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J A M E S D. H O U S T O N Santa Cruz, California Necessary Ecstasy: An Afterword to Cawdor The poem “Cawdor” came from more diverse and remem­ berable sources than others that I have written. The name occurred to me first for use in another narrative, which was planned and discarded; the story derives of course from the tale of Phaedra and Hippolytus; one of the incidents relates itself to a mountain-lion skin we have in the house; another to a broken­ winged hawk that I kept and fed. The emotional atmosphere comes more than half, certainly, from the earth full of sea-shells and chips of flint, left by the Indians on this hillock by the sea where we live, and on the coast southward. The domed rock in the poem is one that I saw in the Sierras and only imagined in a coast canyon; but there is plenty of naked granite about here, so that it is not out of place. The great red­ woods fill every canyon of the coast southward for fifty miles. From an inscription to John Hay Whitney, January 15,1929 About five miles below Carmel River a sudden shift of landscape startles the eyes. Depending on the light and the weather and the time of day, it can fill you with joy or it can grip you with dread. It is that moment, soon after crossing Mai Paso Creek, when you leave the last shore-hugging groves of pine and cypress that gather around the most southerly cottages on the Monterey Peninsula, and break out into the open. From one very lovely corner of the world — a bulge of points and beaches and sandy knolls that is essentially Mediterranean in character — 100 Western American Literature you are thrust into an entirely different realm, with its own brand of loveliness, bold, stark, monumental. There are no houses here, and no more trees. The road signs have warned you to be on guard: n e x t g a s , 22 M IL E S. H IL L S AND CURVES. SLIDE AREA. FALLING ROCK. Bald head­ lands rise from the ocean into a high fog. Offshore there are white-capped rocks, surrounded by kelp slicks that shine like silver. Ten miles further south the granddaddy of all these offshore rocks, the Point Sur hump, brightens up like a beacon when the fog is pierced by a distant ray of sunlight. It is no wonder that this coastline is world famous, nor is it any wonder, now, that a writer’s imagination should be ignited here. As you head south along Highway One, across the creeks and canyons, the head­ lands stack up in silhouette, the grandeur spreads, and your spirit wants to soar. The experience has inspired many a writer and painter and dancer and philosopher during the past half century or so. But as of 1914, when Robinson Jeffers first travelled this route and discovered this spectacular joining of land and sea, Big Sur was little known and almost empty. California was still a long way from everywhere else, and in California, Big Sur was, for most people, a lot more trouble than it was worth. The roads were bad, the land was rugged, the winds could flatten you — all of which, of course, made it mighty appealing to Jeffers, the self-styled isola­ tionist and early Los Angeles exile, who at age twenty-seven had come north with his new wife Una seeking refuge from a world on the brink of war. What happened during the next twenty-five years is now literary history. Something about this place, the wildness and violence and ele­ mental power, triggered something in Jeffers, released his enormous creative energy. The landscape fed the poet; and the poet in turn took such fierce possession of the place itself that even now, twenty years after his death, one might argue that he still owns it — from Point Pinos, Monterey Peninsula’s northern tip, to Sycamore Canyon, south of Big Sur town — the long coastal corridor we call Jeffers Country. This region sustained his spirit. It provided the imagery and the backdrops for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 99-112
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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