him. It was one of the most uncanny and complete relationships between a man and his natural background that I know in literature."
People took notice. Poet and scholar William Everson recounts that Jeffers's 1924 poem Tamar "became an overnight sensation...it was evident that the latent American pantheistic seed had found its California fertility...and a new breed was born." Biographer Arthur Coffin referred to Benedict Spinoza, the famous philosopher of Pantheism, calling Jeffers "Spinoza's twentieth century evangelist." Jeffers spread his gospel in hundreds of poems, as well as in plays and prose, spanning nearly 40 years of work.
In describing his Pantheism, Jeffers wrote "I
believe that the universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions
of the same energy... parts of one organic whole.... (This is physics, I believe,
as well as religion.) The parts change and pass, or die, people and races
and rocks and stars; none of them seems to me important in itself, but only
the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me
to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think
of it as divine." This brief passage marks three cornerstones
of the poet's spirituality:
I. The Beauty and Divinity of the World.
Jeffers lauds the natural world:
It is only a little planet
But how beautiful it is.(1)
He particularly extols Big Sur:
...where the surf has come incredible ways out of the splendid
west, over the deeps
Light nor life sounds forever; here where enormous sundowns flower and burn through
color to quietness. (2)
Big Sur provided "Jeffers's medium and his message," explains professor Robert Brophy, "....(He) quarried its seascape and crenelated canyons, isolated beaches, and foreboding headlands for symbol, theme, and story."
Everywhere he looked, Jeffers found deity:
...the enormous invulnerable beauty of things
Is the face of God... (3)
And behind the beauty lay a vast creative force:
There is this infinite energy, the power of God,
forever working--toward what purpose? (4)
Jeffers praised the unfathomably mysterious divinity that combines to
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells,
And make the necessary embrace of breeding
Beautiful also as a fire
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music...(5)
But this same God brings violence, agony, and death.
He has a bloody beak and harsh talons,
he pounces and tears... (6)
Jeffers uses the pronoun "He" as a poetic devise to describe his unanthropomorphic concept of deity, no benevolent father figure, but rather the ground of life and being, utterly indifferent to human hopes and dreams.
In Jeffers's view, divinity's darker aspects tarnish neither the "transhuman magnificence" nor "the astonishing beauty of things." In fact, given planetary conditions favorable to life in an otherwise black void of space, the poet avers
There is the great humaneness at the heart of things
The extravagant kindness, the fountain
Humanity can understand... (7)
To understand, however, we must see beyond the terms and abstractions that separate us from reality. Jeffers beseeches
Erase the lines: I pray you not to love classifications:
The thing is like a river, from source to sea-mouth
One flowing life. We that have the honor and hardship of being
Are one flesh with the beasts, and the beasts with the plants...
It is all truly one life, red blood and tree-sap,
Animal, mineral, sidereal, one stream, one organism, one God. (8)
Jeffers's deity clearly encompasses Nature in
totality. Omnipresent. Infinite and eternal. Resplendent with heart-stirring
beauty, heart-breaking sadness, and unlimited power. In Everson's words,
"What kind of world have we made which in its blindness refuses to see and
acknowledge so stupendous a god?"
II. The destructiveness and evanescence of humankind
Advancing civilization itself obscures the divine,
according to Jeffers,
through false beliefs that separate us from Nature, and harmful technologies that defile the Earth and its life.
... the broken balance, the hopeless prostration
of the earth
Under men's hands and their minds,
The beautiful places killed like rabbits to make a
He frequently contrasts the baseness of Man with the nobility of Nature:
Men suffer want and become
Curiously ignoble; as prosperity
Made them curiously vile
But look how noble the world is,
The lonely-flowing waters,
the secret-keeping stones,
the flowing sky. (10)
He particularly deplores Mankind's self-absorption and self-destructiveness.
Man, introverted man, having crossed
In passage and but a little with the nature of things this
Has begot giants; but being taken up
Like a maniac with self-love and inward conflicts cannot
manage his hybrids.
Being used to deal with edgeless dreams,
Now he's bred knives on nature turns them also inward:
they have thirsty points though.
His mind forebodes his own destruction... (11)
Jeffers excoriates Man's malignant behavior, in poems laced with calamities, murder, rape, and particularly incest, symbolizing our species' narcissism and irrationality (readers often must dig through black coal seams of verse to find the pantheistic gems). Jaundiced by two world wars and the invention of nuclear bombs, Jeffers sees human beings as "only a moment's accident," a short-lived evolutionary aberration.
Before the first man
Here were the stones, the ocean, the cypresses,
And the pallid region in the stone-rough dome of fog where the
Falls on the west.. Here is reality.
The other is a spectral episode; after the inquisitive animal's
Amusements are quiet: the dark glory. (12)
Mankind's sufferings and stupidities left Jeffers in despair. But not totally.
Why, even in humanity beauty and good
Show, from the mountainside of solitude. (13)
And he believed humans could gain peace if they adopted what he calls "Inhumanism." The term does not mean 'inhumane' in the sense of lacking of pity or compassion, but rather signifies "a rational acceptance of the fact that mankind is neither central nor important in the universe. We know this, of course, but it does not appear that any previous one of the ten thousand religions and philosophies has realized it."
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become
As the rock and ocean that we were made from. (14)
Confident to accept our insignificance in the universe, our brief lives, our inevitable death. Immortality entails no personal life after death (an understandable if fanciful longing ) but rather an impersonal return to the elements from which we arose:
...nothing human remains. You are
earth and air; you are in the beauty of the ocean
And the great streaming triumphs of sundown; you are alive
and well in the tender young grass rejoicing
When soft rain falls all night, and little rosy-fleeced clouds float
on the dawn... (15)
For inspiration and consolation Jeffers chose hawk and rock:
...here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
Life with calm death; the falcon's
Realist eyes and act
Married to the massive
Mysticism of stone... (16)
According to Everson, Jeffers realized that "existence
offers, through consciousness, one redeeming aspect: the instant of recognition,
one moment in which to behold the real, and then suffer its invasion. This
is not so good as the hawks, who act the real in a way we can't; or
the rocks, who concretize it in a way we can't; but it is all we have.
To refuse it, to pervert consciousness into self congratulatory preening of
the collective ego, is to miss the sublime opportunity of all evolution."
III. The Unbounded Love of God/Nature.
To behold God/Nature in the profoundest way, we must extend love--intense emotional feeling--to the non human world.
...Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from humanity.
Let that doll lie. Consider if you like how the lilies grow,
Lean on the silent rock until you feel its divinity
Make your veins cold, look at the silent stars, let your eyes
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself and man.
Things are so beautiful, your love will follow your eyes;
Things are the God, you will love God, and not in vain,
For what we love, we grow to it, we share its nature... (17)
In our best moments, we can feel an oceanic sense of oneness:
...You are so beautiful.
Even this side the stars and below the moon. How can
You be...all this...and me also?
...Yet two or three times in my
life my walls have fallen--beyond love--no room for
I have been you. (18)
To identify with the divine, to belong to something infinitely greater than himself, releases man from the harshness of life and death.
...He is out of the trap then. He will remain
Part of the music, but will hear it as the player hears it.
He will be superior to death and fortune, unmoved by success or
failure. Pity can make him weep still,
Or pain convulse him, but not to the center, and he can conquer
Such serenity arises from the ultimate realization that
...the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that.... (20)
Jeffers's poetry embodies "a rare spiritual intensity," according to biographer Karman, "...he wrote not just as a unique and powerful poet but as something more rare, especially in the twentieth century. Like Jeremiah, Dante, Blake, and others, he wrote as a prophet. Though only posterity will decide if his verse is equal to theirs, he, like they, brought forth a comprehensive vision of existence, one that was rooted in an experience of divine power..."
Prophets, by definition, see beyond the present. "In articulating such a religious perspective--an ecological vision of divinity--" religious scholar Max Oelschlaeger observes, "Jeffers ran far ahead of conventional wisdom... (the) allure of Jeffers's ecological vision is that nature and God, rent asunder by the modern mind, are reunited."
His vision remains largely unrecognized. Yet as the celebrated author Edward Abbey observed, "Everything he wrote about the corruption of empire, the death of democracy, the destruction of our planet and the absurd self-centered vanity of the human animal has come true tenfold since his time. Let justice be done--even in the literary world!" Justice may prevail. The recent multi-volume publication of his writings by Stanford University Press, signals an ever-growing interest in the poet's life and work.
"Because of his poetry we are more aware of the otherness of natural things," explains writer Kevin Starr. "And in that new respect for otherness in the inanimate, in that fresh and vital respect for the sacred beingness of rocks and rivers and mountains and trees, are the sound beginnings of an environmentalism that is so very much more than a program of protection. It is a philosophy of creation itself."
A philosophy, and a religion. Pantheism,
the faith so evocatively voiced by Robinson Jeffers, if widely embraced,
could spark an environmental and spiritual renaissance worthy of our
boundlessly beautiful world.
Numbers identify excerpts from the following poems:
1. "The Beginning and the End"
2. "Meditations on Saviors"
4. From Not Man Apart, p. 35
5. "The Excesses of God"
6. "The Double Ax"
9. "The Broken Balance"
10. "Life From The Lifeless"
12. "Hooded Night"
14. "Carmel Point"
16. "Rock and Hawk"
18. "The Inhumanist"
19. "Going to Horse Flats"
20. "The Answer"
Brophy, Robert. "Robinson Jeffers: Poet For The New Century," Biography, Jeffers Studies Web site, 1998.
Brower, David, Editor. Not Man Apart, Lines from Robinson Jeffers, Photographs of the Big Sur Coast. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.
Coffin, Arthur. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971.
Everson, William. "Introduction," to Robinson Jeffers Cawdor and Medea. New York: New Directions Books, 1970.
Hunt, Tim, Editor. The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1988-2000. In five volumes, including one comprised of commentary, textual evidence, and procedures.
Jeffers, Robinson. Selected Poems. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.
Jeffers Studies Web site
Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers, Poet of California. Revised Edition. Brownsville, Oregon: Story Line Press, 1995.
Oelschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. See Chapter 8, "The Idea of Wilderness in the Poetry of Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder."
Starr, Kevin. "Robinson Jeffers and the Integrity of Nature." Sierra Club Bulletin, May 1977, pp. 36-40.
Tor House Foundation Web site
Photo Credit: Edward Weston, from the Jeffers Studies Web site.
The celebrated photographer Edward Weston (1886-1958) lived in Carmel and became friends with Robinson Jeffers, each man admiring the others' creativity. Jeffers stated "Weston's life and his work are...simple, effective, and without ceremony....He was one of those who taught photography to be itself."
Weston described his first photo sessions with Jeffers in the following account, which contains a firsthand impression of the poet's remarkable demeanor.
"Wednesday 15th (May?) 1929
Fog drifted in, dulling the sky, obliterating the horizon, before I had even started for Jeffers's home. I planned to do him out of doors, in the surroundings that belong to him,--the rocks and ocean. The heavy sky was suitable in mood but sunlight would have carved his rugged face into more revealing planes. I made but twelve negatives, mostly profiles against the sky, and then quit until the next time.
I couldn't get into the sitting: the light so flat--and then finding him unexpectedly conscious, not nervous as some are in front of a camera--that tendency can usually be overcome, but Jeffers really posed, tried to appear as he thought he should be seen. I caught him looking out of the corner of his eye at me, and then would come a definite attempt to assume a pose--throwing back the head, feeling the part he was to play. This was disconcerting.
I am inclined to think there is much "bunk" talk about Jeffers,--about his way of working, unconscious of what he is doing. Any great man, artist, is quite aware--conscious of his unconscious, if that means anything, if my words make clear my thought. And so Jeffers.
May 18th, 1929
I wrote of Jeffers, "he tried to appear as he thought he should be seen." Maybe I should have written "as he knew he should be seen." For a man to know himself is legitimate, indeed quite right.
May 29th, 1929
I made three dozen negatives of Jeffers--used all my negatives; and developed the moment I got home. It was another gray day, but now I realize, knowing him better, that Jeffers is more himself on gray days. He belongs to stormy skies and heavy seas. Without knowing his work one would feel in his presence greatness.
I did not find him silent--rather a man of few words. Jeffers' eyes are notable: blue, shifting--but in no sense furtive--as though they would keep their secrets,--penetrating all-seeing eyes. Despite his writing I cannot call him misanthropic; his is the bitterness of despair over humanity he really loves.
June 6th, 1929
And today the Jeffers leave for Ireland. Sonya and I walked out to say goodbye and take them several of his portraits. They were so pleased with them. Una Jeffers said: "Robin will never again have such fine portraits, unless you make them."
(from Edward Weston, The Flame of Recognition, His photographs accompanied
by excerpts from the Daybooks & Letters. Edited by Nancy Newhall,
An Aperture Monograph, New York: Grossman Publishers, 1971, p. 30).
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Essay written November, 2000.