Why it’s high time for a Robinson Jeffers renaissance.
With contemporaries like T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, it is little wonder that the name of poet Robinson Jeffers rings far fewer bells, even in the ears of avid poetry fans. Jeffers, who was born at the twilight of the 19th century and wrote most prolifically throughout the first half of the 20th, joined an audaciously talented chorus of American poets who—then, as now—were regarded as literary celebrities and cultural icons.
Jeffers is essential to understanding ourselves, the twentieth century, and the world.
But, on April 4th, 1932 the portrait of a reclusive California-based poet named Robinson Jeffers, photographed in contemplative profile, was emblazoned on the cover of Time magazine, nine years after Amy Lowell received a similar honor, and eighteen years before T.S. Eliot would adorn its pages. With the publication of Tamar and Other Poems in 1924, Jeffers’ fame sprung into being virtually overnight. One decade and multiple collections of poetry later, he had become arguably the most famous poet in the United States.
Despite his prominence and critical success—and the numerous literary honors he accrued notwithstanding—one poet and literary critic writing in the pages of the New York Herald Tribune asked, “Why does so much deep silence surround the name of Robinson Jeffers?”
The writer, Horace Gregory, posed this question in 1954, only twenty-odd years after Jeffers’ Time cover. The lack of critical engagement with Jeffers’ oeuvre bewildered Gregory—particularly as it was not for lack of new material. Jeffers had published just shy of a dozen new volumes of poetry since striking a pose for Time—the last of which (the last he would ever produce) debuted in 1954, the same year that Gregory's article appeared.
So what happened in the intervening years? What caused Jeffers’ literary celebrity to wane? The answer, according to Jeffers’ biographer, James Karman, is twofold: he maintains that Jeffers' reputation declined in the 1940s when literary critics began to turn against him—both because they overlooked him aesthetically, but also on account of his singular political opinions, so at odds with the prevailing culture.
Throughout the volatile years leading up to and during World War II, Jeffers cultivated an uncompromisingly neutral outlook on the many armed conflicts that characterized the period and polarized the masses—a stance that struck many of his contemporaries as unpatriotic. Jeffers’ approach to artistic self-expression was artifice-averse—an aesthetic principle that guided him in life as well, leading him to eschew partisanship of all varieties; “I decided not to tell lies in verse,” said Jeffers, “not to feign any emotion that I did not feel; not to pretend to believe in optimism or pessimism, or unreversible progress; not to say anything because it was popular, or generally accepted, or fashionable in intellectual circles, unless I myself believed it, and not to believe easily.”
This perspective set him against the grain of the cultural zeitgeist on more than one occasion. When in 1937 literary critic Van Wyck Brooks invited Jeffers to add his name to a statement denouncing atrocities committed by Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, Jeffers declined. The reason he gave for not signing the letter—which appeared in the New York Times carrying the signatures of William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, and other prominent literati—was simple: “I would sign this statement if it protested the atrocities committed on both sides,” but “I am not willing to go on record in favor of either side.”
While Edna St. Vincent Millay was writing propaganda for the American Writers’ War Board and Ezra Pound was broadcasting pro-Axis publicity in praise of Hitler and Mussolini from Rome, Jeffers tended to keep his nose out of public affairs. Though he sidestepped the political activism characteristic of many of his peers, intensely political themes still surface frequently in his poetry. Human cruelty, and particularly its expression in war, is a recurring motif. His reflections on both World Wars were, says Karman, “among the most bitter and searing of the century” and his excoriation of belligerent world leaders extended even to American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Though he took a dour view of civilization, Jeffers quickly assured readers and peers that it wasn’t misanthropy he was promoting, but rather the recognition of a greater whole, of which humans were a part.
Some critics denounced Jeffers for his political convictions; others dismissed him on account of his aesthetics. “An anti-modern Modernist,” is how Karman characterizes Jeffers’ poetry—underscoring its divergences from mainstream modern verse of the era, which monopolized the attention of most critics. While typical poetry of the time tended toward short, colloquial, contemporary poems that embraced ambiguity and freely flouted structural conventions of line and form, Jeffers’ poetry was often a different breed altogether. Though he composed shorter lyric poems, longer form narrative verse and drama equally piqued his interest. And with diction that carried a biblical cadence and themes that hearkened back to antiquity, Jeffers’ poetry departed from the contemporary moment to contemplate a much broader temporal arc of human existence.
“Jeffers’ experience of deep time added a vatic amplitude to his verse,” notes Karman, “and a sharp moral edge.” Because he saw human history within a broader narrative of natural history, he disdained humanity’s egocentrism and its disregard for the natural world. Together the two attitudes forged something of a personal religion for Jeffers very much on display in his poetry. He christened this philosophy Inhumanism and described it as “a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.”
Humanity, as Jeffers saw it, was an ephemeral population blithely unaware of its planetary contingence, which found its greatest expression in connection with nature, and reached its deepest depravity by enveloping itself in falsehood. Though he took a dour view of the trappings of civilization, Jeffers quickly assured readers and peers that it wasn’t misanthropy he was promoting, but rather the recognition of a greater whole, of which humans were a part.
Naturally, with this pedigree, he became a forerunner of modern American environmentalism. The degradation of the Earth—via overpopulation, pollution, exploitation of natural resources—concerned him to no end. With an uncanny prescience, the cautions woven into his verse anticipate many of the ecological troubles that characterize the present (and controversially-titled) Anthropocene era that factors so prominently in both scientific and cultural dialogue today.
And it’s not only in this regard that Jeffers’ verses contained some element of prophecy. As Karman notes
Long before anyone raised concerns about the shootings at Kent State, the beatings in Selma, Alabama, or the transformation of the United States into a militarized superpower, Jeffers said “beware . . . of the police in armed imperial America” (“I Shall Laugh Purely”). And years before jihad became a familiar word all around the world, Jeffers saw a looming threat:
Faith returns, beautiful, terrible, ridiculous,
And men are willing to die and kill for their faith.
Soon come the wars of religion; centuries have passed
Since the air so trembled with intense faith and hatred
In 2000, David Rains Wallace, writing in the LA Times,echoed the 1954 article calling attention to the silence around Jeffers. “What Ever Happened to Robinson Jeffers?”, he asked, imploring readers not to let the poet slip away. Karman’s recent biography makes a similar entreaty: “An implicit argument of this book,” he writes, “is that Jeffers is essential to understanding ourselves, the twentieth century, and the world. No study of American history or literature is complete without him.”