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R O B E R T J. B R O P H Y California State College, Long Beach Jeffers’“Cawdor” and the Hippolytus Story Whatever the ultimate intricacies of its interpretation, “Apology for Bad Dreams” tells in bold statement and strong imagery Jeffers’ reasons for writing “horror stories” which “intevitably ended in blood.”1 These are the narratives which dominate his poetic canon. His poems are written, Jeffers says, to work out a personal “sal­ vation,” a salvation which seems to be three-pronged: a clarification of vision, a peace-giving therapy, and a deeper, more truly attuned participation in the cosmic life to which man should be oriented and unto which he is physically subsumed.2 In each of his narra­ tives, Jeffers exposes a different facet of this “salvation.” In “Tamar” he reconciles a Luther-like obsessive world of corruption and human guilt with the beauty of the natural world. In “Roan Stallion” he examines the hazards, rewards, and consequences of natural mystic­ ism. In “The Tower Beyond Tragedy” he subjects to scrutiny the human bias for power and possession. In “Cawdor” Jeffers seeks to purify the notion of “security” by reviewing the pit-falls of settling for anything less than the harsh reality of things.3 Jeffers does this in a cosmic context of the Life-Force in which we, both the human race in general and as individuals, must find the “common sense of our predicament as passionate bits of earth and water.”4 The title “Cawdor” is taken from “Macbeth”; Jeffers seems to have been singularly moved by the vanity-of-human-wishes theme 1See “I am Growing Old and Indolent” in Jeffers’ posthumous volume The Beginning and the End where he recapitulates this ars poetica, “Apology for Bad Dreams,” and ad­ monishes his old age in terms of it.®The second strophe to “Apology” is crucial. The first sets up the problem of evil in almost classic terms. The second responds to this “evil” by postulating that all things demand tragedy (involvement in “evil”) according to the first motion of their being. Thence the poet's concern becomes how to relate to this “evil” and how to participate in a tragic cosmos to the extent of one’s powers (strophe IV). 8“Cawdor” (Cawdor and Other Poems, New York, 1928) has just been re-released by New Directions after having been out of print (and available only through rare-book dealers) for forty years. See Robinson Jeffers / A long Poem Cawdor / Medea After Euripides (New York: New Directions, 1970). Introduction by William Everson (Brother Antoninus). 4 Jeffers’ remarks on the origins of “Cawdor” are to be found in Sidney Alberts’ A Bibliography of the Works of Robinson Jeffers (New York, 1933), p. 50 ff. 172 Western American Literature as dramatized in the Thane of Cawdor’s recognition scene. All visions of power prove illusory; all security based on self-effort and calculated maneuvering is folly; “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage . . . a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (“Macbeth,” V,v, 19-28). The plot of “Cawdor” adapts the Hippolytus-Phaedra story. Theseus here is Cawdor, a prosperous farmer and rancher; Hippolytus is his son Hood, who has turned nomad-hunter in preference to crop -tending; Phaedra is Fera (which means “wild beast”) , a girl whom a forest fire has orphaned and made homeless. At the ritual level, which is the life-rhythm that underlies all Jeffers’ narratives, the story enacts the impersonal, violent dissolu­ tion which is inevitable within the life-cycle of all being. Existence is renewed only through death and decay. “Cawdor” dramatizes this truth, the human figures acting out roles of elemental processes. All life, the poem teaches, is caged, maimed, and in pain; all life is aimed at decline and death. Although it comprehends a complexity of many myth-motifs Hippolytus, (Labyrinth and Minotaur, Orion, Artemis, Oedipus, Christ and Mithra), the myth-pattern behind “Cawdor’s” plot chiefly concerns the more primordial cycle of life as it was personified in primitive religions. Cawdor (and, in a subsidiary sense, Hood) is the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 171-178
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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