Who Was Robinson Jeffers?

Robinson Jeffers led one of the most fascinating and controversial careers of any American poet. His dates, 1887 to 1962, are virtually identical with those of many of the greatest artists of international modernism, yet during a time when the post-symbolist lyric came to dominate poetry, he built much of his reputation on tragic verse dramas and wild, luridly violent book-length narratives that exude epic ambition.

In a time when many contemporary poets, following T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, insisted on the necessary difficulty of poetic language, Jeffers denounced their work as trivial mannerism and strove for clarity of rhetoric, feeling, and thought. Claiming that history and society drove him to despair, he nonetheless addressed politics as forthrightly as any poet of his time, although his isolationist stand drew scornful fire from many quarters beginning in the 1930s. In a spiritual age which could best be characterized by the sublime disorder of “The Waste Land,” he built an antinomian faith on the rock of what he called “Inhumanism,” a mix of pantheism, science, and mystical worship of the fierce beauty of nature.

Jeffers was tremendously popular with the public and with influential critics in the 1920s and early 1930s. His books sold scores of thousands of copies and several have remained in print almost continuously. Collections of his poetry continue to sell well. In 2001, Stanford University Press brought out the fifth and final volume of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, the first fully annotated collection, edited by Tim Hunt, a drawing together of all the work (including the prose). James Karman, after producing the first full biography, is now editing the complete letters, of which the first volume appeared in 2009. More than forty years after the poet’s death, the reading public and the scholarly community are only now beginning to have the opportunity to see Jeffers’s entire oeuvre.

Jeffers retains his power to inspire and to provoke. Dana Gioia, the poet, critic and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has observed that Jeffers continues to grow in stature as the greatest poet to date of the American west, one of the greatest American poets of the natural world, and one of the most powerful narrative poets America has produced. Indeed, he is one of the greatest visionary poets of the natural sublime ever to have written and was a crucial influence on the environmental movement.

To this one might add that he is a serious philosophical and theological poet, albeit an antinomian heretic with an unpopular didactic cast of mind; and one of the most ambitious verse dramatists this country has ever seen, perhaps surpassed only by Eliot. He projects his vision of the world and the poet’s place in it so powerfully that even many of those who have disliked his work – such as Yvor Winters, Czeslaw Milosz, Robert Fitzgerald and Helen Vendler – have felt compelled to address his art and its purposes, surely one test of an artist’s significance. With groups such as the New Formalist poets, especially in the work of Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, and Robert McDowell, and among the growing ranks who study literature and the environment, Jeffers’s reputation is clearly resurgent.
David J. Rothman