Robinson Jeffers

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John Robinson Jeffers

American poet John Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) glorified the stern beauties of nature. He saw the human race as doomed and often utilized Greek myths to emphasize man's tragic position in the universe.

Robinson Jeffers was born on Jan. 10, 1887, in Pittsburgh, Pa., where his father taught at Western Theological Seminary. Young Jeffers rejected his father's belief in God but retained the Calvinistic sense of man as depraved and damned. Jeffers was reading Greek by the age of 5, and he attended boarding schools in Switzerland and Germany. He received a bachelor of arts degree in 1905 from Occidental College. He undertook graduate study in the sciences at several universities, studying medicine at the University of California. In 1912 an inheritance freed him to concentrate exclusively on writing poetry.

After his marriage in 1914, Jeffers settled in Carmel, Calif., where he built a stone tower on a lonely cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean and began to write. Though his earliest published poems were conventional romantic celebrations of nature, in Tamar and Other Poems (1924) he found his voice in celebrating the supremacy of the inhuman. In Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929) he presented Christ as traitor because he trapped men into believing in love rather than urging them to seek annihilation. Jeffers's reading of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas on the death of God, while speculating on the implications of his own scientific studies, probably accounts for the shift in his beliefs. He considered life a tragic "accident" in a universe designed for the subhuman and the inanimate.

In The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948) Jeffers viewed World War II in Spenglerian terms. Though his philosophy of "inhumanism" was increasingly unacceptable to the postwar generation, his best work proclaimed a kind of dignity in man's inevitable defeat. Critical interest in Jeffers's poetry has waned in recent years, but a few of his best poems, such as "Apology for Bad Dreams," "To the Stone-cutters," "Shine, Perishing Republic," and "Roan Stallion," continue to be admired.

Jeffers's free adaptation of Euripides's Medea (1946) was an immediate sensation when produced on Broadway. He published some 19 volumes of poetry and drama. His last volumes were Hungerfield and Other Poems (1954) and the posthumous The Beginning and the End (1963) and Selected Poems (1965). He wrote primarily in free verse, relying mainly on direct statement and rhetoric to set his forms. Jeffers died in Carmel on Jan. 10, 1962.

Further Reading

A full-length biography is Frederic Ives Carpenter, Robinson Jeffers (1962). There are sections on Jeffers in Hyatt H. Waggoner, The Heel of Elohim: Science and Values in Modern American Poetry (1950) and American Poets, from the Puritans to the Present (1968).

Additional Sources

Adamic, Louis, Robinson Jeffers: a portrait, Covelo, Calif.: Carolyn and James Robertson, 1983.

Karman, James, Robinson Jeffers: poet of California, Brownsville, OR: Story Line Press, 1995.

Luhan, Mabel Dodge, Una and Robin, Berkeley: Friends of the Bancroft Library, University of California, 1976.

Ritchie, Ward, I remember Robinson Jeffers, Los Angeles: Zamorano Club, 1978.

Ritchie, Ward, Jeffers: some recollections of Robinson Jeffers, Laguna Beach, Calif.: Laguna Verde Imprenta, 1977.

Robinson Jeffers, poet, 1887-1987: a centennial exhibition, Los Angeles: Occidental College, 1987. □

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