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Robinson Jeffers (1885-1962)
by Janice Albert

Robinson Jeffers: Hawk Tower, Carmel, CA

Robinson Jeffers is frequently described as the quintessential California poet. Living for many years just south of Carmel, he set many of his long narratives at specific locations along the coast-Point Sur, Point Lobos and Pico Blanco. Yet, the poet Richard Eberhart says of Jeffers, "When you think of Jeffers you probably think of somebody quite different from yourself for almost nobody has as bleak a view of life as he."

Born in 1885, young Robinson was given a thoroughly European education by his father, who kept him in schools abroad until he was fifteen. Well versed in classical languages, as well as French and German, Robin entered the University of Pittsburgh as a sophomore and graduated from Occidental College in southern California in 1905 at the age of 17.

He met a fellow student, a young woman, Una Kuster, then working on her Master's degree. Several years passed while they grew to love each other.

When Una's husband found out how deep his wife's feelings were for the young man three years her junior, he sent Una abroad, to Ireland, where she was moderately happy, until she learned that her husband, in her absence, had filed for divorce. Una married Robinson Jeffers on August 2, 1913, the day after her husband's divorce became final.

Filled with a love of Anglo-European culture, as well as desire for each other, the young couple discovered the land near Carmel when it was still wild and sand swept by annual Pacific Ocean storms. Here, between 1920 and 1925, the Jeffers' built their home, using a Celtic word to form its name, "Tor House" for the barren, rocky outcropping which anchored it.

World War I had burst out in 1914 and for five long years, Americans and Europeans alike watched the great civilizations murder each other by gas, flame, bullet, and explosive. The catastrophe produced a profound effect of disillusionment on the writers and artists who survived. On the western edge of the North American continent, Jeffers turned from his Old World themes to examine the life and landscape at hand. This breaking away gave him the subject matter that he was to make his own.

In his excellent biography entitled Robinson Jeffers, James Karman of the California State University at Chico, says that "The effect of the landscape on Jeffers cannot be overestimated" (43). He quotes Loren Eiseley, the great writer-naturalist: "The sea-beaten coast, the fierce freedom of its hunting hawks, possessed and spoke through him" (43).

In addition, Karman asserts that "Jeffers sensed a hostility of the region to common human life," and he cites accounts of murdered lovers and a "burned body…found half-buried on the beach" which were part of the Jeffers' introduction to the culture of the Carmel coast. More than one of their friends in the early years committed suicide. His poetry, informed by the violence of Greek and Latin epics, augmented by the events of W.W.I, became a canvas for the many deaths taking place around him.

Jeffers was also aware that his rocky home, Tor House, was set in the middle of land that had been formerly occupied by men of spiritual power. The ruins of Carmel Mission, founded by Junipero Serra in 1771, were only a mile away. And when Jeffers began the excavation for the foundation of his chimney, he found the blackened remains of fire pits where Indians had camped for hundreds of years (87).

Out of these ingredients came the work of his life: narrative poems such as Tamar, The Roan Stallion, The Women of Point Sur, the verse-drama Medea, shorter lyrics such as "Ave Caesar," "Shine, Perishing Republic" and "Hurt Hawks."

Jeffers developed a world view that encompassed science and theology, believing that humanity was just a moment in the billion-year-old-history of the universe. (It is probably not a coincidence that his brother, Hamilton, worked for many years as an astronomer at Lick Observatory in the vicinity of San Jose, California.) And he used his poetry to express his view-that the history of humanity is the history of a flawed race, separated from nature and possessed with a love of cruelty. In poems such as "Original Sin," Jeffers articulates his idea, developing a picture of "cave men" who are unable to slay a mammoth and so resort to burning it to death.

Meanwhile the intense color and nobility of sunrise,
Rose and gold and amber, flowed up the sky. Wet rocks were shining, a little wind
Stirred the leaves of the forest and the marsh flag-flowers; the soft valley between the low hills
Became as beautiful as the sky; while in its midst, hour after hour, the happy hunters
Roasted their living meal slowly to death.
These are the people.
This is the human dawn.

Three years after his death in 1965, the Sierra Club, under David Brower, published a volume of photographs of the Big Sur coast, interleaved with Jeffers' poetry. The title, Not Man Apart is taken from these lines:

…the greatest beauty is organic wholeness
the wholeness of life and things.
the divine beauty of the universe.
Love that, not man apart from that…

Point Pinos Lighthouse, Pacific Grove

Jeffers' reputation is undergoing a renewal in the 1990s. His collected works are being published by Stanford University Press. Occidental College, which holds a collection of first editions, letter, journals, and memorabilia in its Mary Norton Clapp Library, publishes the Robinson Jeffers Newsletter in conjunction with California State University at Long Beach. The 1996 Spring and Summer double issue of this journal is devoted to a comprehensive, eye-witnessed survey of every physical site within the Big Sur area referenced in Jeffers' work.

And his unique and elemental home has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places by a hard-working group of readers and scholars calling themselves the Tor House Foundation. 

Tor House is a literary site that must be visited to be appreciated. Photographs show a heap of boulders with a peculiar, dark tower alongside. But, visited "in person," the house and tower turn out to be constructed on a comfortable, human scale. The open space between the tower and the house is filled with flowers and scented with the alyssum that Una herself loved and also planted. Granite lifted from the shore below reflects the soft ochres and grays of sea rock, the very colors that make the paintings of Alan Magee so engaging: the paradox of the hard and cold softened by rounded forms and earthen tones. Set into the masonry are vestiges of other times and places: bits of white and black lava from Italy and Hawaii, ceramic tiles and fragments of shrines and towers from around the world. "I think one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one's own life and environment beautiful" wrote Jeffers (105). Whether sitting in the dining room of Tor House before the "sea window," or climbing 40 feet to the top of Hawk Tower to look at the Pacific, one is aware of a home focused on absorbing natural beauty without defacing it.

The house was completed in 1925. Jeffers lived there until his death in 1962. Acquired by the Foundation in 1979, it can be viewed by the public on Fridays and Saturdays, by appointment, by calling (408) 624-1813. Moreover, information about Jeffers can be obtained at this Internet address: www.torhouse.org. The Tor House homepage will lead you to an array of sources about Jeffers and other authors along the coast from Carmel to San Simeon.

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