By Dana Gioia
The poetry of Robinson Jeffers is distractingly memorable, not only for its strong music, but also for the hard edge of its wisdom. His verse, especially the wild, expansive narratives that made him famous in the 1920s, does not fit into the conventional definitions of modern American poetry. Scarcely stirring from Carmel, California, Jeffers wrote about ideas: big, naked, howling ideas that no reader can miss. The directness and clarity of Jeffers’s style reflects the priority he put on communicating his worldview.
He challenged scientists on their own territory. Unlike most writers, he had studied science seriously in college and graduate school. He accepted the destruction of anthropocentric values explicit in current biology, geology, and physics. Jeffers concentrated on articulating the moral, philosophical, and imaginative implications of those discoveries. He struggled to answer the questions that science had been able only to ask: What are man’s responsibilities in a world not made solely for him? How does humankind lead a good and meaningful life without a Providential God?
Standing apart from the world, he passed dispassionate judgment on his race and civilization, and he found them wanting. Pointing out some grievous contradictions at the core of Western industrial society earned Jeffers a reputation as a bitter misanthrope (he sometimes was) but this verdict hardly invalidates the essential accuracy of his message. He saw the pollution of the environment, the destruction of other species, the squandering of natural resources, the recurrent urge to war, and the violent squalor of cities as the inevitable result of a species out of harmony with its own world.
What saves Jeffers’s poetry from unrelieved bitterness and nihilism is its joyful awe and indeed religious devotion to the natural world. Living on the edge of the Pacific, he found wisdom, strength, and perspective from observing the forces of nature around him. Magnificent, troubling, idiosyncratic, and uneven, Jeffers remains the great prophetic voice of American modernism.
Robinson Jeffers, 1948 (Photo by Nat Farbman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Tor House (Photo by Horace Lyon, courtesy of the Tor House Foundation)
Jeffers as a young man (Photo by Nat Farbman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Una Jeffers (Photo by Nat Farbman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)