Authors: Robinson Jeffers

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American poet

January 10, 1887

Allegheny, Pennsylvania (now in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)

January 20, 1962

Carmel, California

Biography

Born in 1887 to Annie Robinson Tuttle and the Reverend Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers, the first of two sons (the younger being future astronomer Hamilton Jeffers), John Robinson Jeffers spent a great deal of his childhood traveling in Europe with his parents. Some of their stops included Zurich (where he went to kindergarten), London, and Edinburgh. At the age of fifteen, Jeffers returned to the United States; the next year, his family moved to California, the region Jeffers later chose as the background of his poetry. He graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles at age eighteen. After that, according to Jeffers’s account, came desultory years at the University of Southern California (USC), the University of Zurich, the USC School of Medicine, and the University of Washington, all with faint interest; as he later stated, he “wasn’t deeply interested in anything but poetry.”

Robinson Jeffers

(Library of Congress)

In 1912 Jeffers published Flagons and Apples, a volume that contained little hint of his later distinctive and powerful style. The next year he married Una Call Kuster, and the following summer they planned a trip to England. World War I broke out, however, so they turned back to the village of Carmel, on the California coast. The country around Carmel Bay, wild and rugged, possessed a beauty that appealed to Jeffers. It was there that he built a stone house, called Tor House, and, with his own hands, an observation tower called Hawk Tower. Jeffers and his wife lived there for the rest of their lives.

After Californians (1916), his second volume of poetry, Jeffers published the book that would bring him fame, the 1924 volume Tamar, and Other Poems. Further collections came swiftly afterward, among them Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems (1925), The Women at Point Sur (1927), Cawdor, and Other Poems (1928), Dear Judas, and Other Poems (1929), Thurso’s Landing, and Other Poems (1932), and Give Your Heart to the Hawks, and Other Poems (1933). At first, the philosophy that emerges from Jeffers’s lyrics and his violent and tragic narrative poems seems unrewardingly bleak: humankind is introverted, cruel, and at best only a blundering step toward some higher form of life. However, Jeffers reveals the beauty of permanence in rocks, sea, and sky. In The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers (1938), the poet displays his rugged power and his inconsistencies of outlook. Many critics feel that Jeffers’s primary contribution to poetry lies in the cut-from-stone beauty of his lyrics rather than in the narratives that heap high the horror and violence.

Dramatic success came to Jeffers late in his career, with the Broadway production of his verse drama Medea (1946) in 1947. Judith Anderson gave a sensational performance in this play, a free adaptation of the ancient Greek play of the same name. Jeffers followed Medea with a revival in 1950 of his earlier play, The Tower beyond Tragedy (1925), which first appeared in Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems. In The Double Axe, and Other Poems (1948) and Hungerfield, and Other Poems (1954), some readers have detected a declining power in Jeffers’s work.

Jeffers has perhaps never been accorded the prominence he deserves, but since the 1960s his indictment of humanity’s egocentrism and his insistence that humans should be a part of nature, rather than its masters and despoilers, have earned for him an honored place among environmentalists.

Jeffers and Kuster had two children, twin boys named Donnan Call and Garth Sherwood, born in 1916. Kuster died of cancer in 1950. Jeffers died at Tor House on January 20, 1962, at age seventy-five.

Author Works Poetry: Flagons and Apples, 1912 Californians, 1916 Tamar, and Other Poems, 1924 Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems, 1925, 1935 The Women at Point Sur, 1927, 1977 (as The Women at Point Sur, and Other Poems) Cawdor, and Other Poems, 1928 Dear Judas, and Other Poems, 1929, 1977 Descent to the Dead: Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain, 1931 Thurso’s Landing, and Other Poems, 1932 Give Your Heart to the Hawks, and Other Poems, 1933 Solstice, and Other Poems, 1935 Such Counsels You Gave to Me, and Other Poems, 1937 The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, 1938 Be Angry at the Sun, and Other Poems, 1941 The Double Axe, and Other Poems, 1948, 1977 Hungerfield, and Other Poems, 1954 The Beginning & the End, and Other Poems, 1963 Selected Poems, 1965 The Alpine Christ, and Other Poems, 1973 (William Everson, editor) Brides of the South Wind: Poems, 1917–1922, 1974 (William Everson, editor) In This Wild Water: The Suppressed Poems of Robinson Jeffers, 1976 (James Shebl, editor) What Odd Expedients, and Other Poems, 1980 (Robert Ian Scott, editor) Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers, 1987 (Robert Haas, editor) Selected Poems: The Centenary Edition, 1987 (Colin Falck, editor) Songs and Heroes, 1988 (Robert J. Brophy, editor) The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, 1988–2001 (5 volumes; Tim Hunt, editor) The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, 2001 (Tim Hunt, editor) Drama: The Tower beyond Tragedy, pb. 1925 (in Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems), pr. 1932 (adaptation of Aeschylus’s play Oresteia) Medea, pb. 1946, pr. 1947 (adaptation of Euripides’s play) The Cretan Woman, pr., pb. 1954 (in Hungerfield, and Other Poems; adaptation of Euripides’s play Hippolytus) Nonfiction: Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years, 1948 (newspaper), 1949 (book) Themes in My Poems, 1956 The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1897–1962, 1968 (Ann N. Ridgeway, editor) Where Shall I Take You To: The Love Letters of Una and Robinson Jeffers, 1987 (Robert Kafka, editor) The Collected Letters of Robinson Jeffers: With Selected Letters of Una Jeffers, 2009–15 (3 volumes; James Karman, editor) Edited Texts: Visits to Ireland: Travel-Diaries of Una Jeffers, 1954 Bibliography Brophy, Robert J. Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems. 1973. Archon Books, 1976. A basic study, often referred to by critics, that thoroughly establishes the grounding of Jeffers’s narrative works in Judeo-Christian, Greek, Norse, and Hindu mythologies, among others. Contains illustrations, an index, notes, and a bibliography. Brophy, Robert J, editor. The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter: A Jubilee Gathering, 1962–1988. Occidental College, 1988. A collection of the best articles from the first twenty-five years of the Robinson Jeffers Newsletter. Includes illustrations. Everson, William. The Excesses of God: Robinson Jeffers as a Religious Figure. Stanford UP, 1988. Portrays Jeffers as a bardic and prophetic man and relates him to the thought of such modern theologians as Mircea Eliade. Contains notes and an index. Everson is also the author, under his previous pen name of Brother Antoninus, of an earlier study on the same subject, Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury (1968). Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. Rev. ed., Story Line Press, 1995. A revised and expanded edition of Karman’s critical biography. Gives insight into Jeffers’s life, his family, and the honor he gave to hard work, self-reliance, and conservation of the environment. Nolte, William H. Rock and Hawk: Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony. U of Georgia P, 1978. Relates Jeffers to the traditions of European, English, and American romantic philosophy and poetry. Includes notes and an index. Thesing, William B., editor. Robinson Jeffers and a Galaxy of Writers: Essays in Honor of William H. Nolte. U of South Carolina P, 1995. A collection of critical essays by various authors dealing with Jeffers’s life and work. Includes bibliographical references and index. Vardamis, Alex A. The Critical Reputation of Robinson Jeffers: A Bibliographical Study. Archon Books, 1972. A chronological annotated bibliography of all the books, articles, and reviews about Jeffers from the beginning of his career to 1971. Contains a critical introduction. Zaller, Robert. The Cliffs of Solitude: A Reading of Robinson Jeffers. Cambridge UP, 1983. An interpretation of Jeffers’s entire career, with particular emphasis on the long narratives. Combines the psychoanalytic and mythic viewpoints. Contains chronology, index, notes, and bibliography.

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