Robinson Jeffers

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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Robinson Jeffers, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, July 9, 1937
Robinson Jeffers, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, July 9, 1937

John Robinson Jeffers (January 10, 1887–January 20, 1962) was an American poet, known for his work about the central California coast. Most of Jeffers' poetry was written in classic narrative and epic form, but today he is also known for his short verse, and considered an icon of the environmental movement.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Poetic career
  • 3 Influence
  • 4 Further Reading & Research
  • 5 Quotations
  • 6 Bibliography
  • 7 External links


Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a seminary dormitory, the son of a Presbyterian minister, Reverend Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers, and Annie Robinson Tuttle. His brother was Hamilton Jeffers, who became a well-known astronomer, working at Lick Observatory. His family was supportive of his interest in poetry. He traveled through Europe during his youth and attended school in Switzerland. He was a child prodigy, interested in classics and Greek and Latin language and literature. At sixteen he entered Occidental College. At school, he was an avid outdoorsman, and active in the school's literary society.

After he graduated from Occidental, Jeffers went to the University of Southern California to study medicine. He met Una Call Kuster in 1906; she was three years his senior, a graduate student, and the wife of a Los Angeles attorney. She and Jeffers began an affair that became a scandal, reaching the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Jeffers left the Los Angeles area and found refuge as a forestry student at the University of Washington. He and Una eloped, and ended up in Monterey County, California. Married in 1913, they had three children. They lived in Carmel, California. Una died in 1950.

Poetic career

In the 1920s and 1930s, at the height of his popularity, Jeffers was famous for being a tough outdoorsman, living in relative solitude and writing of the difficulty and beauty of the wild. He spent most of his life in Carmel, California, in a granite house that he had built himself called "Tor House". "Tor" is a Celtic term describing a large outcropping of rock. Before Jeffers and Una purchased the land where Tor House would be built, they rented a small cottage in Carmel, and enjoyed many afternoon walks and picnics at the "tors" near the site that would become Tor House.

To build the first part of Tor House, a small, two story cottage, Jeffers hired a local builder. He worked with the builder,and in this short, informal apprenticeship, he learned the art of stonemasonry. He continued adding on to Tor House throughout his life, writing in the mornings and working on the house in the afternoon. Many of his poems reflect the influence of stone and building on his life.

He later built a large four-storey stone tower on the site called Hawk Tower, based on similar structures he had seen while traveling through Ireland. Construction on Tor House continued into the late 1950s and early 1960s, and was completed by his eldest son. The completed residence was used as a family home until his descendants decided to turn it over to the Tor House Foundation, formed by Ansel Adams, for historic preservation. The romantic Gothic tower was named after a hawk that appeared while Jeffers was working on the structure, and which disappeared the day it was completed. The tower was a gift for his wife Una, who had a fascination for Irish literature and stone towers. In Una's special room at the top were kept many of her favorite items, photographs of Jeffers taken by the artist Weston, plants and dried flowers from Shelley's grave, and a rosewood melodeon which she loved to play. The tower also included a secret interior staircase--a source of great fun for his young sons.

During this time Jeffers published volumes of long narrative blank verse that shook up the national literary scene. These poems, including Tamar and Roan Stallion, introduced Jeffers as a master of the epic form, reminiscent of ancient Greek poets. These poems were full of controversial subject matter like incest, murder and parricide. Jeffers' short verse includes "Hurt Hawks", "The Purse-Seine", and "Shine, Perishing Republic". His intense relationship with the physical world is described in often brutal and apocalyptic verse, and demonstrates a preference for the natural world over what he sees as the negative influence of civilization. Jeffers did not accept the idea that meter is a fundamental part of poetry, and, like Marianne Moore, claimed his verse was not composed in meter, but "rolling stresses". He believed meter was imposed on poetry by man, not a fundamental part of its nature. In an essay titled "Robinson Jeffers & the Metric Fallacy" [1], poet and critic Dan Schneider echoes Jeffers' sentiments: "What if someone actually said to you that all music was composed of just 2 notes? Or if someone claimed that there were just 2 colors in creation? Now, ponder if such a thing were true. Imagine the clunkiness & mechanicality of such music. Think of the visual arts devoid of not just color, but sepia tones, & even shades of gray."

Robinson Jeffers U.S. postage stamp - 1973
Robinson Jeffers U.S. postage stamp - 1973

Initially, Tamar and Other Poems received no acclaim, but when East Coast reviewers discovered the work and began to compare Jeffers to Greek tragedians, Boni & Liveright reissued an expanded edition as Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems (1925). In these works, Jeffers began to articulate themes that contributed to what he later identified as Inhumanism. Mankind was too self-centered, he complained, and too indifferent to the "astonishing beauty of things". Jeffers's longest and most ambitious narrative, The Women at Point Sur (1927), startled many of his readers, heavily loaded as it was with Nietzschean philosophy. The balance of the 1920s and the early 1930s were especially productive for Jeffers, and his reputation was secure. In Cawdor and Other Poems (1928), Dear Judas and Other Poems (1929), Descent to the Dead, Poems Written in Ireland and Great Britain (1931), Thurso's Landing (1932), and Give Your Heart to the Hawks (1933), Jeffers continued to explore the questions of how human beings could find their proper relationship (free of human egocentrism) with the divinity of the beauty of things. These poems, set in the Big Sur region (except Dear Judas and Descent to the Dead), enabled Jeffers to pursue his belief that the natural splendor of the area demanded tragedy: the greater the beauty, the greater the demand. As Euripides had, Jeffers began to focus more on his own characters' psychologies and on social realities than on the mythic. The human dilemmas of Phaedra, Hippolytus, and Medea fascinated him.

Publishers' disclaimer included with Double Axe and Other Poems
Publishers' disclaimer included with Double Axe and Other Poems

Many books followed Jeffers' initial success with the epic form, including an adaptation of Euripides' Medea, which became a hit Broadway play starring Dame Judith Anderson. D.H. Lawrence, Edgar Lee Masters, Benjamin De Casseres, and George Sterling were close friends of Jeffers, Sterling having the longest and most intimate relationship with him. While living in Carmel, Jeffers became the focal point for a small but devoted group of admirers. At the peak of his fame he was one of the few poets to be featured on the cover of Time Magazine. He was also asked to read at the Library of Congress, and was posthumously put on a U.S. Stamp.

Part of the decline of Jeffers popularity was due to his staunch opposition to the United States' entering World War II. In fact, his book The Double Axe and Other Poems (1948), a volume of poems that was largely critical of U.S. policy, came with an extremely unconventional note from Random House that the views expressed by Jeffers were not those of the publishing company. Soon after, his work was received negatively by several influential literary critics. Several particularly scathing pieces were penned by Yvor Winters, as well as by Kenneth Rexroth, who had been very positive in his earlier commentary on Jeffers' work. Jeffers would publish poetry intermittently during the 1950s but his poetry never again attained the same degree of popularity that it had in the 1920s and the 1930s. Many expect a revival in Jeffers' work in the near future, especially with the 2001 publication of his collected poems by Stanford University Press and the rising popularity of ecocriticism in literary theory.


His poems have been translated into many languages and published all over the world. Outside of the United States he is most popular in Japan and the Czech Republic. William Everson, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, and Mark Jarman are just a few recent authors who have been influenced by Jeffers. Charles Bukowski remarked that Jeffers was his favorite poet. Polish poet Czesław Miłosz also took an interest in Jeffers' poetry and worked as a translator for several volumes of his poems. Jeffers also exchanged some letters with his Czech translator and popularizor, the poet Kamil Bednář.

Jeffers was an inspiration and friend to western U.S. photographers of the early twentieth century, including Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

Although Jeffers has largely been marginalized in the mainstream academic community over the last thirty years, several important contemporary literary critics, including Albert Gelpi of Stanford University, and poet, critic and NEA chairman Dana Gioia, have consistently cited Jeffers as a formidable presence in modern literature.

His poem, "The Beaks of the Eagles," was made into a song by The Beach Boys on their 1973 album, Holland.

Further Reading & Research

Volume Five of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers Published by Stanford University Press in 2001
Volume Five of The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers Published by Stanford University Press in 2001

The largest collections of Jeffers' manuscripts and materials are in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin and in the libraries at Occidental College, the University of California, and Yale University. A collection of his letters has been published as The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers, 1887–1962 (1968). Other books of criticism and poetry by Jeffers are: Poetry, Gongorism and a Thousand Years (1949), Themes in My Poems (1956), Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems (1965), The Alpine Christ and Other Poems (1974), What Odd Expedients" and Other Poems (1981), and Rock and Hawk: A Selection of Shorter Poems by Robinson Jeffers (1987).

The Stanford University Press recently released a five-volume collection of the complete works of Robinson Jeffers. In an article titled, "A Black Sheep Joins the Fold", written upon the release of the collection in 2001, Stanford Magazine commented that it was remarkable that, due to a number of circumstances, "there was never an authoritative, scholarly edition of California’s premier bard" [2] until the complete works published by Stanford.

Biographical studies include George Sterling, Robinson Jeffers: The Man and the Artist (1926); Louis Adamic, Robinson Jeffers (1929); Melba Bennett, Robinson Jeffers and the Sea (1936) and The Stone Mason of Tor House (1966); Edith Greenan, Of Una Jeffers (1939); Mabel Dodge Luhan, Una and Robin (1976; written in 1933); Ward Ritchie, Jeffers: Some Recollections of Robinson Jeffers (1977); and James Karman, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California (1987). Books about Jeffers's career include L. C. Powell, Robinson Jeffers: The Man and His Work (1940; repr. 1973); William Everson, Robinson Jeffers: Fragments of an Older Fury (1968); Arthur B. Coffin, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of Inhumanism (1971); James Karman, ed., Critical Essays on Robinson Jeffers (1990); and Robert Zaller, ed., Centennial Essays for Robinson Jeffers (1991). The Robinson Jeffers Newsletter, ed. Robert Brophy, is a valuable scholarly resource.

Jeffers Studies, a journal of research on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers and related topics is published semi-annually by the Robinson Jeffers Association.


  • "There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay, and life's end is death" (The Purse-Seine, 1937)
  • "Long live freedom and damn the ideologies" (The Stars Go over the Lonely Ocean 1940)
  • "Corruption never has been compulsory; when the cities lie at the monster's feet there are left the mountains" (Shine, Perishing Republic, 1941)
  • "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk" (Hurt Hawks, 1926)


  • Flagons and Apples. Los Angeles: Grafton, 1912.
  • Californians. New York: Macmillan, 1916.
  • Tamar and Other Poems. New York: Peter G. Boyle, 1924.
  • Roan Stallion, Tamar, and Other Poems. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925.
  • The Women at Point Sur. New York: Liveright, 1927.
  • Cawdor and Other Poems. New York: Liveright, 1928.
  • Dear Judas and Other Poems. New York: Liveright, 1929.
  • Thurso's Landing and Other Poems. New York: Liveright, 1932.
  • Give Your Heart to the Hawks and other Poems. New York: Random House, 1933.
  • Solstice and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 1935.
  • Such Counsels You Gave To me and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 1937.
  • The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers. New York: Random House, <date?>.
  • Be Angry at the Sun. New York: Random House, 1941.
  • Medea. New York: Random House, 1946.
  • The Double Axe and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 1948.
  • Hungerfield and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 1954.
  • The Beginning and the End and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 1963.
  • Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1965.
  • Robinson Jeffers bio at Modern American Poetry
  • The Tor House Foundation (Historical site of Jeffers self-built home)
  • Jeffers Studies
  • Centennial Exhibition An online Jeffers' exhibit at Occidental College
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