Problematic Authority: The Beginning and the End as an Edition of Robinson Jeffers’ Last Poems

[This article was published in Jeffers Studies, Volume 21 (2021).]

For most readers of Robinson Jeffers, The Beginning and the End (1963) has shaped their sense of his work following Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954).  Assembled for publication by Jeffers’ biographer Melba Berry Bennett, The Beginning and the End collects lyrics and brief meditations from Jeffers’ last years and includes a number of strong poems, some of which (such as the often anthologized “Vulture”) have come to be regarded as part of the core of the Jeffers canon.[1]  There is, then, good reason to regard The Beginning and the End as one of Jeffers’ primary collections and an important episode in his poetic career.  If Tamar and Other Poems (1924) might be cast as the opening chapter in the story of Jeffers’ mature poetry and Hungerfield seen as a kind of elegiac conclusion, The Beginning and the End is perhaps a summative coda.  There is, however, a problem with this organization.  While the poems Jeffers wrote following the submission of Hungerfield in the spring of 1954 until his death in January 1962 can be rightly viewed as a coda, one that both recapitulates and extends the career, The Beginning and the End may not adequately or accurately present this material.  In the best of all editorial worlds (if Candide were, that is, a textual scholar), a new edition of Jeffers’ poetic production from the final nine years of his life would replace The Beginning and the End.  In the absence of such a new edition (or the prospect of one), we can at least have a clearer understanding of the limitations of The Beginning and the End and of some of the difficulties inherent in this material that would complicate shaping a new edition of the last poems that would more accurately convey Jeffers’ work in these years.

The textual issues with The Beginning and the End are inherent in the material.  Although various notes on the manuscripts show that Jeffers clearly intended to publish a final collection, he died before selecting what poems would be included and left much of the material in hard-to-decipher handwritten drafts.  A further problem is that the distinction between completed poem, working draft, and fragment is not always clear.  And an additional complication is that Jeffers sketched plans for various long poems (narratives and meditative sequences).  In some instances, he seems to have come to regard pieces drafted as he tried to develop a long poem as independent poems (“Oysters,” for example) while he may have continued to think of other pieces as still a part of an abandoned project.  The archive, then, presents three problems: (1) which pieces are actually completed poems as opposed to fragments or units from discarded long projects, (2) how to decipher Jeffers’ handwriting (and various cancelations and insertions) to determine what the texts of these poems should be, and (3) what to do with the attempts to develop a final long poem, since these efforts, in spite of their importance to Jeffers and to his hopes for a final collection, exist primarily as notes, sketches, and brief fragments.

The front flap of the dust jacket for The Beginning and the End notes that the poems in the collection were assembled “from hand-written manuscripts by his sons and secretary after Jeffers [sic] death in 1962.”  An account of the evidence for how the collection was assembled is included in Volume Five of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (CP 5: 852-58).  The evidence indicates that Garth Jeffers was not involved in compiling the collection and that Donnan Jeffers’ role was limited to adding the Appendix of three poems (“Animula,” “The Shears,” and “Birds and Fishes”) after the manuscript for the collection had been sent to Random House.[2]  What matters most here is that this evidence on balance indicates that Jeffers was not involved in assembling The Beginning and the End.  Instead, it indicates that Bennett chose the contents, determined the texts (creating titles for pieces that lacked titles along the way), and arranged the material into four thematic sections, each with a section title.  Two features of Bennett’s approach are particularly significant.  First, she mixed poems that Jeffers had completed (at least in draft) with others that were untitled drafts-in-progress and fragments There is no way to determine how much this was a matter of Bennett not distinguishing between finished and unfinished work and how much it was a matter of her wanting to include unfinished pieces because of their intrinsic quality.  Second, she decided not to mention or represent Jeffers’ attempts at a long poem in these years.  There are several plausible reasons for this.  To add a note describing this material would have meant describing her role in shaping the collection, calling attention to the collection as her construction rather than Jeffers’ own.  Nor would it have made sense to include the workings toward any of the long poems because they are so preliminary and unfinished that this would have disrupted the illusion of The Beginning and the End as a cohesive collection of fully completed shorter poems.  Whatever Bennett’s reasoning, her handling of the material led to Jeffers’ final primary collection being the only collection other than his first, Flagons and Apples (1912), to lack a long narrative poem or verse drama.  But it also results in a seemingly authorial collection that presents Jeffers reflecting back across his themes and materials from the perspective of old age and approaching death with a kind of stoic, yet serene and clear-eyed, wisdom.  As the regard readers of Jeffers hold for The Beginning and the End shows, Bennett clearly constructed a compelling representation of the poetry from these last years of Jeffers’ life.  But Bennett’s version is only one possible version of this material, and her version is not fully accurate to the details of the poems.  More significantly, it obscures the provisional nature of many of these final pieces, and (most importantly for an understanding of the nature of Jeffers’ work in this period) it fails to convey Jeffers’ ambition, in spite of his declining health, to develop a final long poem that would anchor the collection he hoped to complete but never did.


The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas at Austin holds the material Bennett used in compiling The Beginning and the End.  Even a cursory encounter with these manuscripts underscores the challenges an editor faces in shaping a collection from them.  While Jeffers had typed some of the poems, many are handwritten drafts, at times in smudgy pencil.  Moreover, Jeffers’ handwriting was typically something of a scrawl when he was composing, and it grew even less legible across this period as his health declined.  One group of sheets that must have been a stack on his writing desk at one point has a dark stain, apparently from having a glass of red wine spilled on it that soaked down through a group of drafts, further obscuring the writing.  There is also the question of overlapping versions as Jeffers attempted various drafts of related material.  And there is the problem of what to do with the sequence of preliminary notes, sketches, and passages for various unwritten narratives and long poems that trace Jeffers’ attempts at writing a final long poem but also document his failure to do so.  These workings, an array of overlapping and diverging conceptions, underscore Jeffers’ commitment to composing a final long poem, even as they reveal his inability to settle on a conception or strategy.  They tantalize with what might have been even as they document how little progress he made on any of them.

The nature of this material is such that one could reasonably argue that the only fully adequate and accurate presentation of Jeffers’ work in the years following Hungerfield is the manuscripts themselves, but the expense of traveling to Austin to access the material coupled with the volume of it, and how difficult it is to decipher, makes this impractical.  And even if expense, time, and eye strain were not factors, this approach has another drawback: it casts the reader as primarily an editor of the poems rather than a reader of them, and editing should serve readers and their acts of reading, not become an end in itself.  Both practically and conceptually, the archive as edition is not a solution to the puzzle of how to present the work of Jeffers’ final years, and this poses the question of how one might construct an edition of this material that would, to the greatest extent possible, present it in readable form, while also adequately conveying the nature of Jeffers’ ambitions and productivity as he worked toward the final collection that he was unable to complete.  Unfortunately, this is a question that does not yield an answer.  Instead, it leads to various possible answers, each partial, each to some degree inadequate.  But understanding how this material resists a final, ideal realization can help us better weigh the options for presenting it.  Perhaps more importantly, considering the problems inherent in publishing this material can help us better understand the necessarily partial nature of any selection drawn from this archive and the provisional nature of printed, published representations of these manuscripts, factors which should be incorporated in our reading of these poems and this final phase of Jeffers’ career.


There have been two editions of Jeffers’ work from the years following Hungerfield:  Bennett’s The Beginning and the End is one.  The section “Last Poems” in Volume Three of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers can be regarded as the other (especially as supplemented by the material in Volume Five).  The two reflect different occasions, serve different purposes, and thus differ markedly in how they process the material and present it.  Bennett’s handling of the material used for The Beginning and the End suggests she saw herself as preparing what would function as a typical trade collection for readers wanting to read Jeffers’ final poems.  Whether the decision to construct a trade collection from the material Jeffers wrote after Hungerfield was made by Random House, specified by Donnan Jeffers as what would best serve his father’s legacy, or something Bennett determined independently matters little at this point.  What matters is how this goal governed not only the selecting and ordering of the pieces, but more importantly, how it dictated that pieces Jeffers had left in untitled working drafts had to be completed for publication by adding titles, choosing between alternate passages, and even deciding what passages should be considered a poem as opposed to a discarded fragment.  It is probably the case that Bennett understood what she was doing as primarily a matter of compiling and conveying the work rather than, in a more formal sense, editing it.  In any case, it is telling and not accidental that The Beginning and the End does not specify Bennett (or anyone else) as the editor, nor does it include a note on the texts.  Neither Random House nor (it seems) Bennett thought it necessary to credit her role nor characterize the state of manuscript materials nor delineate the nature or extent of the adjustments she had made to her copy.  Conversely, The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers is explicitly a critical edition, where the goal is to present the material as Jeffers left it, which is to say, in its fully authorial form, even when that means preserving manuscript details that reveal that a poem is a work in progress rather than a completed text.  Two features point to the basic difference between the two projects.  Where Bennett grouped the poems she had chosen thematically and added titles to each of the four sections she had constructed, The Collected Poetry attempts to present the poems chronologically.  Where Bennett added titles to untitled drafts, The Collected Poetry follows the convention of using the poem’s initial phrase as its title, which is why, for example, the piece titled “Eager to Be Praised” in The Beginning and the End becomes “Goethe, they say, was a great poet” in The Collected Poetry.  See the Comparison Chart following Works Cited for an explanation of the relationship of the titles in The Beginning and the End to those used in The Collected Poetry.

Most simply, The Beginning and the End presents versions of the late poems in which the manuscripts have been adjusted so that they can be read as if Jeffers completed them for publication, while The Collected Poetry presents them in their various stages of completion and incompletion.  The difference in how the material is handled reflects the difference in function.  Both approaches serve a purpose; both are legitimate.  One optimizes the material for the general reader wanting to experience the poems for pleasure, personal enrichment, and even wisdom.  The other better addresses the needs of the critical and scholarly reader whose goal is more a matter of analysis and insight into the creative process.

From this perspective the most significant reservation one might have about The Beginning and the End is the way Random House or Bennett, or the two together, characterized the collection as “Collected from” Jeffers’ manuscripts rather than indicating that the poems had been selected from and edited from these manuscripts.  This erases Bennett’s editorial role in shaping the material and the collection.  This deprives her of the credit she deserves, while also creating the impression that this process was simply a matter of gathering completed poems that were then set into type rather than a process that involved deciphering manuscripts and constructing, in some cases, “completed” poems from uncompleted manuscript material.

“Vulture” provides an example of one of the ways the manuscripts for these late poems force at least some degree of editorial intervention.  In The Beginning and the End the first word of the seventh line is “Bear,” and the sentence in which it occurs reads,

I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. (62)

The letter that Bennett renders as “r” is, though, plausibly a “k,” so that the word in question would be “Beak,” and the sentence would read,

I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Beak downward staring. (CP 3: 462)

In the manuscript this detail is open to interpretation; we cannot tell for sure which is the reading Jeffers intended.  Contextually, one could construct an argument for either “Bear” or “Beak.”  “Bear” suggests an action or motion: the speaker perceives the vulture’s head “bear[ing] downward” as the bird stares.  “Beak” creates a more unusual sentence and arguably a more static image (The vulture’s head is “Beak downward”), and this might incline us toward Bennett’s resolution of this detail, but “Beak downward” better anticipates “To be eaten by that beak” (which seemingly echoes and extends “Beak downward”) in the penultimate line.  To my eye the letter in question seems a “k” rather than “r,” and “Beak” rather than “Bear” seems to better fit the context and action of the poem as a whole, but this is only my judgment.  The point here is not that Bennett’s reading is wrong nor that my alternate reading of this detail from the same document is right.  The point is that Jeffers’ handwriting in the manuscripts for these late poems is such that some details cannot be determined with assurance and anyone processing these pieces into publishable texts is forced to make interpretive judgments, which can alter, albeit in this instance in a small way, our analysis and appreciation of the poem.  While “Bear” instead of “Beak” may not fundamentally change our sense of “Vulture,” it is possible that “Beak” (if that is indeed the correct resolution of this uncertain detail) is more immediate and compelling, adding precision to the line, and in a small way enhances the unity of the poem.

“Vulture” is not the only poem in The Beginning and the End with a problematic detail that stems from the difficulty of deciphering Jeffers’ handwriting.  In “Nightpiece,” Bennett renders the poem’s opening sentence as,

If you keep command of yourself
You can hear almost anything. (61)

The third word of the second line may instead be “bear,” which makes more sense in the context of the sentence and the poem as a whole.  Here, what one transcriber might conclude is a “b” another might conclude is an “h,” just as in “Vulture” where one might see an “r” another might see a “k.”  The unit that Bennett titles “Fierce Music” involves a different sort of possible misreading.  In Bennett’s transcription, the poem ends:

But weep that we lose so much
Because mere use won’t cover up the glory.
We have our moments: but mostly we are too tired to hear and too dull to see. (57)

In the manuscript the phrase “use won’t” appears instead to read “use and wont.”  In The Beginning and the End, “mere use” fails to “cover up” the “glory,” which seems at odds with the logic of the poem.  While “wont” is a less usual word, it fits the context better: mere “use” and “wont” in combination “cover up” the “glory.”

The point here is not that some details of Bennett’s transcriptions are open to question and possibly in error.  Any attempt to transcribe these handwritten drafts in order to render them in print requires resolving uncertain details.  While the question of whether a letter is an “r” or a “k” or a “b” or an “h” is a relatively minor matter, Bennett’s adjustments to the manuscripts at times involved more than just resolving unclear details, and these more major changes have implications for The Beginning and the End as a portrait of the final phase of Jeffers’ career.

Bennett’s handling of the ending of “Salvage” shows that she at times did more than transcribe the copy.  In The Beginning and the End the poem ends,

That would make joy in the world, and make men perhaps a little nobler—as a handful of wildflowers,
Is nobler than the human race. (63)

The manuscript lacks the comma after “wildflowers,” but the more notable adjustment is in the final line where Bennett has, deliberately it seems, chosen to omit “damned” from the phrase “the damned human race.”  Why is unclear.  Perhaps she felt “damned” distracted attention from the “nobler” and contrasting presence of the “wildflowers.”  Perhaps she felt “damned” was unseemly in print.  There are two issues here.  One is the matter of aesthetic judgment: in the manuscript both wildflowers and the human race are further characterized, one as “nobler,” the other as “damned.”  It is not at all clear that Jeffers, having generated this pattern, would have discarded it, had he revised the line (and the evidence indicates that this is Bennett’s editorial adjustment, not Jeffers’ revision).  The second issue is that this change indicates that Bennett assumed her authority extended beyond judging unclear details as she transcribed to include providing what apparently seemed to her finishing touches that would improve the poems—perhaps in the belief that Jeffers would have made the changes had he assembled and prepared the final typescripts.

Whether the gain in decorum or possible enhancement of tone by dropping “damned” in the final line of “Salvage” improves the poem aesthetically is open to debate.  And the change is still a relatively minor one and probably has little impact on how one reads the poem.  Bennett’s handling of other pieces, though, show that she assumed her authority (or her insight into what Jeffers would have done) extended beyond minor adjustments of wording.  What appears in The Beginning and the End as “The Monstrous Drought,” for instance, is an untitled, seemingly discarded fragment that Jeffers wrote as the possible opening passage for an abandoned narrative.  Bennett either misunderstood the nature of the piece (a fragment toward a different, unwritten poem) or seems to have found the unit of description sufficiently arresting that she wanted to use it, deciding to transcribe it, title it, and bring it into print as if it were a completed poem.  Her handling of the material from which she constructed “Believe History” shows that the latter may have been the case.

In The Beginning and the End “Believe History” reads:

I think we are the ape’s children, but believe history
We are the Devil’s: the fire-deaths, the flaying alive,
The blinding with hot iron, the crucifixions, the castrations, the famous
Murder of a King of England by hot iron forced
Through the anus to burn the bowels, and men outside the ten-foot dungeon-wall
Could hear him howling. Through such violence, such horrors
We have come and survived time.
“It came from the Devil and will go to the Devil,”
The old Norman said.
But those were the violences
Of youth.  We are not returned to that point.
These are the grim and weeping horrors of old age. (40)

One issue with her transcription is the word “time” that ends the seventh line.  In the manuscript, the sentence ends a word earlier (“We have come and survived”), and “time” is the last word of a crossed-out sentence that at one point followed this line.  Why Bennett borrowed a word from a deleted sentence to add to the seventh line is unclear.  In Jeffers’ draft, what we have “survived” are the “violences” and “horrors” themselves.  In Bennett’s version, derived from the draft but differing from it, what we have “survived” is “time,” and “time” includes “violences” and “horrors.”  Adding “time” slightly mutes the catalogue of details by treating them as subordinate elements to a broader abstract category.  As a general matter, Jeffers could have made such a revision, but two factors argue that he did not.  The first is simply, most concretely and definitively that the manuscript shows that the seventh line did not end with the word “time.”  The second is that the verse paragraph that follows opens by emphasizing “the violences,” underscoring that “violences” as such, rather than “violences” as an element of “time,” is the focus of the poem.  In the case of “Vulture,” whether the problematic word is “Bear” or “Beak” is unclear.  In what Bennett titles “Believe History,” it is clear that Jeffers did not intend the seventh line to conclude with “time.”

There is a further (and arguably more serious) issue with Bennett’s construction of “Believe History.”  The draft actually ends with the first words of the eleventh line (“Of youth”).  Bennett added the period to complete the sentence and then used several phrases that are several inches below where the draft seems to break off for the rest of line 11 and for line 12.  The manuscript shows, that is, that Jeffers did not complete this poem.  He left it as a fragment.  Bennett’s completion of the fragment to construct what she saw as a publishable poem is arguably in the spirit of the draft-in-progress. Also, it is often the case that Jeffers initiated work on a lyric or short meditation by sketching toward the bottom of the page the gesture or recognition or image that would become the poem’s conclusion and then composing the lines that lead to a concluding passage that elaborates the initiating note.  The note that Bennett adds to the fragment to complete it may well, then, have been in the spirit of what Jeffers would have composed if he had at some point completed this piece.  Or not.  At the least it is likely that the second verse paragraph would have been more fully developed and included a catalogue of the “grim and weeping horrors of old age” to parallel the catalogue of the “violences of youth.”

The fragment Bennett completes as “Believe History” is substantial and rich enough that her wanting to include it in The Beginning and the End is understandable.  The problem is that the text she constructs is not fully Jeffers’ work, even though all the material she uses is present in the manuscript.  This example suggests that Bennett believed she was authorized to complete Jeffers’ works-in-progress and believed her sense of what he would have composed was sufficient for her to infer what he would probably (or at least plausibly) have done had he finished them.  In critical editing, the usual goal is to establish what a writer actually wrote.  In editing as Bennett approached it, her goal was to establish, when necessary, what Jeffers would or could have written.  In the case of “Believe History,” Bennett’s construction is arguably an approximation of Jeffers’ intentions, even though the second verse paragraph is probably less developed than it would have been had he actually picked the draft back up and completed it.  In some other instances, though, Bennett’s constructions are more problematic and probably muddle or subvert Jeffers’ intentions.

Bennett’s construction of the opening poem to The Beginning and the End, “The Great Explosion,” illustrates this on a larger scale.  In spring 1954, Jeffers wrote a poem he titled “Explosion.”  His notes show that he also considered using it as the initial piece in a sequence that would, next, have used the material Bennett titled “The Beginning and the End.”  In 1958, Jeffers wrote a shorter poem, “The Great Explosion,” that has elements in common with “Explosion.”  For The Beginning and the End, Bennett used the 1958 material for the opening two paragraphs of what she titled “The Great Wound,” and then completed the rest of her construction of the 1954 poem, “Explosion,” by adding an excerpt from the earlier poem that begins midway through the fourth line of its second verse paragraph.  Why Bennett opened her version of “The Great Wound” by using, in its entirety, the briefer and later poem with material grafted to it from the earlier poem is unclear.  She may have believed the two drafts were contemporaneous attempts at the same piece and decided to construct a finished poem from the material.  She may have understood them as successive attempts at the same piece and believed melding them together would yield a more compelling result.  The piece Bennett titles “The Great Wound” is another instance of her combining work from two separate pieces, in this case untitled units that Jeffers may or may not have regarded as completed or as poems in their own right.[3]  With both “The Great Explosion” and “The Great Wound,” Bennett seems to have assumed that fragments with a similar conception or a similar conceit must necessarily have been part of the same poem and should be joined into a single poem, even when this required her to hammer, as it were, a square peg into a round hole.

The material Bennett titles “The Beginning and the End” is another instance where her construction and the manuscript evidence are at odds.  Preliminary drafts relating to this unit, which Jeffers left untitled, show that it combined what were originally two separate threads of work: the opening seems to derive from an abandoned narrative, and the later material from a poem titled “The Beauty of Things,” which Jeffers then extended under the title “Anima Mundi.”  Additional notes and workings show that he subsequently also considered using this material as Part II of an extended and never developed sequence with “Explosion” as Part I.  The preliminary sketches lead to an eleven-page handwritten draft and this leads to a six-page typescript that is the basis for Bennett’s text.  Typically, Jeffers typed poems only when he considered them completed.  Both the handwritten draft and typescript are heavily revised, and it appears that Jeffers typed the poem not because it was finished but because the layers of revision on the handwritten draft had become so dense that he needed a clean draft in order to continue revising and refining the piece.  The typescript, then, is probably best understood as an intermediate draft with the penciled revisions to it recording the point where Jeffers either set the piece aside or decided it was finished (CP 5: 874-87).

The extent of the preliminary material to “The Beginning and the End” combined with the extensive process of revision strongly suggest that Jeffers was deeply invested in this poem, and it is understandable that Bennett not only included it in the collection but used the title she assigned to it for the collection as a whole.  However, the text she constructed does not, it seems, accurately convey the poem’s ending.  Her resolution of the weave of revisions for the ending seems guided by the assumption or belief or intuition that Jeffers, as he composed the short poems, was primarily working out the expression of a conception that was both fixed and prior to actually composing the poem.  In this view (held by many and perhaps having its roots in Romantic poetry), the true poem is the creative apprehension or visionary moment and the subsequent process of expressing this moment in writing is at best an approximation of the original apprehension.  From this perspective, inspiration is primary; expression is secondary, and there is little reason to consider the possibility that a writer might clarify—even discover—aspects of the material through the process of composing.  This may explain why Bennett was inclined to treat the workings from which Jeffers shaped the poem’s ending as cumulative (a matter of A + B) rather than considering them as alternatives (A or B).

Bennett’s ending for the material she titled “The Beginning and End” reads in part:

                                     This is man’s mission:
To find and feel; all animal experience
Is a part of God’s life. He would be balanced and neutral
As a rock on the shore, but the red sunset-waves
Of life’s passions fling over him.  He endures them,
We endure ours.  That ancient wound in the brain
Has never healed, it hangs wide, it lets in the stars
Into the animal-stinking ghost-ridden darkness, the human soul.
The mind of man…. (10)

In this passage both God and man (in their different scales of being) experience “life’s passions,” and both “endure” these passages.  God’s perspective, however, opens out to the literal and figurative beauty of “red sunset waves,” while the human soul is an “animal-stinking ghost-ridden darkness” and it is an “ancient wound in the brain” (implicitly consciousness) that “lets in the stars.”

To complete the poem, Bennett then added six lines that Jeffers developed from this handwritten sketch:

Slowly, perhaps, man may grow into it—
Or do you think so? This villainous king of beasts, this deformed ape? The Greeks made
him beautiful
For a moment of time —He has mind
And imagination, he might go far,
I hope he will die decently. Does any philosopher hope more? Hope is for the hopeless.
And die in honor. The hawks are more heroic but man has a steeper mind,
Huge pits of darkness, high peaks of light.
We ought to practice dying: we shall need it. (CP 5: 884-85)

The final version of this passage is the sixth and final page of the typescript and seems to have been typed later than the other five pages which conclude with the original ending.  In all, Bennett’s ending for “The Beginning and the End” reads:

                                     This is man’s mission:
To find and feel; all animal experience
Is a part of God’s life. He would be balanced and neutral
As a rock on the shore, but the red sunset-waves
Of life’s passions fling over him.  He endures them
We endure ours.  That ancient wound in the brain
Has never healed, it hangs wide, it lets in the stars
Into the animal-stinking ghost-ridden darkness, the human soul.
The mind of man….
Slowly, perhaps, man may grow into it—
Do you think so? This villainous king of beasts, this deformed ape?—He has mind
And imagination, he might go far
And end in honor. The hawks are more heroic but man has a steeper mind,
Huge pits of darkness, high peaks of light,
You may calculate a comet’s orbit or the dive of a hawk, not a man’s mind. (10)

A close reading of this passage, though, reveals two anomalies.  The first is the phrase “The mind of man,” which trails off into an ellipsis.  It neither extends the previous line, which closes with the “soul” rather than the “brain” or “mind,” nor leads on into the next line, which features “man.”  While the fragment could be seen as anticipating “He has mind” several lines later, it has no clear purpose in the argument, and its possible rhetorical purpose or function is vague at best.  The other problem is that “mind” functions differently in the final six lines of Bennett’s ending than it does in the lines that precede “The mind of man….”  Before this fragment, “mind” and “soul” are a contrasting pair: one (though a “wound”) “lets in the stars,” while the other is “ghost-ridden darkness.”  In the six lines that follow the fragment, “soul” is no longer a factor, and it is the “mind” itself (man’s “steeper mind”) that can be either positive (“high peaks of light”) or negative (“Huge pits of darkness”).

Because the phrasing and tone throughout Bennett’s construction of the ending is so recognizably Jeffersian, the way the line “The mind of man” seems not quite integrated into the passage and the difference in logic in the lines preceding and following it are apt to pass unnoticed.  But the manuscript evidence suggests that this is an instance of Bennett combining what are actually two alternate endings.  As originally typed from the handwritten draft, the poem ends:

Of life’s passions fling over him. He endures them.
We endure ours: that ancient wound in the brain
Has never healed nor closed. It lets in the stars. (CP 5: 883)

Jeffers then, through a series of revisions, modified and extended the last of these lines to include the “ghost-ridden soul.”  And for a time that seems to have been the poem’s ending.

The curious fragment “The mind of man….” seems to belong to yet another stage of Jeffers’ work with this material, when he considered using what he terms “Origin of the Moon” (Bennett used some of this material in her construction “The Great Wound”) as Part I of a sequence, with “The Beginning and the End” as Part II, and an unspecified unit as Part III.  The phrase “The mind of man….” seems to have been added specifically as the transition between Part II and whatever would have been Part III, which suggests Part III would have further explored and developed “mind” (CP 5: 884).

The exact sequence of Jeffers’ revisions and recastings of the ending of what Bennett titles “The Beginning and the End” cannot be determined with absolute certainty, but the general pattern is clear enough, and it indicates that Jeffers considered using the line “The mind of man….” only when he was considering it as part of a sequence.  The pattern also indicates that Jeffers intended the final six lines in Bennett’s construction to replace, rather than extend, the earlier ending.  The evidence, then, indicates that the poem should conclude:

                                     This is man’s mission:
To find and feel; all animal experience
Is a part of God’s life. He would be balanced and neutral
As a rock on the shore, but the red sunset-waves
Of life’s passions fling over him.
Slowly, perhaps, man may grow into it—
Do you think so? This villainous king of beasts, this deformed ape?—He has mind
And imagination, he might go far
And end in honor. The hawks are more heroic but man has a steeper mind,
Huge pits of darkness, high peaks of light,
You may calculate a comet’s orbit or the dive of a hawk, not a man’s mind. (CP 3: 434)

Or rather, the evidence indicates that this is the ending Jeffers had constructed when he set aside what Bennett titles “The Beginning and the End.”  Because neither the original handwritten draft nor the typescript is titled (and since Jeffers seems to have typed the material in order to keep revising it rather than to record a finished piece), we cannot know whether he considered this material a finished poem or even whether he considered it a “poem” at all, since he may have thought of it only as a unit toward an uncompleted sequence.  At best, what we can know is that Bennett’s composite ending obscures the way Jeffers developed two differently inflected conclusions to the material, opted for one over the other, and then set the material aside, expecting either to title it and type it up or to use it as a section in a sequence.

It should be noted, indeed emphasized, that a number of the poems in The Beginning and the End are ones that Jeffers clearly intended as poems in their own right, viewed as finished, and are largely free of textual questions or anomalies.  It can also be argued that Bennett’s interventions (such as completing fragments and combining related but discrete workings to construct a poem) yield pieces that convey Jeffers’ voice and perspective.  Readers of Jeffers have had, that is, good reasons to value this collection of his final work.  That said, the collection misrepresents the authority of the texts by failing to provide either a description of Bennett’s role as editor or the principles and procedures that guided her work.  And as well (as the above examples suggest), her constructions involve a number of errors and questionable decisions.  At the very least, it is clear that The Beginning and the End should not be used for critical reading or analysis.  For such work, the documenting of this material in The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers would be a better option:  The third and fourth volumes present the completed units as transcribed from the manuscripts, while the fifth volume delineates the manuscript histories, gathers transcriptions of preliminary drafts and related material, and provides sketches of the various narratives and long poems Jeffers projected, in a number of cases initiated, but never developed in this period.

In a sense, the primary texts for this material in The Collected Poetry coupled with the supporting material from the fifth volume provide the raw material from which each individual reader can construct Jeffers’ production in the years following Hungerfield.  Arguably, that is its value but also its limitation.  For the general reader wanting to appreciate these poems as poems, The Collected Poetry provides too much information and, in effect, asks the reader to consider textual histories and textual evidence as a preliminary to reading the poems or as follow up to reading the poems.  For the general reader, The Beginning and the End is a flawed presentation of the material in the archive, while The Collected Poetry, though a more accurate presentation, risks overwhelming the reader with a welter of contexts, alternate passages, and variants.  There is, then, arguably a need for a new edition of these late poems that would serve the more general reader and replace the now out of print The Beginning and the End.

The most obvious approach to replacing The Beginning and the End would be to preserve the collection Bennett assembled but correct her texts where they diverge from the manuscript sources.  Replacing “Bear” with “Beak” in “Vulture” and deleting the lines from the ending of “The Beginning and the End” that Bennett mistakenly carried into print would, indeed, be a simple matter, as would placing the titles she invented for untitled units in brackets to signal that they have been supplied by the editor.  Such corrections would improve the volume.  They would not, though, address the more fundamental issues that stem from, and are inherent in, the nature of the material.  These include what to do with the poems, such as “The Great Explosion,” that Bennett constructed by mixing and matching material from different drafts and fragments and what to do with the thematic groupings that she fashioned and titled as sections.  The manuscripts that document Jeffers’ production for the final nine years of his career are a mélange of pieces in various stages of completion that seem to have been composed for different purposes.  Some were intended as short poems.  Some were composed as Jeffers worked on or toward undeveloped narratives and sequences, and it is unclear which of these passages he came to regard as independent, short poems and which of them he viewed as discarded or as awaiting further development if he might find a way to continue developing the long project they were written for.

One could argue that the most scrupulous approach to a final collection would be to restrict the contents to those poems that Jeffers clearly viewed as independent, completed lyrics.  In such a collection, the authority for publishing the poems and for their textual details would be Jeffers’ own.  This, however, would yield a much slimmer volume, one that would include, for instance, “The Shears” but not the material Bennett titled “The Beginning and the End.”  The editorial dilemma, then, is this: for a collection of Jeffers’ late work to be fully authorial (in the sense of presenting the work we can reasonably determine Jeffers would have published in texts that embody only his decisions for the poem’s details), the collection would necessarily omit much important work.  Conversely, an edition that gathers this work in even a relatively comprehensive form and adequately conveys the status of the material (finished poem, fragment, a passage composed for an abandoned sequence, etc.) and documents the variant readings and alternate passages risks the limitation of The Collected Poetry—that of overwhelming the reader with the different configurations and developments of the material.  At one extreme, there is the edition as a garden shaded with some carefully pruned trees.  At the other extreme, there is the edition as a welter of trees.  Neither conveys the forest.


There is, I would suggest, no fully right and adequate answer to the editorial question[s] posed by Jeffers’ work in the years following Hungerfield.  Instead, there are possible answers in response to different purposes.  If the goal is to present the short poems Jeffers most likely viewed as finished, independent pieces, then an edition that would include many, but not all, of the poems Bennett used in The Beginning and the End with perhaps several that she set aside.  This hypothetical edition would omit the poems she constructed by combining parts of various manuscripts (such as “The Great Wound”) and pieces Jeffers may not have viewed as independent poems (such as the unit Bennett titled “The Beginning and the End”).  If the goal were to present both clearly finished poems along with the units that seem finished (whether or not Jeffers understood them as separate poems in their own right), one would add in “The Beginning and the End” as well as the units from which Bennett constructed such pieces as “The Great Wound” and “The Great Explosion.”   Such units would, though, be presented as intact, separate pieces rather than used as sources for composites.  The section Last Poems in Volume Three of The Collected Poetry illustrates this approach.  One downside of this strategy is that it necessarily involves some redundancy, since there is no way to determine, for example, whether Jeffers would have chosen “Explosion” or “The Great Explosion” (or neither) had he himself selected and organized a final collection.  This approach does, however, preserve the textual integrity of the manuscripts, and it more clearly documents the alternatives Jeffers considered as he worked at the various conceptions and occasions.

The problem with either of these approaches is that they fail (as does The Beginning and the End) to represent Jeffers’ attempts to develop a final long poem.  This obscures his hope that his final collection would feature a long poem as his prior collections had, and it obscures how some of the shorter pieces from this period are connected to the failed attempts to develop a long poem.  Unfortunately, the manuscripts that document Jeffers’ repeated attempts at a final long poem are primarily notes sketching various premises and possible lines of reflection for uncompleted meditative sequences, or they are sketches of possible scenes, situations, and characters in narratives.  And these workings are too incomplete and too provisional to publish as finished poems or even relatively self-contained fragments.

In The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers these notes and workings, which can for the most part be dated and sequenced, are incorporated into the discussion of the chronology of the late poems (CP 5: 120-36) or included in the textual histories for the material grouped as Last Poems in Volume Three (5: 852-936).  This approach allows documenting Jeffers’ efforts to compose a final long poem while showing something of how these efforts interwove with his composing of the shorter poems, but its primary function is to support scholarly and critical study.  It does not address the question of how one might construct an edition of the last poems that would more accurately represent the short poems and relatively finished pieces than The Beginning and the End does, while also presenting the very fragmentary, unfinished work toward a final long poem alongside the shorter pieces so that both would be fully available.

One option would be to present the completed short poems and passages as the body of the collection, followed by an essay that would selectively quote from the notes and sketches for the various long poems in order to characterize the nature and range of the projects and to document their importance to understanding Jeffers’ ambition for his final collection.  This strategy would allow for reading the completed short poems and completed shorter units (such as the material Bennett used for “The Beginning and the End”), while also providing a fuller sense of the context for the various shorter pieces and a basis for understanding that Jeffers may not have viewed some of the shorter pieces as units toward other projects rather than as poems in their own right.

At the moment there is little likelihood of a new edition of the poetry Jeffers wrote between submitting Hungerfield for publication and his death some nine years later.  Readers have two choices: The Beginning and the End (now out of print but generally available as a used book) or Volume Three of The Collected Poetry, perhaps with Volume Five for the supplementary material.  Perhaps for the moment all that can be hoped for is that readers of The Beginning and the End will consider that the poems in the collection are at times Jeffers’ poems and at times Bennett’s editorial constructions and that those who wish to study these poems and write about them will understand that the Beginning and the End, in spite of the clear presence of Jeffers’ voice and the appeal of the poems, is an inadequate and inappropriate source.


Works Cited

Bennett, Melba Berry.  Errors in The Beginning and the End by Robinson Jeffers.”  Robinson Jeffers Newsletter, no. 3, December 1963, p. 3.

Hunt, Tim.  “‘The Great Wound’ and the Problem of Reading The Beginning and the End.”  Robinson Jeffers Newsletter, no. 79, June 1991, pp. 18-25.

—, editor.  The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Three, 1938–1962.  Stanford UP,  1991.

—, editor.  The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Four, Poetry 1903–1920, Prose, and Unpublished Writings.  Stanford UP, 2000.

—. editor.  The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume Five, Textual Evidence and Commentary. Stanford UP, 2001.

Jeffers, Robinson.  The Beginning and the End and Other Poems.  Random House, 1963.



[1] Bennett published two biographies of Jeffers, Robinson Jeffers and the Sea (Gelber, Lilienthal, 1936) and The Stone Mason of Tor House: The Life and Work of Robinson Jeffers (Ward Ritchie P, 1966).

[2] The first printing of The Beginning and the End differs from subsequent printings in various details that should, plausibly, have been resolved in the galley and page proofs.  It is likely that the proofs were sent to Donnan Jeffers at Tor House rather than to Bennett and that he (lacking Bennett’s typescripts) had no basis for correcting what were plausible, but flawed readings.  Random House, at Bennett’s request, corrected these errors in later printings, and she included an inventory of them in the third issue of Robinson Jeffers Newsletter (December 1963), available on line at

[3] See “‘The Great Wound’ and the Problem of Reading The Beginning and the End” for a detailed account of how Bennett drew on these separate but related pieces to construct her text.  The article appeared originally in the Robinson Jeffers Newsletter and is also available online:



The Beginning and the End
The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

The left column lists the poems by their titles in The Beginning and the End.  The right column lists the poems by their titles in The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers.  In The Collected Poetry, untitled poems and passages are listed by the opening phrase of the first line in quotation marks.  It should also be noted that the section Last Poems in Volume Three of The Collected Poetry includes several poems that Bennett overlooked or decided not to include.

SERIES I.   The Root of All Things
The Great Explosion                                       Explosion & The Great Explosion1
The Beginning and the End                           “The unformed volcanic earth”
The Great Wound                                           “At the near approach of a star” &
“The mathematicians and physics men.”2
Passenger Pigeons                                          Passenger Pigions
Ode to Hengist and Horsa                              Ode to Hengist and Horsa
Star-Swirls                                                       “The polar ice-caps are melting”
Unnatural Powers                                           “For fifty thousand years”
End of the World                                             End of the World

SERIES II.   Do You Still Make War?
Do You Still Make War?                                “I saw a regiment of soldiers”
The Epic Stars                                                The Epic Stars
Monument                                                      Monument
Prophets                                                          The Urchin3
To Kill in War Is Not Murder                        To Kill in War Is Not Murder
How Beautiful It Is                                         “It flows out of mystery”
Birth and Death                                              Birth and Death
The Beautiful Captive                                    The Beautiful Captive

SERIES III.   Memoranda
Let Them Alone                                              Let Them Alone
To the Story-Tellers                                       To the Story-Tellers
Eager to Be Praised                                       “Goethe, they say, was a great poet”
On an Anthology of Chinese Poems            On an Anthology of Chinese Poems
Tear Life to Pieces                                          “Eagle and hawk with their great claws”
Believe History                                               “I think we are the ape’s children”4
Full Moon                                                       “Our eyes by day are good enough
“The Dog in the Sky                                        The Dog in the Sky
The Monstrous Drought                                [not included]5
Oysters                                                            Oysters
Savagely Individual                                        “Heavy and yellow with the clay wrack
The Silent Shepherds                                    “What’s the best life”
Storm Dance of the Sea Gulls                      “The storm blowing up”
My Loved Subject                                          “Old age hath clawed me”
He Is All                                                          “There is no God but God”
Look, How Beautiful                                     “There is this infinite energy”

SERIES IV:   Autobiographical
Patronymic                                                      Patronymic
Fierce Music                                                   “All night long”
Harder than Granite                                        “It is a pity the shock-waves”
Cremation                                                       “It nearly cancels my fear of death”
Granddaughter                                                Granddaughter
Nightpiece                                                       Nightpiece
Vulture                                                             Vulture
Salvage                                                            Salvage
But I Am Growing Old and Indolent            “I have been warned”
Hand                                                                Hand
See the Human Figure                                  “As the eye fails”
My Burial Place                                             “I have told you in another poem”
Ghost                                                               Ghost

APPENDIX:   Three Uncollected Poems
Animula                                                           Animula
The Shears                                                     The Shears
Birds and Fishes                                            Birds and Fishes

  1. The material Bennett presents as “The Great Explosion” in The Beginning and the End combines units from two separate but related pieces: “Explosion” and “The Great Explosion.”
  2. The material Bennett presents as “The Great Wound” is an amalgam of two untitled pieces: “At the near approach of a star” and “The mathematicians and physics men.”
  3. Bennett drew the last eleven lines of what she titled “Prophets” from “The Urchin.” She drew the first seven lines from this handwritten fragment:

      Mantis eim’ esthlwn Agonon. (Prophets)
μαντιs ειμ εοθλων χγωυωυ. (from Eschylus and Shelley)

The dynamite craters at Fort Ord where they train soldiers; and the howling jet-planes
Tearing the sky over this quiet countryside, shaking the mountain
When one of them over-passes the speed of sound;
The roaring factories these monsters come from; the snoring voice of huge Asia
Waking from sleep; the hidden and deadly struggles for power in unholy Russia;
The metal seeds of unearthly violence stored in neat rows on shelves, waiting the day:
Our prophets forecast an unquiet future.

Jeffers’ handwriting means that the phrase in Greek is somewhat conjectural.  This rendering of it translates to “I am the prophet of noble struggles.”  (My thanks to Karen Diller, Washington State University Library for the transcription, transliteration, and translation.)

  1. The passage that Bennett titles “Believe History” is an untitled fragment that breaks off mid-phrase. In The Collected Poetry it appears in the section Unpublished Poems and Fragments in Volume Four rather than in the section Last Poems in Volume Three.
  2. The lines that Bennett titled “The Monstrous Drought” is a fragment and appears to be the opening passage for a narrative that Jeffers abandoned after these five lines:

Little green tree-frogs—they are less than half the size of my thumb—
Pervade the place with their croaking prophecies.
What they say is “Rain, rain! Here it is, just at hand,
Come and make love.” Little fools: this
Is the monstrous drought; it has not rained since last winter and now’s Christmas again

These lines are included in Volume Five of The Collected Poetry in Appendix B that reviews the contents of Jeffers’ original collection.