“tho this is my last tale”: When Did Jeffers Write the First Version of Point Alma Venus?

[This article was published in Jeffers Studies, Volume 20 (2020).]

In Brides of the South Wind (1974), William Everson gathered the published and unpublished poems that he believed charted Robinson Jeffers’ evolution from Californians in 1916 to Tamar and Other Poems in 1924.  The recovery of additional work from this period has since amplified our view of this period,[1] but Everson’s commentaries in Brides of the South Wind, and his edition of Californians and his reconstruction of The Alpine Christ, an earlier unpublished Jeffers project, have remained an often invoked model for Jeffers’ emotional, conceptual, and stylistic development.  In Everson’s scenario, Tamar was Jeffers’ “definitive poem,” and it constituted, as he put it in Brides of the South Wind, a “rebirth” born of the “ruling idea” of “deliverance through violation” (122); Tamar released the psychic and creative energy that, in turn, generated the series of major poems that followed.  For Everson, the realization of “deliverance through violation” in Tamar,

precipitated “The Tower Beyond Tragedy” in Orestes’ murder of his mother; certainly it was the force that produced “Roan Stallion” with California’s refusal to rescue her husband and her destruction of the animal she revered.  But most of all it swept to an awesome apotheosis in The Women at Point Sur, the self-immolation of the mad minister Barclay.  (123)

In this scenario, Tamar is both origin and paradigm for the narratives that follow it, and the narratives it precipitates variously test and extend its initiating “ruling idea.”

While Everson may be right that “deliverance through violation” is central to Tamar and the long poems that follow it, his view that Tamar initiated a sequence of essentially linear development may need to be reconsidered in light of Jeffers’ work on the various abandoned attempts at The Women at Point Sur, material collectively referred to as the Point Alma Venus manuscripts.[2]  April 24, 1926, Jeffers wrote Donald Friede, his editor at Boni & Liveright, that he was well into drafting “Point Alma Venus,” the narrative poem that he expected to feature in his next collection and that he hoped to complete in time for Boni & Liveright’s fall 1926 list.  In the note, Jeffers adds that he began Point Alma Venus “soon after Tamar was written” but then “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” (CL1: 563).  A few days later he wired Friede to cancel plans for the fall collection and then wrote explaining that he was abandoning the draft and would have to start over (CL1: 566-567).  A second, somewhat earlier letter, further clarifies the relationship of the versions of this abandoned project centered on the figure of the Reverend Barclay to Jeffers’ other work in this period.  In a September 4, 1925 letter to Benjamin De Casseres, Jeffers writes,

I have begun a story four times, and each time but the last it has turned into a novel on the way, and been scrapped.  It’s perhaps because I’m trying to write about more or less educated people this time, and it’s hard to set fire to too much thought.  Ideas and passions don’t live together willingly.  However, I hope it’s coming out of the nebula at last. (CL1: 509)

The letters to Friede and De Casseres indicate that Jeffers worked on at least four primary versions of Barclay’s story before The Women at Point Sur.  The letters also suggest that he worked on these Alma Venus attempts between Tamar and The Tower Beyond Tragedy, then again between Tower and Roan Stallion, and then following Roan Stallion.  After he abandoned the fourth (most fully developed) version of Point Alma Venus in April 1926, he next wrote the shorter narrative Home (originally to have been included in The Women at Point Sur, the Prelude that opens the Point Sur volume as finally published in 1927, and The Women at Point Sur itself.  Although Jeffers never published any of the Alma Venus attempts, the manuscripts for these attempts and related fragments total close to 270 handwritten pages (nearly all written on versos of the discarded typescript for The Alpine Christ and all but three stray pages in the Jeffers Archive at the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas).  This material, painstakingly transcribed by Rob Kafka, confirms that the four attempts at Point Alma Venus versions are preliminary attempts at The Women at Point Sur and show that each involve a different conception of, and approach to, the Reverend Barclay’s story.[3]

The recovery of Point Alma Venus complicates Everson’s scenario  of Jeffers’ development in at least one way.  Jeffers’ comments in the letters to Friede and De Casseres indicate that Tamar did not directly lead on to his re-imagining of Orerstes’ story in The Tower Beyond Tragedy but instead led first to an attempt at Barclay’s story.  Similarly, Tower did not lead directly to imagining California and her violational experiences in Roan Stallion but instead to another attempt at Barclay’s story, and after Roan Stallion came yet another attempt.  The repeated attempts at Point Alma Venus do not rule out Everson’s assertion that “deliverance through violation” was the “ruling idea’ of the published narratives from this period.  But the timing, thematic ambition, and scope of these Alma Venus attempts do problematize the view that Tamar, Tower, and Roan Stallion are a linear progression leading up to, and culminating in, Point Sur.  Instead, the Alma Venus attempts place the Reverend Barclay’s story as a kind of gravitational center for the published narratives, which exist in tension with its precipitating centrifugal energy and its centripetal thematic pull.  In Everson’s scenario, Tamar initiates the pilgrimage to the base of the mountain and the climb to its peak, which is to say The Women at Point Sur.  When the Alma Venus attempts are added in, the major, published narratives from these years become the planets orbiting around Baclay’s story as their generating source and energy.  At the very least Jeffers’ April 24, 1926 letter to Friede shows that the drafting of Tamar precipitated work on Alma Venus and that the work on the different attempts at Alma Venus are an important context for the writing not only of Point Sur but also The Tower Beyond Tragedy, Roan Stallion and Point Sur.

The Alma Venus manuscripts may, also, complicate Everson’s account in a second way.  Although Jeffers indicates, in his letter to Friede, that all the attempts at Barclay’s story followed the completion of Tamar, there are features of the earliest Alma Venus attempt that suggest it may actually have preceded Tamar, as does at least one contextual factor.  The purpose of this discussion is not to prove that Jeffers made the first attempt at Barclay’s story before writing Tamar’s story.  That cannot, as I see it, be proved.  Rather the purpose is to briefly sketch why this chronology is at least possible, perhaps even plausible, and to suggest how this alternate chronology might enhance our understanding of Jeffers’ development, both stylistically and conceptually, as he progressed from The Coast-Range Christ to Tamar and the major poems that followed it.


Various textual and contextual details establish probable dates for when Jeffers was writing the published long poems during the period of his various Alma Venus attempts[4]:

  • Tamar: probably begun spring 1922; probably completed late winter or early spring 1923
  • The Tower Beyond Tragedy: begun late summer 1924; completed no later than January 1925
  • Roan Stallion: probably begun April 1925 (certainly by May); completed June (probably early June) 1925
  • Home, Prelude, Point Sur: composed May 1926 through February 1927

The textual and contextual evidence also suggests that Jeffers worked on Barclay’s story in the three gaps between writing the completed narratives.  If Jeffers’ claim (in his April 1926 letter to Friede) that all Alma Venus work came after Tamar is correct, then the first two attempts at Barclay’s story are from the year-and-several-month gap between completing Tamar and starting Tower (the possibility that the first Alma Venus attempt may pre-date Tamar is considered below).  The third Alma Venus attempt, the briefest of the four, is from the four or so months between Jeffers completing The Tower Beyond Tragedy and beginning Roan Stallion.  (In this third version Jeffers attempts to present Barclay’s story through a framing narrative featuring a visionary character, McTorald, who can perceive Barclay’s consciousness, a narrative experiment that merits further study.  The fourth Alma Venus attempt, the most fully developed and most nearly completed version, is from the nearly one-year interval between completing Roan Stallion and abandoning Point Alma Venus in late April 1926.

The rate at which Jeffers composed The Women at Point Sur, the finally completed and published version of Barclay’s story, shows that he could have managed to draft both of the first two Alma Venus attempts in the period between Tamar and Tower.  But there’s another possibility to consider: that Jeffers, instead, first attempted to write Barclay’s story before Tamar.  The documentary evidence neither supports this scenario nor argues against it conclusively.  And to consider this as a possibility one must, it is clear, discount Jeffers’ claim to Friede that he began Alma Venus soon after finishing Tamar.  But several factors do suggest that the initial Alma Venus attempt may have preceded Tamar.  And if this is the case, it helps clarify Jeffers’ transformation from the poet of Brides of the South Wind, a promising, serious figure but one still searching for his mature voice, into the distinctive, authoritative poet of Tamar.

The chronology of other work from this period is, here as well, a key factor in considering this possible, alternative scenario.  Sometime in the months after completing Tor House in the late summer of 1919, Jeffers compiled a collection that he submitted to Macmillan, which had published Californians in 1916.  The rejection letter shows that this manuscript included “four long poems” that the Macmillan editor. W.B. Drayton Henderson found “very unpleasant” because of their “fleshly incidents” (CP5: 47-48).  These “fleshly” long poems seem to have been the 1917 narratives Fauna and A Woman Down the Coast (which Jeffers also considered titling Storm as Deliverer) along with two 1919 narratives, Peacock Ranch and Sea-Passions, written spring 1919 shortly before he began working on Tor House.  Although we lack a table of contents for this collection, it plausibly included one of the iterations of “The Truce and the Peace” and other work from 1918 and the early months of 1919 (such as “Suicide’s Stone”) that Jeffers variously included and omitted from the surviving tables of contents for the unpublished collections he constructed in the several years following the rejected Macmillan collection and leading up to the final configuration of Tamar and Other Poems.  The purpose of the collection submitted seems to have been to collect and frame the considerable body of work Jeffers had produced since Californians.[5]

Significantly, the Macmillan manuscript did not include The Coast-Range Christ, which Jeffers began drafting the later part of 1919 or early 1920, while the Macmillan submission was still under review, and which he completed spring 1920 around the time W.B. Drayton Henderson sent along the rejection, praising Jeffers’ “splendid Californian backgrounds” but complaining of the inclusion of the “ignoble aspects of life” in the long poems.  Henderson’s comments amounted to a challenge to Jeffers to rethink the character of his narrative practice and perhaps even his commitment to narrative poetry in order to revert to “the grace of mind and incident” that (for Henderson) had characterized Californians.  Although Henderson was not commenting on The Coast-Range Christ, his remarks would necessarily have registered for Jeffers as a criticism of it, since what was then his most recent narrative was a further development of the approach in the narratives Henderson found distasteful.  Two factors indicate that Jeffers rejected Henderson’s critique.  First, tables of contents for collections he compiled in the months and several years following Henderson’s letter feature The Coast-Range Christ.  Second is the lyric “Brides of the South Wind,” which reads as a kind of apologia to the Hendersons of contemporary poetry (whether or not he had Henderson specifically in mind).  Jeffers cast this lyric as a kind of preface to Fauna, A Woman Down the Coast, and Peacock Ranch (“fleshly” narratives that troubled Henderson), along with The Coast-Range Christ, and he placed it, in various tables of contents, immediately before the narratives.  In “Brides of the South Wind,” Jeffers not only explains (as if to justify) the destructive “wildness” of the four heroines by invoking World War I as the “tempest” that made them, but he also connects their wildness to the beauty of nature and divine energy—a grander and more comprehensive “grace” than Henderson allows for when he characterizes the long poems he’s rejecting as “ignoble” and lacking the “grace of mind” that he’d admired in Californians:


Go then and wander about the world
If you are resolute to go gipsying.
And lead your lovers by the hands,
But let your father alone, he has eaten
Sufficient offerings, do not wake him.
Dove, Myrtle, Peace and Fauna,
Daughters of war, that tempest made you.

And made you as full of blood as the fields
Of Picard poppies, and three of you
Remembering the paternal Mars
Married a storm wind; Fauna instead
Found quieter love and lovelier sleep.
Dove, Myrtle, Peace and Fauna,
Ask pardon of people for your wildness.

Young wantons if you are bound to babble secrets
Let them blame woman’s nature.
And tell them this: He who is rain and the rain-wind,
Wide gulfs of moving water,
Mountains and moon and stars and the steep sea-wings
Of pelicans stringing northward,
He also is found in a child’s wish, in human wildness
And all our laughable wisdom,
The beautiful one God, in the little red hearts
Of girls and the earth’s red fire-veins. (CP4: 368)

The centrality of The Coast-Range Christ in the collections Jeffers considered in the several years following its completion and the way he used “Brides of the South Wind” as both a kind of gloss on it and endorsement of it suggest that Jeffers regarded Coast-Range as not simply a success but as a major piece.  If so, the question, then, is why Jeffers waited two years until spring 1922 to begin working on his next narrative poem: Tamar.

Other than the months when Jeffers was working with the construction crew building Tor House and months directly after that were perhaps taken up with moving into Tor House, establishing a routine there, and shaping up the collection submitted to Macmillan, narrative projects dominated Jeffers’ writing from spring 1919 through spring 1920.  Some of the gap between The Coast-Range Christ and Tamar can be attributed to Jeffers’ work on the distinctive, fully mature lyrics featured in Tamar and Other Poems.  “Salmon Fishing,” from late December 1920 or shortly after, seems the earliest of these, and in the months that followed these lyrics (“Natural Music” et al) seem to have been Jeffers’ primary creative focus.  But this still leaves the period from spring 1920 through the end of 1920 immediately following The Coast-Range Christ largely unaccounted for.  And this is the period when Jeffers might well have been expected to be working on a narrative poem that would not simply consolidate the progress he’d made in writing The Coast-Range Christ but to extend it.

A somewhat cryptic note from spring 1922 may be relevant to this seeming gap following the completion of The Coast-Range Christ.  On the back of Jeffers’ February 19, 1922 bank statement (often referred to as the “great sheet”) are a series of notes and workings that show Jeffers sketching what becomes Tamar, and one note (just below the word “TAMAR”) reads “tho this is my last tale” (CP5: 328-332).  While it’s possible that Jeffers here is anticipating Tamar being so successful that it would come to be the capstone to his narrative work and mark an end to it, a more plausible reading is that Jeffers, in this remark, is giving himself permission to write one more narrative (a final “tale”) in spite of doubting the wisdom of stopping work, even temporarily, on the lyrics he’d been writing (“Continent’s End” is also drafted on the back of this bank statement and is apparently the most recent of these lyrics).  And this doubt seemingly would involve some sense that some earlier narrative or narratives were either failures or had come to seem to him an aesthetic dead end.  That Jeffers might well have come to question A Woman Down the Coast, Sea-Passions, and Peacock Ranch is quite conceivable.  It’s less likely that he had come to reject Fauna and The Coast-Range Christ, both of which he included in Tamar and Other Poems, and since Coast-Range is the most recent of these, it’s unlikely that he understood it, however he viewed its mix of success and failure, as calling into question the option of writing narrative.

The remark “tho this is my last tale” can be parsed a third way, and that is to read it as occasioned by and implicitly referencing a narrative that Jeffers worked on and abandoned between The Coast-Range Christ and Tamar.  This reading of the remark suggests that Jeffers, having completed Coast-Range, attempted a narrative that would extend its conceptual and stylistic gains, had been unable to complete it, and had come to understand the failure less as the failure of the specific poem and more as an indication that narrative wasn’t a viable form for the direction his evolving poetic vision was heading.  In this scenario, narrative, which had provided Jeffers a way to delve into the psychology of his characters and to explore the moral, cultural, and political implications of their actions had failed to support the expression of what was becoming more central to his work: enacting lyric consciousness and exploring it as a mode of knowing nature and as an aspect of nature.

The unpublished lyric “Metempsychosis,” written mid-1919 and predating The Coast-Range Christ, signals the shift to a concern with lyric consciousness as a kind of embodied awareness of nature from within nature, and the series of lyrics beginning with “Salmon Fishing” further explore the self’s position within natural process leading to “Continent’s End” where the lyric eye overwrites the lyric I to reach a moment of recognition of the simultaneity of perpetual natural process (the “tides of fire”) within time and the permanence of the “eye that watched” that is both within and beyond time.  It is, I’d suggest, significant that Jeffers drafted “Continent’s End” on the same sheet that he projects Tamar and commits to one “last tale.”  In writing Tamar Jeffers discovered a way to bring the two separate, even competing strands of his work

The argument that some narrative project of considerable thematic ambition and aesthetic risk followed the completion of The Coast-Range Christ and preceded the series of lyrics that “Salmon Fishing” initiates is akin to the argument for the presence of an astronomical black hole.  The otherwise unexplained perturbations around the invisible argues for something being there—something major enough that its energy or gravitational pull visibly impacts what surrounds it.  If Jeffers did work on a major narrative following Coast-Range, it is, of course, possible that it is simply missing.  Jeffers reports that he burned the manuscript of Tamar and could have discarded an uncompleted narrative.  But Jeffers did not discard or destroy Tamar; he burned it only after the poem was in print (CL1: 520-521).  And the recovery of so much otherwise presumed lost material, including now the reconstruction of the Alma Venus attempts, shows that more manuscript and draft material has survived than we once thought.  There is, to be clear, no way to prove that this third parsing of “my last tale” is correct, nor is there any way to prove that Jeffers attempted a narrative poem in the months following The Coast-Range Christ.  But if he did attempt a narrative in this otherwise unaccounted for period, the first attempt at Barclay’s story, the initial Alma Venus attempt, is the strongest candidate to have been that project.


In the absence of any clear documentary evidence, the case for placing the first Alma Venus attempt in 1920 following The Coast-Range Christ is necessarily hypothetical and derived from critical inference rather than a proof based on documentary evidence.  In one sense, the matter boils down to the judgement that the approach to telling the story, the handling of verse line, and the syntax in the initial Alma Venus seem closer to The Coast-Range Christ than to the handling of these matters in Tamar and that the difference is great enough that Jeffers is unlikely to have written the initial attempt at Barclay’s story after Tamar.  One could reasonably argue that the, at times, more labored writing of the initial Alma Venus attempt is explained by Jeffers’ comment (already quoted) in his September 4, 1925 letter to De Casseres where he suggests (speaking of Alma Venus) that “It’s perhaps because I’m trying to write about more or less educated people this time, and it’s hard to set fire to too much thought.  Ideas and passions don’t live together willingly” (CL:1 509).  But the specific features of the initial Alma Venus attempt are better understood as reflecting an earlier phase of Jeffers’ development (prior to both the mature lyrics of 1921 and Tamar) than as a kind of stylistic regression driven by the nature of the material and his ambitions for it.

The June 1922 Preface for a collection Jeffers was assembling in the early months of writing Tamar provides a useful context for assessing the stylistic differences between the earliest Alma Venus attempt and Tamar.  In the Preface Jeffers observes, “The greatest dramatic poetry in English is not rhymed, the greatest narrative poetry is not rhymed.”  He then adds,

It may seem strange, in view of my belief, that the narrative poems in this book of mine are rhymed; it is because until quite lately I was unable to discover any rhymeless measure but blank verse that could tell a story flexibly, without excess of monotony.  Blank verse I could not use, because it has been so much used by such masters; it carries their impress and inflections.  I think I am at length discovering rhymeless narrative measures of my own; but the poems are not finished, and not included in this series. (CP4: 376)

This indicates that the “narrative poems” in this gathering are rhymed, which suggest that it was to include The Coast-Range Christ and one or more of Fauna, A Woman Down the Coast, Peacock Ranch, and Sea-Passions, all of which are rhymed.  The recent discovery of a “rhymeless measure…that could tell a story flexibly, without excess of monotony” seemingly refers to the long, cadenced narrative line he would then have been using as he was writing Tamar.  The assertion “Blank verse I could not use” can be read as indicating that Jeffers thought about using blank verse but rejected this strategy without ever trying.  It could, however, be read as indicating that he tried using blank verse in a narrative but discovered he could not find a way to deploy it that would break free from the “impress and inflections” of the “masters.”  The opening passage of the initial Alma Venus attempt reads,

The Rev. Dr. Barclay outgrew his God,
He went to Europe with his wife and his son
But the trouble followed him in all his travels.
He wrote from Florence, under the blue sky
So much like home, resigning his pastorate
Of the Los Angeles church; his health he wrote
Had not mended as hoped.  At Interlaken
The mountains troubled him with a sort of vision
That frightened and enthralled: the three peaks, Jungfrau,
Moench, Eiger, so accepted him: he and the peaks
Became one mountain: that mystical communion
Was dreadfully like death: and death approached,

The passage is a somewhat loosened blank verse in which Jeffers allows himself an extra syllable or two, so that lines tend to vary from 10 to 12 syllables.

That Jeffers plausibly understood this as a variation of iambic pentameter is suggested by his handling of iambic pentameter in his early sonnets.  Up through 1918 (including the initial iteration of “The Truce and the Peace”) the lines scan consistently as iambic pentameter, suggesting that Jeffers was using the measure strictly.  As he reworked some of these sonnets across 1919 and 1920, he began allowing himself extra syllables and more varied cadences, to that the lines begin to foreground the motion of the spoken phrases with the formal meter as an underlying system rather than foreground the meter and metrical variation.  Reading the later iterations of these sonnets one might conclude that Jeffers wasn’t in command of the meter.  The initial iterations of the poems, however, documents the formal command, and this suggests that the shift in how the lines operate reflects formal decision.

The handling of the passages in shorter lines in the initial Alma Venus version (such as the passage above) are, I’d suggest, another instance of this updating of, or variation on, or loosening of iambic pentameter.  And this example suggests less that Jeffers’ conclusion that blank verse wouldn’t work as a “rhymeless measure” for his narratives came from an attempt to use blank verse for narrative and dissatisfaction with the results.  In any case, the opening passage of this initial Alma Venus attempt is noticeably different from the opening passage of Tamar:

A night the half-moon was like a dancing-girl,
No, like a drunkard’s last half dollar

Shoved on the polished bar of the eastern hill-range,
Young Cauldwell rode his pony along the sea-cliff;
When she stopped, spurred; when she trembled, drove
The teeth of the little jagged wheels so deep
They tasted blood; the mare with four slim hooves
On a foot of ground pivoted like a top,
Jumped from the crumble of sod, went down, caught, slipped;
Then, the quick frenzy finished, stiffening herself
Slid with her drunken rider down the ledges,
Shot from sheer rock and broke
Her life out on the rounded tidal boulders.

The night you know accepted with no show of emotion the little accident; (CP1: 18)

The way the opening of Tamar pivots quickly from registering a scene into narrating action is one factor in the greater momentum of the initial passage in Tamar compared to the initial passage of the first Alma Venus version.  But there’s also greater variation in tone and pacing and greater play with the placing of stresses in the lines.  The experience of having written in iambic pentameter and sought ways to vary it may inform these lines, but in them Jeffers is not trying to produce iambic pentameter.

The opening of the second line of Tamar reflects another key difference between the two passages.  The word “No” signals that we are listening to a teller, a narrator who, while not an “I” within the narrative scene that’s being presented, is still an active presence in the telling, and this evoking of the narrator as a figure phrasing the story while telling it asks us to hear the first two lines as alternative descriptions of the “half-moon,” and to experience them as differing imaginative registers.  (The phrase “you know” in the last of these lines functions similarly, with the added twist that it casts the reader/listener as a collaborating presence to the narrator’s recalling and inventing.)  The narrating voice in the opening of Tamar is above the scene, able to regard it with a certain objectivity or distance, but also imaginatively immersed in it through the process of inventing and reflecting on its presentation.  By comparison, the narrative tone and logic established in the opening of the initial Alma Venus version is static.  In what seems the earlier narrative, the material (both its substance and its conceptual significance) is prior to, and separate from, the step of inventing the writing to present the material.  Writing is translation and presentation rather than writing being (as it becomes in Tamar) a process of experiencing and discovering, and this difference contributes to a sense that the initial Alma Venus version is allegory trying to become vision, while Tamar is a visionary poem with an allegorical dimension.  It should also be noted that both the initial Alma Venus attempt and Tamar also include passages where Jeffers uses long lines, just as he had also done—albeit combined with rhyme—in The Coast-Range Christ.  Other than the absence of rhyme, the handling of the long lines in the initial Alma Venus seems closer to Coast-Range than to Tamar.  There is still a tendency to manipulate syntax (undercutting the sense of the lines as spoken) in order to stay within the formal (even if loosened) measure, and this contributes to a slowness of pace and at times a somewhat stilted manner that differs from the longer verse line that Jeffers develops across 1921 in the lyrics and then utilizes in Tamar—a verse line that draws on speech cadences (in a way the line of the initial Alma Venus does not) to create the rhythmic momentum that characterizes Jeffers’ narrative writing at its best.

While the character of the writing and the sense of line and measure suggest the initial Alma Venus attempt precedes rather than follows Tamar, these features do not explain why Jeffers abandoned it, even as he retained The Coast-Range Christ in the various collections he planned out in the several years prior to writing Tamar and included it in Tamar and Other Poems.  In this regard, a passage from section 4 of the initial Alma Venus (it occurs about   a third of the way into the draft) is suggestive:

The lighthouse tower rhythmically unrolled and folded
Its fan of light, silhouetting the tops of the pines, and the sea made a murmur.  Dr. Barclay
Felt himself shamed by so much calm.  Be fretted for the soul’s future
Under the waves of the great rhythm of day and evening?  Be agitate, ask anxious questions
When all the world moves to slow dance‑music, impassive and exalted, the tides, the seasons,
Life and decay and light and twilight, the growth of the pines, ring over ring from the pith.  “It is true.
It would be better to walk in the night and not ask questions.  (italics added)

The italicized segment of this passage anticipates, I’d suggest, the 1921 lyrics, in which the natural world figures as a living, comprehensive organism.  As in, say, “Natural Music,” nature is not a screen on which to project meaning nor a resource to mine for metaphors that gloss the human scene.  Instead, nature is a multiform being, and this transforms metaphor (“slow dance-music,” for example) into a means of apprehending nature rather than metaphor being merely a means to express nature or nature-as-metaphor being a device to express the human.  But even as this passage reads as a precursor to the lyric mode Jeffers fashioned and developed across 1921, it suggests that Jeffers was finding it difficult to modulate from the narrative material to this lyric apprehension and unable to fully engage and develop this lyric apprehension because of the need to cast it as part of Barclay’s interiority.  In the passage, narrative exposition and lyric apprehension butt against each other rather than interfuse and then extend and enrich each other.  Jeffers here has not yet, I’d suggest, developed the ability to shift from narrative exposition to the moments of lyric, visionary expansion that we find in Roan Stallion or even the more sober exposition of Cawdor with the caged eagle’s death dream that Jeffers would excerpt from the narrative for the 1938 Selected Poetry.


Does any of this prove that the initial Alma Venus attempt dates from the middle and later part of 1920 in the gap between Jeffers’ completing The Coast-Range Christ and the series of lyrics initiated by “Salmon Fishing”?  The answer to that question has to be no.  Writers do not necessarily develop in a linear manner, where each step forward leads inevitably and only to the next step forward.  But if the question is whether it is plausible that Jeffers wrote the initial Alma Venus attempt in this gap, then the answer is yes.  Locating the initial Alma Venus in this gap fits with the possibility that Jeffers would have wanted to continue with narrative when completed Coast-Range.  It offers a way to understand the comment on the great sheet that Tamar is to be the “last tale.”  And it raises the possibility that the turn to lyric marked by “Salmon Fishing” wasn’t simply a matter of writing short poems for the sake of writing short poems or something to do while casting about for the next “story,” suggesting instead that the turn to lyric was driven by a sense that narrative as a mode, as a strategy, was at odds with his evolving sense of nature, the self in nature, and consciousness of nature.  And this in turn suggests that the return to narrative in writing Tamar wasn’t simply a matter of taking advantage of the poetic line he’d been exploring in the lyrics and applying it to the writing of narratives as he’d been conceiving narrative (of replacing one “measure” with another “measure”), but was instead a matter of developing a new sense of narrative—a sense of narrative interfused with lyric awareness and perhaps even a new sense of narrative where the function of narrative is to enable and release lyric awareness.  If so, Tamar is at least in part the discovery of this possibility, and it initiates not only a renewed focus on narrative for Jeffers but the advent of a new kind of narrative.  In its themes and the character of its material, Tamar resembles the earlier narratives up to and including the initial Alma Venus attempt, but the significance of Tamar for Jeffers’ career isn’t only (or maybe even primarily) its themes and its material.  Rather, the significance of Tamar is at least in part how the new approach to narrative, a new conception of narrative as process and mode, initiates the narratives that follow: the three later attempts at Alma Venus, Tower, Roan Stallion, and Point Sur.  These long poems, both the ones Jeffers completed and the ones he abandoned, further explore and expand the possibilities of narrative and lyric approached as a hybrid mode, and in this context what Everson termed the “apotheosis” of The Women at Point Sur becomes in part the heightened lyric risk (and the intensity of discovery this leverages) evident in The Women at Point Sur where Jeffers, in the opening unit of Prelude, writes himself directly into the projected narrative world and this, in turn, becomes the implicit context for projecting and relating Barclay’s story in The Women at Point Sur proper.

Whether or not the initial Alma Venus attempt followed The Coast-Range Christ rather than Tamar and whether or not Jeffers’ sense of the failure of this initial attempt led him to turn away from narrative for more than a year (from at least December 1920 to beginning Tamar in the spring of 1922), this initial attempt at Alma Venus and the three subsequent attempts (which can be more securely placed chronologically in relation to the published long poems from this period) call for further exploration of how such crucial poems as Tamar and Roan Stallion came to be.  This exploration may lead us to revise Everson’s scenario, but even if it primarily validates Everson’s views, probing these preliminary attempts at the Reverend Barclay’s story will deepen our understanding of these poems and this phase of Jeffers’ career.

Works Cited

Jeffers, Robinson.  The Alpine Christ & Other Poems, edited by William Everson, Cayucos Books (1974).

—.  Brides of the South: Poems 1917-1922, edited by William Everson, Cayucos Books (1974).

—.  Californians, edited by William Everson, Cayucos Books (1971).

—.  The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers, edited by James Karman, Vol. 1, Stanford University Press (2009).

—.  The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt, Vols. 1-5, Stanford University Press, (1988-2001).

—.  The Point Alma Venus Manuscripts: Preliminary Versions of The Women at Point Sur, edited by Tim Hunt & Rob Kafka (forthcoming Stanford University Press)



[1] See CP5: 29-66 for a discussion of the chronology of Jeffers’ work in this period that draws on this recovered material.

[2] See The Point Alma Venus Manuscripts: Preliminary Versions of The Women at Point Sur (forthcoming Stanford University Press).  This collection gathers Rob Kafka’s transcriptions of this material.

[3] Although Jeffers referred to these attempts, in letters written while he was working on the fourth version, as “Point Alma Venus,” the manuscripts for the first and third attempt are each titled “Storm as Deliverer” (an alternate title for an earlier narrative also titled “A Woman Down the Coast”); the manuscript for the second attempt is untitled, and only the fourth attempt is explicitly titled “Point Alma Venus.”  Because Jeffers came to refer to the successive attempts as “Point Alma Venus,” that designation is retained for this discussion, and the first attempt at the narrative is typically designated as the “initial Alma Venus attempt.”

[4] For a summary of the evidence for these probable dates, see CP5: 54-78.

[5] For an overview of Jeffers’ productivity in this period, see CP5: 34-54.