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E D W A R D N I C K E R S O N University of Delaware Robinson Jeffers and the Paeon In 1942, Brewster Ghiselin concluded that Robinson Jeffers’ verse was “rich in paeons”1 but did not suggest that Jeffers was using these quadrisyllabic measures consciously. Instead, he speculated that the poet may have scanned his lines in some more conventional manner. But one of Jeffers’ manuscripts in the Yale Library clearly shows that he was consciously trying out the ancient Greek paeonic foot. Whether he ever thought of the foot by this name is unknown, but it is quite possible that he did, for he knew the classics well and translated plays from the Greek. The manuscript, typically for Jeffers written on the back of discarded correspondence (a 1922 bank statement measuring about one by two feet), contains notes for Tamar in one section, and drafts or fragments of shorter poems in other parts.2 In one corner is a drawing of a stairway for the stone tower Jeffers built near his house on the Carmel coast; above it is a marking-out or sketch of three paeons and an extra stress: ------ --------------------------------------------. Depending on whether one counts these as examples of the first paeon (/»-»->'-') or the fourth the extra stress comes either at the end of the line or the beginning. Close by this notation is one line containing three paeons: “Of the beauty that is barren and loveliness that perishes in spring.” The line, somewhat Swinburnian (he was an early influence on Jeffers), could apply to the fate of Tamar’s heroine, but is not found in that poem or elsewhere in Jeffers’ published work. ’“Paeonic Measures in English Verse,” MLN, 57 (May, 1942), 336-341. 2Jeffers sent the sheet to Donald Friede of Horace Liveright, Inc., in response to a request for the manuscript and typescript of Tamar. Explaining that he had lost or burned these, Jeffers told Friede that he was welcome “to the enclosed great sheet.” In Ann N. Ridgeway ed., The Selected Letters of Robinson Jeffers (Baltimore, 1968), p. 53. 190 Western American Literature The notes for Tamar, in another section of the sheet, strengthen the case for a conscious use of paeons. Below the cast of characters, which is matched with Biblical equivalents from the story in II Samuel, are a few notes for the plot, and the following words, in an almostillegible pencil scribble (ellipses indicate unreadable words): 5 beats to the line doubled in a few passages to . . . 10’s quickened to anapests . . . anapestic w u — lyrical passages . . . to 8’s It is extremely unlikely that a poet as technically knowledgeable as Jeffers could have confounded the paeonic notation with the anapestic, especially since he had the two on separate lines. The conclusion is inescapable that Jeffers was thinking about using paeons in his poetry and probably planning to use them in the lyrical passages of Tamar. An examination of Tamar will show this to be true indeed, but first one must recall briefly what Jeffers himself said he was trying to achieve at this time. Somewhere between 1918 and 1922, he had turned away from the conventionally metrical and rhymed verse of Californians and was finding his characteristic, mature voice. “I think I am at length discovering rhymeless narrative measures of my own,”3he wrote in 1922. In one of his most-quoted statements, in 1928, he explained what his aims were: I want it rhythmic and not rhymed, moulded more closely to the subject than older English poetry is but as formed as alcaics if that were possible too. The event is of course a compromise but I like to avoid arbitrary form and capricious disruption or lack of form. — My feeling is for the number of beats to the line: there is a quantitative element too in which the unstressed syllables have part; the rhythm from many sources — physics — biology — the beat of blood, the tidal environments of life to which life is formed — also a desire for singing emphasis that prose does not have.4 In terms of accent, Jeffers’method is not hard to discover. H. Arthur Klein found that many poems would...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 189-193
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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