During Jeffers’s life, the controversies about his narrative poems unfortunately overshadowed the shorter works tucked into the back pages of each new book. These lyric meditations—often autobiographical and generally written in long, rhythmic free-verse lines—marked a new kind of nature poem that tried to understand the physical world not from a human perspective but on its own terms. He rejected rhyme and traditional meter, which inhibited him from telling a story flexibly in verse. Disclaiming the example of Walt Whitman, Jeffers preferred—as scholar Albert Gelpi explains—“to see the long verses of the Hebrew prophets and psalmists in the King James translation or the hexameters of Homer and Aeschylus as more kindred analogues and sources.”
To say that Jeffers’s chief imaginative gifts were scope, simplicity, narrative poise, and moral seriousness makes him seem closer to a distinguished jurist than a great poet. But there was something of the judge about Jeffers, particularly the old Testament variety. In such poems as “Shine, Perishing Republic,” Jeffers warns corrupt humanity against the evils of war and violence. His belief that mankind is not the center of the universe is expressed in poems like “Credo”: “The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heart-breaking beauty / Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.” When he is gone, he prays—in the poem “Granddaughter”—that his beloved little Una “will find / Powerful protection and a man like a hawk to cover her.”
Although Jeffers knew that he and his sons would die and that the world as they knew it would change, he predicted that “this rock will be here, grave, earnest, / not passive” in his poem “Oh Lovely Rock.” As Jeffers believed, man might be “nature dreaming,” but through hawks, stones, and the ocean, “The Beauty of Things” will endure: “to feel / Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the natural / Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.”
While Jeffers devoted considerable attention to the lyric form throughout his career, his decision to write narrative poetry led him to the epic tradition and verse drama. From 1925 to 1954, Jeffers wrote the most stunning, ambitious, and stylistically diverse series of narrative poems in American literature. Originally published in fourteen major collections, these books add up to more than fifteen thousand pages of verse.
Jeffers’s epic-length poems such as Tamar, The Women at Point Sur, Cawdor, Thurso’s Landing, and The Loving Shepherdess told the mostly tragic stories of men and women who lived on the big sur coast of California. His verse dramas such as The Tower Beyond Tragedy, Dear Judas, At the Beginning of an Age, Medea, and The Cretan Woman turned to ancient Greece, the Bible, and medieval Europe for inspiration. In both instances, Jeffers used traditional genres, subjects, and themes to interrogate the Western tradition as a whole and to illuminate modern life.
His concern with the latter compelled him to look closely at American culture and the surrounding world. He was usually repelled by what he saw. Identifying “cruelty and filth and superstition” as the three banes of humankind, Jeffers lashed out at the horrific violence of the two World Wars, at the pollution destroying wildlife and ruining natural environments, and at the political and religious fanaticism darkening the minds of millions.
Almost immediately Jeffers’s long narrative poems divided audiences. Violent, sexual, philosophical, and subversive, these verse novels are alternately magnificent and hyperbolic, powerful and excessive, dramatic and overblown, and unlike anything else in modernist American poetry.
In a culture where many believe that “poetry makes nothing happen,” Jeffers remains strangely influential among both artists and scientists.
Environmentalists and conservationists consider him an influential figure in the movement to protect natural habitat, wilderness, and coastal land. Guided by Ansel Adams, The Sierra Club’s lavish folio Not Man Apart: Photographs of the Big Sur Coast combined lines from Jeffers’s poetry with photographs in a work that helped focus political efforts to preserve that spectacular stretch of California coastline. Poet Robert Hass calls Jeffers an “early environmentalist,” as he was “perhaps the first American poet to grasp the devastating extent of the changes human technologies and populations were wreaking on the rest of the earth’s biological life.”
Jeffers thoroughly understood and embraced the scientific worldview of his time. Indeed, the physicist freeman Dyson, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1995, compares Jeffers to Einstein and says, “He expressed better than any other poet the scientist’s vision.” Astronomers and geologists remain interested in his work.
Jeffers’s poetry inspired two original and seminal Californian photographers: Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Throughout his life, Ansel Adams was particularly inspired by Jeffers: “I am going to do my best to call attention to the simplicities of environment and method; to ‘the enormous beauty of the world,’ as Jeffers writes.” Morley Baer, another important California photographer, read Jeffers’s poems as a college student and many years later claimed, “Jeffers helped me see and sense the coast of California as a place of great tensions, great natural tensions that are part of life and not to be subdued and eradicated.”
Many musicians have been inspired by Jeffers’s poetry—from jazz musician Walter Tolleson to UCLA geophysics professor Peter Bird. Composer Alva Henderson’s first opera, Medea—after Jeffers’s adaptation—was originally performed by the San Diego Opera. Even the California-born Beach Boys were inspired to write a song after Jeffers’s poem “The Beaks of Eagles,” which originally appeared on their 1973 album Holland.
Jeffers’s great triumph is that now—more than seventy-five years after his radical poetic voice first sounded—his poetry retains its power to inspire and disturb.
"One light is left us: the beauty of
things, not men;
The immense beauty of the world,
not the human world.
Look—and without imagination, desire
At the mountains and sea. Are they
from his poem "De Rerum Virtute"