by Janice Albert
Jeffers: Hawk Tower, Carmel, CA
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.
in classical languages, as well as French and German, Robin entered
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
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).
Karman asserts that "Jeffers sensed a hostility of the region to common
human life," and he cites accounts of murdered lovers and a "burned
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
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
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
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:
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
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'
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
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.
to the author index