The Problematic Nature of Tamar and Other Poems

[This essay appeared originally in Robinson Jeffers: Centennial Essays, Ed. Robert Zaller.  Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1991.  85-106, and is an expanded version of “A Voice in Nature: Jeffers’ Tamar and Other Poems,” which appeared originally in American Literature, 61.2 (1989):  230-44.]

The work of Robinson Jeffers presents a curious mixture of conservative and radical elements.  Stylistically, Jeffers paid little attention to the experiments associated with modernism.  Although he abandoned rhyme sometime in 1920, his work is often descriptive and, by modernist standards, discursive and didactic.  Worse, he chose to write narrative poems (a genre most professional readers had already judged oxymoronic—in spite of the then still recent example of E. A. Robinson).  But even his contemporaries recognized that Jeffers was not simply a Victorian without rhyme.  The violence of the narratives, the startling descriptions of California’s Big Sur coast, and the judgments of contemporary politics and events were too unorthodox for that—too nihilistic as some would have it.

Not surprisingly, commentators have tended to stress Jeffers’ content more than his style and form and to treat his work in isolation from his modernist contemporaries.  The relative importance of Nietzche and Schopenhauer as antecedents for the “philosophy” of the major narratives has been one line of study.[1]  The structural and thematic role of myth and ritual has been another.[2]  And the relationship of Jeffers’ own psychology to his religious and poetic vision yet another.[3]  (Jeffers’ ecological vision has also attracted some comment and will most likely attract more.)  Technical studies have been written of such matters as Jeffers’ metric and his use of alliteration, but these discussions have tended to be relatively brief and have seldom considered the conceptual and thematic implications of Jeffers’ choices.[4]  They have not, that is, defined how his poetic—his orientation toward language and the making of poems—directs the writing and, by extension, our reading, so much as they have described aspects of his practice.

In part I want to suggest that this tendency to ignore the stylistic issues of Jeffers’ practice parallels our tendency to isolate him from his period and his contemporaries.  More, though, I want to sketch an aspect of his poetic and its implications.  In particular, I want to consider how the emerging sense of the nature of “nature” in the work of the early 1920s combined with Jeffers’ emerging sense of style to define what might be termed his voice, how the dynamics of this voice help clarify his vision, and how the conflicts within this voice suggest the specific terms of Jeffers’ modernity (and its implications for understanding his place in modern poetry).


Tamar and Other Poems (1924) is the key source for studying these matters.  After two unsuccessful, imitative volumes (Flagons and Apples of 1912 and Californians of 1916), the singular Tamar quickly established Jeffers’ reputation.  But although Tamar marks the emergence of Jeffers’ mature style and vision, it is not a unified collection and reflects at least two distinctly different styles of work.  Perhaps a third of the work (like the apprentice volumes and apparently dating from 1917-19) is cast in rhyme, stanzas, and traditional meters.  The remainder (likely written 1920-23) is unrhymed, organized as verse paragraphs of varying length, and often cast in long, accentual lines. The traditional work is generally tentative and self-conscious; the unrhymed work generally forceful and assured; and this disparity has contributed to the impression that Jeffers’ mature work emerged, essentially fully developed, when he abandoned rhyme.[5]

Viewed this way, Tamar becomes two collections: the last apprentice work, mature work, and little or nothing in between.  And Jeffers’ later suggestion that his poetic transformation stemmed from a kind of visionary moment or awakening has helped reinforce this impression.[6]  Jeffers, though, dates this visionary moment as approximately 1914, not only well prior to abandoning rhyme but prior to Californians as well.  Important as the episode is, it took Jeffers some years of meditation and experiment to realize its implications in actual work.  Another factor has also contributed to the sense of Tamar as two collections.  When Jeffers assembled it, he arranged the work with little regard for chronology, which highlights the dichotomy between rhymed and unrhymed work but also obscures the more subtle formal and thematic gradations of the unfolding project.[7]  The probable chronology shows that Jeffers’ work continued to evolve in fundamental ways through at least 1923 as he explored different definitions of nature and different equations between nature and the human world.  As such, Jeffers’ decision to abandon rhyme marks the beginning of his poetic maturation, not its realization.


The earliest unrhymed poems in Tamar, “The Maid’s Thought” and “Divinely Superfluous Beauty,” likely date from spring or summer 1920, as does “The Excesses of God,” collected in Be Angry at the Sun (1941).  A triptych in several early tables of contents, the poems are stylistically and tonally related (and were likely written within days of each other).[8]  Each evokes nature as a positive force.  “The Maid’s Thought,” for example, opens,

Why listen, even the water is sobbing for something.
The west wind is dead, the waves
Forget to hate the cliff, in the upland canyons
Whole hillsides burst aglow
With golden broom.[9]

And it concludes with the maid’s assertion, “it is time … to entangle our maiden bodies / To make that burning flower.”  To the extent that nature here frees the maid’s erotic energy and makes her (or allows her to imagine becoming) a part of nature, the poem anticipates Jeffers’ later practice.  The poem, though, personifies nature to validate human experience, not to evoke nature’s own meaning or comprehensiveness. However attractive the portrait, it subordinates nature to human desire, human meaning, and treats it as a metaphor to express the human situation.  Similarly, the “storm-dances of gulls, the barking game of seals” in “Divinely Superfluous Beauty” serve primarily to give meaning to human “joy,” though this poem subordinates nature less clearly than “The Maid’s Thought” (p. 4).

Of the three, “The Excesses of God” comes closest to projecting nature as an independent reality, but even here nature is secondary.  It exists to mediate between the poem’s primary figures, God and man:

Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain …
And make the necessary embrace of breeding
Beautiful also as fire …
There is the great humaneness at the heart of things. (p. 4)

Nature is God’s expression to man, God’s language, but the language is secondary to the message, to who speaks, and to who listens.

The next poem, “To the Stone-Cutters” (fall 1920), is seemingly a major shift from the previous three.  It begins to show more clearly what would become Jeffers’ typical accentual measure and cadence, and it stresses, like later poems, man’s insignificance and the relative impermanence of both man and natural objects.  But for all its stark imagery of stone and erosion, this poem, too, emphasizes the human world more than nature.  It differs from “The Maid’s Thought” in tone, but not logic.  In spite of the way it contrasts human action and natural process and in spite of the way it argues that nature, though itself decaying, will endure longer than either individuals or the human race, the poem’s concern is finally stone-cutters, weathered monuments, and their significance for human imagination, and it emphasizes the way imagination largely sets the human world apart from nature and to that slight extent offers to redeem it.  Although earth and man will both “die” and the imagination cannot change this, the imagination can create works that more nearly approximate nature’s endurance than can an individual, and these offer some relief from “pained thoughts” of mortality.  The poem, then, centers on what imagination does or doesn’t offer in the face of mortality, and nature is again a means (not end) to express what is specifically human.  (Significantly, in “To the Stone-Cutters,” the human realm colors the language that describes the natural: “For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun / Die blind, his heart blackening.[10]  Even as nature reveals the pathos of human imagination, the imagination projects this pathos back onto nature itself.)

“To the Stone-Cutters” gives nature less prominence as a source of value than “The Maid’s Thought” and its companion pieces.  But if this makes it seem further from Jeffers’ later work, its emphasis on human limits, decay, and endurance conversely seems more typical.  In spite of these differences, though, the four similarly weight the equation between man and nature toward the human world (even as they try out complementary aspects of the aesthetic to come) and in this sense mark a specific stage in Jeffers’ emerging aesthetic in which nature becomes an end in itself, not a means, and where the human figures serve to express nature’s structures and qualities, not the other way around.


In the second stage of unrhymed work, Jeffers began to subsume human life to nature, and not the reverse.  And it is this shift in emphasis—even more than abandoning rhyme—that points to his mature aesthetic.  The shift first appears in “Salmon Fishing” (likely written December 1920):

The days shorten, the south blows wide for showers now,
The south wind shouts to the rivers,
The rivers open their mouths and the salt salmon
Race up into the freshet.
In Christmas month against the smoulder and menace
Of a long angry sundown,
Red ash of the dark solstice, you see the anglers (p. 6)

Here, the personifications highlight nature’s own dynamic more than humanize it.  This wind “shouts,” but its message and the rivers’ open mouths point to the landscape as natural action, not its human-like qualities.  Similarly, the human figures here become elements of landscape, of nature.  They are no longer foreground, no longer a separate category.  In “Salmon Fishing,” nature itself is the subject; human meaning and action reflect and derive from it, not in isolation from it.  The poem figures nature as an organism comprehending human life as one of its many elements (albeit a particularly problematic one).

In “Salmon Fishing” the human world can evoke and to some degree express nature but not control or explain it.  As such, this use of the “pathetic fallacy” (if the term applies) enhances rather than lessens nature’s otherness (and the animation of nature that such imagery implies foreshadows contemporary ecological thought).  “Natural Music” (likely written a few months later) further clarifies this new perspective:

The old voice of the ocean, the bird-chatter of little rivers,
(Winter has given them gold for silver
To stain their water and bladed green for brown to line their banks)
From different throats intone one language.
So I believe if we were strong enough to listen without
Divisions of desire and terror
To the storm of the sick nations, the rage of the hunger-smitten cities,
Those voices also would be found
Clean as a child’s; or like some girl’s breathing who dances alone By the ocean-shore, dreaming of lovers. (p. 6)

As in “Salmon Fishing” the human figures and the details of nature’s landscape are here a single category, and Jeffers’ later comments (from 1947) about composing the poem underscore this equation:

I was by the mouth of the Carmel River in early spring, and noticed that the little flood-stream, on its rocks in the broken sand-bar, was making exactly the same song that the ocean was making on all the shores of the bay; the same pitch, the same accents.  This was in 1920 or ’21, when fear and famine and civil war were abroad in the world as they are at present; and the two sides of nature, the human and the “elemental,” both natural, came together in my mind and made the verses.[11]

The throats of birds, rivers, and ocean all express “nature,” but (the poem implies) viewing individual life and the life of societies as separate, self-generating, and self-defining (rather than as each limited facets of the more comprehensive organism nature) divides experience into false categories.  When this happens we fail to “listen” and, by implication, we either lose voice altogether or our voice loses validity.  (Significantly, the human comes closest to a voice in this poem when it sets aside voice in the usual sense and dances its desire without thought.)

Jeffers seems to have realized that “Salmon Fishing” and “Natural Music” initiated a new direction in his work, but for several months, perhaps a year, his writing only partly realized this new direction.  “Consciousness” (an uncollected group of sonnets), for instance, explores the problem evoked by the figure of the woman dancing: that of a consciousness that alienates us from nature even as it makes beauty available to contemplation, but its formality and diction mark it as a regression, even as thematically it anticipates later work.  “Age in Prospect,” another poem omitted from Tamar, tries “to listen without / Divisions of desire and terror” (p. 9), but it and “Wise Men in Their Bad Hours” deny rather than accept and as such regress to the attitudes of such early pieces as “Promise of Peace” and “Suicide’s Stone,” even as they recover something of “Natural Music’s” line and cadence.

The clearest example of Jeffers’ uncertainty in this period is “To the Rock that Will Be a Cornerstone of the House.”  In it, the speaker pours “Wine and white milk and honey” on a rock, inviting his “old comrade” to trade its “stone strength of the past” for his “wings of the future” (p. 11).  This improvised ritual, though, falls short of “Natural Music’s” vision of a comprehensive, living nature, except for one image: the rock’s “Wing-prints of ancient weathers.[12]  Here, weather is implicitly a giant bird acting on the life of stone, a transaction that contrasts with the speaker’s own posing elsewhere in the poem and which suggests that Jeffers’ was searching out his new direction by trial and error, not abandoning it.

By early 1922 Jeffers had sufficiently clarified his new poetics of nature to begin using it all but programmatically.  “Not Our Good Luck,” for instance, notes how “the ancienter simple and silent tribe of the stars / Filed” above the “filth of Babylon” and then claims that the same “God who walks lightning­ naked on the Pacific [and] has never been hidden from any” can also be “Espied … in the eyes of a temple harlot” (p. 12).  Although the images stress the human realm more than those in “Natural Music,” they express the human as a dimension of the natural; nature is again a single reality rather than a series of discrete realities (a single reality that includes the diseased societies that ignore this fact and thereby become diseased).  Similarly, “The Cycle” portrays human migrations and historical cycles as natural, rather than historical, actions, and “Shine, Perishing Republic” (also written at this time) applies the same perspective to the nation’s growth and decay.  Finally, “Continent’s End,” from late winter or early spring 1922, expands the rhythms of earthly nature—along with those of poem, birth, and human history—into figures for the more encompassing rhythms of stars and universe, the “tides of fire,” “the older fountain.” (p. 17)[13]

The view of nature in “Salmon Fishing” and the poems that followed it shows how sharply Jeffers’ assumptions had come to differ from those of his modernist contemporaries.  Charles Altieri has traced “the assumptions and concerns” that “generate” modernism back to two distinct but related modes of romanticism: an immanentist mode typified by early Wordsworth and a symbolist mode typified by Coleridge.[14]  He suggests that the modernists, faced with “Victorian attacks on attributing any moral or teleological functions to nature,” almost inevitably rejected Wordsworth’s faith in the poet’s ability to discover value in the natural world and ordinary experience and elected instead the symbolist impulse with its allegiance to “the creative mind as the source of value.”[15]  In short, the modernists, rather than accept the flux and conflict of post-Darwinian nature as a source of value, based their practice on “the ideal of creative culture,” not “the force of creative nature.”[16]  Jeffers, though, had come to take “the force of creative nature” as the basis of his work in spite, of the position’s inherent difficulty.

The logic of Jeffers’ adaptation of the dormant Wordsworthian mode to the unWordsworthian view of nature he’d inherited from modern science is particularly apparent in “Continent’s End,” the concluding poem of Tamar’s second stage of unrhymed work.[17]  In it nature is both an immediate manifestation—the Pacific Ocean, the “mother” from which we came—and an ultimate dimension of process (“tides of fire”) that comprehends the lesser rhythms of ocean and individual human life:

               … you have forgotten us, mother.
You were much younger when we crawled out of the womb and lay in the sun’s eye on the tideline….

The tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars, life is your child, but there is in me
Older and harder than life and more impartial, the eye that watched before there was an ocean….

Mother, though my song’s measure is like your surf-beat’s ancient rhythm I never learned it of you.
Before there was any water there were tides of fire, both our tones flow from the older fountain. (pp. 16-17)

The poem assumes the nature of modern science: the human species is one phenomenon unfolding “naturally” among others.  But simultaneously the poem gives this nature “moral or teleological” implications in two ways:  First, it projects the “tides of fire” (though these are also literally descriptive) as an overarching analogy that unifies nature’s more immediate, earthly aspects and its cosmic phenomena.  Second, it simultaneously defines nature as “the eye that watched,” thereby transforming nature into a kind of sentient being: a divine organism that is both the process of destruction and renewal and the awareness of that process.  While the figure of process (“tides of fire”) gives the poem its unmistakably modern quality, the second figure, the figure of nature’s awareness (“the eye that watched”), recovers nature as a creative force that can reveal (when contemplated properly) meaningful ways (to borrow Altieri’s phrase) to “participat[e] in objective laws.”[18]

In “Continent’s End” the interplay between the perspectives of individual, species, earthly nature, and universe help make the poem’s metaphors compelling, but the metaphors themselves point to the inherent duality in Jeffers’ nature, its status as process and awareness of process.  They also point to his sense that only nature, in its ultimate sense, is fully and simultaneously both.  For Jeffers, this seems to be nature’s divinity, which the speaker can approach but not fully realize.  To imitate nature, the human speaker must accept his destruction in that “older fountain” of fire even as he struggles to transcend that flux sufficiently to contemplate it; similarly his transcending glimpses of beauty and joy will have meaning only if they remain yoked to the conflict of a process that ends in death (and to that extent fail to be transcending moments), since these moments are from this perspective necessarily the product of process and the escape from it.  The human condition, then, contributes to nature’s divinity but fails to realize it: as process, the human figure is only a limited moment in time and space; more significantly, human consciousness allows one only to be fully process or fully awareness of process—not both simultaneously.  These modes of being alternate, or when simultaneous, exist partially and in conflict with each other.  As such, man is always at least partially alienated from himself and from nature—neither fully process nor awareness—though his imagination can posit the simultaneity and wholeness of a nature which is fully both and create the illusion of that simultaneity in such products as poems.


The third stage of unrhymed work in Tamar is a single long narrative, the title poem, and its emphasis on a violent, introverted human world is in some ways a radical departure from the exploration of a poetics of nature begun in “Salmon Fishing.” In part “Tamar” is a return to an earlier stage of Jeffers’ work.[19]  Californians included narratives, and from 1917 to 1919 Jeffers drafted several more, which he chose, with one exception, to leave unpublished.[20]  The earlier narratives were relatively unsuccessful, in part because Jeffers was unable to find suitably flexible rhythmic, metrical, and stanzaic schemes, and his abrupt shift to unrhymed lyrics in 1920 was likely in part a reaction to (and recognition of) this problem.  It’s not surprising, then, that Jeffers was apparently ambivalent at first about setting the lyrics aside to return to narrative.  The earliest notes for “Tamar’ (on the same sheet as the manuscript for “Continent’s End” and apparently contemporaneous with it) conclude with the exclamation, “My last story!”[21]  But whether or not Jeffers initially recognized it, the logic of his recent lyric work made narrative a plausible direction.

Although the lyrics of 1921-22, especially “Continent’s demonstrate that the flux of modern nature could serve as a source of value (and that a modern poetry could affirm what might be termed creative acts of perception without regressing nostalgically to an earlier view of nature), these poems only partly explore what they evoke.  Their reliance on a single meditating speaker observing a single scene restricts Jeffers’ portrayal of human action—human process—to what can be glimpsed from the outside.  Correspondingly, this restricts his treatment of the relationship between human process and awareness.  Thus, these poems of the second stage often have a static quality.  Each presents a tableau or a meditation on a tableau.  “Salmon Fishing” shows men fishing but not their awareness of it; “Continent’s End” enacts the awareness but does so by abstracting the speaker from the process that produced the meditation, thereby obscuring or muting (and repressing) the implications of his own status as an object within nature.

Narrative offered a way beyond these limitations, though Jeffers’ sense of this was likely more implicit than explicit when he veered off to begin “Tamar.”  Jeffers may also have sensed that his vision of nature in the recent lyrics offered an alternative explanation for the failures of the early narratives.  He may, that is, have seen that they failed less from their formal problems than their confused treatment of nature as a context and value.  The early narratives at times cast nature as a source of human norms but did so by regressing to a kind of pre-Darwinian view that was finally sentimental and unconvincing.  The early narratives that attempted to portray the flux and violence of the nature of modern science were more “modern,” but the characters in them violate society’s patterns only to discover nature has no interest in their affairs and that society (with its own seemingly arbitrary and unconnected logics) was unlikely to discover or punish their behavior.  These poems escape sentimentality only to drift toward a nihilistic vision where the structures of nature are either unknowable or irrelevant to human meaning and being.

In “Tamar,” though, Jeffers came to treat his characters and their actions (even their violence and introversion) as elements of nature.[22]  As in the recent lyrics he viewed the human figures as expressions of the landscape’s force and structure, but rather than treat these relationships as a tableau, he set them in motion.  By assuming that his characters exemplified nature’s physical immediacy and process—while yet partially reflecting or refracting its inherent being and consciousness—he could, that is, turn narrative into an extended exploration of the duality of “tides of fire” and “the eye that watched.”  As such, his narratives became a series of situations that forced human figures to act as natural force and process while simultaneously confronting—or struggling to avoid—their consciousness of nature and self.  In this way narrative action became a means for exploring what might be termed the natural status of human action and the implications of this for human consciousness, especially consciousness of nature.


The final stage of lyric work collected in Tamar clarifies “Tamar’s” importance (and perhaps its necessity) for Jeffers’ attempt to shape an aesthetic that would express the nature of modern science as a source of value.  Although he seems to have been primarily concerned with narrative in the months after “Tamar,” Jeffers did draft a few shorter pieces spring and summer 1923, and these differ significantly, if subtly, from the lyrics written before “Tamar.”[23]  They show that the work with narrative had actually made nature a more problematic image and had led as well to a more active and dramatic sense of the lyric speaker’s role.

In the lyrics of 1921-22 the speaker, having discovered nature’s drama, posits its unity and transcends his own transience by identifying with it.  The speaker’s interaction with the scene is largely implicit and precedes the poem’s action. After “Tamar” the lyrics assume nature’s drama as a starting point, but the speaker must then struggle to clarify his place in it.  In these later poems, the speaker interacts with the scene as the poem unfolds, which shifts attention from nature’s drama to the speaker’s drama of meditation, which, among other things, transforms lyric and narrative into complementary modes of a single aesthetic of process.  The difference between them becomes a matter of scale and emphasis.  In one, the speaker explores his own consciousness; in the other, the consciousness of his fictional inventions.  In both, though, the speaker confronts the problematic status of human consciousness.

“Point Joe” illustrates these developments. Like the earlier lyrics, it begins with a specific scene, but this description emphasizes objects, not actions, which (oddly) makes landscape a less static presence than in the earlier poems where nature’s processes suggest a kind of timeless recurrence.  In “Point Joe,” the objects indicate a world where things change as much as they recur and where, at least at the human level, recurrence and change are experienced as conflict.  “Point Joe’s” opening verbs underscore its difference from the earlier work.  In the 1921-22 poems, active verbs and simple tenses typically intensify the landscape’s presence as action; in “Point Joe” passive voice, perfect tenses, and participles emphasize the objects’ presence as objects.  Additionally, Jeffers places the landscape’s actions in the past. The point, strewn with “spars and planks,” has “torn ships”; its pines are “wind-bitten”; “the flat sea-meadows … were plated / Golden with the low flower called footsteps of the spring, million of flowerets, // Whose light suffused upward into the fog flooded its vault” (p. 90).[24]  These choices (whatever we make of the light) stress the present as an unfolding where some things recur (spring flowers) for a time while others (trees and ships) are altered or destroyed, and it makes nature a text, a history inscribed in the trees and debris, that the speaker must read and interpret.

Significantly, the only action in the present is human action.  The two verbs, “saw” and “wandered,” that control the first four couplets describe the speaker, not nature, and both suggest his active (if initially undirected) role.  The speaker’s full stake in the scene emerges in the middle couplet of nine when he notes an “old Chinaman gathering seaweed from the sea-rocks” (p. 90).  The participle “gathering” leaves open whether this “gleaning” figure is part of the speaker’s active (if wandering) human present or part of nature’s recurring, yet not recurring process.  And this ambiguity defines “Point Joe’s” difference from the lyrics of 1921-22.  When human figures occur (other than the speaker) in the earlier pieces, they demonstrate nature’s inclusiveness.  As details of landscape, their will or consciousness is not an issue for the speaker or reader.  In “Point Joe, ” however, our status in nature and the status of consciousness are questions.  Nature is a problematic text, and the “old Chinaman,” human yet seemingly timeless in his act of “gathering,” confronts the speaker with his own ambiguous status, thereby raising the question of how consciousness affects our participation in nature:

One other moved there, an old Chinaman gathering seaweed from the sea-rocks
He brought it in his basket and spread it flat to dry on the edge of the meadow.

Permanent things are what is needful in a poem, things temporally
Of great dimension, things continually renewed or always present.

Grass that is made each year equals the mountains in her past and future;
Fashionable and momentary things we need not see nor speak of.

Man gleaning food between the solemn presences of land and ocean,
On shores where better men have shipwrecked, under fog and among flowers,

Equals the mountains in his past and future; that glow from the earth was only
A trick of nature’s, one must forgive nature a thousand graceful subtleties. (pp. 90-91)

In the poem gleaner and poet are complementary, and their interplay again demonstrates Jeffers’ sense that one cannot both contemplate and fully be nature.  As object, the “gleaner” is process but not awareness.  Conversely, the speaker, the poet, enacts consciousness but thereby separates himself from the permanence he celebrates.  He can imitate “the eye that watched,” but the power that makes him aware of nature’s issues isolates him in his own watching and mortality.  Nature, thus, leaves us neither fully acting object nor knowing subject.  Only nature can fully know and be the beauty at the same time.  Only nature is fully knowing and doing.  Its unity of expression and consciousness, of object and subject, is beyond comprehension (in both the usual and root sense of the word).  For us, its temporary and contingent manifestations, nature’s fullness of being—its unfolding completion, its un-unified unity—is as inscrutable as any deity.

In a sense the 1921-22 lyrics look at the answers nature offers, while “Point Joe” looks at the questions it poses and finds nature’s beauty a paradoxical “trick”: a temptation to fall into an individual consciousness that chains us to mortality, yet is our grace-full link to nature’s recurrence.  This shift in what can be known undercuts the speaker’s authority.  In an earlier piece like “Continent’s End” the speaker can assert what is and address nature as “you”; in “Point Joe” the speaker can only speculate about what “is.”  (If “Point Joe” has a “you,” it is the speaker’s silent companion, invoked at one point by “we,” or the reader, cast at another point as “one.”)  But this shift in what can be known also enhances the speaker’s presence as a dramatic character by stressing his attempt to know, affirm, and cope.  It alters the emphasis from nature in and of itself to the problematic emphasis found in the narratives from “Tamar” forward—the problematic of consciousness within nature.

“Point Joe,” then, stands as a kind of Janus-poem.  It gathers the aesthetic strands that had been emerging in conjunction with Jeffers’ sense of nature through the stages of unrhymed work in Tamar, and it anticipates their future exploration.  It also suggests reasons for such staples of Jeffers’ mature practice as his emphasis on “permanent things,” his willingness to resort to explicit, even didactic, statement, and his penchant for a dramatized speaking voice when others of his generation were seeking to discourage the reader from identifying the poem’s “voice” with the poet’s. [25]  First, “Fashionable and momentary things” offer no insight into nature’s organism and moreover are likely to distract us from the way nature’s larger mystery grounds our individual consciousness.  Second, “Point Joe’s” explicit claims and statements have to be read as part of its overall dramatic development.  They (though Jeffers means them as “true”) play against each other to evoke anomalies that outstrip language but that we must try to intuit—just as the poem’s speaker tries to read the truths of nature’s text to intuit what he cannot hope to grasp fully.  And this in turn suggests why Jeffers would retain the illusion of a speaking voice (even in the narratives where the first-person interpolations call attention to the narrator’s stake in his tale).  If consciousness is the individual’s curse and blessing and its paradox something necessarily experienced as an individual, then one must explore and testify individually.  This voice, though, suggests neither confession nor dramatic monologue, since it must be stripped as much as possible of the “temporary things” that mark personality and must be generated as much as possible from the dimensions of self that are permanent and of nature.  The version of self, then, in the mature lyrics is not a personality, a Jeffers egocentric enough to believe he has answers to preach, but a self that struggles to assume the role of a voice in nature which would, by virtue of becoming part of nature, speak with an authority prior to and beyond ego—would be, that is, one “voice” among the many and able for that reason to “intone[the] one language”(“Natural Music”).


In some ways the four stages of unrhymed work in Tamar confirm (even as they complicate) a common model for Jeffers’ career, in which he discovers a way beyond the conflicts of the politics and history (and the confusions of his own political poems from the first world war and shortly after) by assuming nature as his subject and authority (at the point he abandons rhyme).  The impetus of this new vision and style then carries him well into the 1930s, when the drift toward a second world war draws him back to explicitly political and historical themes (and a body of less successful work).  This scenario suggests that Jeffers’ best and most typical work rests on an antithesis between nature and history (or nature and politics), and nature (at least when understood as the simultaneity of “tides of fire” and the “eye that watched”) becomes the measure of other categories of experience.  Nature, that is, is either beyond history and free of it, or rather nature subsumes and redeems history (for example, “Natural Music” and “Shine, Perishing Republic”).  Although partly right, this view underestimates the importance of history and politics—even in the early 1920s when Jeffers was most concerned with a poetry of nature—and posits nature, history, and politics as overly discrete and stable categories.  Here, too, the specific evolution of Tamar complicates our picture, and it’s at this point that the dialectical interplay between Jeffers’ project and various modernist projects can be glimpsed.

In the years after Californians Jeffers apparently considered a number of groupings for publication (and submitted at least one) before settling on the form of Tamar and Other Poems.[26]  The surviving tables of contents for these intermediate collections suggest each built from a cluster of poems from 1916-20 (some in Tamar as published) and that Jeffers progressively added the lyrics of 1920-22.[27]  The first table to include “Tamar,” though, breaks this pattern.  Instead of simply adding the most recent work (and paring some of the least recent), it shows that Jeffers deleted recent work (including pieces eventually in Tamar) while adding several explicitly political and historical poems he’d long discarded and would never actually publish.[28]  Moreover, he used these specific poems (written during and about the first world war) to frame “Tamar,” not his more recent nature lyrics.  In other words, Jeffers at first contextualized “Tamar” as a political poem, even though Tamar’s incest and destruction of herself and those around her is in no way explicitly political.

Jeffers’ choice of context may reflect his sense that the violence of war would make “Tamar’s” violence seem less excessive.  Or he may have considered “story” (at least at this point) as inextricably bound to the world of politics and history he’d seemingly set aside when he began “The Maid’s Thought” and the unrhymed lyrics that followed it.  (It may be worth noting that “The Coast-Range Christ,” the last and only rhymed narrative from 1917-19 included in Tamar, is—like “Tamar”—set during the first world war and that its plot hinges specifically on whether or not to fight in the conflict.)  But either explanation calls attention to the vision /dream that several characters experience independently and that imagistically equates the imploding violence of the Cauldwells to what “Tamar” represents as the simultaneously imploding violence of Europe.[29]  These scenes do not preclude reading the poem (as many have done) as an exploration of the mythological or philosophical or psychological implications of our human place in nature (or lack thereof), but they do suggest that for Jeffers the Cauldwell’s tragedy at some level expresses (and is at another caused by) the political and that readings of the poem need to account for this dimension and the equation it implies between “nature” (including the psychology of the individual and the dynamics of the family as a kind of organism) on the one side and “history” and “politics” on the other.  It should be noted that similar scenes and explanations occur in the other narratives of the 1920s, most importantly in The Women at Point Sur(1927).

Jeffers’ treatment of the lyric “Shine, Perishing Republic” also suggests the importance of this equation.  It assumes (like other 1921-22 lyrics) a nature of conflict and process.  It is also, though, explicitly political and portrays historical process as a kind of natural process, in which the human task becomes finding the proper way (the proper consciousness with which) to regard both history and nature as figures of the more comprehensive process of growth and decay.  Written about the same time as “Continent’s End,” it was added to the collection along with that poem, “Tamar,” and “The Murmansk Landing” and “The Dance of the Banner” (the early war poems that initially framed “Tamar”).  Not surprisingly, Jeffers omitted both these early poems from Tamar, but surprisingly he omitted “Shine, Perishing Republic” along with them, even though a year later he’d add this to his newest work as part of the “Roan Stallion” grouping in Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1925).[30]

“Shine, Perishing Republic” itself points to the importance for Jeffers of a kind of equation between nature, history, and politics, but his uncertainty about whether to print it (along with his shifting sense of how to contextualize “Tamar”) suggests that late in his work on Tamar his sense of these categories was not yet firmly fixed.  Here again Jeffers’ post-Darwinian sense of nature may be a factor.  A nature that is unfolding and becoming is itself a kind of history; and if nature is a kind of history, then conversely history becomes a kind of nature.  Both become (to some degree equatable) examples of the material process of “tides of fire.”  But here again the duality of nature for Jeffers required complicating the matter further.  For poetry was not only a record of flux (of change in both nature and history) but also an assertion of beauty—a claim that this flux offered to the right sort of contemplation an experience of a beauty somehow in and of time yet transcendent (“the eye that watched”).  In other words, the problem wasn’t simply to visualize a nature that assumed the materialism of modern science in a way that would comprehend historical, social, and political process.  It was how to do this while affirming (yet redefining) that most traditional of aesthetic values—beauty.  And it is precisely at this point that Jeffers’ problematic relationship to the projects of his modernist contemporaries begins to be visible.

Although in the 1920s Jeffers tended to express “beauty” and “history” in terms of “nature,” the unfolding of work (and the details of specific poems) suggests that these were for him categories that constituted and required each other.  They were interdependent facets of his attempt to articulate a modern aesthetic that would credit the material basis of experience while yet demonstrating the “reality” of transcendence.  Jeffers, that is, like his modernist contemporaries, was crucially concerned with visualizing a modern beauty and deriving a rationale for it.  But where a poet like Stevens might stress the imagination’s power to make a beauty unique to it, Jeffers stressed the imagination’s power to apprehend and celebrate a beauty already inherent in the world.  Although this underscores Jeffers’ difference from the high modernists, the concern he shared for finding a modern (yet traditional) ground for beauty raises the question why the new critics speaking for their modernist clients (whether or not they wanted speaking for) would find Jeffers so worthy of attack and have been so eager to cast him as some kind of nihilistic demon in the poetic garden when they might more simply have complained that his sense of line was clunky (if it was) or questioned his choice of the narrative mode?  The interdependence and instability of “nature,” “history,” and “beauty” in Jeffers provides part of the answer.

In The Beauty of Inflections Jerome McGann examines how most of the English Romantics rejected the work of George Crabbe as defective and anachronistic.  McGann questions these conclusions and suggests that one way to “begin to define precisely what the Romantics took their stand upon” is to consider what it meant for them to reject Crabbe, whom McGann takes seriously in spite of the judgments of Coleridge and Wordsworth.  McGann reads these judgments as “part of a polemic on behalf of certain poetical criteria” to demonstrate that Romanticism was not the exclusively relevant poetic ideology in this period, even if the “relative truth,” the “partisan view” of the Romantics and their successors successfully marginalized Crabbe’s contrary project.[31]  (McGann here and elsewhere notes the ironic place this conventionalized narrative of the Romantic episode creates for Austen’s work.)  For McGann, Crabbe was by no means irrelevant to the Romantics.  He suggests the Romantics were forced to ignore Crabbe, in spite of his strength, because confronting his work seriously would require confronting what was problematic in their own ideological and aesthetic assumptions.  As such, Crabbe figures dialectically as a kind of shadow Romantic, the invisibilized term that reveals the visible.

Jeffers bears a similar relationship to his modernist contemporaries, and his example raises the same questions about what it means for one group or position to define the terms used to read another.  In other words, Jeffers’ still somewhat marginalized status may point less to his actual marginality than to his centrality, his dialectical relevance to the positions and figures who established the rationale for excluding his work.  But why, more specifically, might the modernists and new critics reject Jeffers?  I’d suggest that it is because in the various varieties of modernism the dichotomy between culture and nature, history and nature, and how those defined beauty, was—as for Jeffers—similarly dialectical and problematic and that to interrogate Jeffers or be interrogated by his work would require confronting the instability of the categories and terms, the ideology, that made various modernist projects possible.  Jeffers, that is, differs from Stevens, Eliot, Pound but not enough to be neutral or safe.

But what does this mean about reading Jeffers?  For one, that we need to treat his categories as inherently complex, not simple, and to see how over time the play of the work, the career, articulates a serious and modern project.  It also means that we should interrogate Jeffers’ practice with that of his modernist contemporaries—and vice versa. And it may mean that we will have to reconsider the implications of his decision in the later 1930s and 1940s to return to poems that again foregrounded the political and view these not as a radical veer from the work of the 1920s, but as a moment where (in the midst of crisis) the collision (and potential slippage) of categories becomes more apparent and where what is both radical and traditional about Jeffers becomes particularly explicit.[32]

If so, we will be closer to realizing that part of what makes Jeffers’ relevant (and threatening enough to some to be worth ostracizing) was not that he ignored history and culture as shapers of the human imagination, but that—seeing them—he shaped a response just different enough to be troubling, because if his struggle with nature was a way to vision history, society, and humanness (not simply reject them), then it was implicitly and legitimately an interrogation of the tendency in some modernist practice and modern culture (at least as imagined by the academy) to visualize a history, a humanness, that so domesticated nature as to erase it altogether.


[1] See, for example, Arthur B. Coffin, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of lnhumanism (Madison, Wi.: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1971); William H. Nolte, Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony (Athens, Ga.: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1978); and Radcliffe Squires, The Loyalties of Robinson Jeffers (Ann Arbor, Mi.: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1956).

[2] See, for example, Robert J. Brophy, Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve Univ. Press, 1973) and Frederic I. Carpenter, Robinson Jeffers (New York: Twayne Books, 1962).

[3] See, for example, [William Everson] Brother Antoninus, Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury (Berkeley, Ca.: Oyez, 1968) and Robert Zaller, The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983).

[4] See, for example, Lawrence Clark Powell, Robinson Jeffers: The Man and His Work (Los Angeles: Primavera Press, 1934. New York: Haskell House, 1970), pp. 115-43.

[5] The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (New York: Random House, 1938) seems to confirm these divisions:  Jeffers omitted altogether poems from Californians (1916) as “only preparatory exercises,” included only four of the early Tamar pieces as “sample[s] of the metrical experiments that occupied my mind for awhile,” and kept nearly all of the unrhymed work.

[6] Introduction,” Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (New York: The Modern Library, 1935), pp. vii-x.

[7] William Everson has commented extensively on the chronology of the early poems in his three Jeffers compilations: Californians (1971), The Alpine Christ(1974}, and Brides of the South Wind(1974) (all Cayucos, Cal.: Cayucos Books). The chronology, though, for the somewhat later poems discussed in this essay is based in part on a packet of 300 manuscript pages at Occidental College first made available to researchers in 1987. A full discussion of that evidence will appear in the fourth and final volume of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, ed. Tim Hunt (forthcoming Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press).

[8] Two were written the same day, and the third either shortly before or after. Two early tables of contents for what developed into Tamar are at the Beinecke Library, Yale University, and are reproduced in Sidney S. Alberts, A Bibliography of the Works of Robinson Jeffers (1933; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1968), pp. 17-18. A third, held by Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, is reproduced in Everson’s Brides of the South Wind, p. 135. A partial revision of one the Beinecke tables has not been published. These tables of contents provide additional evidence for the chronology for the Tamar period.  It should also be noted that the early manuscripts and first two appearances of “The Excesses of God”University Review (1939) p. 238 and in Edith Greenan, Of Una Jeffers (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie, 1939) p. 45—show that Jeffers substituted “can understand” for the original reading of “understands” when he prepared it for Be Angry at the Sun. The original reading ends the poem on a more optimistic note about our ability to perceive nature and act in accord with it, which is perhaps the reason he omitted it from Tamar.

[9] The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume One, 1920-28, p. 3. All other quotations of Jeffers’ poems follow this text, except where noted, and page numbers are noted parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[10] Tamar and Other Poems (New York: Boyle, 1924) p. 125. The quotation is from the poem’s original appearance. “To the Stone-Cutters” is one of the few poems Jeffers revised after collecting it. In The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers line 8 reads, “Die blind and blacken to the heart.” The change in emphasis is slight, but removing the possessive pronoun “his” somewhat blunts the personification, and to that degree makes the 1938 form more consistent with the change in Jeffers’ work I am claiming begins to occur the following year with pieces such as “Natural Music.”

[11] California Poetry Series (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1947).

[12] The reissue of the poem in Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1925) reads “Wind-prints” rather than “Wing-prints.” The corrected galley proofs for Roan Stallion at the Beinecke Library confirm that this was the typesetter’s change.

[13] It might be noted here, as well, that the likely chronology of Jeffers’ short poems from 1920-22 shows that as his sense of nature and aesthetic implications evolved his verse line grew progressively longer.

[14] “From Symbolist Thought to Immanence: The Ground of Postmodern American Poetics,” Boundary 2 (1973), p. 606, and Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s (Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press, 1979), p. 29.

[15] Enlarging the Temple, pp. 29 & 37.

[16] Enlarging the Temple, pp. 37-38.

[17] For a brief summary of Jeffers’ scientific training and its possible impact on his early work, see “Introduction,” The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume One, 1920-28, pp. xvi-xx.

[18] Enlarging the Temple, p. 37.

[19] In this essay, the poem “Tamar” is indicated by quotation marks, the title of the collection by italics.

[20] “The Coast-Range Christ,” included in Tamar is from this period. An unused preface for the Tamar collection dated August 1923 shows that Jeffers did consider using several more of these narratives. See Melba Berry Bennett, The Stone Mason of Tor House (Los Angeles: Ward Ritchie Press, 1966), p. 108.

[21] The sheet, the verso of a bank statement dated 17 Feb. 1922, is held by the Beinecke Library.

[22] Although the limited scope of lyric, at least as he’d conceived it and for his purposes, seems to have been a major factor in Jeffers’ return to narrative, his response to the depth psychology of Freud and others and the then still new anthropology popularized by Frazer’s The Golden Bough is another factor that should be noted.  Like others of his generation, Jeffers was intrigued by this work, though, here too, his greater familiarity and ease with the perspective of modern science seems to have led him to a different response.  For someone like Eliot, Freud’s work seems to have revealed the psyche as the source of an imagination requiring the aesthetic act to order and redeem it; for Jeffers, Freud seems to have demonstrated the psyche as “natural” force and the essential unity of nature and imagination as analogous forces or energies.  Similarly, for Eliot, Frazer’s work on primitive myth seems to have suggested that the structures for imaginative experience might be implicit in cultural groups, while for Jeffers Frazer’s emphasis on primitive ritual seems to have demonstrated these same groups participating in, and acting as, natural force.  Together Frazer and Darwin may have helped shape or confirm Jeffers’ sense of the human species as a social organism responding to natural force as natural force, suggesting that social units such as the family could themselves be treated as forms of nature.  John B. Vickery discusses Jeffers and Frazer in The Literary Impact of The Golden Bough (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 157-61.  Brophy develops Jeffers’ use of mythic and ritual elements more fully in Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems but without claiming a specific influence.  Jeffers’ letter of 24 April 1926 to his editor Donald Friede is also relevant. Referring to Point Alma Venus, the precursor to The Women at Point Sur, Jeffers wrote, “The story, like Tamburlaine or Zarathustra, is the story of human attempts to get beyond humanity.  But the superman ideal rather stands on top of humanity—intensifies it—ends in ‘all too human’—here the attempt is to get clear of it.  More like the ceremonial dances of primitive people; the dancer becomes a rain-cloud, or a leopard, or a God….The episodes of the poem are a sort of essential ritual, from which the real action develops on another plane.”  See The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, ed. Ann Ridgeway (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1968), p. 68. [These comments are expanded from, Tim Hunt, “Robinson Jeffers: The Modern Poet as Anti-Modernist” (forthcoming, Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers, ed. James Karman. G.K. Hall).]

[23] The image of golden flowers recalls “The Maid’s Thought” but without that poem’s humanizing metaphors of dancing, games, and love, and the landscape might almost be Gothic (is there a faint echo of the upward beating light in Poe’s “The City in the Sea”?) if the flat, deliberate tone didn’t so clearly accentuate the literal.

[24] In a sense, nature in the earlier poems is a realized text waiting to be read; in “Point Joe,” a text constantly writing itself and fully knowable only by the infinitude of “the eye that watched.”  Nature is still an image of value, the fundamental reality to be realized, but the speaker’s limited ability to know shifts the emphasis from celebrating nature to questioning how to stand in relation to it.  Even if nature somehow unifies change and recurrence in its own sight, the difference remains real in human experience, since our consciousness requires recognizing the contrast between nature’s duration and our own.

[25] For an analysis of the modernists’ sense of voice and the particular form and dynamics of their transformation of Victorian models, see Carol T. Christ, Victorian and Modern Poetics (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984).  For a somewhat fuller discussion of this point see, “Robinson Jeffers: The Modern Poet as Anti-Modernist” (forthcoming).

[26] Everson prints a rejection letter from Macmillan dated 2 April 1920 in Brides of the South Wind, p. 134. The original is held by Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas.

[27] See n.8.

[28] The manuscripts of these two poems, “The Murmansk Landing” and “The Dance of the Banner,” are part of the newly available material at Occidental College. See n.7.

[29] Brophy is one of the few critics to discuss these passages. See, Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems, pp. 48-49.

[30] Jeffers’ uncertainty following “Tamar” shows in other ways as well.  After hesitating some months before submitting the poem at all, he chose to print the book at his own expense, and then, even after the printer he’d selected enthusiastically offered to serve as publisher, Jeffers delayed months more before proceeding, perhaps hoping to finish a new narrative to complement “Tamar.”  In the same letter of 24 April 1926 to Friede cited in n.22, Jeffers writes, “I began [Point Alma Venus] quite cheerfully, soon after Tamar was written I put it aside because it was too exciting, and ever since has been a struggle to keep it out of my mind by writing something else”—Selected Letters, p. 68.  Long sections of various drafts of “Point Alma Venus” are held by Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, and these show that the poem was a precursor to The Women at Point Sur (1927).  When that project stalled, he considered adding the group of narratives he’d written after Californians and drafted the unused August 1923 preface that encourages the reader to view the narratives as a single, evolving project.  Tamar and Other Poems would have been ample with “Tamar” as its only narrative.  But Jeffers may have wanted the narratives, not lyrics, to dominate the collection, or he may have wanted other “stories” to reinforce the patterns that grounded “Tamar’s” lurid sensationalism, or he may have simply felt a volume containing several long poems would be taken more seriously.  Whatever, his uncertainty about how to present “Tamar” suggests, he did not initially realize how his new sense of nature unified his work independently of politics or landscape, narrative or lyric.

[31] The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), p. 295.

[32] “Invasion,” published originally in The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948) is a useful example of the interplay of “beauty,” “nature,” and “history” as categories in Jeffers’ later work.