Introduction to The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

[Please note: this Introduction is not covered by the Creative Commons license for this site. It is copyrighted by Stanford University Press, and that copyright governs its use. I would like to thank the Press for permission to post the Introduction here.]

In 1938 Random House published The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, a 600-page volume that would remain in print for more than fifty years. Over time, it lost some of its grandeur: The publisher dropped the frontispiece photograph, reduced the trim size, and shifted to cheaper materials; the type began to show the wear of the many reprintings. Yet until it finally went out of print, it stood as a broad-spined presence among the slimmer poetic reeds on library and bookstore shelves and drew enough poets, students, and general readers to keep Jeffers a force in American poetry, in spite of the almost total academic neglect that followed his fame in the 1920s and 1930s. Now scholars are at last beginning to recognize that he created a significant alternative to the High Modernism of Pound, Eliot, and Stevens. Similarly, the contemporary poets who have returned to the narrative poem acknowledge Jeffers, along with Robert Frost and E.A. Robinson, as a major poet, while those exploring California and the American West as literary regions have disocered in him a foundational figure, and Jeffers stands as a crucial precursor to our contemporary attempts to rethink our practical, ethical and spiritual obligations to the natural world and the environment.

These developments underscore the need for a new selected edition that would, like the 1938 volume, include the long narratives that Jeffers considered his major work along with the more easily anthologized shorter poems. This new selected poetry differs from its predecessor in several ways. When Jeffers shaped the 1938 Selected Poetry, he drew from his most productive period (1917-1937), but his career was not yet over. In the quarter century that followed he wrote Be Angry at the Sun (1941), The Double Axe (1948), Hungerfield (1954), and the poems included in the posthumous collection The Beginning and the End (1963). This new selected edition also draws from these later volumes, and it includes as well a sampling of the poems Jeffers left unpublished, along with several prose pieces where he reflects on his poetry and poetics.

This edition also adopts the texts of the recently completed The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (5 vols., Stanford University Press). When the poems were originally published, copy editors and typesetters frequently adjusted Jeffers’ idiosyncratic punctuation to make the lines more conventionally “correct.” This added layer of punctuation often obscures the rhythm and pacing of what Jeffers actually wrote, and at points even obscures meaning and nuance (Volume Five of The Collected Poetry includes a fuller discussion of these issues, with illustrative examples).

This new selected edition, then, is meant to be a broader, more accurate representation of Jeffers career than the 1938 Selected Poetry. It is a somewhat less comprehensive record of the period covered by the original selected edition, however, since several of the longer poems included there (Thurso’s Landing, for instance) had to be set aside to make room for the later poems (among them the narratives The Inhumanist and Hungerfield) and other work.

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Jeffers’ early years were dominated by his father, a Presbyterian minister and professor of Old Testament literature. Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers was a 46-year-old widower when he married Annie Robinson Tuttle, a church organist 22 years his junior. John Robinson Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh a year and a half later on January 10, 1887. His only sibling, Hamilton, who became a research astronomer, was born in 1894. Jeffers’ father introduced him to Latin, Greek, and the Bible early on, and his first ten years were a succession of houses and schools as the elder Jeffers searched for the right combination of seclusion for himself and intellectual rigor for his son. In 1898 Jeffers entered the first of five Swiss boarding schools he would attend, and four years later, when he entered the University of Pittsburgh, he already had a command of French, German, Greek, and Latin to go with his newest enthusiasms—poetry and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. After his first year at Pittsburgh the family moved to Los Angeles. From 1903 to 1910 Jeffers completed his formal education: earning his BA from Occidental College, continuing his studies in literature and languages at the University of Southern California and the University of Zurich, trying medicine at the University of Southern California and forestry at the University of Washington.

These years were also complicated by Jeffers’ relationship with Una Call Kuster, the wife of a prominent Los Angeles lawyer. She and Jeffers met at the University of Southern California, where she was also a student, in 1905. Their friendship evolved into a romantic liaison, eventual scandal, and Una’s decision to divorce her husband and marry Jeffers. They were married August 2, 1913, and settled first in the Los Angeles area. Their daughter, Maeve, was born May 5, 1914 but survived only a day. The Jefferses had been planning to move to England after the birth of their child, but the war in Europe led them to rethink their plans. In September 1914 they moved instead to Carmel, California, already something of an artist’s colony, where they lived the rest of their lives. Una Jeffers died September 1, 1950; and Robinson Jeffers on January 20, 1962).

Jeffers matured somewhat late as a poet. When he moved to Carmel in 1914, he had only the minor work gathered in the privately published Flagons and Apples (1912) and two dozen poems from his college years to show for his efforts, while such near contemporaries as Pound and Eliot were already writing important pieces. In the Introduction to the Modern Library reissue of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1935), Jeffers recalls that he was then still “imitating Shelley and Milton” and lacked the “originality, without which a writer of verses is only a verse-writer.” Worse, he recognized that the early Modernists were already doing original work, but he believed they “had turned off the road into a narrowing lane” that would eventually reduce poetry to a kind of virtuoso triviality. He could not, he decided, accept their assumptions or adopt their innovations. He could not, as he put it, become a “modern.” It took him until the early 1920s to develop his own voice, measure, and understanding of poetry. The impact of the Big Sur coast was one element, as he noted in the “Foreword” to the 1938 Selected Poetry. The landscape’s epic scale and the isolated lives of its ranching folk became his distinctive material. His transformations of this material were shaped variously by his scientific training, Calvinist heritage, the initial explorations of Freud and Jung into the mechanisms of consciousness and dreams, the work of Sir James Frazer and the Cambridge anthropologists on myth and ritual, and a conviction (influenced by both the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie and the deep cultural and historical tragedy of the First World War) that history was cyclical and that western civilization was poised for an inevitable slide into decadence and barbarism. Jeffers first attempted to express the Big Sur region in the narrative poems gathered in the transitional collection Californians (Macmillan, 1916).

Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads was probably one model for these first narratives, as were, perhaps, E.A. Robinson’s treatment of region and contemporary life in his brief narratives and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. By the time Jeffers published Tamar and Other Poems in 1924, his approach in both his shorter poems and narratives had been alchemized by the trauma of the war. It had also been steadied by a deeper commitment to place. Shortly after the Armistice the Jefferses purchased a headland on the south edge of Carmel and in 1919 built a low stone cottage built from the granite about the site. Working with the masons, Jeffers discovered his other lifework—building with stone. Soon after he and Una were settled in Tor House with their twin sons (born in 1916), Jeffers began a two-and-a-half story stone tower, a six-year project. Typically, he wrote in the mornings and devoted the afternoons to work with stone and to caring for the groves of trees he soon planted.

It took reviewers nearly a year to discover the privately printed Tamar, but when they did, they likened the sweep and intensity of Jeffers’ narrative vision to Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians, and they found his voice in the shorter meditations and lyrics both timeless and contemporary. When Boni & Liveright reissued Tamar in an expanded edition as Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems in November 1925, Jeffers quickly became a major figure in the poetic landscape, a peer to Frost and Eliot. Enthusiastic reviews, helped along by the narratives’ use of incest and other sexually taboo themes, made Jeffers a popular success as well. His reputation remained high throughout the 1920s and 1930s (even though his most ambitious work, The Women at Point Sur, published in 1927, elicited dismay and bewilderment) and was capped by a Time cover story in 1932 and The Selected Poetry in 1938.

The crisis of the First World War was an important factor in Jeffers developing his voice as a poet and an impetus for much of his work in the 1920s, even though it was seldom invoked explicitly. (See the discussions of the poems of this period in Volume Five of The Collected Poetry.) The Second World War was similarly an imaginative crisis for Jeffers, one that threatened the aesthetic and the views he had advanced and explored through the mid-1930s. The poems in Be Angry at the Sun (1941) reflect his concern with history and a growing dismay at national and international affairs, while the poems written during the war—collected in The Double Axe (1948)—show this dismay deepening to the point of despair. At one point Jeffers labeled the short poems in The Double Axe “Mornings in Hell,” and The Love and the Hate—the first of the book’s two narratives—The Love and the Hate—has a young soldier will his decomposing body back to life to seek revenge on his father for involving him in the war. Both of the narratives underscore the intensity of Jeffers’ reaction to the war..

The Double Axe was one factor in the eclipse of Jeffers’ reputation. His isolationist politics and criticisms of Roosevelt (who he thought had let personal ambition cloud his judgment) were unacceptable to an America that won the war against Germany and Japan only to be thrust the Cold War. That in The Inhumanist, the second Double Axe narrative, Jeffers moving beyond his despair, engages the nuclear threat, and reconfirms the perspective he now termed “Inhumanism” made little difference, nor did the critical and commercial success of the New York production of Jeffers’ adaptation of Medea, produced in 1947 and starring Judith Anderson as Medea. Even though Hungerfield (1954), featured Jeffers at his most personal and elegiac and won several awards, it did little to reverse the decline of his reputation, in part because the poetic canon was increasingly defined and enforced by the academy, where the critical sons and daughters of the New Critics were establishing norms for poetry that privileged compressed, complex, short poems—well wrought urns in which the poet maintains an ironic distance from both the text and the reader. This perspective offered little room to appreciate Jeffers’ reinvention of the poetic narrative as a modern form, his discursive poetic meditations, or his intentionally nonironic celebrations of a redemptively beautiful nature. In “The Ocean’s Tribute,” a late poem included in this selection, Jeffers seems quite aware of New Critical fashion and as determined to go his own way as he was in 1914 “not to become a ‘modern.’”

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Jeffers based his approach to poetry on a few basic principles. He explained these variously in the introductory notes he wrote for some of the collections, perhaps most directly in the “Preface” he wrote (but did not use) for Tamar. There he asserts that “poetry’s function” is “the passionate presentment of beauty.” It is to be an “intensification” of life, not a “refuge” from it. To do this it must, he believed, “be rhythmic, and must deal with permanent things, and must avoid affectation.” Where the Modernists valued the imagination’s power to transform (and transcend) perception, Jeffers sought to intensify perception and thereby deepen our awareness of the natural world and participation in it.

The revisions to “Salmon Fishing,” a lyric Jeffers wrote soon after first developing his mature aesthetic, illustrate his approach. The poem exists in three drafts: two preliminary typescripts and the version published in Tamar. In the earlier of the typescripts the fishermen are “anglers / On the rocks,” who “torture” the fish. Framed against the “Red ash” of the solstice “sundown,” they intrude violence and death into an otherwise beautiful and energized nature (a nature that even speaks: “The southwind shouts to the rivers”). As Jeffers revised the poem, he shifted to a more complex equation. In the second typescript the anglers are “Like dark herons, like priestlings / Of a most patient mystery, at the river mouth.” Recasting the fishermen as “herons” integrates them into the natural scene. They are of nature, not outside and in opposition to it, and in ritualizing them as “priestlings” within nature, Jeffers projects a world where salmon and anglers are both enmeshed in a sacrificial landscape of fire and blood. This sacrificial unfolding is itself nature and a feature of its transformative beauty, with the “Red of the dark solstice” now fully a figure for this and not simply a backdrop. For publication in Tamar Jeffers further refined the shifts he introduced in the second typescript. (The entry for “Salmon Fishing” in Volume 5 of The Collected Poetry provides a complete record of the drafts and revisions.)

The various revisions to “Salmon Fishing” point to Jeffers’ determination to engage the world as it is in its physicality and represent it in clear, accessible language. Yet the revisions also point— linguistically, perceptually, and conceptually—to the subtlety and resonance in what might seem at a casual glance to be simply scene painting. They reflect the approach to nature and consciousness that threads throughout his mature work, which he was developing in the early 1920s as he wrote and revised such pieces as “Salmon Fishing” and “Natural Music.” For Jeffers the pain of nature is its flux, yet this constant alternation of death and renewal—nature’s sacrificial essence—is also its beauty: the beauty of the whole, in which anglers, spawning salmon, and contemplating poets are participating parts. The challenge is to perceive and identify with the whole. Human consciousness allows this, as the speaker in “Salmon Fishing” demonstrates. Yet consciousness can also alienate us from the whole and its processes. In “Salmon Fishing” the anglers seem oblivious to the scene’s ritual dynamic and its beauty, while the speaker appears to recognize these things because he stands apart from the ritual that anglers, fish, river, and sundown enact without consciousness. To Jeffers this is both the value of consciousness and its danger or the dilemma. It enables transcendent awareness, yet this awareness can easily decay into an evasion of nature’s full reality—its intertwined dynamic of painful change and redemptive beauty—if, whether as speaker or reader, one simply contemplates nature’s flux rather than identifying with it and recognizing one’s final and inevitable participation in it.

Poems like “Salmon Fishing” can be read as celebrations of, and meditations on, consciousness and its relationship to nature. The shorter poems are also often meditations on the problematic relationship of consciousness to culture and society—constructions that consciousness supports but that often obscure our relationship to nature’s fundamental dynamic (including our individual and collective mortality) and that can place us in a destructive relationship to it, to ourselves, and to each other. The call to personal integrity in the face of cultural decadence in “Shine, Perishing Republic” is a clear instance of this. “Invasion,” a Second World War poem, is another, perhaps less obvious example. In it Jeffers attempts to make sense of (and accept) the war’s violence by projecting it and the social and historical patterns that generate it as natural forces: if history is a form of nature and nature is a process that can be read historically, then history and politics, like the scene of ritual sacrifice in “Salmon Fishing,” might also become realms of experience and transcendence, and occasions for consciousness. In a quite different way, the late poem “Granddaughter” participates in this project, covertly contrasting the way the poet relates to the portrait of his granddaughter with the way the duke relates to the portrait of his last duchess in the most famous of Browning’s dramatic monologues, in order to underscore the generative vitality of the granddaughter’s relationship to nature and life in contrast to the duke’s elegant, morbid rejection of vitality and spontaneity.

Perhaps most importantly the revisions to “Salmon Fishing” can help us see that Jeffers was, at root, a visionary poet. This is explicit in “Doors to Peace,” which may be why Jeffers never published it. The early, unpublished lyric “The Hills Beyond the River” points to the basis of this visionary impulse (though presenting it more optimistically than he would probably have expressed it had he published the poem). But moments of heightened awareness of the natural world and our place in it are found throughout his work. The complex participation in, yet transcendence of time that closes “Oh Lovely Rock” is such a moment, and the anticipated “enskyment” in “Vulture” is perhaps the wish for one. The visionary dynamic is even present in such poems as “Invasion,” where the sometimes didactic wrestlings with history and politics alternately follow from and reach toward transformational moments of consciousness. Above all, the visionary dynamic is to be found in the narratives that Jeffers wrote following his formulation of his mature voice in the early 1920’s. In them he sought—through the violations enacted by the characters that he projected—to create poems that both participate in the flux of nature and reach moments of intense, redemptive consciousness. We see this at its most apocalyptic in the first mature narrative, Tamar. The short narrative Prelude, used to introduce The Women at Point Sur; underscores Jeffers’ immersion in his narrative creations. Roan Stallion is narrative Jeffers at his most austere; The Inhumanist, at his most philosophical; and Hungerfield, at his most lyric and elegiac.

What needs most simply to be stressed is that—for all his lyric flights, narrative probings, historical pronouncements, and excoriations of human solipsism in all its individual and collective forms—Jeffers believed poetry should bring us to reality rather than transform or replace it. Poetry’s task, he said, was to engage “Permanent things” and reveal the permanence beyond the poem. This may be why his work continues to speak to readers who sense that our technological environment places us in a false relationship to space, time, and the physical world and why it continues to speak to those who sense that the social and cultural “reality” the mass media offers is, finally, insufficient and alienating.

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I would like to thank the readers of Jeffers who offered advice on which poems to include. In all some thirty friends and colleagues, both academic readers and general readers, shared their ideas on what should constitute the Jeffers canon. I’ve used these recommendations and Jeffers’ own choices in compiling the 1938 Selected Poetry as guides in shaping this volume. Although a few pieces—“Boats in a Fog” and Roan Stallion, for instance—were on every list, using all the poems nominated would have required a volume twice this size, and some suggestions had to be set aside. Thus, every veteran Jeffers reader will find a poem or two she or he would have dropped to make room for a missing favorite. My own regret is the omission of Thurso’s Landing. There was room for it or Give Your Heart to the Hawks, not both. Several colleagues argued that Thurso’s Landing resembled Cawdor and that including Give Your Heart would broaden the portrait of the career more than Thurso’s Landing would.

Others may lament the absence of The Women at Point Sur. In the Foreword to the 1938 Selected Poetry Jeffers commented: “The Women at Point Sur seems to me—in spite of grave faults—the most inclusive, and poetically the most intense of any of my poems; it is omitted from this selection because it is the least understood and the least liked, and because it is the longest.” It is “omitted from this selection” for the same reasons. It is, I would argue, Jeffers’ most ambitious, complex, and difficult narrative. For those readers who become serious students of his work, Point Sur is the daunting peak that has to be climbed. But including it in this collection would have required setting aside too many other poems that most people would choose to read and study first. Similarly, Part I of The Double Axe, The Love and the Hate, is not included. This most despairing and horrific of the narratives is an important part of the record of Jeffers’ response to the Second World War, but it, too, is perhaps mostly for readers whose interests extend beyond the inevitable limitations of this sort of volume. Part II of The Double Axe, The Inhumanist, is included, however; these reflections of the old caretaker offer both Jeffers’ most sustained meditation on his Inhumanist perspective and his reflections on the emerging Cold War. The verse dramas The Tower Beyond Tragedy and At the Birth of an Age are each represented by excerpts. Jeffers included the entire texts in the 1938 Selected Poetry, but for reasons of space the excerpts he used in the script for his 1941 reading tour (printed in 1954 as the pamphlet Themes in My Poems) have been chosen for this edition. Space was also a factor in the decision to excerpt Descent to the Dead rather than present the sequence in its entirety.

In choosing the poems for this volume, then, the goal has been to select not only the best work (although because of their length it was not possible to include all of the best narratives) but also to choose the most representative poems and those that can add significantly to an understanding of Jeffers (such as “Credo,” which Jeffers did not include in the 1938 Selected Poetry, as well as the baker’s dozen of unpublished poems I have included). In a few cases, academic and general readers have different views of certain poems. General readers, for instance, often admire “The House-Dog’s Grave,” while academic readers often find it a weaker piece; this selection will, I hope, serve both of these audiences. I should probably confess that I have also allowed myself an idiosyncratic choice or two, perhaps most obviously the mid-1930s lyric “Memoir,” which offers a glimpse of the Jeffers behind the austere, at times aloof, voice of his most famous short poems and can thereby (I’d suggest) complicate and deepen our appreciation of these better-known poems. Still, in spite of an instance or two of such special pleading, the goal has been to shape a selection that will offer new readers of Jeffers a balanced portrait of the career and convenient access to his most appealing and compelling work, while also providing students and researchers with a broad and deep enough selection to support serious investigation.

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In closing I would like to express my appreciation for the support, cooperation, and many courtesies extended to me in my work by Mrs. Donnan Jeffers and the late Garth Jeffers. And I would like to acknowledge the debt that readers of Jeffers owe to Stanford University Press, especially to Helen Tartar, who has guided the press’s various Jeffers’ projects and helped make it possible for Jeffers’ work—his voice, vision, meditations, and indictments—to provoke and sometimes comfort readers of the next millennium.

[Editorial matter © 2001 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University]