In scornful upright loneliness they stand, Counting themselves no kin of anything Whether of earth or sky. Their gnarled roots cling Like wasted fingers of a clutching hand In the grim rock. A silent spectral band They watch the old sky, but hold no communing With aught. Only, when some lone
Robinson Jeffers was born on January 10, 1887, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, a town which is now part of Pittsburgh. His father, a professor of Old Testament Literature and Biblical History at Western Theology Seminary in Pittsburgh, supervised Jeffers's education, and Robinson began to learn Greek at the age of five. His early lessons were soon followed by travel in Europe, which included schooling at Zurich, Leipzig, and Geneva. When the family moved to California, Jeffers, at age sixteen, entered Occidental College as a junior. He graduated at eighteen.
Jeffers immediately entered graduate school as a student of literature at the University of Southern California, where, in a class on Faust, he met another strong influence on his intellectual development: Una Call Kuster, who would later become his wife. By the spring of 1906, he was back in Switzerland studying philosophy, Old English, French literary history, Dante, Spanish romantic poetry, and the history of the Roman Empire. Returning to USC in September 1907, he was admitted to the medical school. The last of his formal education took place at the University of Washington, where he studied forestry.
After marrying in 1913, Jeffers and Kuster moved to Carmel, California, and in 1919 Jeffers began building a stone cottage on land overlooking Carmel Bay and facing Point Lobos. Near the cottage, he built a forty-foot stone tower. Both the structures and the location figure strongly in Jeffers's life and poetry. Jeffers's verse, much of which is set in the Carmel/Big Sur region, celebrates the awesome beauty of coastal hills and ravines. His poetry often praises "the beauty of things" in this setting, but also emphasizes his belief that such splendor demands tragedy.
Jeffers brought a great knowledge of literature, religion, philosophy, language, myth, and science to his poetry. One of his favorite themes was the intense, rugged beauty of the landscape set in opposition to the degraded and introverted condition of modern man. Strongly influenced by Nietzsche's concepts of individualism, Jeffers believed that human beings had developed a self-centered view of the world, and felt passionately that they should learn to have greater respect for the rest of creation.
Many of Jeffers's narrative poems also use incidents of rape, incest, or adultery to express moral despair. The Woman at Point Sur (Liveright, 1927) deals with a minister driven mad by his conflicting desires. The title poem of Cawdor and Other Poems (Liverlight, 1928) is based on the myth of Phaedra. In Thurso's Landing (Liverlight, 1932), Jeffers reveals, perhaps more than in any of his other collections, his abhorrence of modern civilization.
During the late 1930s and the 1940s, Jeffers's genius was judged to have faded, and many of his references to current events and figures (Hitler, Stalin, FDR, and Pearl Harbor, for instance) raised questions about his patriotism in a period of national strife. The Double Axe (Random House, 1948) even appeared with a disclaimer from the publisher. However, Jeffers's adaptation of Euripedes' Medea (Random House, 1946) was a great success when it was produced in New York in 1948.
Robinson Jeffers died in 1962.
The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (Stanford University Press, 2001)
The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Vol. II: 1928-1938 (Stanford University Press, 1989)
The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, Vol. I: 1920-1928 (Stanford University Press, 1988)
Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers (Random House, 1987)
What Odd Expedients and Other Poems (Shoe String Press, 1981)
Brides of the South Wind: Poems 1917-1922 (Cayucos Books, 1974)
Selected Poems (Vintage Books, 1965)
The Beginning and the End and Other Poems (Random House, 1963)
The Loving Shepherdess (Random House, 1956)
Hungerfield and Other Poems (Random House, 1954)
The Double Axe and Other Poems (Random House, 1948)
Be Angry at the Sun (Random House, 1941)
Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems (Random House, 1937)
Solstice and Other Poems (Random House, 1935)
Give Your Heart to the Hawks, and Other Poems (Random House, 1933)
Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems (Liveright, 1932)
Descent to the Dead: Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain (Random House, 1931)
Dear Judas and Other Poems (Liveright, 1929)
Cawdor and Other Poems (Liveright, 1928)
The Women at Point Sur (Boni & Liveright, 1927)
Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (Boni & Liveright, 1925)
Tamar and Other Poems (P. G. Boyle, 1924)
Californians (Macmillan, 1916)
Flagons and Apples (Grafton Publishing, 1912)
Medea (Random House, 1946), first produced on Broadway in 1948.