Why Did Jeffers Omit “Shine, Perishing Republic” from Tamar and Other Poems and How Might It Matter?

[This article was published in Jeffers Studies, Volume 22 (2022).]

The critical reign of the New Critics has come and gone, but a few New Critical biases live on. One is that a poem is so artfully wrought that its meaning is largely independent of context and presentation. The poem on a computer screen and the poem on the page are one and the same—so long as wording, punctuation, and line breaks are the same. Similarly, a poem’s textual history—its initial appearance in a magazine, subsequent publication in authorial collections, and further circulation in anthologies—is irrelevant, again, so long as wording, punctuation, and lineation remain unchanged. “Shine, Perishing Republic,” one of Robinson Jeffers’ best known poems, should, then, be the same poem whether we read it in the 1925 collection Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, the 1938 Selected Poetry, or an anthology.  Different readers might interpret it differently, but “Shine, Perishing Republic” is “Shine, Perishing Republic”—no matter where or when we encounter it.

However, the textual history of “Shine, Perishing Republic” suggests that a poem is not always fully independent of where it appears and when it is read. Three reading occasions illustrate this. In the first and most common, a student reads the poem in an anthology where it is dated 1935, because the anthology editor has drawn it from the 1935 Modern Library reissue of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, ignored the original 1925 edition, and carelessly assumed that the copyright date for the reissue’s Introduction is the copyright date for the poems (this misdating occurs, alas, in a widely used anthology from a major publisher.)[1] The student then, quite plausibly, registers the “America” that is “thickening to empire” as the America of the Great Depression and perhaps even registers the “corruption” that is to be avoided as connected to the Isolationism Jeffers expressed as the 1930s progressed toward the Second World War. And this differs from the second reading occasion: a young, earnest poetry fan encountering the poem in 1925 in a just-published collection that is all the rage. For this reader, part of the original audience for the poem and the collection, the America “heavily thickening to empire” is the Roaring Twenties with a Charleston shimmy and a bathtub gin hangover. And the “corruption” the poem invokes probably registers as the frenetic hedonism of hot jazz, speakeasies, and rumble seat whoopee. Even though the reader encountering the poem today in an anthology and the reader encountering the poem in 1925 in the original collection are reading the same set of words, the same poem, a different temporal and textual context frames their reading of “Shine, Perishing Republic,” and this framing can inflect their respective experiences of the poem and thus, to a degree, how they register and understand some of its details.

The third reading occasion is hypothetical, but it underscores that where we encounter a poem can not only matter for our understanding of the poem itself but can also matter for our understanding of the poem’s role in the poet’s body of work. Although Jeffers first published “Shine, Perishing Republic” in 1925 when he expanded Tamar and Other Poems into Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, his papers show that he wrote the poem before “Tamar” and had planned to include it in Tamar and Other Poems, then changed his mind. Although no reader could actually have read “Shine, Perishing Republic” in the context of Tamar and Other Poems, considering this hypothetical occasion can alter our understanding of the poem, and it helps clarify Jeffers’ intentions for the Tamar collection.

Jeffers wrote “Shine, Perishing Republic” no earlier than spring 1921 and no later than the beginning of 1922—before, that is, he began writing the narrative “Tamar” in the spring of 1922 (CP 5: 58–59). He could, then, have included it in Tamar and Other Poems when he published the collection in 1924—as he did the other important lyrics (“Salmon Fishing,” “Continent’s End,” and others) that he wrote in the fifteen months or so before writing “Tamar” (5: 56). Instead, he omitted “Shine, Perishing Republic” from Tamar and Other Poems, then a little more than a year later placed it in the Roan Stallion cluster of otherwise post-“Tamar” work when he prepared Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems for its 1925 publication by Boni & Liveright. He then included it in the 1938 Selected Poetry, identifying it as “from Roan Stallion.”

Jeffers’ decision to include “Shine, Perishing Republic” in Roan Stallion and Selected Poetry shows that he saw it as publishable, which makes its omission from Tamar curious. An early table of contents (from shortly after he finished writing “Tamar”) shows that he had originally planned to include “Shine, Perishing Republic” in Tamar and Other Poems, and this makes its eventual absence from the collection as published even more curious. Why did Jeffers initially include the poem in the collection but then drop it? And this leads to two further questions: Does presenting “Shine, Perishing Republic” as part of the Roan Stallion material have any impact on how we read it? And what does the decision to omit “Shine, Perishing Republic” from Tamar and Other Poems tell us about how Jeffers understood this pivotal collection?

The early table of contents for Tamar, an undated typescript, survives because Jeffers later drafted a page of The Tower Beyond Tragedy on the back of it (CP 5: 1060). The page numbers for the listed poems match the page numbers for various surviving typescripts, which indicates he completed and typed this version of the collection planning to submit it to a publisher. The table of contents lacks the shorter poems (“Point Joe,” “Gale in April,” and others) that he wrote after the title narrative, and their absence suggests the table of contents dates from spring 1923 and documents either Jeffers’ original conception for the collection or an early conception (5: 59–60).

Tamar                                                                                          1
The Songs of the Dead Men to the Three Dancers           78
Mal Paso Bridge                                                                       83
The Dance of the Banner                                                        88
The Murmansk Landing                                                         94
The Beginning of Decadence                                                 95
Shine, Perishing Republic                                                       98
The Cycle                                                                                    99
Natural Music                                                                           101
Divinely Superfluous Beauty                                                 102
Salmon Fishing                                                                        103
Not Our Good Luck                                                                 104
Suicide’s Stone                                                                          106
To the Stonecutters                                                                  107
Continent’s End                                                                        108

The absence of the shorter poems written after “Tamar” requires no explanation, but the presence of “The Dance of the Banner,” “The Murmansk Landing,” and “The Beginning of Decadence,” three early poems Jeffers did not include in Tamar and Other Poems, helps clarify why he included “Shine, Perishing Republic” in this initial or early version of the collection.

From 1918 through spring 1921, Jeffers mapped out several collections that would have gathered his work from World War I and the first years of the peace. The completed tables of contents and related notes and workings for these collections help date the poems he wrote from this period (CP 5: 1055–59). Tamar and Other Poems, as published, includes six poems written from 1917 through spring 1920:

The Songs of the Dead Men to the Three Dancers
Mal Paso Bridge
To His Father
The Truce and the Peace
The Coast-Range Christ

These poems precede Jeffers’ development of his long, cadenced unrhymed lines and distinctive perspective on nature, first fully evident in such late 1920 poems as “Salmon Fishing,” then further developed in his shorter poems across 1921 and early 1922, and then becoming the basis for his narrative poetry in writing “Tamar” (5: 1055–59).[2]

The early table of contents for Tamar lacks “Fauna,” “To His Father,” “The Truce and the Peace,” and “The Coast-Range Christ” but includes three other early poems from this same period that Jeffers never published and seems to have regarded as lesser pieces: “The Murmansk Landing” appears in none of the early tables of contents; “The Dance of the Banner” appears only in the 1918 workings; and “The Beginning of Decadence” appears only in the fall 1920 table of contents but not its 1921 revision or the workings leading to it. Jeffers may have omitted the narratives “Fauna” and “The Coast-Range Christ” for aesthetic reasons. They are metrical and rhymed, and he may have thought they would detract from his stylistic breakthrough in “Tamar.” He perhaps omitted “To His Father” as too directly personal or confessional or perhaps because, unlike the others, it has no direct connection to World War I and the subsequent peace. The omission of “The Truce and Peace” is the hardest to explain. The sonnet sequence is the title poem for the earliest of the pre-Tamar collections (it was then titled “God’s Peace in November”), and Jeffers included it in Selected Poetry.[3]

The inclusion of “Shine, Perishing Republic” in the early table of contents points to a possible explanation for Jeffers’ decisions about which early poems to include in this early version of Tamar. In it, six poems written during World War I or reflecting directly on it follow “Tamar” in chronological order: “The Songs of the Dead Men” written in 1917; “Mal Paso Bridge,” “The Dance of the Banner,” and “The Murmansk Landing” written across 1918 (and probably in that order); “The Beginning of Decadence” from spring 1920; and “Shine, Perishing Republic” written a year or so after that (CP 5: 34–36, 40–42, 52, 59–60). The first four chart Jeffers’ responses to the war as it progresses, and the final two respond to the peace that followed. In the context of this implicit narrative, “Shine, Perishing Republic” derives from and responds to “The Beginning of Decadence.”

Jeffers wrote “The Beginning of Decadence” soon after “The Coast-Range Christ.” In it, the speaker (seemingly Jeffers addressing the reader directly) denounces the “Fools” (implicitly the political leaders of the victorious nations) for giving “the enemy’s throat to France to squeeze for vengeance’ sake, / And the loot of the world to the victors and the heart of the world to break” (CP 4: 365). He adds, “Now we shall grow wealthier, now we shall grow mightier, now freedom is gone,” implying it would have been better to lose the war. The failure of politics and history (and by extension human society) leads Jeffers to declare that he is retreating to “the stone belts of my own house” on “a rock above the sea,” which he characterizes as “a granite ecstasy kept clean” (4: 367).

“The Beginning of Decadence” can be read as “Shine, Perishing Republic” simply writ larger and with its occasion and politics made explicit. But with a crucial difference. The concluding couplet reads: “But I shall not look at flowers now, summer may kill the fragrant copse, / Sun-glare eat the fritillaries, poppy and lupine pass from the slopes” (CP 4: 367). The poem ends, that is, with the speaker, with Jeffers, unwilling to turn to nature, here figured as the beauty of the flowers, because its beauty is too fleeting, too fragile, to serve as an alternative to history and society. In “The Beginning of Decadence” nature’s beauty is decorative. It is not yet essential and fundamental. Nature can temporarily distract from the meaninglessness of history, but it cannot provide an alternative to it or offer a genuine ground for meaning.

“Shine, Perishing Republic” recapitulates (perhaps it would be more accurate to say abstracts or generalizes) “The Beginning of Decadence,” but it also enacts a crucial shift in Jeffers’ view of nature and his relationship to it. In “Shine, Perishing Republic,” America “thickening into empire” (a phrase that encapsulates “The Beginning of Decadence”) occasions (in line three) this response to nature’s transitoriness: “I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth” (CP 1: 15). Here, the beauty of actual (not merely figural) flowers is to be embraced, because this seemingly fleeting beauty is an occasion for recognizing nature as the unending cycle of being in which blooming gives way to fading and fading in turn gives way to blooming. In “Shine, Perishing Republic,” that is, nature’s temporary beauties are moments within natural process, which participate in nature’s more comprehensive beauty and function as signs of it. And within this understanding of the order of things and this perspective, “decadence” functions, also, as an aspect of nature and so, also, participates in nature’s more comprehensive beauty and expresses it: “Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother” (1: 15). In this early construction of Tamar and Other Poems, “Shine, Perishing Republic” overwrites “The Beginning of Decadence,” replacing its recognition of politics and history as meaningless flux (the speaker’s despair occasioned by the war’s senseless destruction and the corrupt, cynical peace that followed) with a recognition of nature as ceaseless cyclical process.

In the early Tamar table of contents, “Shine, Perishing Republic” concludes the collection’s initial sequence of six short poems which chart the poet’s responses to World War I and the Versailles Peace. It also leads into a second series of short poems, beginning with “The Cycle” (then continuing with “Natural Music,” “Divinely Superfluous Beauty,” and “Salmon Fishing”). This second series (primarily poems Jeffers wrote from December 1920 or so through spring 1921 when he began “Tamar”) foregrounds nature as process, celebrates its beauty, and projects it as a ground for being and meaning (CP 5: 56). Where “Shine, Perishing Republic” subsumes and recasts “The Beginning of Decadence,” “The Cycle,” instead, reinforces and extends “Shine, Perishing Republic” by subsuming the more limited scale of human history and societies into the vast (and seemingly unending) time span of nature’s cyclical process. In “The Cycle,” for instance, World War I is implicitly reduced to an unnamed instance of “our blood’s / Unrest.” This casts the war as a moment among other historical moments in an ongoing historical process and juxtaposes the war to the more comprehensive sphere of natural process where “The clapping blackness of the wings of pointed cormorants” precedes historical moments and continues beyond them long into the future (1: 14). In “The Cycle” (at least in the early construction of Tamar where it follows “Shine, Perishing Republic” and “The Beginning of Decadence”) the war that was to end all wars no longer signifies historical rupture and cultural failure; it is merely a detail in a pattern, a lesser cycle within “The Cycle.

Reading “Shine, Perishing Republic” as a pivot point between “The Beginning of Decadence” and “The Cycle” clarifies its occasion and adds specificity to its details. The way it extends, yet transforms, “The Beginning of Decadence” implicitly casts the “molten mass” that “pops and sighs out” as “the mass hardens” in “Shine, Perishing Republic” as the cooling of the lava flow from the war’s volcanic eruption of violence, which suggests that the “decay” is the decadent “corruption” of the Versailles Peace (CP 1: 15). As such, “Shine, Perishing Republic” naturalizes (and broadens) the indictment of the politics of the peace in “The Beginning of Decadence,” while also anticipating Jeffers’ further explorations of nature as being and meaning in the poems that follow it in this iteration of the Tamar collection. Moreover, reading “Shine, Perishing Republic” as the culmination of the sequence of six poems following “Tamar” in this early table of contents suggests that it is, in effect, a declaration (as Hemingway might have termed it) of a separate peace. But in “Shine, Perishing Republic” the declaration is a declaration of a separate peace not only from the war but also from the peace itself—or to be more precise, a declaration of a separate peace from the decadence of the Versailles Peace.

When Jeffers added “Shine, Perishing Republic” to the Roan Stallion section of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, he placed it between “Autumn Evening” and “The Treasure,” two lyrics written after he had published Tamar. The two celebrate nature as beauty and meaning, but in them (and the Roan Stallion material more generally) the crisis of World War I and how Jeffers experienced what he perceived as the decadence of the Versailles Peace as an occasion for depression and anger is absent.[4] This alters, if only slightly, the valence of “Shine, Perishing Republic.” In the context of the early version of Tamar, “Shine, Perishing Republic” responds to the twinned disasters of World War I and the Versailles Peace, and these impel the turn away from society and history to nature as a refuge and a sphere of meaning. In Roan Stallion, “Shine, Perishing Republic’s” placement emphasizes nature as the poem’s context, and the rejection of “decadence” is more generally social decadence. In both of these contexts, “Shine, Perishing Republic” is a credo that implies, through its imagery, an epistemology and a basis for Jeffers’ poetics, but its placement in Roan Stallion obscures the extent to which the poem responds to, and moves beyond, the psychological situation and political critique documented in “The Beginning of Decadence.” In one context, the turn to nature derives from the specific crisis of the war; in the other context, the turn to nature derives from a more general, and abstract, critique of society and history.

Whether “Shine, Perishing Republic” is a better or more significant or more Jeffersian poem as placed in the early version of Tamar and Other Poems or as placed in the Roan Stallion section of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems is open to debate. One placement brings its originating occasion more fully into view; the other generalizes its occasion. In the former, the speaker turns away from society’s “decadence” and commits to nature’s integrity. In the latter, the speaker comments on society’s decadence from nature’s integrity. What is not, I would suggest, debatable is that these two contexts invite or prioritize slightly different readings of the poem and contribute to slightly different experiences of it. Reading the poem as Jeffers reacting to the destructiveness of World War I while confronting his dismay at the Versailles Peace is different from reading it as a reaction to mid-1920s social ferment. And these are different from reading it as a Depression-era poem, and also different from reading it (as an overly doctrinaire New Critic might) as if its artful making untethers it from mere referentiality, mere contingency, so that it becomes fully and solely its own context. In these various circulations, the poem’s details are constant. But how it functions as an expressive system and, thus, how we experience it varies.

We can, of course, choose to engage “Shine, Perishing Republic” without any regard for how Jeffers did (and did not) deploy it in Tamar and Other Poems, in Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, and in Selected Poetry. We can treat it, that is, as a self-contained linguistic system, but doing so means reading it (paradoxically) as if it bears on our world beyond the poem even as we treat it as if it has no bearing on Jeffers’ own world or referentiality for him within that world. This is neither to suggest that “Shine, Perishing Republic” should be reduced to its context nor to argue for a single, authorized decoding based on a specific context. Rather, it is to suggest that expressive systems (in this instance poems) are entangled in contexts and that being aware of the array of contexts can deepen and enrich—and even to some degree inflect—our experience of an expressive system and thus our understanding of its implications. In this sense, “Shine, Perishing Republic” expresses its contingency and resists it. It enacts its referentiality and transcends it.

*          *          *

The presence of “Shine, Perishing Republic” in the version of Tamar documented by the early table of contents adds to our understanding of its occasion and (perhaps also) its implications. However, this does not explain why Jeffers dropped it from the collection. To address this question requires shifting from considering what the book can tell us about the poem and focusing, instead, on what the poem can tell us about the book. And this requires recognizing that a book of poetry is both a container storing poems for access and a rhetorical structure composed of the poems it holds. In this way, a book of poems is both multiple and singular: it is a gathering of discrete pieces and a purposeful whole constructed from discrete pieces. We often access poems in anthologies and often read poetry collections by sampling the poems without regard for their order. These practices obscure how the poet’s decisions about selection and sequencing create a book where, as the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts—and where the parts may be different within the whole than they are as parts apart.

The difference between how a chapter functions in a novel and how a poem functions in a collection illustrates this. A novel is the result of a single (albeit extended) compositional process; each chapter is a subordinate unit within a larger, unified work; and chapters, even when excerpted or anthologized, are still understood as drawn from the larger work rather than independent of it. Unlike novelists, who write books, poets write poems, then subsequently fashion books from them. A poetry collection is, then, the result of two separate compositional processes—the writing of the poems themselves followed by the process of structuring them into a book by creating groupings, conceptual patterns, and various frameworks.

For Jeffers this inherent doubleness of poetry collections might seem largely irrelevant.  His long narrative and dramatic poems dominate the volumes, and their length often left relatively few short poems to be sequenced. But even so, as the example of “Shine, Perishing Republic” shows, the structures he created for his collections have implications for our readings of individual poems, and these structures are rhetorically purposeful.

For the most part, Jeffers’ trade collections share a similar history. He first wrote the shorter poems, then drafted the long poem or poems the collection would feature. Writing the shorter poems seems often to have been a kind of preliminary musing as Jeffers searched for the hook or occasion or impetus for the long narrative, and he seems typically to have written the shorter poems without a specific plan for how he would later organize them. In this sense they seem to have been occasional rather than programmatic (the poems for the sequence Descent to the Dead written during the 1929 trip to Ireland and England, first published as a separate volume in their own right, then later incorporated into Give Your Heart to the Hawks, are an exception to this pattern[5]). Once Jeffers began drafting a major narrative or dramatic poem, he seldom interrupted his work on it to write shorter pieces, and once he had finished the long poem for a volume, he proceeded directly to organizing the collection and typing it for publication.

In structuring the collections Jeffers typically inverted (or ignored) the chronology of composition, placing the primary long poem first, followed by the shorter poems. This casts the shorter poems as further elaborations of the primary long poem rather than preliminaries to it. Similarly, his practice of titling the collections after the primary long poem (Cawdor and Other Poems, and so on) foregrounds the long poem as primary and the shorter poems as secondary and supplemental. (The one exception to the pattern is the 1941 collection, published as the United States was edging toward World War II, which he titled Be Angry at the Sun and Other Poems rather than Mara and Other Poems or The Bowl of Blood and Other Poems—an exception that would repay further consideration.)

In structuring the trade collections Jeffers focused, it seems, on rhetorical impact and thematics. In collections such as Cawdor, the long narrative is the main course, served without appetizers, and the short poems follow as dessert or perhaps an after-dinner coffee (Irish?). And perhaps because he typically wrote the shorter poems and the long poem in a collection in the same period, there is little aesthetic or thematic dissonance between reading them in their chronology of composition and reading them within the structure of the collection. Still, being aware of the collections as a construction, a subsequent act of composition, can be instructive, as Cawdor and Other Poems illustrates.

In Cawdor, “Hurt Hawks” is the next to last poem (followed by “Meditation on Saviors”). In it, the hawk’s “fierce rush” of spirit or energy at its death echoes the scene in the narrative “Cawdor,” which Jeffers excerpted in Selected Poetry as “The Caged Eagle’s Death Dream.” As sequenced in the collection, the hawk’s death in “Hurt Hawks” is a kind of coda to the more elaborate imagining of the eagle’s death in the narrative. Jeffers, however, wrote “Hurt Hawks” in spring 1927, some months before beginning “Cawdor” in the summer or fall of that year. This chronology places “Hurt Hawks” as a relatively direct response to the emotional trauma of having to kill the injured hawk, and it places the scene in the narrative as a later, more visionary, elaboration within the narrative world of “Cawdor.” Viewed chronologically, “Hurt Hawks” is a preliminary to (and in part a source for) “The Caged Eagle’s Death Dream.” Read in the context of “Cawdor,” “Hurt Hawks” extends and amplifies “The Caged Eagle’s Death Dream”—even as it remains a poem in its right.

These alternate framings of “Hurt Hawks” and “The Caged Eagle’s Death Dream” complement each other. For most of the trade collections, the implications of the poems as original acts of composition and their implications as units within a collection’s structure are similarly complementary. The two primary exceptions are Tamar and Other Poems and The Double Axe and Other Poems—the collections that gather the poems Jeffers wrote during and in response to the two world wars. These two collections derive from periods of imaginative crisis that were, arguably, the two pivotal moments in his career, and in them, the poems as independently composed works and the poems as units participating and inflected by the collection’s structure do not completely align.

Various notes and preliminary tables of contents document Jeffers’ shifting sense of how to organize The Double Axe.[6] The earliest, probably from late 1946 or early 1947, is a note at the bottom of page 16 of the handwritten draft of “The Inhumanist” that reads, “The short poems are called ‘Dates to Remember.’ Many of them are dates.” And in what seems the first completed table of contents (from summer or early fall 1947), Jeffers sequences the shorter poems chronologically and titles the section “Mornings in Hell,” which casts these pieces and the section as a record of his successive reactions to the war. In reorganizing The Double Axe into its published form, Jeffers deleted several shorter poems, resequenced the material, and made various minor edits. These changes undercut the shorter poems as a kind of biographical record of his despair at the war and cast the collection instead as a conceptual demonstration (derived from experience and grounded in experience). As initially compiled, The Double Axe was the story of Inhumanism lost and regained. As reshaped for publication, The Double Axe is the gospel of Inhumanism, tested in the war’s crucible and proven sound.

In Tamar and in The Double Axe the poems as independent, separately composed works and the poems as units contributing to (and inflected by) the collection’s structure do not completely align. As independently composed pieces, the poems in these two collections are, in effect, dramas of experience deriving from and responding to scenes, situations, and events. As units within the collections as published, the poems function in support of the collection’s implicit argument or perspective—a perspective Jeffers formulated in part through the writing of the poems but also clarified and extended, even altered, through the process of constructing the collection. Chronologically, the poems document a search. In the context of the collection, the poems enact a conceptual demonstration. Arguably, then, the collections clarify and emphasize the ideological dimension of the poetry, but at the expense of attenuating the existential dimension of the poems, which lessens our sense of how this existential dimension grounds, deepens, and complicates what Jeffers would eventually term Inhumanism.

For both Tamar and Other Poems and The Double Axe and Other Poems, we have early tables of contents. These show that how Jeffers initially organized these collections differed significantly from the final shape he gave them. For both, chronology governs the initial organization, and for both, concept or argument governs the collection as published. There is, however, a significant difference in the transformation of the two collections. In The Double Axe, the reorganization emphasizes the conceptual implications already implicit in the initial organization. With Tamar, the reorganization alters (or at least significantly recontextualizes) the conceptual implications of the initial organization. And this conceptual shift helps explain Jeffers’ seemingly odd decision to omit “Shine, Perishing Republic” from Tamar and Other Poems.

*          *          *

Jeffers considered at least four different organizations for Tamar and Other Poems (if he considered others, the textual evidence has not survived). Each relates to World War I differently, each involves a different logic for the collection, and each, as a result, contextualizes the title narrative differently. The early table of contents which includes “The Beginning of Decadence” and “Shine, Perishing Republic” is the earliest of the four. The unpublished poem “Brides of the South Wind” indicates the character of the second conception. The Preface Jeffers wrote for Tamar in August 1923 suggests the third. And the published collection is the final organization. In the first of these, the violence and cultural implosion of World War I (and the failure of the Versailles Peace to give meaning to the slaughter) is the imaginative crucible for the poems. In the collection as published, nature (as Jeffers reimagined it initially in the shorter poems written across 1921 and culminating in “Continent’s End”) is the crucible. And the two intervening versions document this transition.

In late summer or early fall 1920, Jeffers assembled a collection, usually referred to as Brides of the South Wind, featuring five early narrative poems: “Fauna” and “Storm as Deliverer” (both from 1917); “Peacock Ranch” and “Sea-Passions” (both from 1919), and “The Coast-Range Christ” (from late 1919–early 1920) (CP 5: 39–40, 47–50). The collection opens with a short poem Jeffers first titled “To the Girls of the Stories,” then (after adding a second section) “Brides of the South Wind.” It characterizes “Dove, Myrtle, Peace and Fauna” (the violational heroines of four of these narratives) as “Daughters of war” and declares that the war is “that tempest” that has “made” them (CP 4: 368). On the typescript, Jeffers later commented in pencil: “Originally intended to preface the book that later was called ‘Tamar and Other Poems,’” and this typescript shows that he at some point altered the list of heroines from “Dove, Myrtle, Peace and Fauna” to “Peace O’Farrell, Tamar and Fauna” so that the poem references “Fauna,” “The Coast-Range Christ,” and “Tamar” instead of “Storm as Deliverer,” “Fauna,” “Peacock Ranch,” and “The Coast-Range Christ.” This comment and revision show that Jeffers planned a version of Tamar that would have opened with “Brides of the South Wind” and that would have explicitly identified World War I as the impetus for Tamar’s violational excess. Tamar, like her ironically named precursor Peace, is a daughter not simply of war but The War—the War to End All Wars but which failed to do so.

The August 1923 Preface documents a significantly different conception of the collection. The final paragraph reads:

The two earliest of the longer poems in this volume were written six years ago; the manner and versification of the story about Myrtle Cartwright, and the Theocritan echoes of “Fauna,” do not much please me now; but the latter is retained for a geographical sort of richness that closes it, and the other because it is part of a series and seems useful to the purpose of the series: to make apparent the essential beauty in conditions and events of life that from the ordinary point of view appear merely painful, or wicked, or comical. (CP 4: 381)

The “series” that Jeffers mentions here would have included at minimum “Storm as Deliverer,” “Fauna,” and “Tamar”; probably also “The Coast-Range Christ”; and plausibly “Sea-Passions” and “Peacock Ranch” as well. Whatever its exact contents, Jeffers is, in this Preface, positioning “Tamar” as the culmination of a series of stories that have a shared “purpose”: to “make apparent the essential beauty in conditions and events.” In this conception of Tamar and Other Poems, the heroines of the stories are what might be termed “Daughters of nature” instead of “Daughters of war.” Nature is the “tempest” that has made them, and their violational careers enact nature and express its “essential beauty.”

These successive constructions show Jeffers recasting Tamar from a collection responding to World War I into a collection responding to, revealing, and expressing nature’s “essential beauty.” In the earliest construction, “Tamar” is the only narrative. Its violence is implicitly linked to the violence of the war in the shorter poems that immediately follow it.  These in turn lead to “Shine, Perishing Republic,” which projects nature and natural process as an alternative to the violence of human societies and history. The shorter poems that follow “Shine, Perishing Republic” then build to the collection’s final poem, “Continent’s End,” where violence is recast and expanded into a vision of God’s (and being’s) “tides of fire” and God’s transcending and comprehensive being as “the eye that watched.” It is worth noting that “Continent’s End” was apparently the last short poem Jeffers wrote before beginning “Tamar,” a narrative that (it might be argued) progresses through “tides of fire” and culminates in a final scene where speaker and reader, in a moment of transcendent awareness, see as if through “the eye that watched.” As such, the construction of the initial version of Tamar as a collection is implicitly circular: World War I is the initiating trauma; “Tamar” naturalizes and reenacts this trauma; the shorter poems then record the trauma more directly and lead back to the culminating vision of “Continent’s End,” which immediately preceded the writing of “Tamar.”

In the second conception of Tamar and Other Poems (as documented by “Brides of the South Wind”), “Tamar” would have been one of three narratives (along with “Fauna” and “Storm as Deliverer”)—each with a “Daughter of war” as its heroine. In the first two conceptions, then, World War I is the crisis (imaginatively, emotionally, politically, and religiously) that impels the writing of the poems and governs the collection. The August 1923 conception (documented by the unused Preface) marks a fundamental shift in Jeffers’ approach to the collection and seemingly, as well, his understanding of it and his goals for it. In this conception, World War I remains present but has become an aspect of nature’s “essential beauty” and secondary to it. In this iteration of the collection the poems, and perhaps especially the narratives, enact a perspective beyond “the ordinary point of view,” and “Tamar” is the most recent, distinctive, and comprehensive of these stories expressing this “essential beauty.”

In Tamar as published, Jeffers pares the narratives back to “Fauna,” “The Coast-Range Christ,” and “Tamar” and places various short poems between them, which lessens the impression that they are a series. For instance, “Gale in April,” one of the last poems written for the collection, immediately follows “Tamar”—as if “Tamar” leads to it and as if it is a supplement to the narrative or a kind of coda. “Gale in April” opens with the “Intense and terrible beauty” of the storm, describes this violence as emotionally overwhelming, counsels “lean[ing] upon death as on a rock,” and ends with “I have passed / From beauty to the other beauty, peace, the night splendor” (CP 1: 91). The poem, that is, encapsulates the dynamism of “essential beauty” and offers a vision of peace beyond the violence of being (“the other beauty”). Jeffers’ positioning of “Fauna” also mutes its identity as a war-era poem. Placing “Divinely Superfluous Beauty” and “The Maid’s Thought” immediately before “Fauna” invites reading it as a timeless pastoral with the war as a bit of background noise. This leaves “The Coast-Range Christ,” with “Mal Paso Bridge” as the poem leading into it, as the only “story” for which World War I remains the primary occasion and focus.

In the initial conception of the Tamar collection, the one which includes “Shine, Perishing Republic,” the collection as a whole registers and responds to World War I. In the collection as finalized for publication some eight or nine months later, the collection functions as a demonstration of nature’s “essential beauty” with nods back to the war as if it is, from the perspective of nature’s “essential beauty,” a secondary matter. This shift suggests why Jeffers dropped “The Dance of the Banner,” “The Murmansk Landing,” and “The Beginning of Decadence” from Tamar and Other Poems, while adding other World War I era poems such as “Fauna” and “The Truce and the Peace” to it. In the three excised poems, historical contingency and politics are central, and nature as a ground of being or meaning is largely absent. In “Fauna” and “The Truce and Peace,” World War I is an occasion for the poems, but they move beyond the political even as they reflect on the political. In the excised poems, the political is both means and end; in “Fauna” and “The Truce and the Peace,” the political is in part the means but not the end. And “Shine, Perishing Republic”? Part of its strength is that in it the political and nature are both means, and they are both also ends. But it is this doubling that may well explain why Jeffers deleted it from Tamar and Other Poems. In the Tamar collection as Jeffers first constructed it, “Tamar” is a poem responding to the war and searching for a vision beyond it, which the doubling of nature and the political in “Shine, Perishing Republic” parallels and reinforces. In Tamar as Jeffers finalized the collection, “Tamar” functions more as a poem exemplifying and elaborating “essential nature,” which the interplay of politics and nature in “Shine, Perishing Republic” implicitly complicates or problematizes.

*          *          *

Textual history can seem too much ado about barely nothing. Yet Jeffers’ handling of “Shine, Perishing Republic” and his shaping of the Tamar collection add to our understanding of their dynamics and implications, and it can add as well to our understanding of this key period in his career. It has become something of a commonplace in Jeffers studies that World War I was a period of psychological turmoil for Jeffers (William Everson has suggested “Mal Paso Bridge” reflects this); that this turmoil contributed to his decisive break with his father’s Christianity (as expressed in “To His Father”); that he experienced some sort of malaise or depression after the war; and that working with stone in constructing Tor House (Una Jeffers has suggested) contributed to a kind of visionary awakening.[7] In this scenario, Jeffers’ visionary awakening occasions his faith in nature’s “essential beauty” (as he termed it in the August 1923 Preface), is the basis of his commitment to “permanent things,” and contributes to his decision to dispense with conventional meter and rhyme and thereby achieve his mature style (CP 4: 379–81).[8]

In this scenario the narrative “Tamar” results from these transformations and marks a decisive break from what came before. This scenario, though, overly simplifies the materials and their textual histories. It fails to explain why Jeffers deleted “Shine, Perishing Republic” from Tamar and Other Poems, and it fails to account for his successive transformations of the collection as he recast it from a volume featuring a distinctive new narrative, “Tamar,” as a story responding to the war, into a collection featuring a cluster of narratives with “Daughters of war” as their heroines, and then into a collection where the narratives express “essential beauty,” and finally into a collection where the selection and sequencing of the shorter poems obscure the war as, in part at least, “Tamar’s” occasion. In Tamar as Jeffers initially structured it, World War I is central. In Tamar as published, “essential beauty” is central.

Constructing a writer’s intentions is always a hypothetical gambit. Strictly speaking, we cannot know why Jeffers deleted “Shine, Perishing Republic” from Tamar or why he explored four different approaches to the collection. But we can recognize that there is a difference between characterizing Tamar as a “Daughter of war” and characterizing her as, implicitly, a “Daughter of nature” within a narrative enacting, expressing, and celebrating “essential nature.” Did Jeffers write the poem imagining one thing, then realize the poem had become the latter? Is one the poem as private experience and the other the poem as public expression? These are unanswerable questions. The textual history does, though, allow us to recover the original centrality of World War I to the collection as a whole, including “Tamar,” and to recognize that Jeffers’ visionary awakening may have been less a decisive moment prior to his transformation into the poet of “Tamar” and may instead have been more a process that continued during and through the writing of “Tamar” and then continued as he explored ways to shape the collection. As such, Tamar and Other Poems, even as it remains the advent of the mature career as we have tended to understand it, becomes also the transformational process leading to the mature career.

Knowing that Tamar was in some sense a Daughter of both war and essential nature also has implications for how we understand “Tamar” in the context of American literature in the mid-1920s. When Tamar and Other Poems appeared in April 1924, the title poem seemed the antithesis of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land published two years earlier. Where Eliot’s modernist epic seemed a collage of fragments scavenged from the trauma of the Great War, “Tamar,” with its narrative momentum and sexual energy, seemed to have left the war decisively behind. Instead of urban grays and shadows, Jeffers’ poem pulsed with the hues of the central California coast. And while World War I is a background element in Tamar’s story, it barely registers against the intense immediacy of her world and actions.[9] “Tamar” offers a cosmos in which the war, while neither ignored nor trivialized, has become a secondary element in the more comprehensive, immediate, yet also transcendent realm of nature and natural process—as Jeffers’ placement of “Continent’s End” as the collection’s concluding poem underscores. “Continent’s End” places us on the continent’s westernmost limit, the geographical and historical terminus of “sea to shining sea,” and it asks us not only to look beyond this historical moment but also to look beyond human culture and human history.

In The Waste Land, the political violence of war is a cultural matter, a failing, that has led to a collapse in belief and meaning (with the poem’s despair figuring as tails to, on the opposite side of the coin, the frenetic hedonism of the so-called Jazz Age). In Tamar and Other Poems nature, not culture, is the fundamental reality, and violence (or rather the ceaseless flux of destruction and renewal that we register as violence) is a fundamental dynamic of nature. In “Tamar,” the war is a manifestation of nature—a phenomenon within the order of things instead of a rupturing of it. In closing Tamar and Other Poems with “Continent’s End,” Jeffers offers the collection as an attempt to envision the epic of nature and cosmos within which culture and history are no longer the ground of being even as they remain aspects of experience.

These characterizations may be overly generalized and insufficient, but they suggest something of why Tamar and Other Poems struck reviewers as a mid-1920s work to be read in the context of that moment’s current cultural and social flux rather than a work (like The Waste Land) related to the trauma of the Great War. And Jeffers reinforced this impression when he placed the Tamar material after his newer work in 1925 when he assembled Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems and when he subsequently omitted most of the pre-1920s material from Tamar from his 1938 Selected Poetry. Put another way, the three published iterations of the Tamar material (as Tamar and Other Poems, as the concluding section of the Roan Stallion collection, and in pared down form as the opening unit of The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers) treat World War I as a progressively lesser matter, and this has perhaps contributed to a sense that the poems Jeffers wrote during the war and through 1919 at least and probably on into mid-1920 are merely a precursor to his major work—a view that Jeffers seems to endorse in his only comment on his pre-1920 work in the Foreword to Selected Poetry, where he notes that he has included “The Songs of the Dead Men to the Three Dancers” (written in 1917) “only as a sample of the metrical experiments that occupied my mind for awhile” (CP 4: 390).

Jeffers, here, is not, I would suggest, claiming that World War I was for him nothing more than an occasion for “metrical experiments.” Rather, he is signaling that however he might have experienced the war at the time and whatever its role in his apprentice work from those years might have been, those matters are irrelevant to his mature practice as he shaped it (first) in such pivotal lyrics as “Salmon Fishing” (probably written December 1920) and subsequently in the narrative “Tamar” once he recognized nature rather than culture as the ground of being—a recognition that occasions the pivot from his apprentice work to his mature work and that figures, as well, into his decisive rejection of the projects of such modernist contemporaries as Pound and Eliot.[10] If we focus only on Tamar and Other Poems as published in 1924, recirculated as the concluding section of Roan Stallion, and distilled in Selected Poetry, there is little reason to question Jeffers’ seeming invitation to view his mature work as a decisive move beyond his work from the World War I period, and similarly there is little or no reason to treat the narrative “Tamar” as anything other than a poem of nature implicitly repudiating the social and cultural froth of the mid-twenties and, as such, neither registering nor reflecting on the general trauma of the Great War. But as I hope this discussion has suggested, Tamar and Other Poems as published is not the whole story.


Works Cited

Everson, William, editor. Brides of the South Wind: Poems 1917–1922 by Robinson Jeffers.  Cayucos Books, 1974.

Hunt, Tim, editor. The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers: Volume One, 1920–1928. Stanford UP, 1988.

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

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

Jeffers, Robinson. Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems. Boni & Liveright, 1925.

—. Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems. Modern Library, 1935.

—. Tamar and Other Poems. Peter Boyle, 1924.

Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet and Prophet. Stanford UP, 2015.

—, editor. The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, with Selected Letters of Una Jeffers: Volume Two, 1931–1939. Stanford UP, 2011.

McAllister, Mick. “Intruding on Jeffers: Some Notes on Biographical Mythography.” Jeffers Studies, vol. 18, spring–fall 2014 (published 2019), pp. 41–53.



[1] The Modern Library reissue of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems is the most widely available version of the collection. Anthologists frequently use it as source for the poems from this collection. This edition has three copyright dates: 1924 for the Peter Boyle printing of the original Tamar and Other Poems; 1925 for the Roan Stallion material added for the collection Boni & Liveright published as Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems; and 1935 for the Introduction Jeffers wrote for the Modern Library reissue and for the fifteen poems published originally in 1927 in A Miscellany of American Poetry, 1927, an anthology edited by Louis Untermeyer.

[2] Jeffers, it should be noted, drafted “Suicide’s Stone” in 1919, then later reworked it, altering its implications (CP 5: 292).

[3] Even though “The Truce and the Peace” and “The Beginning of Decadence” both respond to the Versailles Peace, they are, in one significant way, antithetical. In the former, the speaker assesses the peace and its failings with a kind of stoic acceptance. In the latter, the speaker addresses the betrayal of the peace with anger. This difference perhaps explains why he opted for “The Beginning of Decadence” in the initial configuration of the collection but chose “The Truce and the Peace,” instead, for the collection as published.

[4] Jeffers’ depression is evident in the shorter poems he was writing in the spring of 1919 (CP 5: 49–50), including the narratives “Peacock Ranch” and “Sea-Passion.” It is, I would suggest, telling that Jeffers left the poems of this period mostly unpublished.

[5] Descent to the Dead was published by Random House in a deluxe, limited edition in 1931.  Jeffers then subsequently included the sequence in Give Your Heart to the Hawks in 1933.

[6] For the various tables of contents and related documents for Jeffers’ constructions of The Double Axe, see CP 5: 1074–84.

[7] See Everson’s Introduction to Brides of the South Wind, esp. xix–xxii, and Una Jeffers’ letter of April 25, 1934, to Lawrence Clark Powell (CL 2: 309–11). For additional detail and analysis, see Karman, Poet and Prophet. For a critique of Everson’s argument, see McAllister.

[8] See also Jeffers’ Preface to a collection he assembled while drafting Tamar (CP 4: 374–78) and his 1948 New York Times article, “Poetry, Gongorism, and a Thousand Years,” (4: 422–27), esp. 423–24.

[9] Similarly, the war is central to the plot of “The Coast-Range Christ” and the war and subsequent peace are the occasion for the sonnet sequence “The Truce and the Peace.” But these poems, whatever their merit, do not characterize the collection, at least in part because they are more conventional in form and less striking thematically. They are not the poems we remember as we close the volume or later recall it.

[10] Jeffers discusses this most explicitly in his Introduction to the 1935 Modern Library reissue of Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (CP 4: 384–86).