“Walls on a rock above the sea”: Tor House as Place and Figure in the 1919 Poetry of Robinson Jeffers

[This paper would have been delivered at the February 2019 Robinson Jeffers Association Conference had a health blip (subsequently un-blipped) not intervened.  The core of the piece was subsequently more fully elaborated in “Turning from the High Lamps to the Love the Low Hills: The Story the Story of Jeffers’ ‘Metempsychosis’ Tells.”]

Robinson Jeffers, in various prose pieces after he was famous, invites us to believe his move to Carmel and discovering his “inevitable place” was the catalyst for his transformation from the conventional, apprentice figure of Flagons and Apples (1912) to the originality and power of Tamar and Other Poems (1924).  There’s a seeming rightness to this scenario, but whatever its higher truth as a tale of origin, this scenario mythologizes and simplifies the process by which the actual Jeffers became JEFFERS.  It conflates the cozy art colony of Carmel with the sparsely populated ranch country and stark beauty of the Big Sur coast.  It skips over the apprentice searching for an artistic vision and the technique to manifest it.  And it obscures how much of what Jeffers wrote in the years before the meditative lyrics and startling narrative that make Tamar and Other Poems so memorable has nothing directly to do with either his “inevitable place” as he’d come to define it or the perspective that evolved into what he’d later term Inhumanism.  The 100th anniversary of the construction of Tor House offers an occasion to celebrate its significance for Jeffers and his work—indeed its centrality to both the reality and myth of the “inevitable place.”  It also offers an occasion to consider how Jeffers might have regarded Tor House in the summer of 1919 as he was helping to build it and in the months he first lived there—a time when he hadn’t yet found his vision or voice or authority as a poet.  It draws us back to consider the still relatively unexamined work of 1919 written when the “inevitable” hadn’t, as yet, become inevitable.

Jeffers, for the most part, omitted the poems he’d written in 1919 from Tamar.  “Peacock Ranch,” “Sea Passions,” and “Confession on Caucasus,” among others, are featured in the various tables of contents for collections he assembled in this period but not included in Tamar, even though earlier work (“Fauna,” “Mal Paso Bridge,” “The Truce and the Peace”) did wind up in the volume.  The question of why he dropped this material and what this suggests about his changing sense of his work and his identity as a poet will in time, I hope, be fully debated.  My sense, offered here not as some sort of authoritative declaration but as a kind of provisional surmise, is that he dropped these poems at least in part because many of them document his struggle to come to terms with the collapse of his political hopes as the Versailles Peace talks failed to establish a new world political order that might give some meaning to the carnage of WW I, setting the European powers on the path to WW II.  The poems suggest Jeffers experienced a period of depression in 1919, and these political issues, perhaps along with personal matters, and his uncertainty about his creative direction were plausibly contributing elements.  This depression seems to have been particularly acute spring 1919, as seen in such pieces as the “The Pit in the Pinewood” and the original form of “Suicide’s Stone,” where the speaker is a suicide justifying his choice instead of (as recast for Tamar) a voice from the dead rejecting the choice he’s made and counseling stoic courage.  At the very least, the 1919 work featured in the earlier tables of contents but omitted from Tamar suggest that across much of 1919 Jeffers hadn’t yet decisively committed to his “inevitable” place as his primary material and that he was still searching for a way beyond 19th century verse modes that would be a viable alternative to modernist experimentation.  Put another way, five years after having moved to Carmel Jeffers was still, largely, as he describes himself as having been in 1914—still, that is (as he’d put it in 1935 in the Modern Library Roan Stallion intro), “imitating dead men” while his “more advanced contemporaries” (i.e. Pound and Eliot) were revolutionizing poetry and poetics in ways he saw as a counterproductive narrowing of what poetry should be if it was to remain significant.  Jeffers would, once he’d achieved his distinctive voice and a measure of success, have us believe that he had no use for fame and reputation, but in the spring of 1919 that wasn’t the case, and this, I’d suggest, was another factor in the depression so evident in the poems of this period.

Following the building of Tor House the summer of 1919 and moving into it that fall, Jeffers spent at least some of the later fall or early winter compiling a manuscript that he submitted to Macmillan.  The rejection letter indicates that this manuscript included much of the 1919 work eventually omitted from Tamar.  And by the end of 1919 or early 1920 Jeffers began work on “The Coast-Range Christ.”  Soon after that he was writing lyrics as “Salmon-Fishing” and “Natural Music,” and soon after that “Tamar.”  The chronology, that is, suggests that settling into Tor House led first to Jeffers assessing what he had been writing, then initiated a decisive turn in his development.  Before Tor House, we see a poet casting about for what he’d later term his “originality,” and soon after Tor House we see a poet having achieved his originality and rapidly composing the poems that initially made his reputation and which remain central to his achievement.  It is, then, tempting to see Tor House (the physical labor of building it? the commitment to family and connection to place it might have symbolized?) as the impetus for Jeffers’ recovery from his period of depression and his decisive aesthetic advance.  However, two poems, “Metempsychosis” (later revised as “The Hills Beyond the River”) and “Two Garden-Marbles,” written, it seems, after the decision to build Tor House but before construction started, complicate the story.  In spite of their stylistic differences, the two poems are a complementary pair, and they help clarify Jeffers’ shifting sense of work at this pivotal moment in his transformation from the ambitious apprentice trying on the various approaches reflected in the published and unpublished work that would have comprised such unpublished collections as God’s Peace in November and Brides of the South Wind to the voice evident in Tamar and Other Poems—a poet who was neither “imitating dead men” nor threatened by the modernist experimentation of his “more advanced contemporaries.”

Initially, it might seem that the only thing “Two Garden-Marbles” and “Metempsychosis” share is chronological proximity.  “Two Garden-Marbles,” in form and diction and its classical imagery, looks backward to the work of 1918 and 1919.  Conversely, “Metempsychosis” anticipates Tamar’s breakthrough lyrics of 1920 in the way it focuses on the immediate natural scene and in the way its ten longish lines (ranging from 14 to 17 syllables) seem cadenced as a kind of intensified speech that might almost be mistaken for free verse were it not for the sense of six beats to each line and the use of unobtrusive full and slant rhymes that cast the lines into couplets.  Moreover, the poems differ thematically.  “Two Garden-Marbles” recalls the fame of Alcibiades and Alexander the Great, while “Metempsychosis” imagines subsuming the self into nature—becoming one with nature’s body through the death of one’s own body (“Canyon creeks that are my arteries, hair of forest and body of rock”).  One poem suggests the failure of memorial stones (the garden models) to do more than mark the way the two famed figures are overtaken by death; which is to say, the garden marbles, while seeming to celebrate fame as a transcending of time actually mark the failure of the stones to do so and thus, as well, reveal fame as finally empty and irrelevant.

“Metempsychosis” involves a quite different approach to time and death.  It entails rejecting the “high lamps” of fame in order to subsume the microcosm of the body (figuratively but with the expectation of this eventually becoming literally so) into the macrocosm of nature’s body.  The poem imagines trading the illusory fame of human achievement, a temporary notoriety, for the permanence, the “peace,” of being absorbed in materiality of nature.  If one is one with nature and nature lives, then one lives on in nature and, as the poem’s argument goes, that anonymous participation is “immortality enough, identity enough”:

Coast-range creeks, veins of the body of mine that will not die
When this spirit is nothing and this flesh new dirt and the eager eye
Sucked its last and is drunk with darkness—I am content I think to cease,
I rejoice no death will drag you peaks and slopes down to that peace.
Neither failure of the blood will make you faint nor its fevers choke,
Canyon creeks that are my arteries, hair of forest and body of rock.
If long hence and after a thousand long millenniums you go down
I will go, the last of me then, and the endless dance of suns go on.
Therefore I turned from the high lamps and limited to low hills my love.
Sweet you are immortality enough, identity enough.

In this, its initial form, “Metempsychosis” is the seed poem to what becomes Inhumanism—an apprehension of what might be termed an en-naturement prefiguring the transformational, redemptive “enskyment” Jeffers envisioned near the end of his career in “Vulture.”

The manner and matter of “Metempsychosis” makes its relevance to Jeffers’ development more obvious than that of “Two Garden-Marbles,” but considering the two in relation to each other helps clarify their implications for this pivotal moment in Jeffers’ development.  In May 1914, Jeffers wrote “The Palace,” a lyric that seems in part to have been occasioned by the death of the Jefferses’ new born daughter a few days earlier.  In it (I’ve suggested elsewhere) the speaker (and here viewing the speaker as Jeffers makes sense) dedicates himself to rebuilding the palace of poetic tradition that his contemporaries (implicitly the Imagists) had chosen to ignore.  (That the poem, a rejection of Imagism and ver libres, is metered and rhymed is no surprise.)  In 1914, a few months before the move from the Los Angeles area to Carmel, Jeffers, then, was not only proposing that verse should continue to be practiced within formal conventions (rather than being either free or experimental), he was also implicitly arguing that a commitment to the tradition was the one basis for a poet’s work to matter and for the writing individual to matter as a poet.  While he might later (in 1935) recall worrying that he was (in 1914) “still imitating dead men,” in 1914 emulating the work of “dead men” was, he’d argued, the game to be played, and the game had a double goal: to maintain the “palace” of poetic tradition and to achieve recognition for doing so.  “Two Garden-Marbles,” I’d suggest functions as a critique of the desire for poetic fame (appropriately, like “The Palace,” expressed using formal conventions).  It provides an imaginative basis for (as Jeffers terms it in the penultimate line of “Metempsychosis”) “turn[ing] from the high lamps” and “limit[ing] to low hills my love,” and (in turn) this full acceptance of the embodied self as subsumed into the process and materiality of nature becoming “immortality enough, identity enough.”

In rejecting the “high lamps” of fame in order to “love” the “low hills” and with it nature as one’s being, Jeffers, I’d suggest, freed himself both from the need to resist (reject) Pound’s call to “make it new” and the sense that poetic ambition was primarily allegiance to the tradition as a kind of obligation to “make it old.”  And by grounding his poetic project in nature (its materiality, processes, and beauty) rather than grounding it in culture and its archive (“tradition” as Eliot imagines it in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), Jeffers subtly but radically shifted how nature functioned in his poetry so that it was no longer (as in Californians) a kind of scene or character or symbolic mediator (as in Wordsworth) but instead a comprehending reality—the term of being and its condition.

But what about Tor House?  Spring 1920, perhaps while he was still working on The Coast-Range Christ” or shortly after completing it, Jeffers drafted “The Beginning of Decadence.”  The final passage (excluding the final couplet) reads:

We were chosen the world’s lamp and set on the world’s hill for a sign.
Now the morning hope is hushed and the early miracle in decline.

Now we shall grow wealthier, now we shall grow mightier, now freedom is gone.
Better if the army had broken, and safer if the ships had gone down.

For myself I have the hills and the stone belts of my own house,
Casements opening west over salt water and south to the coast-range brows.

Walls on a rock above the sea and granite ecstasy kept clean
From the breath of multitude, the bondage of submitting men.

When Jeffers discarded “The Beginning of Decadence,” he revised the ending of “Metempsychosis” (retitled as “The Hills Beyond the River” to read:

Sweet you are immortality enough, identity enough.
. . . . . As while life lasts I am content with the stone belts of my own house,
Windows opening west over salt water and south to the coast-range brows,
Walls on a rock above the sea, and granite ecstasy kept clean
By its very narrowness from much that troubles luckier men.

These lines, both as they are phrased in “The Beginning of Decadence” and as they’re incorporated into the revision of “Metempsychosis,” casts Tor House as place of withdrawal into what amounts to “a separate peace” following the war.  The lines also figure Tor House as kind of alternate body from which the speaker, protected by the “stone belts” looks out on nature, “content” to regard the beauty and “granite ecstasy.”  The lines salvaged and adapted from “The Beginning of Decadence” anticipate “To the House” in Tamar, where building the house is a process of converting the natural elements of the site (literally its granite) into a refuge or haven.

Read in the context of “To the House,” the lines appended to “Metempsychosis” in converting it into “The Hills Beyond the River” seem an appropriate resolution, fulfilling the impulse by linking the house to the veins of the creek.  But the being of nature in the lines of the original poem, “Metempsychosis,” is of a different order than the nature regarded through the “Windows opening west over salt water.”  For one’s veins to become one with the veins of the creeks is not to regard (aesthetically or otherwise) but is instead to be.  It is a more radical participation in nature.  There is, of course, a way beyond this dichotomy.  We can imagine this aesthetic regarding of nature’s beauty from the “Window” as what one achieves by withdrawing from the social and political while one lives, while one’s veins become the veins of nature in one’s death.  But I’d also suggest that the added lines obscure or undercut the more radical apprehension of being within and as part of nature found in the original poem.  And if we overlook the more radical apprehension in the original form of the poem, we miss something of what was involved in Jeffers’ development of his mature voice, his mature aesthetic, and his mature vision.