Robinson Jeffers: A Biographical Sketch
The Early Years (1887 – 1913)
Robinson Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh on January 10, 1887 to Presbyterian minister and biblical scholar Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers and Annie Robinson Tuttle Jeffers. Dr. Jeffers took an active interest in his son’s education, tutoring him in the bible and classical languages and taking his family to Europe for extended stays. Much of Jeffers’s schooling was obtained in Germany and Switzerland between the years 1898-1902, during which time he mastered German and French and became conversant in Italian. In the final years of his stay in Europe, Jeffers began to read and write poetry. In 1902 the family returned to the U.S. and Jeffers enrolled in the Western University of Pennsylvania for the 1902-1903 academic year.
In 1903 Dr. Jeffers retired and removed his family to Southern California in May, taking a rental property in Long Beach. Jeffers enrolled in then-Presbyterian Occidental College in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles with advanced standing as a junior at age 16. In January 1904 the family moved into a home that the Doctor had built in Highland Park. While at Occidental, Jeffers served as literary editor of the college journal and contributed thirty-five poems to its pages, several foreshadowing his later themes.
Shortly before Jeffers’s graduation, Dr. Jeffers moved the family to Manhattan Beach, and later to downtown Los Angeles. In the following years, Jeffers enrolled at USC, first as a graduate student in literature and then for three years in the Medical School. Though he excelled at medical studies, the discipline did not hold him. Subsequently he tried twice to make a career in forestry at the University of Washington, but quickly became disillusioned by the academic emphasis on commercial exploitation of forests. Through these fits and starts, he discovered that for his life’s work it was only poetry that he was truly interested in.
During Jeffers’s post-graduate period, when he was for the first time free from his religious family’s strictures, he drank to excess and discovered love with various young women. One amongst them changed his life. Una Call Kuster was a graduate student at USC and married to a successful attorney, Edward Kuster, when Jeffers met her in 1906. By 1910 they were embroiled in a covert love affair that was discovered and publicized in 1912. After Una and her husband divorced in 1913, she married Jeffers the next day. Intending at first to expatriate to England, the outbreak of the First World War turned them instead to the village of Carmel on the central California coast in September of 1914.
Jeffers’s first volume of verse, Flagons and Apples, had been published at his own expense in 1912. The slender volume of conventional love lyrics bears no trace of the powerful poet he was to become twelve years later.
The Transitional Years (1914 – 1919)
The Jefferses took up residence in a small log cabin in Carmel; twin sons were born in 1916. Over the next decade Jeffers nursed a small inheritance from a relative, which allowed him the time he needed to develop his poetic craft. In 1919 he purchased a plot of land on Carmel Point, where he built for his family a small stone cottage, Tor House, hiring himself out to a local builder to learn stonemasonry. The construction of additional stone structures occupied his afternoons for most of the rest of his life.
During this brief but crucial period, Jeffers lived “largely within himself,” as a college friend later said. It was a turbulent time. With the onset of the War, Jeffers began to ask large questions, and the answers were not always apparent – a fact that accounts for some of the puzzling verse of this period. Outwardly Jeffers seemed to be living an idyllic life bounded only by his own choices. But inwardly he was torn –- both by the War (he was a lifelong isolationist, though never a pacifist, believing that the only justifiable war was a war of defense) and to some extent by his new role as faithful husband, father and provider –- a role far removed from the carefree hedonism of his student years.
The most important advance in his intellectual life occurred at this time. He read deeply in recent theories of psychology, myth and cultural anthropology -– Freud, Jung, Frazer, Harrison and others, either directly or indirectly. The knowledge he gained underlay most of the major work that followed, but was acquired after the publication in 1916 of Californians. His second volume introduces his first verse-narratives in addition to lyrics, but their aesthetic and intellectual patrimony is uniformly of the nineteenth century, and not of the iconoclastic early decades of the twentieth. Jeffers had not yet broken through the imitative mode.
Maturity (1920 – 1949)
Around 1920 Jeffers began to develop a distinct prosody based on accentual meter, and abandoned the metrical forms he had previously emulated. At the same time, the ideas and themes that would shortly propel him onto the American literary scene as an authentic original were gathering and cresting: his apprehension of the divine in nature and the forces that animate it, the subsidiary role that humanity has to play in the drama of existence, a deep reverence for the regenerative cycle of nature and the role of natural violence in the cycle. These themes led him to forthright depictions of human introversion, symbolized by incest in “Tamar,” and various forms of aberration or sexual competition in subsequent narratives.
In 1920 he undertook construction of Hawk Tower, an iconic 40-foot structure of native granite boulders that he hauled up from the beach below his cliff. The stonemasonry was completed without assistance in 1925.
In 1924 his breakthrough volume Tamar and Other Poems appeared, setting a pattern for the contents of most of his volumes to come: one or more long narrative poems followed by shorter lyrics that function as commentaries or reflections on the themes of the narratives. It also included “The Tower Beyond Tragedy,” an adaptation of the Electra-Orestes story. This was written as a verse-drama, a secondary narrative form Jeffers exploited repeatedly during his maturity. When the volume finally caught the attention of major reviewers, his position in contemporary American poetry was secure. Over the next ten years he published seven major volumes of verse. In 1925, Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems sealed his fame. This success was tempered by the critical failure of his greatest effort, The Women at Point Sur (1927), but was largely restored by Cawdor and Other Poems (1928), followed by Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929).
Jeffers was never socially inept, but neither did he require social engagement or validation. As national and international fame accrued, his wife’s gregariousness and social aplomb was a convenient shield against an inquisitive public. Una took over large portions of Jeffers’s routine correspondence, and managed his time and calendar to maximize his creative output.
In 1929 the family toured the British Isles for six months. Most of their time was spent in Ireland, the land of Una’s devotion. Jeffers plumbed the experience to write a powerful slim volume of lyrics, Descent to the Dead (1930).
During this decade Jeffers experienced bouts of depression, occasioned partly by increasing numbers of beach-goers and tourists who intruded on his solitude. This may account for the gradual decrease in the poetic output over the decade. Books featuring a narrative, and sometimes a verse-drama, with a collection of lyrics appeared in 1932 (Thurso’s Landing and Other Poems), 1933 (Give Your Heart to the Hawks and Other Poems), 1935 (Solstice and Other Poems) and 1937 (Such Counsels You Gave to Me and Other Poems). The first of these was well-received, and Jeffers became the first American poet to be featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1932. But the later collections met with mixed reviews. The Great Depression had taken hold, and Jeffers’s philosophical reflections on the human predicament, which he termed Inhumanism, did not offer uplifting social solutions.
As their sons were maturing, the Jefferses felt the need to offer them new and different experiences. For several years in the 1930s, the family vacationed in the summers at the home of Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, New Mexico, where they mingled with other artists and intellectuals. In 1937 the family toured the British Isles again for four months.
During their 1938 stay in Taos, Mabel Luhan encouraged a liaison between Jeffers and another guest. When Una discovered this, the most infamous episode in their married life transpired, ending with Una’s attempted suicide by gunshot. By a fluke, the attempt failed, Una recovered, and the Jefferses’ family life gradually returned to normal after their return to Carmel.
The Second World War dominated Jeffers’s writing in this decade, often to its detriment as he freely confessed. In 1941 he published his forebodings and invectives in Be Angry at the Sun and Other Poems. But the full measure of the bitterness and disgust he felt was not apparent until The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948), a volume whose isolationism and bitingly acerbic criticism of world leaders were so offensive to the literary establishment that his publisher felt compelled to preface the book with a disclaimer. As a result the critical tide continued to turn against Jeffers, an outcome that he foresaw but was indifferent to.
Ironically, the decade also witnessed Jeffers’s greatest public acclaim. In 1947 his adaptation of Euripides’s Medea (1946) opened on Broadway, with Dame Judith Anderson in the title role. It was an unqualified success, taken on tour, and remains a mainstay of theatrical troupes.
In 1948 Robinson and Una went to Ireland again -– a visit that was quickly aborted when Jeffers came down with pleurisy and nearly died. After their return to California, Una soon became ill from a cancer that eventually took her life.
The Final Years (1950 – 1962)
When Una died in September 1950, Jeffers entered a long, shallow depression that lasted until his own death twelve years later. He published his final narrative, Hungerfield, framed as an offering to his wife, in 1952. It was later incorporated into his last volume, Hungerfield and Other Poems, in 1954. During this period he repeatedly began other narratives but was unable to sustain the effort necessary to complete them. Jeffers died January 20, 1962. A collection of lyrics from this period, titled The Beginning and the End and Other Poems, was published posthumously in 1963. Though the selection and arrangement are not his own, the volume contains some of his best-loved lyrics, and a few that reflect the serenity of old age.
Robert Kafka, UCLA Extension
“Robinson Jeffers: A Biographical Sketch” previously appeared in California History Vol. 87, No. 2 (2010).