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(John) Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)


American poet and playwright, whose works combined themes from ancient tragedies, Old Testament, and the legend of Christ with dark views and absurdities of modern life. Jeffers called for a poetry of 'dangerous images' which would 'reclaim substance and sense, and psychological reality.' He believed that 'poetry is bound to concern itself chiefly with permanent aspects of life.' During his fifty-year career, Jeffers published 18 volumes of verse.

"I hate my verses, every line, every word.
Oh pale and brittle pencils ever to try
One grass-blade's curve, or the throat of one bird
That clings to twig, ruffled against white sky.
Oh cracked and twilight mirrors ever to catch
One color, onbe glinting flash, or the splendor of things."

(in 'Love of Wild Swan', 1935)

John Robinson Jeffers was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, now part of Pittsburgh. His father, Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers, was a Presbyterian minister and professor of Old Testament literature. After his first wife died in 1882, he had married Annie Tuttle, an orphan raised by cousins; she was more than twenty years his senior. The couple travelled widely in Europe, where much of Jeffers's early education took place. As a boy, Jeffers had tried to fly with homemade wings and many of his poems describe birds or refer to the myth of Icarus – his favorite animal and symbol was the hawk.

Jeffers attended private schools in Switzerland and Germany. A child prodigy, he learned several languages – he was fluent in French and German and could read Latin and Greek. The family moved in 1903 to Southern California, setting there in Highland Park (Los Angeles). After graduating from Occidental College in 1905, Jeffers zigzagged in his studies of English literature, medicine, and forestry in Los Angeles, Zürich, and Seattle. For a period he taught physiology at the USC dental college. His first book, Flagons and Apples (1912), was a collection of simple love poems. It was followed by Californians (1916), which described the coastal region and its people. These works attracted little attention. Upon inheriting enough money, Jeffers was able to devote himself to writing poetry.

In 1913 Jeffers married a divorcee, Una Call Kuster, the former wife of a prominent Los Angeles attorney, and moved with her next year to Carmel, on the Monterey cost of California. He built there, on a knoll overlooking Carmel Bay, a stone house (the Tor House) and a forty-foot observation tower. In its shelter he watched the sweeping tides, a hawk circling in the sky, the cliffs and clouds and mountains. Jeffers' breakthrough collection, Tamar and Other Poems (1924), was praised by T.S. Eliot. The subject of the narrative title poem was incest. Drawing loosely on the biblical story of King David's daughter, this collection exhibited Jeffers's preoccupation with the themes of lust and man's destructive self-obsession.

Jeffers' daily schedule was simple: he wrote in the morning, did some stone work or tree-planting in the afternoon, and and walked on the beach and read in the evening. Famous guests at the house included Edgar Lee Masters, James Cagney, Charles Chaplin, George Gershwin, Thornton Wilder, Langston Hughes, Aldous Huxley, Toscanini, Salvador Dalí, and others. Loyal to his surroundings, Jeffers focused in his poems on the coastal scenery. But what lies beyond the Pacific Ocean, did not interest him much – he read European writers. After a visit to London in 1928, Jeffers lived an increasingly isolated life. On the three land sides of his property he planted a wall of eucalyptus and Monterey cypress.

In his youth Jeffers was interested in the thoughts of Freud and Nietzsche, embracing their penetrating and startling views on religious beliefs. Later he associated more to the works of Walt Whitman. Though many times he had in the foreground the universe's beauty and the vision that humankind can help overcome its suffering, he once wrote: "I have seen these ways of God: I know of no reason / For fire and change and torture and the old returnings." Jeffers saw metropolitan life vicious and corrupting and even approved World War II and the Korean War as methods of eliminating undeserving human beings. His misanthropic thinking – not worse than that of Swift or Arthur Schopenhauer – manifested in 'Roan Stallion,' wherein a woman allows a stallion to trample her husband to death and then shoots the animal. In his famous poem 'Shine, Perishing Republic' he gave the advice: "And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever / servant, insufferable master."

"The core elements of the Puritan sublime – the praise of God in a redemptive wilderness, the duty of meditation, the metaphorical construction of divinity in terms of the world's beauty– are almost a programmatic description of Robinson Jeffers' verse," Robert Zaller has said in Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime (2012). Jeffers' narratives were often tales of violence, adultery, and incest, with settings in the Carmel-Big Sur Region of California. His early influences were the English writers William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. Many of his poems, as well as his plays, were based on Greek and Roman myths.

Dear Judas (1929), starring E.G. Marshall in the title role in the 1947 Broadway production, was banned in Boston on theological grounds. The mayor of the city argued that it would "violate the beliefs of many Bostonians in God and might even create trouble by stirring religious enmity." Jeffers portrayed Mary and Jesus in human terms – Jesus was an illegitimate child, and the mother and son shared a lie that he was a Son of God. Jeffers's most famous play Medea, was an adaptation of Euripides' classic drama. Directed by John Gielgud and starring Judith Anderson, it opened on Broaway in October 1947 and was a great success, running for 214 performances. Anderson had proposed the idea to Jeffers and he wrote the role of Medea for her; this work also helped him to overcome his writer's block. While in Ireland in 1948, he almost died of pleurisy.

In 1937 Jeffers became a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and in 1945 he was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Mostly due to his philosophical pasifism, Jeffers did not aswer to the call to join the American war effort during WWI. In 'Pearl Harbor,' published in Oscar Williams' New Poems 1944, he wrote: "The war that we have carefully for years provoked / Catches us unprepared, amazed and indignant. Our war – / ships are shot / Like sitting ducks and our planes like nest-birds, both our / coasts ridiculously panicked, / And our leaders make orations." The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948), an antiwar collection, carried a publisher's note to readers, telling that "Random House feel compelled to go on record wityh its disagreement over some of the political views pronounced by the poet in this volume." The Tower Beyond Tragedy (1950) was based on two parts of Aeschylus's Oresteia and The Cretan Woman (1951) was an adaptation of Euripides's Hippolytus. Jeffers died on January 20, 1962, in Tor House. During the final years he wrote few poems, his health and eyesight failed.

For further reading: Robinson Jeffers by L.C. Powell (1940); The Loyalties of Robinson Jeffers by L. Squires (1956); Robinson Jeffers by F.I. Carpenter (1962); Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism by A.B. Ciffin (1971); The Cliffs of Solitude by R. Zaller (1983); Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers, ed. by J.Karman (1990); Robinson Jeffers: The Dimensions of a Poet, ed. by R. Brophy (1995); Robinson Jeffers by J. Karman (1995); Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers by W.B. Thesing (1995); Robinson Jeffers and the American Sublime by Robert Zaller (2012) - Other great Californian poets: William Everson (1912-1994), Henry Charles Bukowski (1920-1994), Gary Snyder (b. 1930)

Selected works:

  • FFlagons and Apples, 1912
  • Californians, 1916
  • Tamar and Other Poems, 1924
  • Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems, 1925
  • The Women at Point Sur, 1927
  • Cawdor and Other Poems, 1928
  • Poems, 1928
  • Dear Judas and Other Poems, 1929
  • Stars, 1930
  • Descent to the Dead, 1931
  • Thurso's Landing and Other Poems, 1932
  • Give Your Heart to the Hawks and other Poems, 1933
  • Solstice and Other Poems, 1935
  • The Beaks of Eagles, 1936
  • Such Counsels You Gave To Me and Other Poems, 1937
  • The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, 1938
  • Two Consolations, 1940
  • Be Angry at the Sun and Other Poems, 1941
  • Medea, 1946
  • The Double Axe and Other Poems, 1948
  • Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years, 1949
  • The Tower Beyond Tragedy, 1950
  • The Cretan Woman, 1951
  • Hungerfield and Other Poems, 1954
  • The Loving Shepherdess, 1956
  • Themes in My Poems, 1956
  • The Beginning and the End and Other Poems, 1963 (ed. Melba Bennett)
  • Selected Poems, 1965
  • Not Man Apart, 1965 (ed. David Brower)
  • The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1968 (ed. Ann Ridgeway)
  • Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers 1897-1962, 1968 (edited by Ann N Ridgeway)
  • Cawdor and Medea, 1970
  • The Alpine Christ and Other Poems, 1973 (ed. William Everson)
  • Tragedy Has Oblications, 1973
  • Brides of the South Wind: Poems 1917-1922, 1974 (ed. William Everson)
  • The Women at Point Sur, 1975 (afterword by Bill Hotckiss)
  • In This Wild Water, 1976 (ed. James Shebl)
  • What Odd Expedients and Other Poems, 1981 (ed. Robert Ian Scott)
  • Where Shall I Take You To: The Love Letters Of Una And Robinson Jeffers, 1987 (ed. Robert Kafka)
  • Songs and Heroes, 1988 (ed. Robert Brophy)
  • The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume One: 1920-1928, 1988 (ed. Tim Hunt)
  • The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Two: 1928-1938, 1989 (ed. Tim Hunt)
  • The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Three: 1939-1962, 1991 (ed. Tim Hunt)
  • The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Four: Poetry 1903-1920, Prose, and Unpublished Writings, 2000 (ed. Tim Hunt)
  • The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, 2001 (edited by Tim Hunt)
  • The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Five: Textual Evidence and Commentary, 2002 (ed. Tim Hunt)
  • Stones of the Sur, 2002 (ed. James Karman, photographs by Morley Baer)
  • The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers: Volume One, 1890-1930, 2009 (ed. James Karman)

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