At a time when his contemporaries were already evolving the various experiments we call Modernism, Robinson Jeffers had already decided, instead, to concentrate on writing narrative poems. He’d taken a look at Imagism (in 1914) and rejected it. He apparently read The Waste Land when it appeared and likely “Mauberly,” but neither deflected him from his sense that narrative could—and should—be an important poetic form in the modern period in spite of the Modernist claim that it was hopelessly passé. Critically, this commitment to narrative has cost Jeffers dearly. It has been taken as evidence that he had (as the note in a recent edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature puts it) “no interest in finding new forms to suit the age.” He has, that is, been categorized as a traditionalist in an age of experiment, and an unsophisticated traditionalist at that.
Some have tried to counter this view by arguing for Jeffers’ importance on thematic and philosophical grounds; others have suggested we ignore the narratives and demonstrate his achievement using his shorter poems only; still others (and this is the least useful of the three) have chosen to imply that Modernism was a misguided venture and that Jeffers alone (in rejecting it) is the period’s major figure. By and large these strategies have proven self-defeating. The first pays insufficient attention to Jeffers as a poet; the second sacrifices too much of his work’s unique power; the third diminishes our appreciation of the poetry of the period as a whole (a trade-off those who recognize the achievements of Eliot, Stevens, Pound, H.D. and others of the era have been willing to make).
These strategies have been relatively unsuccessful for two other closely related reasons. They fail to confront the assumption that Jeffers was largely uninterested in “finding new forms,” and they fail to challenge the assumption that his relationship to the tradition is transparent and of little importance to understanding his work. These are assumptions that must, I’d suggest, be reconsidered if we are to clarify the nature of Jeffers’ aesthetic and assess his significance.
The published record—Flagons and Apples (1912), Californians (1916), Tamar (1923), the few early poems later doled out to magazines—suggests Jeffers developed his poetic in a relatively straightforward manner, moving in mostly linear steps from the early, imitative lyrics he was writing before he moved to Carmel the later part of 1914, to the narratives of 1915 (featuring the scenes and people of the Big Sur coast and cast in various traditional measures), and then—by several increments—to the mode of the mature narratives (the violent plots, the Sur coast as a central factor, the long unrhymed lines). This scenario foregrounds his developing narrative aesthetic and therefore aligns with the view that he was in essence an isolated, even naive figure. The published record, though, is not the whole story. The recent recovery of several hundred pages of poems (many from collections Jeffers assembled between Californians and Tamar but didn’t publish) reveals a more complicated process. For one thing, this material shows that Jeffers—from the first phase of writing narrative poetry in early 1915 until early 1922 when he began Tamar, his first mature narrative—spent more time experimenting with modes other than narrative than he did writing narrative, and this material indicates that he was more aware of, and concerned with, both the work of his poetic contemporaries and predecessors.
Today I want to focus on two facets of this development that the recovered material helps clarify: the terms of Jeffers’ initial rejection of Modernism and the literary context of his first attempts at narrative. Together, they suggest that narrative was for Jeffers (at least from “Tamar” forward) a response to the challenge of modernity, not an evasion of it; that his narratives were complex experiments, not simply “story poems”; and that both his sense of modernity and narrative reflect his dialogue with the poetic tradition and his concern with how modern poetry ought to relate to it.
In assessing Jeffers’ development we have been, I think, so fascinated with the impact of the move to Carmel and its role in his turn to narrative that we have tended to assume he mostly ignored the experiments of his contemporaries until after he had adopted narrative as his primary form. We have also tended to assume that the commitment to narrative in large part explains—and several comments from the thirties support this view—his rejection of Modernist experiment. However, “The Palace,” an unpublished poem dated May 22, 1914, suggests otherwise.
In this poem Jeffers figures the tradition (typified as Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Shelley) as a “ruined palace.” He indicts the current generation of “smaller men” for allowing it to decay and argues we should “reenter” and renew it. By “smaller men” Jeffers apparently means the current poetic generation. These poets admit that the tradition “Was good in its time” for their “fathers,” but as “lovers of twilight” rather than “sunlight,” they find the tradition insufficiently novel and too “heavy.” These poets have, Jeffers says, “go[ne] forth from the palace” and
. . . called in the curlew to cry in the empty rooms;
The dock and the thistle to dance
In clefts of the wall; they quarried the marble for tombs;
They despoiled their inheritance.
Is it not better? they said. The wind in the weeds
Is a better harp than a harp.
And too obvious a beauty is common, and the soul needs
Savors more strange, more sharp.
If we skip the several assertions in these lines, what remains might well pass for early Imagist description, and this—combined with the terms he has these poets use to rationalize what he defines as their weakness and failure—suggests he meant “The Palace” as an indictment of the Imagist decision to forego rhyme and meter and to prefer the immediacy of the perceptual, imaginative moment to sustained discursive development.
Eventually Jeffers would also decide rhyme was an outdated encumbrance and advocate “The wind in the weeds,” “the thistle,” and “curlew.” But this later (partial and inadvertent) convergence with Imagism is not the issue here. Rather, the significance of “The Palace” is what it indicates about Jeffers’ early reading. H.D.’s first Poetry appearance was January 1913; Des Imagistes was published February 1914. If “The Palace” responds to texts such as these, Jeffers was not only more knowledgeable about current developments than we have credited but also actually seeking out avant garde work in the little magazines and small presses (as an aspiring young poet would be expected to do). Moreover, since “The Palace” predates his earliest attempts at narrative by more than half a year, he did not (as I think we’ve assumed) reject what became Modernism because he preferred narrative and was looking to defend it. Rather, he rejected Imagism for what saw as its own limitations, and this means his turn to narrative at least in part reflects his desire to find an alternative to the direction Imagism represented. Narrative, that is, was initially for Jeffers a means, not an end in itself; it was a step in his effort to frame a poetic that could (like Imagism) engage the material of the modern world yet (unlike Imagism) preserve the discursive scope and thematic ambition Jeffers associated with the major figures of the tradition and make such scope poetically viable and relevant.
If we turn from “The Palace” to Jeffers’ initial attempts at narrative in early 1915, we find he was not only interested in the practice of his contemporaries but alert to the implications of the poetics of earlier figures as well. When Jeffers moved to Carmel September 1914 he was still concentrating on shorter pieces in traditional forms, “imitating” (as he later put it) “Shelley and Milton” while what he termed his “more advanced contemporaries” were pursuing a version of “Mallarmé’s aging dream . . . [of] divorcing poetry from reason and ideas.” To Jeffers “modern poetry” seemed headed down a “narrowing lane” where “every advance [would] require the elimination of some aspect of reality” The poets, though, who had chosen this lane (he invokes Pound specifically) were none the less achieving a certain “originality” while he was still, as he recalled it, merely a “writer of verses” stuck in imitation. In fall 1914, that is, Jeffers’ triangular relationship to the tradition and his contemporaries was essentially the same as when he wrote “The Palace” the previous spring but had become a source of doubt rather than conviction. He had lost the authority to pronounce, and his later descriptions of this moment suggest he was deeply, anxiously concerned with finding a basis for his own practice that would allow him to reject the sons of Mallarmé, would place him as part of the major tradition of English poetry, and yet would allow him to be both current and relevant—to be modern and original.
Jeffers made no secret of the anxiety this moment in his career caused him, and mostly we have assumed (taking our cue from the evidence the early collections provide and his own later comments) that the turn to narrative was the decisive moment in his struggle to find an independent, original voice and that the Big Sur coast, its intense landscape, triggered this development when (sometime December 1914) he took the mail stage south from Carmel the first time and saw the region. We have tended, that is, to accept Jeffers’ claim that his discovery of what became his characteristic material gave him as well his characteristic form and poetic stance. The story is appealingly transcendentalist—anxious poet redeemed into authenticity, originality, and universality by embracing nature in the form of a particular landscape. But this mythic version of the conversion to narrative (in spite of Jeffers having authorized it) is not the whole story. The crisis preceding his first narrative attempts was partly a matter of his relationship to nature and place but more a matter of how to fashion (and whether one could) a poetry deriving from Milton and Shelley that would be modern, powerful, and original enough to compete with the work he saw Pound and others developing from different sources and along different lines. The crisis was, that is, a literary matter, and the evidence suggests that literary terms in part shaped Jeffers’ encounter with the Big Sur landscape and that the encounter did not so much supplant his concern with the literary tradition as realign his relationship to it. Specifically, the evidence suggests that the discovery of the Big Sur coast was for Jeffers a discovery of the coast through Wordsworth and of Wordsworth through the coast.
In “The Palace” Jeffers praises Wordsworth for building a “firm foundation . . . / In the permanence of natural things” where poetry could “take root.” Both sentiment and phrasing more directly anticipate the mature Jeffers than anything else in the poem, but Wordsworth wasn’t an actual factor in his work until after December 1914, when he began generating the narratives collected in Californians from the scenes and situations of that first Big Sur trip. Jeffers chose not to mention Wordsworth in any of the mid-1930s pieces he wrote about this period, but he did inscribe a friend’s copy of Californians (apparently soon after the book appeared in 1916) with the comment, “Mightn’t some of this be called `First Impressions of the California Coast under Wordsworthian auspices?'” And a revision Jeffers’ made to the “Introduction” to the 1935 reissue of Roan Stallion, the first of his three mid-1930s reminisces about his poetic development—provides further evidence that Wordsworth was a factor in his decision to write narrative and that he knew this.
In the “Introduction” as published Jeffers notes that he was, when first in Carmel, “imitating Shelley and Milton.” The manuscript shows, though, that he originally wrote “imitating Wordsworth,” scored this through, then wrote the published reading above it. In so far as he meant to refer to his situation prior to the earliest narratives, the revision increases the anecdote’s accuracy. Yet what he first wrote shows that Wordsworth was, at some point in this developmental period, the key figure for Jeffers, and the combination of the nature of the Californians narratives and the comment about “Wordsworthian auspices” pretty much demonstrates that he (at least in 1915 and 1916) saw his attempts at narrative as a continuation of Wordsworth’s project. And likely he also understood the Big Sur material at least partly in terms of Wordsworth. Twenty some years later recalling that first trip down the coast in the “Foreword” to his Selected Poetry, Jeffers wrote:
. . . for the first time in my life I could see people living—amid magnificent unspoiled scenery—essentially as they did in the Idyls or the Sagas, or in Homer’s Ithaca. Here was life purged of its ephemeral accretions. Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland, hovered by white sea-gulls, as they had done for thousands of years, and will for thousands to come. Here was contemporary life that was also permanent life; and not shut from the modern world but conscious of it and related to it; capable of expressing its spirit, but unencumbered by the mass of poetically irrelevant details and complexities that make a civilization.
From this, it’s a small step to the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.
Jeffers’ connection to Wordsworth is, in one sense, insignificant. Our concern is his achievement, and we gain little by collapsing his project into an earlier one—even one so central. Yet recognizing Jeffers’ dialogue with Wordsworth can help us reformulate our understanding of his career, both its evolution and significance. For one, it shows that his initial turn to narrative in 1915 was not actually a rejection of the tradition but a redefinition of his relationship to it—a matter of swapping “Wordsworth” for “Shelley and Milton—that helped make the Big Sur region poetically available and offered narrative as a mode for exploring it. Jeffers’ apprehension that Wordsworth could be the basis of a modern poetic also freed him (or rather initiated the six years of experiment by which he freed himself) from his fear that the only escape from belatedness and imitation was to adopt Mallarmé as his poetic father and to follow Pound and the Imagists out of “the palace.”
But Wordsworth bears on more than our sense of Jeffers’ relationship to the tradition. At least initially, it was apparently the early Wordsworth of Lyrical Ballads who was most important to him, the poet who elaborated a region through its people—and its people through the region—and thereby created an equation between the landscape and its human figures in which the actions of both become a single language and stand as a matrix that enacts and defines the problematic consciousness of the narrator (and which allows the rural to stand as an implicit critique of the larger urban, industrial society). Whether Wordsworth gave Jeffers the sense that he could “narrate” the Big Sur coast or the coast helped him recognize the actual dynamic of Wordsworth’s “ballad” experiments makes little difference in this context. Either way, the model that initially mediated Jeffers’ adoption of narrative treated “story” as a means, not an end, and it involved an essentially experimental—and potentially quite modern—redefinition of subject and object and their dialectical relationship.
Over the course of 1915 and the first months of 1916 Jeffers drafted the narratives published in Californians (as well as several he didn’t use). He was, though, only partly successful in his attempt to extrapolate a modern narrative poetry from his encounter with Wordsworth and the Sur coast, and by spring 1916 he had turned to other experiments having, it seems, concluded narrative was too constrictive. His dissatisfaction with it at this point was threefold: he found the metrics and stanzas offered by Wordsworth (and the other Romantics) neither dynamic nor flexible enough for his material. And narrative, as he initially understood it, seemed to require a single, stable point of view, which imposed an order on nature that falsified the sense of it he had evolved from his observations of the Sur coast and his training in modern science. And most troubling of all, his emerging sense that nature was (from a human perspective at least) chaotic and amoral seemed fundamentally at odds with Wordsworth’s sense of nature as awesome yet redemptive.
In all it took Jeffers six years of experiment to work through the implications of his simultaneous discovery of the Sur coast and the modern potential of Wordsworth’s example, and the result was a practice that is both traditional in so far as it is partly rooted in Wordsworth, yet new, experimental, and aggressively modern in ways that we have yet to credit in so far as it incorporates the nature of modern science into a narrative world where the poet/narrator is implicitly at risk—and changing—as he confronts the psychologically violational materials of the world he invents and narrates. As with Wordsworth, Jeffers’ narratives are inherently lyric in their energy; the narrative materials serve as a structuring frame, and the poet figure’s lyric crisis is the driving energy. As with Wordsworth, the result is a poetry of both doctrine and discovery (in which the reader implicitly shares the poet’s emotional risks). And as with Wordsworth, the result is a poetry—and poetics—that is simultaneously conservative and radically experimental. If Jeffers is a traditionalist in an age of experiment, it is not in the way we have too often imagined in our discussions of the period. Ironically one step toward understanding his actual traditionalism is to recognize the way his work is experimental, and one step toward understanding its experimentalism is to recognize in just what way—and how creatively—it is traditional.