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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

[7599] Euphronios, Calyx-Krater (ca. 515 BC), courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Bequest of Joseph H. Durkee, Gift of Darius Ogden Mills and Gift of C. Ruxton Love, by exchange, 1972. (1972.11.10) Photograph © 1999 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Robinson Jeffers was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His father was a minister and professor of Old Testament literature. When he was young, Jeffers traveled extensively in Europe, where he received his early education. In the United States, he attended Occidental College, the University of Southern California, and the University of Washington. An inheritance allowed Jeffers to devote himself to the writing of poetry. His first volume of verse was completed in 1912, and he published over twenty-five volumes of poetry during his life. In 1913, he moved to Carmel, California, and built a stone cottage and a large observation tower overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Much of his verse captures the images of his surroundings on the coast.

Published in 1924, Tamar and Other Poems demonstrates Jeffers’s desire to break with the poetics of the past and write original, vigorous, and realistic verse. Here as in most of his works, Jeffers’s major themes are lust and humankind’s destructive self-obsessions. Jeffers integrates a broad knowledge of literature, religion, philosophy, languages, myth, and the sciences in his work. He represents a pantheistic universe that is revealed through constant and sometimes brutal change. Many of his images connote cycles of creation, growth, and destruction. Jeffers’s representations of defaced and dehumanized landscapes have influenced modern environmentalists and writers of “eco-literature.”

Teaching Tips

  • As The Norton Anthology of American Literature states, Jeffers “berated rather than celebrated American democracy, expressing his rage at the careless destruction of irrecoverable natural beauty.” This stance aligns him with the modern environmental movement, but Jeffers’s philosophy was controversial in his day. In “Hurt Hawks,” he writes, “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk.” Use this line as a basis for a class discussion on how far people should go to protect the environment. Remind them of some of the tactics of radical environmental groups, like Earth First, who have “spiked” trees to prevent them from being cut and harvested (a spiked tree has a steel rod placed in its trunk, making it dangerous for loggers to cut the tree with a chainsaw).
  • Have students research and discuss books that were influential in the environmental movement of the last fifty years. Guide them toward Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, and Joel Cohen’s How Many People Can the Earth Support? Have them discuss the themes important in the environmental movement; then tie these themes back to Jeffers.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Reread the two sections of “Hurt Hawks.” What is the difference between the hawks in each section? List some of the things the hawks might symbolize.
  2. Comprehension: What kind of storm is referred to in line 11 of “November Surf”?
  3. Context: How do the images of California in Jeffers’s verse compare to the images of California in the works of other writers in this unit? How do Viramontes, Bulosan, and Steinbeck describe the land? What do these otherwise divergent images have in common?
  4. Context: Animal symbolism is plentiful in many cultures. In the United States, dogs often represent loyalty, eagles freedom, and donkeys stubbornness. List the different animals catalogued in “Birds and Fishes.” What might each type of animal represent for the poet or reader? Is the symbolic meaning particularly American?
  5. Exploration: Read several Jeffers poems and summarize their representation of nature and humanity. Compare Jeffers’s attitude to what you know about literary modernism. Based on this exercise, is Jeffers a modernist? What made the modernist writers lose faith in humanity and its institutions?
  6. Exploration: Poems about animals can be understood as the poetic equivalent of still lives: places to show off the poet’s powers of observation and empathy. Compare Jeffers’s animal poems to those by Elizabeth Bishop (“The Fish” or “The Armadillo”) and Marianne Moore (“The Jerboa,” “To a Chameleon,” or “Poetry”).

Selected Archive Items

[7341] Arthur Rothstein, Strip Mining Operations with a Thirty-Two Cubic Yard Steam Shovel. Cherokee County, Kansas (1936), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection [LC-USF34-004274-D DLC]. 
Heavy machinery at mining site. Meditative poets found inspiration in nature and were alarmed by increasing environmental destruction in the United States.

[7377] Lee Russell, Grant County, Oregon. Malheur National Forest. Lumberjack Hitching Cable on Log Which Will Be Loaded Onto Trucks (1942), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-073482-D DLC]. 
Picture of a Pacific Northwest lumberjack. Beat poet Gary Snyder went to Reed College in Oregon and worked as a logger before doing graduate work in anthropology. Snyder, like Robinson Jeffers, revered the rugged western landscape.

[7404] Asher B. Durand, Progress (The Advance of Civilization) (1853), 
courtesy of the Gulf States Paper Corporation, Warner Collection.
The Native Americans in the lower left of this painting observe the steady approach of American progress and settlement. Depictions of westward expansion such as this one helped publicize and legitimize what was seen as American progress, an ideology that began to be questioned only in the twentieth century, by such writers as Robinson Jeffers.

[7599] Euphronios, Calyx-Krater (ca. 515 BC), 
courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Bequest of Joseph H. Durkee, Gift of Darius Ogden Mills and Gift of C. Ruxton Love, by exchange, 1972. (1972.11.10) Photograph © 1999 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Greek bowl intended for mixing wine and water. Greek and Roman myths were central to Robinson Jeffers’s poetry.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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