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Divine, Superfluous Beauty

It wasn’t always so hard making sense of things. When it came to Big Truth it was all settled. There were plenty of little truths for the poets and everybody else to busy themselves with, but they did not have to start from scratch and explain the universe. Then all of a sudden it happened. The silence of the infinite spaces and their own souls made them quake. One may argue about the date when one could no longer formulate with any confidence what the Big Truth was, but already in the nineteenth century, poets as different as Whitman, Dickinson, and Mallarmé found themselves philosophically pretty much on their own. By the time the twentieth century rolled around, the search for a new knowledge of reality and for an authentic self were the burning issues addressed by numerous, otherwise battling poetic movements. While rejecting Christian belief, the not-so-secret ambition of many of these poets was to write a poem about the absolute in an age suspicious of absolutes, and get away with it.

The role of the reader underwent a change too. It was not just a well-turned poem one was expected to admire, but also the homespun metaphysics that came along with it. Given the intellectual ambition and the high stakes, the risk of making a complete fool of oneself was almost guaranteed. Still and all, was it really possible to pretend that the world had not changed, as the aesthetic and political conservatives continue to believe? I mention all this as a way of situating Robinson Jeffers and his work. He is of that same tribe, although his poetry and his own outlook on things ended up being unlike anyone else’s among his contemporaries.

Jeffers, who died in 1962 and is little read today, was the author of at least thirteen sizable collections of poetry. This in itself would not be particularly unusual except that, from the 1920s to the 1940s, he was reputed to be one of the greatest poetic voices this country ever produced and was compared to Shakespeare and Homer by critics who loathed modern poetry. After the Second World War, all that changed. Jeffers, who remained a firm isolationist throughout the conflict, began to be thought of as a right-winger of the lunatic fringe. The Double Axe and Other Poems came out in 1948 with a publisher’s preface disclaiming responsibility for the political views in the book. Not only was Jeffers accused of being a fascist sympathizer—which he was not—but he was also being discarded as a poet. No less an authority than Randall Jarrell thought his poems lacked the exactness and conciseness required of the best poetry. I myself don’t remember his name coming up much, if at all, in literary circles in the 1950s and 1960s. We all knew who he was since he was included in all the important anthologies, but his work did not make much of an impression on my generation of poets. Even Frost, thanks to his keen ear for colloquial speech, sounded more like a contemporary. Compared to Eliot and Williams, Jeffers sounded like a provincial windbag. It took a selection of his short poems and an excellent introduction by Robert Hass in 1987 to make me open my eyes and correct some of these misapprehensions.

Not that Jeffers ever made it easy for anyone to like him or that the complaints about his poetry were entirely baseless. Reading his poems one would not know that motion pictures were ever invented or that most Americans lived in cities. What is needed in poems are things that are permanent, he said. Writing an ode to a locomotive, as Whitman did, made no sense to him. He considered most of our modern inventions, good and bad, as passing fads doomed to disappear without trace. It was all right for prose to concern itself with contemporary matters. Poetry for Jeffers had to deal with things that a reader two thousand years from now could still understand and be moved by.

These views of his were not a product of complete ignorance of modern literature. Jeffers had a thorough knowledge of French poetry, admired it, but thought it was a dead end. Mallarmé’s and his followers’ dream of divorcing poetry from intelligibility and of bringing it nearer to music seemed to him hopelessly deluded. Their successors in his view could make only further renunciations. “Every advance,” he wrote in the introduction to a volume of his poems, “required the elimination of some aspect of reality, and what could it profit me to know the direction of modern poetry if I did not like the direction? It was too much like putting out your eyes to cultivate the sense of hearing, or cutting off the right hand to develop the left.”

He disapproved particularly of modern poetry’s competition with prose, its desperate attempt, so he thought, to save its soul by sounding as prosaic as possible. “It became evident to me,” he writes, “that poetry—if it was to survive at all—must reclaim some of the power and reality that it was so hastily surrendering to prose.” Jeffers was not persuaded by the modernist complaint that the language of poetry needs to renew itself from time to time, that the old ways with words had grown stale, so that poetry as it was being written when he started out became an embarrassment to any intelligent human being. There was no crisis of language for Jeffers, or the likelihood that yesterday’s poetic idiom is inadequate to deal with contemporary reality. Given his rejection of every literary fashion of his day, it’s not surprising that it took this long for us to begin to see him for what he was, a poet capable of extraordinary originality and beauty.

Everything about Jeffers was out of the ordinary. Even his childhood and upbringing are a puzzle. Born in 1887 in Pittsburgh, he was the first son of a reclusive, eccentric widower who was a minister and professor of Greek and Latin at Western Theological Seminary and his much younger second wife. Dr. Jeffers was over six feet tall, they say, but he went around stooped, giving the impression of a much shorter and much older man. Like his son, he didn’t care to meet people or engage in small talk. While Jeffers was growing up, his father kept moving constantly around Pittsburgh. His excuse was that he couldn’t find peace to concentrate on his studies because young Robin kept inviting playmates to the house. The insistence on privacy and the formal courtesy with which the family members treated each other are both admirable and a little frightening. For instance, although the family never missed Sunday service, the doctor preferred to worship alone and went to another church. Still, father and son seemed to have gotten along despite what Jeffers suggests about their relationship in this early sonnet:

TO HIS FATHER

Christ was your lord and captain all your life,
He fails the world but you he did not fail,
He led you through all forms of grief and strife
Intact, a man full-armed, he let prevail
Nor outward malice nor the worse-fanged snake
That coils in one’s own brain against your calm,
That great rich jewel well guarded for his sake
With coronal age and death like quieting balm.
I Father having followed other guides
And oftener to my hurt no leader at all,
Through years nailed up like dripping panther hides
For trophies on a savage temple wall
Hardly anticipate that reverend stage
Of life, the snow-wreathed honor of extreme age.

What comes as a surprise is that Dr. Jeffers, far from being provincial and narrow-minded, gave his son a broad education. He and his younger brother were sent to study in private schools in Geneva, Lausanne, Zurich, and Leipzig. By the time he was through with high school, Jeffers not only knew French and German, but also Greek and Latin. Afterward, he continued his education at Occidental College in California, where the family had moved because of his father’s poor health. He got his undergraduate degree in 1905 when he was eighteen and enrolled in the University of Southern California graduate program in literature, where he met his future wife. Mrs. Una Call Kuster, as she was then called, was a married woman. After years of conducting an on-and-off illicit affair, she divorced her lawyer husband and married Jeffers in 1913. He was already writing poems and beginning to think of himself as a poet. He had a small legacy they could live on modestly, so there was no pressing need to worry about making a living.

They planned to go to England but the war interfered and they settled in the village of Carmel in Monterey County. After a few years, they bought a plot of land and erected a stone edifice called “Tor House” and subsequently added a tower which Jeffers built with his own hands with rocks he gathered and dug along the seashore. This is how another California poet, Robert Hass, describes what Jeffers saw when he walked out of his stone house:

A rocky coast, ridges of cypress and pine, ghostly in the fog. On clear days the Carmel River glittered past the ruin of an old Franciscan mission, and the surf was an intense sapphire, foaming to turquoise as it crested. Gulls, cormorants and pelicans among the rocks, hawks hovering overhead. In the distance, the Santa Lucia Mountains rising steeply from the sea and ranging south toward Big Sur.1

Years later, visiting England, Jeffers confessed in a letter that he did not care for trees since they made the landscape soft and fluffy. He liked the violence of the sea, the spectacular cloudbanks at sunrise and sunset that would give the mountainous coast the feel of high drama on any given day. It suited his temperament perfectly. Jeffers was a brooding loner who made even those who knew him well somewhat ill at ease. He never had a single friend as far as I can tell. The local stories and legends he retold in his narrative poems, he heard from his wife, who took the trouble to talk to the neighbors. She often encouraged him to write, answered most of his mail, and was the first reader of all his poems. Una was a strong-willed woman, far more ambitious and opinionated than her husband, and appears to have been as tough to get along with as he was. On one hand, they seemed to have lived in near-complete isolation, and then—it doesn’t seem so. He read Nietzsche, Vico, Spengler, and psychoanalytic literature. Just as one decides that Jeffers was hopelessly out of touch with intellectual currents of his time, he takes one back by some remarkable insight:

We obey in fact, consciously or not, two opposed systems of morality. They cannot be reconciled, yet we cling to both of them, and serve two masters. (We have in fact two moralities, which cannot be reconciled, yet most of us cling to both of them.) We believe in the Christian virtues, universal love, self-abnegation, humility, non-resistance; but we believe also, as individuals and as nations, in the pagan virtues of our ancestors: justice with its corollary vengeance, pride and personal honor, will to power, patriotic readiness to meet force with force. Our conduct almost always compromises between these contradictory moralities. And the great movements of Christianity—the Crusades, for instance, or the great colonizations, or the French and Russian revolutions—are inspired and confused by both of them.2

  1. 1

    Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers, edited by Robert Hass (Random House, 1987), p. xv.

  2. 2

    Melba Berry Bennett, The Stone Mason of Tor House: The Life and Work of Robinson Jeffers (Ward Ritchie Press, 1966), pp. 135–136.

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