“The Maid’s Thought,” the first poem in the first volume of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, is a paean to springtime and to the fructifying power of Love. “Why listen,” the speaker of the poem implores, “even the water is sobbing for something.” With hillsides aglow with wildflowers and pollen dusting the ground, signs of desire are everywhere: “Shells pair on the rock, birds mate, the moths fly double” and woodland deer are “Scalded by some hot longing.” “O it is time for us now,” the speaker exclaims, “Mouth kindling mouth to entangle our maiden bodies / To make that burning flower.”
The second poem in the first volume, “Divinely Superfluous Beauty,” continues the theme, but here Love gives way to Beauty—“The incredible beauty of joy” that “stars with fire the joining of lips,” and “Rules the games, presides over destinies, makes trees grow / And hills tower, waves fall.” “O let our loves too / Be joined,” the speaker ardently prays—thoroughly intoxicated by the “storm-dances of gulls,” the barking of seals, and the beauty of life all around—“there is not a maiden / Burns and thirsts for love / More than my blood for you.”
What is remarkable about the placement of these two poems at the very beginning of Jeffers’ Collected Poetry is that they do, in fact, mark a spring-like transformation. Not too long before they were written, Jeffers was mired in doubt and depression, as he admits in a posthumously published poem titled “The Cloud,” where he speaks of a “gulf-dark . . . weary cloud” hanging over him—“shutting me from heaven / And love and my own soul.” Following the two poems, in order of publication, comes the brilliant flash of Tamar and the towering achievements of Jeffers’ mature career.
Coursing through both lyrics, like rapid water in a stream, is a rush of maternal energy—not of the sort one finds in a Mother Earth goddess like Gaia, Demeter, or Ceres, and not like that of a Queen of Heaven such as the Virgin Mary, but something closer to the life force itself, with all its creative and destructive power. Jeffers tapped this archetypal feminine energy in poem after poem, revealing its various forms in such figures as Tamar, California in Roan Stallion, Clare Walker in The Loving Shepherdess, Fera Martial in Cawdor, and many others, including Medea, the Kali-like mother who takes what she gives (life) with the same fierce passion. In The Cretan Woman, one of Jeffers’ last major works, Jeffers writes of Aphrodite/Venus—the deity, one could argue, he had in mind all along.
Support for this contention can be found in the title of a poem Jeffers was working on at the dawn of his career, Point Alma Venus. The title comes from De Rerum Natura, the first-century BCE poem by Lucretius, where Alma (“nurturing” or “nourishing”) Venus is invoked not just as the mother of Aeneus (and thus of Rome), but the mother of everything—“for only through you,” Lucretius says, addressing her, “are living things conceived.” “All creatures follow your bidding,” he adds, “Look to the teeming seas, the mountains, / the fast-flowing streams, the treetops, or rolling gorse where birds / flutter and dance the reel of lust as earth once more / renews itself as you have ordained, for you alone / govern the nature of things, and nothing comes forth to the light / except by you, and nothing joyful or lovely is made.” And nothing tormented or twisted is made without Venus, either, given the heartache she can bring—as Jeffers repeatedly shows.
Various working drafts of Point Alma Venus have been hidden away for a hundred years, but now they will finally see the light of day. Through the efforts of Tim Hunt and Rob Kafka, The Point Alma Venus Manuscripts will be published by Stanford University Press this summer. For this major achievement, Tim and Rob deserve our congratulations and gratitude. If, as seems likely, the Tor House Foundation and the Robinson Jeffers Association hold a joint festival/conference in Carmel this coming October, we will have an opportunity to celebrate the publication of this important book together: https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=18102.
Another publication scheduled for this summer is the next issue of Jeffers Studies. Co-editors Jim Baird and Whitney Hoth also deserve our congratulations and gratitude for their determination to close the gap between the publication date of the journal and the release date. Once that goal is achieved, we hope to publish Jeffers Studies annually in September. Jim and Whitney welcome submissions, so if you have any work you would like to share, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Una, fatherhood, World War I, building Tor House, and life on the California coast all contributed to Jeffers’ transformation from a talented but pedestrian poet in his early years to the singular artist he was destined to become. Another factor, according to William Everson, was the death of Jeffers’ mother Annie in April 1921. In an essay titled “Robinson Jeffers’ Ordeal of Emergence” (in Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers, edited by Robert Zaller), Everson claims that Annie’s death liberated “the creative energy fixated in the soul of her son” and released “a new dynamism” that characterized his work from then on. No one knows if this is so, for the relationship between mother and child, rooted in the mystery of being and the fathomless depths of consciousness, is ultimately beyond the reach of comprehension. The fact remains, however, that Jeffers did experience a life-changing surge of creativity around the time his mother died—one hundred years ago last month.
With May Day, the apex of springtime, just behind us, and with Mother’s Day coming up, in this the centennial year of Annie’s death, it is fitting to remember Annie and to acknowledge the formative role she played in Jeffers’ life. Some features of that role are revealed in “The Mother’s Cairn,” an elegy composed as Annie lay dying (Jeffers was at her bedside) or written immediately after her death. Describing his mother as “the white flower I am the fruit of” and “the beautiful home I came from,” Jeffers mourns the “loveliness gone down in the earth” and the “marble lamp broken.” The poem is infused with affection and regret, tenderness and loss. In some places, Jeffers speaks from the perspective of a child, as when he says, with sorrow, “you will not lean to me in the night,” or when he recalls walking in the Swiss Alps with his mother, “hand in hand.” Love and Beauty were present in such moments, in forms Jeffers never forgot.
The presiding deity of the poem is a nameless Mother Earth figure, described by Jeffers as “the dark giver, the goddess whom the plow loves” and, more vividly, as “She that runs naked in the rayless midnights, terribly tall, dreadful and holy and dear.” This Titanic goddess—with her “great flanks” and “bare / Grave breasts,” “brooding eyes and sheltering hair”—is the implacable source and end of all. After her manifestation in “The Mother’s Cairn” (a poem Jeffers chose not to publish), she is rarely seen directly again, but this is the One who breathed new life into Jeffers’ imagination and inspired him throughout his career. She is the lion in the darkness “just beyond the firelight” in Jeffers’ poems. Watch out for her.
Department of English
Department of Comparative Religion and Humanities
California State University, Chico
News from Jeffers Country
A very warm welcome to new RJA members: WAYNE BINGHAM and LINDA LA GRANGE (Las Vegas, NM), THOMAS DOERK (La Veta, CO), EDWARD DUENSING (Gulfport, FL), MICHAEL MAGLIARI (Chico, CA), RICHARD ROBERTS (Novato, CA), and ALLENE THOMPSON (Carmel, CA).
The April 30 webinar, “Looking at Jeffers: Portraits,” co-sponsored by RJA and the Tor House Foundation, was an impressive success thanks to organizer and host AMY ESSICK, guests KIM WESTON, MATT WESTON, WILL PETTEE, and CAROL MATRANGA COURTNEY, and RJA’s social media coordinator JESSICA HUNT, who produced the program. A video recording of the webinar will be posted on the RJA website soon.
GEORGE ST. CLAIR shared an article by Katie Dowd in SF Gate (an online publication of the San Francisco Chronicle): “For centuries, Big Sur residents have seen ‘Dark Watchers’ in the mountains.” Jeffers and John Steinbeck are included among those who have written or spoken about the mysterious creatures said to inhabit the Big Sur. See https://www.sfgate.com/local/editorspicks/article/dark-watchers-santa-lucia-range-stories-steinbeck-16012812.php.
A courtyard in the Monterey Conference Center designated as “Jeffers Plaza” is now enhanced by a suite of bronze sculptures, installed as a gift of the Tor House Foundation. See “Robinson Jeffers” https://www.montereycountyweekly.com/entertainment/local_inspiration/robinson-jeffers/article_80d9d7da-998a-11eb-9aab-5f0bb89fe644.html and “New bronze sculptures grace Monterey Conference Center” https://www.montereyherald.com/2021/04/09/new-bronze-sculptures-grace-monterey-conference-center.
“Hands” by Jeffers is cited in the concluding paragraph of “The Splendor of Ruins” by Macduff Everton in the March 1, 2020, issue of the Saturday Evening Post: https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2020/02/the-splendor-of-ruins.
We received word earlier this year that EVA HESSE, Jeffers’ German translator, died March 30, 2020. An overview of her career can be found in a description of the Eva Hesse Archive at https://www.en.amerikanistik.uni-muenchen.de/research/archive/eva-hesse-archive/index.html.
HAMILTON JEFFERS, brother of Robinson, is included among astronomers discussed in Seeing the Unseen: Mount Wilson’s Role in High Angular Resolution Astronomy (IOP Publishing, 2020):
Several poems by Jeffers are cited in Beyond Philosophy: Nietzsche, Foucault, Anzaldúa by Nancy Tuana and Charles E. Scott (Indiana University Press, 2020). See Chapter 8, “livingdying”: https://iupress.org/9780253049834/beyond-philosophy.
A discussion of Jeffers is included in “Nature, Inaction and Illusion: The Influence of Taosim on American Poetry in the 20th Century” by Zhu Lihong and Wang Feng. European Journal of Applied Linguistics Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2020: https://oapub.org/lit/index.php/EJALS/article/view/200/229.