American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

JEFFERS, [JOHN] ROBINSON (1887-1962). Robinson Jeffers, best known for his verse narratives set on California’s rugged northern coast, was born in Pennsylvania. In 1903 he moved with his family to Los Angeles and entered Occidental College, where he studied geology, astronomy, and biblical literature, graduating in 1905. In 1913, after graduate studies in languages and literature, medicine, and forestry, Jeffers married Una Call Kuster. They settled in Carmel, a rural community on the coast below the Monterey Peninsula, where they built Tor House, a stone cottage named after the rocky promontories along the English coast near Dartmoor. Jeffers spent the next five decades at Tor House writing the lyric poems and long narratives that made him one of America’s most popular and most controversial poets of the 1920s and 1930s.

The Pacific Ocean profoundly influenced Jeffers. Its violent coastline serves not only as the setting of many of his poems but as their inspiration. Beginning with the publication of his first mature work, Tamar, and Other Poems (1924), Jeffers’ poetry explores the tenuous connection between humans and their natural surroundings, particularly the sea. Many of his poems, including “Tamar” (1924), “Continent’s End” (1924), and “Cawdor” (1928), imbue the ocean with maternal characteristics, reminding us that the sea is the source of life. At the beginning of “Tamar” the maternal sea resuscitates Lee Cauldwell after his nearly fatal fall from a cliff. “Continent’s End” imagines human life emerging from the ocean’s womb in the distant past and meditates on the more ancient source of both human life and the ocean. In “Cawdor” the ocean has restorative powers for the ailing Martial, who remembers humankind’s primordial link to the sea and finds nourishment in the broth of mussels collected from its tide pools.

But the sea can also be a destructive force in Jeffers’ poetry. The mighty Pacific crashes against its boundaries and destroys rocks in “Continent’s End,” and it represents the source of the storms that punish the coast in “Cawdor” and “Tamar.” Tamar Cauldwell, whose acts of incest lead to her family’s destruction, learns her wildness from the ocean that beats against Point Lobos near the Cauldwell farm. In “Boats in a Fog” (1925) fishing boats navigate the thin corridor of safety between the shore’s murderous rocks and the open sea’s equally perilous fog as they move toward port. The boats’ movement reflects the precarious existence of all living things and the creation of beauty out of bitter struggle. “The Purse-Seine” (1937) warns that industrial cities encircle us, separating us from the natural world, limiting our freedom, and threatening to destroy us, just as the fisherman’s net steadily encloses the fish.

The vast ocean’s indifference to human concerns fostered Jeffers’ inhumanist philosophy, which radically reconsiders humankind’s place in the natural world. In his most famous war poem, “The Eye” (1948), the Pacific is an immense, timeless, unblinking eye that takes no heed of warships or airplanes. “Calm and Full the Ocean” (1948) finds solace in nature’s indifference to the terrors of war. The Pacific marks the edge of Western civilization in “The Torch-Bearers’ Race” (1924), and Jeffers situates himself within the tradition of Old Testament prophets who warned the earliest forms of that civilization of their errant ways. His poetry warns against forgetting the sea’s inhuman presence and mistaking life for nature’s ultimate achievement. Jeffers reminds us that the Pacific Ocean is more enduring than human life.

This inhumanist philosophy, along with Jeffers’ criticism of American foreign policy during the 1940s, contributed to a sharp decline in his popularity after World War II. Although his audience dwindled, he continued to publish poetry until his death at Tor House in 1962. [See also SEA IMAGERY IN MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY]

FURTHER READING: Bennett, Melba Berry. Robinson Jeffers and the Sea. San Francisco: Gelber and Lilienthal, 1936; Brophy, Robert J. Robinson Jeffers: Myth, Ritual, and Symbol in His Narrative Poems. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve UP, 1973; Karman, James. Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. San Francisco: Chronicle, 1987.

Gregg Allen Walker